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 finds 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 late-night 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 find 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 ill-fated 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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