Ten million people watched “The Voice” last week, the biggest audience for the NBC reality show in a year.
It was no match for another nonfiction program: the nightly newscast.
As Americans, housebound because of the coronavirus crisis, watch more TV than usual, they have returned to the network news programs that have not been at the center of the national conversation for years.
ABC’s “World News Tonight” and the “NBC Nightly News” had an average of about 12 million viewers for each of their newscasts last week, among the biggest totals for all network shows, according to Nielsen. Those figures are roughly the same as an average “Monday Night Football” game.
The audience for “World News Tonight” was on track to be its largest since 2000, and the number of viewers watching “NBC Nightly News” was the most the show had drawn since 2005.
“Nothing else matters right now,” Lester Holt, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” said in an interview. “This is the story of our lifetimes.”
Sober and straightforward, evening news programs were a chief information delivery system for decades, led by stolid anchors who guided viewers through triumphs and tragedies alike.
But they long ago lost their agenda-setting influence, supplanted by cable news networks that performed roughly the same function 24 hours a day. They have been pushed further into the background in recent years by digital media, with its minute-by-minute chronicling of events.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought millions of viewers back. For now, at least, a concise, crisply produced news program, devoid of the punditry and histrionics typical of many cable broadcasts, seems to match the national moment.
“I think the evening news plays a public service role, and now we’re playing a public health role,” said Norah O’Donnell, the anchor of “CBS Evening News.”
In all, an average of 32.2 million people watched the evening newscasts last week, a 42 percent increase compared with a year ago. Younger people have tuned in, too: There was a 67 percent rise among adults between the ages of 25 and 54, according to Nielsen.
The network newscasts have not attracted that kind of audience in years. While the Trump presidency has been a boon for the cable news networks — which have consistently set ratings records since 2017 — it has given no such lift to the evening newscasts.
For the 2018-2019 television season, viewership for the network newscasts dropped 3 percent. Among the young adult viewers prized by advertisers, there was a 6 percent decline. That trend has been apparent for a while, a steady fall from the days of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, when the evening newscasts were a must-watch for roughly 40 million American households.
As the programs have lost their top-of-the-media-heap status, television executives have devoted more resources to the main profit centers of the network news divisions, the morning shows. Whether the 6:30 p.m. programs can maintain the audience they have brought aboard in a time of crisis is an open question.
“It’s been a very steep drop-off, and a generational drop-off, too,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive and the dean of Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. “The evening newscasts aren’t part of the daily diet of working-age people anymore. They’re just not part of it.”
David Muir, the anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” said the evening newscasts provide a valuable service in a fraught time.
“This is a new normal, a sort of redefining of American life and who knows for how long,” he said. “I do feel the responsibility, more than ever before, that we don’t add to the noise. We have to have a place where people cut through it all and find the facts.”
“CBS Evening News,” anchored by Ms. O’Donnell, had 7.6 million viewers on average for last week’s newscasts, a rise of 21 percent. Among 25- to 54-year-olds, the numbers were even more striking: a 30 percent surge.
“We play it right down the middle every night,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “I think in this era when people are fearful and looking for trusted sources, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, let me tune in at 6:30 Eastern, because I know I’m going to get just the facts.’”
The networks have taken advantage of the renewed appetite by making their shows more readily available. NBC has moved a re-airing of its newscast to a 7:30 p.m. time slot in several major markets, which has added several hundred thousand additional viewers to its audience, according to Nielsen, and ABC has broadcast “World News Tonight” live at 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The newscasts are pulling it off with a skeleton crew as much of their staff works from home.
Mr. Holt, of NBC, was at home during a phone interview for this article on Monday afternoon, his dog barking in the background, as part of the network’s plan to stagger the number of people at the program’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza office throughout the day.
NBC also fashioned a home studio in his Lower Manhattan apartment, just in case. And, indeed, a few hours after the interview, he anchored the show from home for the first time.
When reflecting on the robust public interest in the evening newscasts, the anchor mentioned a recent lunch his wife made for him: tomato soup and grilled cheese.
“Comfort food,” Mr. Holt said. “We’re all craving comfort. And whether it’s tomato soup and grilled cheese, or watching a broadcast that you remember growing up with as a kid that your parents watched, I think it’s all part of the same thing. What do I trust? What feels normal? What feels OK and comforting?”