ABC’s ‘Nightline’ Sees New Life After Midnight, Takes Aim at Vice Media Demo

Nightline hosts Dan Abrams, Juju Chang
ABC News

Wee-hours TV can be pretty predictable. You’ve got umpteen reruns, a handful of old movies, a lot of direct-response ads and Craig Ferguson on CBS and Seth Meyers on NBC. Over at ABC, you never know what you’re going to get.

One night, Mariana Van Zeller, a regular correspondent for Fusion, is hiking through the Peruvian Amazon with Brazilian authorities on the hunt for cocaine-processing labs and on another, “Good Morning America” anchor Amy Robach is mixing it up with Taylor Swift. On another evening, viewers might watch an investigation of an elite squad of fire investigators who may be corrupt.

Welcome to “Nightline,” the news program that sees new life for itself despite having taken some serious gut-punches over the years. The venerable newsmagazine is carving out new digital space for itself that could have it vying with emerging news outlets like Vice for younger viewers and proving to be a stalwart among the after-midnight crowd.

While fewer people are watching the program since it was pushed from its 11:35 roost in 2013 to make way for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” “Nightline” has won the May and July sweeps in its time slot for total viewers over NBC and CBS. ABC executives say its audience has gotten younger, and much of it sticks around for its entire 30 minutes, rather than tuning out as the hour grows late. And plans are afoot to make the “you are there” reporting for which the program has become known – a correspondent reporting while in the thick of things, rather than from above the fray – to unveil a digital component to the show that will make its raw, visceral journalism available to people round the clock – not just at 12:35 a.m. In doing so, “Nightline” may just attempt to take on upstart outlets that burnish this sort of technique, like Vice Media.

“We have no issue with the upstarts, but we have been telling stories in this immersive way for a very, very long time – since the days of Ted Koppel,” says James Goldston, the president of ABC News, who is credited with transforming the program in the days after Koppel departed. “That is a ‘Nightline’ signature, and I think it is incumbent upon us to put those stories in front of as many people as possible. We are definitely experimenting with how we do that.”

Goldston declined to offer too many specifics, but said the digital plan is expected to be in place before the end of the year. The idea is to use the “Nightline” storytelling technique to offer “a more on the ground feeling and a slightly different approach,” Goldston says. That will allow ABC “to appeal more directly to that generation of younger people who actually are embracing the news and embracing journalism but have a slightly different visual language.” As an example, he cited an ABC News producer who was sent to chronicle the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Almin Karamehmedovic, the former “Nightline” executive producer who has left the program to take the helm of ABC’s “World News Tonight” with David Muir, suggested the digital service would also grant users access to a vast library of past “Nightline” reports.

“Nightline” will be tackling all this under new leadership. Roxana Sherwood, a 19-year ABC News veteran and a producer at “Nightline” when it changed its format in 2005, is returning to the show as its executive producer, effective immediately. As Goldston explained in a note to ABC News staffers, Sherwood was one of the first wave of ABC staffers trained to shoot, produce and edit, and used those skills to helm a four-hour series about the brain that represented “Nightline’s” first foray into primetime. Sherwood had been working as a senior producer at “20/20.”

ABC News executives also see new opportunity for “Nightline” in broadcast form. It’s true, NBC’s “Late Night” often trumps its rival in viewers between 25 and 54 as well as those between 18 and 49 – two categories that attract advertisers – but there is a sense from ad buyers that the ABC program has an inner resilience that is tough to ignore. “While Seth is still easily number one in the 12:30 to 1 a.m time period in demos, thanks to its Fallon ‘Tonight Show’ lead-in, there are some weeks when ‘Nightline’ is giving it a run for its money,” says Billie Gold, vice president and director of buying and programming research at Carat, a large ad-buying firm that counts General Motors among its clients.

“Nightline” typically beats CBS’ “The Late Late Show” most nights, and it will be interesting to watch what happens when that program gets a new host, James Corden, next year. Carat’s Gold anticipates a short-term boost for CBS as David Letterman winds down his tenure at 11:35 p.m. next year and Stephen Colbert starts a new one. Audience interest in the new hosts could lend “Late Late Show” new eyeballs, she said, but “likely ‘Nightline’ will hold its own and not be affected, as it caters to a different audience.”

For the show’s hosts, the chance to get five to eight minutes to tell stories that require shoe leather and a degree of inner fortitude outweigh some of the knocks the program has taken over the years. This was the program, after all, that ABC was said to have considered canceling to get a chance at wooing David Letterman to its air. After Koppel stepped down in 2005, “Nightline” was transformed into a show that tackled several topics each evening, and had several hosts. The move to 12:35 was viewed warily, said Dan Harris, one of the program’s current trio of anchors.

“Tough. Tough. No question about it,” he says, about the switch “We didn’t want it.” But he focuses more intently on the program’s opportunities, not its limitations. His reporting trips have taken him to the slums of Rio to Papua, New Guinea, where he tracked tree kangaroos. “We have a huge amount of leeway,” he adds.

The idea at the show is to find ways to tell a story rather than rattling off statistics or offering talking heads and sound bites. Juju Chang, another “Nightline” anchor, spent weeks with producers trying to find a way to do a segment examining how increased use of painkillers is leading some babies to be born addicted to them. The show gained access to a NICU in Tennessee, she recounted, and was able to talk to a nurse charged with newborn detox. “The idea is show me, don’t tell me,” says Chang.

The latenight slot offers the chance to tell a different kind of tale that may not appeal to viewers at other times of day. “You can do harder-hitting stories, examinations, You can do edgier pieces, darker pieces that might not be appropriate over your morning cereal,” Chang says. But she also is mindful of the potential audience that lurks elsewhere beyond the later hour. “My demo is smart, and curious,” she notes.

Whatever happens next, the staff of “Nightline” believes the program will stick through it. “We are sort of unkillable,” says Harris. “You throw whatever you want at us and we’ll figure it out.”

 (Pictured from left: Dan Abrams, Juju Chang, Dan Harris)