Looming late-night shifts have 'Nightline' on bubble

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Nearly three years after it could have been dealt a fatal blow by the departure of Ted Koppel, ABC's "Nightline" has bucked the odds to not only survive but also thrive. But with Jay Leno's departure set to shake up late-night TV, "Nightline" might be facing an even stiffer challenge to survive.

Losing a talent of Koppel's magnitude has killed lesser shows, even without the radical transformation that the show underwent. "Nightline" went live after years on tape, offered three anchors instead of one and three stories every day instead of the single focus and conversation that had been a Koppel trademark.

But something unexpected happened on the way to the TV scrap heap. "Nightline" grew year-over-year in its first two years, even beating "Late Show With David Letterman" in some weeks. And in the crazy WGA strike-impacted TV season just past, it was down only slightly while "Late Show" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" saw steeper declines. Season-to-date, "Nightline" is a competitive No. 2 and has increased its retention from the ABC stations' late local news from 39% in 2005 to 50%.

"The audience really responded right from the start," executive producer James Goldston said. "Clearly, there was a worry that a lot of traditional 'Nightline' viewers would reject change. Viewers don't like change at all, under any circumstances. It could all have been very different. It could have gone quite badly here."

Co-anchor Cynthia McFadden said she and colleagues Martin Bashir and Terry Moran weren't sure at the start that things would go well. But she credits the audience and the network for sticking with the new "Nightline" and its potential.

"We tried really hard to stay true to the excellence that Koppel and his team brought to this broadcast and at the same time finding new ways to tell stories," she said.

But with the face of late-night TV set to change dramatically next year with the departure of Leno from "Tonight," there's a chance that no matter how successful "Nightline" has been in remaking itself, if ABC and parent company Disney decide to go after Leno, "Nightline" could be the odd show out. It would be a cruel irony for a program that has managed not only to keep its journalistic integrity intact but done everything that it's been asked to do and more ratings-wise.

The subject came up in a skit this week on "Tonight." Leno held up a magazine cover that showed "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno … starring Jay Leno on ABC." Leno quipped, "It's like a headline from the future."(partialdiff)
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