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ABC relishes life after Koppel

'Nightline' buoyed by lighter approach

A year in, ABC has answered the biggest nagging question in its latenight lineup: Can “Nightline” exist without Ted Koppel?

After the barrage of criticism and half-hearted praise, “Nightline” has accomplished what few news shows — let alone latenight shows — have: grow ratings.

Nov. 28 marked a year since Koppel and longtime producer Tom Bettag pulled up stakes and ankled for the Discovery Channel, taking with them six producers and much of the DNA of the show that began as a series of special reports during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. When he left, Koppel warned that if viewers didn’t respond, the network would put a comedy in the timeslot, “and then you’ll be sorry.”

The Alphabet turned over the reins to a 38-year-old former BBC producer, James Goldston, who brought in three anchors and a vision for the show that included seeing if the “Nightline” brand could embrace small-ball journalism and entertainment coverage in addition to Iraq and Darfur.

“Nightline” under Koppel and Bettag was single-topic, and focused on issues of global significance. It usually opened with a mini-documentary followed by a lengthy discussion between Koppel and newsmakers. Goldston’s remake is more in the image of BBC 2’s “Newsnight,” a three-anchor multi-topic evening newscast on which he was once a producer.

The combination of shorter stories and fluffy features cued up the critics for a year of one-liners and post-Koppel hand-wringing.

But even in its first shaky months, when Goldston was still tinkering with the format, the new “Nightline” drew a bigger audience than Koppel’s version, and since the beginning of the new season, those results have held, while “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” are flat or slightly down.

Since last year, “Nightline” has added several hundred thousand new, and mostly younger, viewers. As it stands, “Nightline” draws about 3.7 million viewers a night compared with “Letterman” (4.2 million) and “Leno” (5.6 million), meaning there is more room between Dave and Jay than Dave and, well, Terry Moran.

“There were a lot of people when we launched who said the show couldn’t survive or shouldn’t survive Ted,” says Goldston. “I think we’ve proved them wrong.”

That’s no doubt the reason Disney TV honcho Anne Sweeney appeared with news prexy David Westin to give a rah-rah congratulatory speech to the staff in Gotham at a one-year anniversary party for the show, complete with pink champagne.

Corporate recognition is a departure for “Nightline” staff with more than a few years of institutional memory, who had long felt Koppel’s personal clout was the only force keeping their show on the air — a notion reinforced when ABC’s previous regime tried to lure Letterman to the network as a replacement in 2002.

The show’s ratings have helped buoy the rest of ABC’s latenight, with Jimmy Kimmel also posting gains over last year.

And it’s coming without a whole lot of primetime support. For all the Alphabet’s primetime success with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Dancing With the Stars,” the 10 p.m. time period has been a black hole for failed skeins, giving little lead-in support to local newscasts or “Nightline.”

Yet even with improved numbers, Madison Avenue is a constant source of pressure to lighten programming in the timeslot.

A 30-second spot on “Nightline” sells for about $23,000, compared with $56,000 a spot for Letterman and $68,000 for Leno. Much of that discrepancy is due to the wider array of advertisers competing for time on the entertainment shows.

“Certain products and services lend themselves to lighter fare; it’s an easier environment to be in,” says Shari Anne Brill, director of programming at media buying firm Carat USA.

A year in, Goldston says the show is relatively settled. In the three-seg format, Goldston says “Nightline” aspires to lead with a newsy segment as in-depth and well-produced as a Koppel-Bettag production, but then scotch the discussion to move on to the next story.

Recent lead stories have included devotees of radical “calorie restriction” diets and a piece on the problems with the federal school lunch program. On both nights, the lead segment was followed by news of the day from Iraq and Jordan.

The last and shortest segment — Sign of the Times, intended as a light kicker for the show — has been most-widely mocked.

One such recent seg delved into the “battle of the department store window” in Gotham, which dwelled on Barney’s Andy Warhol exhibit. Another used the plight of the emperor penguin to work a lot of “Happy Feet” clips into the show.

But with movies, celebrity and lifestyle coverage, can the new “Nightline” retain the agenda-setting status Koppel gave it in the public debate? That’s the next goal Goldston wants to tackle.

“I think the show is due for a defining event to show what we can do,” he says. “I’ll be very disappointed if ‘Nightline’ doesn’t start making headlines.”