Leno move good for 'Nightline'

Newsmagazine was threatened if host landed at ABC

NEW YORK -- Jay Leno remaining at NBC might be ABC's loss, but it's ABC News' gain.

The newsmagazine "Nightline," a fixture at 11:35 p.m. since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, stood threatened if ABC had been able to land the "Tonight Show" talkmeister.

But with Leno moving to primetime and Conan O'Brien taking over "The Tonight Show," the crew of "Nightline" can breathe a bit easier. "Nightline" has been a brewing success story since veteran newsman Ted Koppel left ABC News in 2005. The new crew -- led by executive producer James Goldston and the anchor trio of Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir and Terry Moran -- has improved "Nightline" ratings, scored a number of exclusives during the past year and done the seemingly impossible: beat CBS "Late Show With David Letterman" the past two sweeps and tied in the demo with "The Tonight Show."

Goldston said Tuesday that "Nightline" has been "relentlessly focused" on what it does best rather than worrying about the impact of what Leno might do.

"The show was feeling pretty good about itself (because of the ratings)," he said. "I don't think we viewed what was going on as an existential threat. It's been an incredibly busy election, then the economic crisis and then the Mumbai story. That's where our focus has been."

"Nightline" brought in its highest viewership for a November sweep since 2001.

"The show has been on a roll," Goldston said.

He said that performance started during the WGA strike, when the talk shows were off the air for a month and late-night viewers were looking for something other than repeats.

He sees a further opportunity in the signing-off of Leno from late-night next year.

"There will be people making decisions about what they are going to watch late at night next summer, and we're hopeful that people will come and sample the show," he said.

On the sidelines of the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference on Tuesday, Walt Disney CFO Tom Staggs said NBC locking up Leno was a smart move.

"He wasn't able to talk to anybody else" under his contract, Staggs said when asked about ABC's interest in Leno. "We weren't in this game."

On a content panel at the same conference, Salil Mehta, president of business operations, strategy and development at NBC Universal, also referenced the Leno deal.

"It reflects the fact that we're trying to right-size our distribution businesses," he said.

Georg Szalai contributed to this report.
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