‘Nightline’ Keeps Its Chin Up

As Jay Leno rides back into late night, ABC’s resilient franchise is ready for tougher competition to rev up once again
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As the late-night debacle at NBC turned the daypart
into must-see TV, the ABC news program Nightline
methodically stuck to its knitting, staying out
of the fray while other ABC News programs reported
on the intrigue.

With Jay Leno preparing to return to The Tonight
Show, where he dominated for many seasons,
Nightline now fi nds itself in the thick of the
battle. And executive producer James Goldston
has a simple plan for what he knows will be
tougher competition.

"We put on the best show we can every night," he says. “It will
be tough. But it’s always tough.” And Goldston hopes to raise
the show’s profile this summer by venturing into primetime with
multiple one-hour specials.

Industry observers do not expect Leno, who will retake his
Tonight Show perch beginning March 1 after the conclusion of
NBC’s coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, to suffer any
lasting damage, though he was often cast as the villain in the latenight
kerfuffle. But with David Letterman’s Late Show on CBS
resurgent this season and Leno poised to potentially regain his
late-night audience, Nightline could fi nd itself on the defensive.

“There have been many articles written and much debate about
Nightline’s demise over the years,” Goldston notes. “At this point,
I think the show is stronger than ever.”

But Nightline has nevertheless been at the center of occasional
and well-publicized internal tugs-of-war at ABC, with executives
in Burbank making no secret of an apparent intermittent desire to
wrest the 11:35 p.m. time period from the news division. Inside
ABC News, Nightline is held up as a success story: a transition
from the Ted Koppel-anchored seminar it was for 25 years to a
three-anchor format and ratings success amidst the cacophony of
late-night laughers.

If Leno had indeed left NBC instead of embarking on his illfated
and short-lived primetime foray, there’s little doubt he would
have ended up at ABC—at 11:35 p.m.

The feeling inside ABC News then was that the show had once
again dodged a bullet. But Nightline was still taking friendly fire
as recently as last month when Good Morning America news anchor
JuJu Chang mused on the air that she liked “the idea of
[deposed Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien] coming here and
working with us.” George Stephanopoulos warned: “Don’t tell
the people at Nightline that!”

But a Tonight Show With Jay Leno redux, says independent
news analyst Andrew Tyndall, “presents no long-term threat to
the Nightline franchise, since its appeal does not rely on being
the programming of choice night-in, night-out. Instead, it is a
reliable go-to destination on heavy news nights, and a refreshing
option when the musical-chairs [game] played by talk-show hosts
proves insufferable.”

Indeed, Goldston agrees that he
is not in the business of plotting
against the competition. “It’s not
something that we can really program
for,” he points out. “[Leno]
has Jennifer Aniston on, so we’ll do
Afghanistan. It doesn’t quite work like that.”

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

While it makes good headlines to compare ratings for Nightline
to those of the late-night talk shows, those comparisons are a little
dicey. News programs and talk shows have different target demos,
and Leno and Letterman both go an hour longer, with the second
half tending to drag down their overall numbers.

Season to date, Nightline is averaging 3.95 million total viewers,
a 1% uptick, with 1.58 million viewers in its target demo
of 25-54-year-olds, according to Nielsen (Sept. 21, 2009-Feb. 7,
2010). So, Nightline remains competitive in the 11:35 p.m. time
period despite an 11% year-to-year dip in tune-in for the demo.

That puts Nightline behind Late Show and ahead of The Tonight
Show
in both categories. Tonight is down 46% and 26% among
total viewers and in the 25-54 demo, respectively, while Late
Show
is up 7% among total viewers and down 3% in the demo.
However, late-night comedy shows seldom talk about the 25-54
demo, the more traditional news target.

The surge in viewers for O’Brien’s final weeks has put The
Tonight Show on top for the season in the coveted 18-49 demographic
on which much entertainment programming advertising is
sold. But it’s still down 21% year-to-year in that category.

Nightline’s ratings picture looks a little rosier when it is compared
to full hours for Tonight and Late Show, which rankles research
executives at NBC and CBS because the second half-hour
of late-night comedy shows trends down precipitously. Based on
the half-hour-to-half-hour comparison, Nightline remains in second
behind Late Show among total viewers but drops to third in
the 25-54 demo.

“Clearly, when the other shows were beating us easily, it never
cropped up,” Goldston counters. “It’s only now that they’ve chosen
to make an issue of it, which shows that we must be doing
something right.”

MORAN MAY BE IN DEMAND

In the end, the ratings race may be more about bragging rights than
bottom line. Nightline’s slice of the advertising pie comes out of
news programming, not entertainment fare. And anyone who has
watched broadcast television can discern the difference in advertisers
between news and entertainment. Even CBS’ 60 Minutes,
which often breaks into the top
10 most watched programs of the
week, is awash in ads for prescription
and over-the-counter medications
for late-in-life ailments.

“It’s a different audience and it’s
a different marketplace, and always
has been,” says Harry Keeshan, executive
VP of national broadcast at
media buying agency PHD.

News generally garners lower
CPM (cost per thousand) rates than
younger-skewing entertainment programming.
But, Keeshan adds, “The
reality is unless there’s another player
in [late night] moving forward,
there’s just going to be these two
guys [Leno and Letterman] knocking
their heads against one another.”

And that means opportunity for Nightline. Breaking news including
the Fort Hood shooting, the Toyota recalls and the earthquake
in Haiti inevitably lifts tune-in for Nightline, likely siphoning
viewers from its broadcast competition.

The show has a knack for putting a broadcast-news gloss on scandalous
tales. Cynthia McFadden’s interview with Doug Hampton,
the former co-chief of staff to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), and Bob
Woodruff’s interview with Andrew Young, who helped John Edwards
cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter, are recent examples.

But the show is also competitive on the more serious interview
gets. Terry Moran has had multiple sit-downs with President
Obama, who despite his seeming ubiquity still drives tune-in.

And while Nightline has ostensibly found a groove, recent anchor
moves at ABC News may affect the program as well. Moran
has been mentioned as a possible permanent host of Sunday public-
affairs program This Week.

Asked what would happen if Moran gets the nod, Goldston
says, “We’d work something out. I would expect him to stay on
the team if that happens.”

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