‘Nightline’ mixes it up to raise ratings

Show adopts notes from Koppel's playbook

It was the show the critics wanted to fail.

And as “Nightline” foundered with its new multi-segment format and flashy Times’ Square studio, it appeared they might get their wish.

But the latenight ABC institution has changed a lot since its shaky start sans Ted Koppel, when it was criticized for being shallow on too many disparate topics.

Recently the show has been tearing a page from Koppel’s playbook by anchoring each episode with an in-depth report, generally followed by two lighter pieces.

“We’ve been playing around with the multi-topic format,” says Terry Moran, one of the show’s three anchors. “We had tried to cram too much into the half-hour and left a lot of our traditional ‘Nightline’ people unsatisfied.”

Over the past six weeks, the show is up 3% overall, but 10% in the 25-54 demo and 11% in 18-49 — a sign that it’s growing among advertiser-friendly auds but also shedding some older viewers.

Recent episodes have had plenty for Koppel fans to like, and some that no doubt makes them cringe, but higher ratings suggest the format is starting to work in a way that could change the outlook for the once-endangered program.

“The general fear, born of bitter experience, was that we would make ‘Nightline’ a lighter show,” says exec producer James Goldston. “I think we’ve allayed that fear. Broadly speaking, we’re a serious in-depth show that is not afraid to look at the lighter side of some of these issues as well.”

Recent examples of “Nightline’s” new strategy on big stories include Cynthia McFadden’s in-depth look at a FEMA trailer park in Baton Rouge where thousands of Katrina refugees have ended up, and a report from Iraq on the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.

Those lengthy segments were followed by short, soft pop-culture features on Gawker’s celebrity locator Gawker Stalker and the Cuban baseball team in the world championship.

Perhaps the most telling sign the “Nightline” crew isn’t afraid to depart from Koppel’s legacy was a feature on ABC’s biggest current show — “Grey’s Anatomy.” But that, too, had substance beyond your typical pseudo-news promo, with a look at how the show deals with race through the eyes of one of Hollywood’s few black showrunners.

“I have to say I’ve been surprised in a good way about the new ‘Nightline,’ ” says Fordham U. communications professor Paul Levinson. “I’ve been impressed with its pace and metropolitan feel and I think the ensemble cast is working.”

From a ratings standpoint, the revamped “Nightline” got off to a predictably rough start in December and January, where it was flat or down compared to a year earlier.

Things started to turn around during February sweeps when the show averaged 3.7 million viewers, up 3% from a year ago and up 14% in the 25-54 demographic.

Moreover, there’s some evidence the multi-topic format is keeping viewers with the show longer and helping “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which is up 10% in the ratings in the first quarter of 2006.

While recent ratings are encouraging, the jury is still out on the show’s ability to separate itself from other TV newsmagazines, which have struggled.

“To some extent it remains a work in progress and I expect it will remain so for some time,” says Goldston.