Nightline Finds Neverland

The Observer learned last night that the next executive producer of ABC News’ Nightline will be James Goldston, the British television journalist best known for having edited Martin Bashir’s famously discomfiting Michael Jackson documentary, according to sources directly familiar with Goldston’s contract negotiations. Goldston, currently a senior producer of primetime specials and investigative reports for ABC News, inked the deal with the network yesterday afternoon, the sources said.

Goldston will take over for Tom Bettag–Nightline‘s longtime executive producer and a close friend of anchor Ted Koppel–who plans to step down when Koppel does, this coming December. The two announced their “suicide pact” this spring, after years of tense relations with the network stemming from ABC’s aggressive and unsuccessful 2002 bid to lure David Letterman to the 11:35 time slot Nightline has held for 25 years.

Goldston’s top competition for the post was Sara Just, the current second-in-command at Nightline, who was said to be the preferred candidate among the show’s tight-knit staff. Just traveled to New York for a meeting this morning with ABC brass. ABC plans for her to continue to work as managing senior producer of the show at least through the December transition, an ABC source said.

Since Koppel and Bettag announced their intention to leave, the Alphabet network has been experimenting with new formats for Nightline, the storied half-hour, single-topic program that has won every major journalism award more than once, including eight Peabodys, twelve duPont-Columbia awards, and scores of Emmys. Just has overseen the experimentation, trying out multi-topic and multi-anchor shows on Koppel’s two nights off each week.

The shows have featured fill-in anchors Chris Bury, Jake Tapper, Bill Weir and Cynthia McFadden, among others. Segments have included a homage to still-not-retired 46-year-old baseball legend Rickey Henderson, narrated by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, and a much-buzzed about alternative-format edition shot in New York, on a stage that resembled a jazz club, with a smoke machine and small tables and chairs for the audience.

Goldston is scheduled to take over the experimental programming in two weeks, according to a newtwork source.

In response to public speculation about what will become of Nightline, which began as a 20-minute show called “America Held Hostage” during the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis, ABC News executives have said repeatedly that no matter what happens to the format after the old guard leaves, the show will retain its basic DNA: same in-depth interviews. Same moody gravitas. Same set; same staff; same city.

But Goldston’s appointment over Just–a long-time staffer with a flawless Nightline pedigree–makes those assurances somewhat less reassuring. Despite an accomplished career abroad, including a long stint with the British television network ITV, where he produced the popular Iraq war news show “Shock and Awe,” Goldston is still an outsider, assigned to lead a close-knit group that is often accused of elitism and clubbiness by others at the network. He lives in New York, and Nightline is shot in Washington. Bettag originally did the executive producer job from New York as well, but the news has only fueled insider speculation that the network has plans to move Nightline to its New York studios, where executives can keep a closer eye on the staff.

Goldston’s appointment also raises the possibility that Bashir, who works as a correspondent for ABC News, might join his old friend on Nightline. Producers have auditioned a rotating docket of talent on Koppel’s off-nights but have not settled on a new anchor or anchors, and Bashir could be a promising candidate. His documentary “Living with Michael Jackson” was originally produced for ITV in 2003. It aired on ABC that same year and drew more than 27 million viewers. That program, in which Jackson extolled the virtues of sharing his bed with little boys, became not-damning-enough evidence at the heart of Mr. Jackson’s second child molestation trial, at which Mr. Bashir testified and which concluded earlier this year.

Thus the new Ted Koppel could be the man who helped sear an image of the King of Pop’s bedtime habits into the American brain.

Still, for Nightline fans who wish the show would stay the same, the results could have been worse–a lot worse. The appointment of Goldston should at least quell persistent rumors that ABC might bring in Ellen DeGeneres or Chris Rock to replace Koppel and make a go of taking on Jay Leno and Letterman. It also should at least forestall the efforts of ABC’s sports and entertainment divisions, both of which had been working up proposals for what they would do with the coveted late-night time period.

And if nothing else, beleaguered Jimmy Kimmel—the recipient of Nightline‘s lead-in, who must by now have developed a nervous tic for all the rumors of his show’s imminent cancellation or exile to a wee-hours time slot—can breathe a little easier. For the time being.

–Rebecca Dana

UPDATE: ABC News confirms the hire in a press release:

ABC NEWS NAMES JAMES GOLDSTON EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF “NIGHTLINE”

James Goldston has been named executive producer of ABC News Nightline, ABC News President David Westin announced today. Mr. Goldston will oversee production and editorial content of the program and assume management of “Nightline’s” Washington, DC and New York City based offices, following current executive producer Tom Bettag’s departure at the end of the year.

“James is a talented and experienced producer with deep roots in daily and documentary news. His admiration and respect for Nightline’s rich history and tradition coupled with his strong journalistic background makes James the ideal producer to lead Nightline into the future,” said Mr. Westin.

“I am delighted and honored to be joining the Nightline team. It is a show with a rich and vibrant heritage, and I’m very much looking forward to working with everyone at ‘Nightline’ to maintain and enhance its reputation in the year’s ahead,” said James Goldston.

Prior to joining ABC News in 2004, Mr. Goldston was the executive producer of Britain’s most watched current affairs program, ITV1′s “Tonight with Trevor McDonald” from 2002 – 2004. There, he produced a series of celebrated documentaries, including “Millionaire – A Major Fraud,” Britain’s most watched documentary for nearly 10 years; Shock and Awe – “Tonight’s” award-winning coverage of the Iraq War anchored from Kuwait and Baghdad,” and “Living with Michael Jackson.” From 1999 – 2001, he was a senior producer of several award-winning interviews and investigations for “Tonight.”

The Royal Television Society has awarded Mr. Goldston and “Tonight” the prestigious Program of the Year award three times in five years.

Mr. Goldston was a producer for several BBC News programs, including “Newsnight,” the network’s nightly news analysis show and a “Nightline” descendant. There he was responsible for daily coverage of several international stories, including the Kosovo War, the Good Friday peace agreement, and President Clinton’s impeachment. He has produced for the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, “Panorama” and “The Money Program.”

Mr. Goldston joined ABC News last year as a senior producer of primetime specials and investigative reports, including ABC’s world exclusive investigation into Victor Conte, the figure at the center of the Balco steroids sports scandal.

Mr. Goldston is a graduate of Jesus College, Oxford University.