'Nightline' in the Goldston Era

Against expectations, a former BBC producer breathes new life into an ABC News franchise
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Perhaps it's appropriate that Goldston, an award-winning BBC producer, was called on to undertake a mission that even 007 might find daunting: leading ABC's Nightline into the post-Ted Koppel era.

The future of the venerable late-night news franchise was already tenuous when ABC News tapped Goldston to take the reins in November 2005. With its ratings slipping, the show appeared on the verge of cancellation three years earlier when ABC publicly courted CBS late-night host David Letterman. The departure of Koppel, the show's iconic anchor and beating heart, further stirred those anxieties.

But since Goldston took over as executive producer, Nightline has defied expectations and enjoyed a rebirth. With new faces, a new format and a broader mix of hard and soft journalism, the show has surged in the ratings. The challenge now, says Goldston, 39, is to keep that momentum going: “I think it's fair to say that I'm never satisfied.”

At the center of many storms

Reared in Heston (“an unremarkable town on the way out towards Heathrow”), Goldston studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford before turning to journalism. After reporting stints at his hometown paper, The Surrey Herald, and Legal Business magazine in London, he embraced his affinity for TV and joined the BBC.

Goldston honed his reportorial chops at the BBC, producing stories on subjects ranging from the peace talks in Northern Ireland to the war in Kosovo. After working on various current-affairs programs, including the Nightline-esque Newsnight, in 1999, he became a senior producer for Tonight With Trevor McDonald, a program launching then on the BBC's commercial channel ITV.

Goldston was paired straight away with reporter Martin Bashir on a story about the 1993 murder of a black teen that exposed deep-seated racism within the London police department. The report won the Royal Television Society Program of the Year award, the first of three that the pair would share.

Named executive producer of Tonight in 2002, Goldston went on to produce several critically hailed reports, including a series from Baghdad in the early days of the Iraq war. But his most prominent report remains “Living With Michael Jackson,” another collaboration with Bashir that sparked outrage when the pop singer admitted to sleeping in the same bed with young boys.

The 2003 report later made a splash in the U.S., airing on ABC, which had previously broadcast other reports by Goldston and Bashir. In 2004, the two joined the network, producing a 20/20 investigative report on the Balco steroids scandal. When Executive Producer Tom Bettag announced that he would leave Nightline with Koppel in 2005, Goldston made his pitch and won the job.

“We were very impressed with James' ideas and his approach to creating a new program that was also a direct descendant of the Nightline of Ted Koppel,” says ABC News President David Westin. “He understood the importance of maintaining the legacy even as we agreed that it needed some retooling.”

That retooling was evident from the get-go. Scrapping the single-anchor, single-topic format that had dominated the show from the beginning, Goldston introduced a largely live, multi-story format and a trio of anchors—Bashir, Primetime anchor Cynthia McFadden and Washington correspondent Terry Moran. Moreover, only Moran would be based in Nightline's D.C. headquarters; Bashir and McFadden would anchor from a new studio in New York's Times Square.

“You had to do something different,” says Bashir. “The program really was synonymous with the great journalist who was at the center of it. And when that journalist left the program, there wasn't any choice about what to do.

Building Another Golden Era

Critics and Koppel loyalists fretted early on that the man behind “Living With Michael Jackson” was dismantling Nightline's journalistic tradition with shorter reports and more celebrity profiles. But Goldston counters that stories like Moran's reports from Iraq and the coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings have been true to the tradition.

Nightline remains an absolutely serious-minded show that's proved itself time and again in the past 18 months with the quality of its journalism,” he says.

Indeed, the audience response was immediate. After three months, the show was up 14% over the previous year in the key 25-54 news demo. And last month, it grew as much in total viewers while its network competitors, CBS' Late Show With David Letterman and NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno, declined.

Despite the success, Goldston acknowledges that Nightline will always live with the prospect of being replaced by entertainment programming. “I think any show in the modern era earns its place on the schedule,” he says. “Nightline has to earn its place like any news show, and we go about doing that everyday. I think to do otherwise is foolishness.”

That daily grind—and the commute between D.C. and home in New York—allows little time to become “reacquainted” with his wife, BBC correspondent Laura Trevelyan, and their three sons. And while the desire to don cleats and hit the soccer pitch is only “theoretical” at this point, he remains a devotee of Britain's Chelsea soccer team.

His mind ever on Nightline, Goldston hopes to shore up the brand by expanding the show's investigative reports. He plans to revisit the Virginia Tech tragedy with a two-part special in August.

Nightline is a show that has had several golden eras,” he says. “And the hope is clearly to see if we can build another one.”

James Goldston may be the only broadcast-news producer to have appeared in a James Bond film.

Growing up in England, Goldston often accompanied his mother, a professional movie and TV extra, on film shoots and once made it into a Bond film (alas, he can't recall which). Although he caught the TV bug, he says, “I learned at any early stage that my talents didn't lie on camera.”

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