Jay Leno is coming to ABC, and Nightline is dead. That's the overwhelming assumption around the television industry these days. While the smart money is indeed on ABC landing Leno, there is no reason ABC should kill off the Nightline brand.
Yes, the 11:35 pm weeknight version of the show will probably be gone by the end of next year, even if NBC decides not to jettison Leno and ABC ends up with Conan O'Brien. But the Nightline brand has equity, and in a cluttered marketplace in which broadcast networks are scrambling for footholds, there is little more valuable than a known commodity. ABC needs to find a way to keep the brand intact, whether it means moving it to another time slot, a series of primetime specials, a major online presence or all of the above. And it should start prepping now.
ABC landing Leno is far from a done deal, as the sides can only talk through back channels until late next year. And there will be competitors, including Sony Pictures Television, which is quietly working on a presentation for Leno that may include a piece of its GSN cable network, not to mention a check that could blow away the network offers by eight figures.
But Sony execs don't really expect to land Leno. And with ABC the most likely destination, that would seemingly kill off time-slot incumbent Nightline.
The smart play for ABC, however, would be to find a new role for the Nightline brand, which has shown unexpected resiliency since Ted Koppel left in November 2005, holding steady in its target 25-54 demo. ABC News even went after David Letterman in an ad campaign, touting a recent ratings victory over him. Network news chief David Westin is far from ready to cede the 11:35 p.m. real estate, but he agrees that the network needs to continue its commitment to Nightline in some form.
“That is certainly my view and the sensible view,” he told me. “Then we have to work out where everyone plays.”
For Nightline, that wouldn't be late night. ABC wants a two-hour block of Leno and Jimmy Kimmel. And if Kimmel jumped to Fox or elsewhere, Nightline would probably still be gone.
Leno would air at 11:35 and Nightline is not a show that can be aired at 12:35, when the typical news audience is not only already asleep, but waking up for the first of its six nightly bathroom trips.
And rivals are ready to throw dirt on the show. A news chief from another network suggests shutting it down and giving the money to Brian Ross' investigative unit, which can add value to properties like Good Morning America.
“It's gone, history,” says another rival news chief.
Sounds familiar. We all remember the show almost died in 2002 when ABC chased Letterman. And it is just as touchy a subject inside Disney today. The entertainment division has long coveted that time slot, but has been adamant about not going after Nightline on the record.
Then last Wednesday morning in a staged and comedic back-and-forth with Kimmel (see p. 8), ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson jokingly said that adding Leno would mean “doomsday” for Nightline.
One major national newspaper posted an online story that mistakenly took McPherson's comments literally. When I pointed the story out to ABC execs, they (justifiably) went into full Defcon 5 panic mode. The Website took the quote down later that day.
ABC can't jettison the brand. Yes, financials for broadcast journalism hardly sparkle in Excel spreadsheets. While Westin says Nightline is profitable, that's partially the product of some ongoing cost-cutting, as is happening in news divisions everywhere. But the show still features fantastic journalism, which is sadly getting harder to find in this fast-food news era.
Westin says he can't let the early obituaries for the show bother him. But he admits he needs to do a better job of spreading the word. It's his job to find yet another lifeline for Nightline.
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