Wednesday, November 14, 2007

'Nightline' benefits from writers' strike

Ted Koppel stepped down from ABC's Nightline two years ago, but one of three anchors who replaced him say that might come as news to some viewers.

"I think there are a lot of people who frankly haven't tuned into Nightline for such a long time that they don't know Ted is no longer there and the program is different," says ABC's Terry Moran, who co-anchors the late-night (11:35 ET/PT) news program with Cynthia McFadden and Martin Bashir.

Now that the Writers Guild strike has forced the late-night competition — NBC's Tonight Show and CBS' Late Show— into reruns, Moran says that some viewers "who have no idea what we have been doing are going to check us out for the first time."

As the strike moves toward its third week, entertainment's loss may be news' gain as networks lean more on Nightline and newsmags such as CBS' 60 Minutes, ABC's Primetime Live and NBC's Dateline to provide fresh material.

Networks won't detail contingency plans, although newsmagazines are preparing new stories in the event of a prolonged strike.

But cutbacks — ABC's Primetime was dropped from the fall schedule, Dateline is off NBC until January — and threatened job actions at CBS and ABC News could limit how much those programs can deliver.

Some 500 CBS TV and radio writers represented by the Writers Guild of America vote today on whether to walk out in a salary dispute affecting news operations at the network level and at CBS-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Talks between 200 union writers and ABC News have stalled, too.

CBS won't say how the threatened job action could affect news operations, but in a statement said it is "prepared … to produce quality news programming" in the event of a strike.

Guild spokeswoman Sherry Goldman said that CBS' ability to report news would be affected: "I would think severely. Sure, CBS will be resourceful — they're not going to show dead air — but you can't simply replace writers who have been doing this for so long."

Nightline, meanwhile, appears to have benefited in the short term from the entertainment strike.

The program, which usually finishes third behind Late Show, drew an average of 2.8 million viewers since the strike began Nov. 5, beating David Letterman's 2.7 million viewers and Jay Leno's 2.6 million in preliminary ratings data. Final numbers for the first week of the strike are due Friday.

"These are rather difficult circumstances for everybody, and nobody would wish it to happen, but clearly I think this is both an opportunity and a challenge for us," says Nightline producer James Goldston.

Nightline's viewership has increased since 2005 — while both Leno and Letterman's audiences fell between May ratings sweeps in 2005 and 2007.

Koppel's format — a reported introductory piece usually followed by him grilling one or more guests — has been replaced by usually two and sometimes three "character-driven" stories, McFadden says. "I'm hoping people watching Letterman or Leno's monologue in reruns will take a chance on what happened that day in the news."

Moran notes there's much more emphasis on lifestyle and culture and that Nightline has moved "farther afield from hard news." This week, as gas prices rose, Nightline checked in with a Texas wildcatter and followed gas spotters who track changing prices.

Goldston says the specter of Nightline stealing fans from comedy shows might seem a stretch. But he's also eyeing fans of Comedy Central's Daily Show and Colbert Report, in reruns as well. "Those viewers are natural Nightline viewers, too. This is a chance for them to look at real news over fake news."