The writers strike has condemned late night television to the rerun graveyard at a particularly inopportune time. But late night comedy's considerable losses may be Nightline's gain.
The ABC News program that reinvented itself two years ago this month has been riding a ratings high, growing its audience by 11% year-to-year (based on Nielsen data for the week ending Nov. 2, 2007) while the Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Show With David Letterman have declined.
Nightline is still third in the time slot behind NBC and CBS, but when Leno and Letterman are in reruns, the news program gets a discernable bump in viewers.
“Nightline has changed significantly over the last couple years,” says James Goldston, the executive producer who was brought in to remake the show after founding anchor Ted Koppel retired.
While stressing that the strike is “rather unfortunate,” Goldston is hopeful that the dearth of new content on the competition will produce sampling that sticks.
“This does present an opportunity for those people who haven't looked at the show to take a look,” he says.
The topical nature of late-night comedy doesn't stand up as well to repeated airings as comedies and procedural dramas do. Nightline will not look discernibly different to regular watchers (“We're not going to have [co-anchor] Martin Bashir do a monologue,” quips Goldston.) But the network will make the most of the scourge of reruns by putting more promotional muscle than usual behind the program.
Nightline's strength is that is alternative programming. If viewers get in the habit of not watching Leno, Letterman, Stewart, et al it's entirely possible that some of them will never re-habituate.
“There are a lot of monologues out there,” says Goldston. “What we're offering is so distinctive in the broadcasting landscape and so established. It will be nice to have people who don't usually see us to give us some attention.”
Meanwhile, Nightline anchor Terry Moran will be a much more frequent visitor to New York.
Goldston came to the Washington ABC News bureau two weeks ago to talk to staffers. His message: Starting Monday (Nov. 12), more of the anchoring of the show by Washington anchor Terry Moran will actually be from New York.
Moran will continue to report from Washington, and anchor when necessary from the Hay-Adams Hotel, where ABC has a fixed, remotely controlled unmanned camera for standups, with the White House for a backdrop. It's the same location where Charlie Gibson anchors World News when he is in town.
The ABC Washington bureau has been through various changes and staffing cutbacks as the result of the reformatting of the show to a three-anchor broadcast dividing its production time between Washington and New York, where Goldston is based.