NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
NBC Universal CEO Robert Wright said Thursday that talk of the impending death of evening news shows on broadcast television have been greatly exaggerated, and criticized rival CBS for thinking about ending the traditional format.
Clearly invigorated by Nightly News anchor Brian Williams' surprising ratings success since taking over from Tom Brokaw two months ago, Wright said evening news shows are here to stay. Even on "the worst day," he said, ratings for primetime broadcast news shows far surpass those for cable news shows.
At the same time, Wright, speaking at a New York media conference sponsored by McGraw-Hill Cos., was highly critical of plans by CBS chief Leslie Moonves to revamp its evening news show once Dan Rather steps down early next month.
Last month, Moonves declared over the era of the news anchor as the "voice of God" and said CBS might switch to a multi-anchor format, in part to draw younger viewers.
Wright said CBS's goal appears to be to "destroy the franchise" and then start over from scratch. He joked that would give CBS "tremendous upside" since the only direction CBS Evening News could go at that point would be up.
Focusing on younger viewers is a mistake, continued Wright.
"Younger people have never been watching the news," he said, adding that they're not buying news magazines or newspapers either. "It's always been a generational thing."
Maturity and a secure job are what eventually turn viewers onto news, and that won't change, said Wright. Because the nation's demographic is skewing older over time, Wright said he thinks it's worth sticking with existing formulas.
"Our issue isn't to get 20 year-olds to watch Brian (Williams), but to get 40 year-olds to watch Brian and to get 35 year-olds to think about (watching Brian)," said Wright, who is also a senior executive at NBC Universal parent General Electric (down $0.05 to $36.04, Research).
Proud of Williams
Wright also spent time bragging about Williams, who's beating both Rather and ABC's Peter Jennings in the ratings war. Wright noted that Williams so far is drawing even more viewers than the iconic Brokaw.
NBC executives had expected its Nightly News ratings to fall after Brokaw retired in December.
The planned restructuring at CBS, a unit of Viacom Inc. (down $0.20 to $37.18, Research), tries to recover from a pre-election segment on its "60 Minutes II" that questioned President Bush's past National Guard service. The documents used to support the report were allegedly forged, and four CBS News employees lost their jobs over the broadcast.
Rather, who anchored the "60 Minutes II" segment, announced last November that he would resign as the "Evening News" host in March, a move that was expected long before the Bush segment aired. Last week, CBS announced that "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer will temporarily take over Rather's spot until a new anchor -- or anchors -- are found.
While Wright has reason to cheer, CBS executives could be having the last laugh. While "Evening News" ratings are grim, CBS is the highest-rated primetime broadcast network, thanks largely to the popular "CSI" crime dramas and reality shows like "Amazing Race."
Meanwhile, NBC, which in recent years had jockeyed with CBS for the No. 1 spot, is struggling. The network's primetime ratings have plunged this season, the network's first in almost a decade without hits such as "Friends" and "Frasier."