Late-night shake-up may affect 'Nightline'

Jay Leno's upcoming departure presents challenges

NEW YORK -- 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 thrive. But with Jay Leno's departure set to shake up late-night TV, "Nightline" may 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-to-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 both "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.

Today, "Nightline" stands as one of the brighter lights in TV journalism, a daily newsmagazine that both serves as a last word on the news and has its own sometimes serious, sometimes quirky take. "Nightline" also has played a large role in making ABC competitive in late-night for the first time, and its pairing with "Jimmy Kimmel Live" has worked so well that ABC recently extended Kimmel's deal through 2010.

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."

But no one's laughing at the late-night comedic shift at ABC News, which has fought hard for years to keep the coveted 11:35 p.m. time slot that was on the verge of being given to Letterman when ABC secretly attempted to lure him to the network. Even if ABC's interest in Leno isn't as secret this time around, the result could end up being the same: the end of "Nightline."

Unlike its rivals, ABC only has from 11:35 p.m.-1 a.m. for its late-night programming. That means only one show, either "Nightline" or "Kimmel," would remain if Leno joined ABC. It's something that ABC News president David Westin said he hasn't contemplated, though he understands that the network has to look at every option. But he said there's something to be said for "Nightline" as a viable alternative to late-night laughs.

"It's showing that it's fully competitive with the entertainment programs, and that's something that I don't think anyone would have expected," Westin said.

Bashir said it's providing that alternative, the serious alternative, that rings true with the audience and would be missing if "Nightline" went away. But he knows that "Nightline" has to win the right to stay every day.

"If (network executives) decide in their wisdom that it's over, that's their decision," Bashir said. "But they will have made the decision from a position of our strength, not our weakness."

That's not to say that "Nightline" is automatically a goner if Leno jumps to ABC. The show is a cheaper program to produce than "Kimmel" or anything that Leno would do. There also would be a tremendous investment in Leno, in terms of salary and putting together a show, that would run in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of a contract. Would ABC be able to capitalize on that, especially since Leno wouldn't be able to bring "Tonight" with him? And with staggering ratings drops for the late-night comedy shows, does there need to be another one on network TV?

Koppel was miffed in 2002 when ABC tried to lure Letterman for the "Nightline" time slot. He said this week that the news business is, in fact, a business and he understands that ABC might decide that Leno would be better for the network than keeping "Nightline." But that doesn't mean he likes the idea.

"I think it would be a terrible shame," he said. "There are plenty of good comedy shows out there. There are very few thoughtful television programs."