On the afternoon of July 28, barely 24 hours after he signed on to be the next executive producer of Nightline, James Goldston stood before his new staff in a third-floor conference room in the ABC News building in Washington, awaiting a proper introduction.
ABC News president David Westin was on the phone from New York. Bob Murphy, the vice president in charge of Nightline, had come in that morning. Outgoing executive producer Tom Bettag watched from the wings.
At just after 5 o’clock, Ted Koppel appeared before his loyal producers and correspondents. Quickly and warmly, he introduced them to the man who will usher Nightline into the post–Ted Koppel future.
Mr. Goldston opened with a crowd-pleaser: a statement of his deep admiration for the 25-year history of Nightline and his wish to hew as closely as possible to the show’s much-vaunted “basic DNA.”
Then he talked through his plan for Nightline. And it was … not cataclysmic.
In fact, according to staffers who attended the meeting, Mr. Goldston, despite being “the guy who did the Michael Jackson documentary,” in the words of one, could actually be cause for hope in the ongoing struggle to keep Nightline a serious news show—and to keep that serious news show on the air.
Mr. Goldston “told the staff that Nightline takes a backseat to no program, inside ABC or outside, in terms of the stories it goes after and the aggressiveness with which it approaches its journalism,” said Mr. Murphy. “He said Nightline is going to be as competitive as any other news program in covering big stories.”
There will be a renewed emphasis on international news under his watch, Mr. Goldston told the staff, and more effort to take the show on the road, in the tradition of Nightline’s earliest news-making broadcasts from South Africa and Jerusalem.
Producers will continue their somewhat reluctant efforts at modernization, adding more segments devoted to popular culture and trying out a rotating docket of fill-in anchors and multi-segment formats.
They will spend next year—after Messrs. Koppel and Bettag have left the show in December—fighting to revive Nightline’s cascading ratings, which dropped steadily from an average of 6.4 million viewers in 1993 to roughly 3.5 million viewers last season, according to Nielsen.
But they will not (repeat: not) do it by chasing after “demographics,” which is broadcast-news shorthand for young people who like gross-out reality specials.
It was, by many accounts, a nearly perfect speech.
“Everything was about being lively, being aggressive, doing good work,” said one longtime staffer after the meeting.
“I think people came away feeling he had said all the right things,” said another.
“We’re certainly hopeful,” said a third.
Yet it was not all gumdrops and rainbows in the small Washington outpost that Roone Arledge built. Mr. Goldston, who lives in New York, zipped into town Thursday morning and left Friday afternoon, after a frenzied series of meet-and-greets with staffers. He plans to stay in New York but commute often, and a spokesperson for the network pointed out Mr. Bettag did the same thing for a time before moving to Washington.
But the fact that Mr. Goldston will remain a New Yorker—and his intimations of beefing up the New York staff—are causing some frayed nerves inside the Beltway.
Nightline has always enjoyed an uneasy autonomy in its remove from ABC News’ main operations in Manhattan. But in recent months, rumors have swirled about plans to move more of the operation to New York, for reasons financial and symbolic.
“The significance of this choice is, [Goldston is] Westin’s guy; he’s not the show’s guy,” said one longtime ABC News executive. Mr. Goldston was picked for the post over Sara Just, who has been at Nightline for years and worked her way up to second-in-command to Mr. Bettag. “It’s really New York saying they’re going to try to take control of Nightline, which they always felt was out of their control,” the executive said.
That Mr. Goldston lives in New York is “not significant,” Mr. Murphy said. “I understand that maybe some people in Washington might feel that way. But we’ve never felt that Nightline was any further away from ABC News operations than any other show. The fact that it was in Washington was kind of insignificant. The relationship between executives and the show’s staff has always been very close. We’ve always considered it as part of the fold of all the ABC News programs.”
But the perceived power struggle has been going on for years. In 2002, ABC made a highly publicized and unsuccessful bid to woo David Letterman to Koppel and Co.’s 11:35 p.m. time slot. The play for Mr. Letterman inaugurated a public-relations battle between ABC executives in New York and Burbank and the show’s staff in Washington, which didn’t subside after Mr. Letterman chose to stay with CBS. Nightline staffers complained in the years that followed that the network wasn’t promoting their show and that it didn’t have a sufficient presence on the ABC Web site. News division executives complained that Nightline staffers refused to change the program with the times and to win back viewers by improving the broadcast—increasing the number of live shows over taped ones, for example. Nightline staffers said these were arbitrary demands that were being used as a cudgel rather than as well-meaning guidance.
The tension culminated in a meeting last October between Paul Mason, formerly the senior vice president in charge of Nightline, and the staff in Washington. According to two staffers who attended that meeting, and who were not sympathetic to Mr. Mason’s efforts, Mr. Mason didn’t invite Nightline’s senior-most staff to the meeting. He gathered the lower-level producers and correspondents in a seventh-floor conference room on the premise of inviting legitimate suggestions for ways to improve the show. But during the course of the meeting, Mr. Mason referred to the show as a “dysfunctional family” and “left a lot of people with the impression that he was instigating for a change in management,” according to one of the staffers. Not long after the meeting, Mr. Mason no longer had oversight of the show’s day-to-day operations.
When presented with this account, Mr. Murphy disputed the characterization of the event but wouldn’t comment further.
“We’re not going to address the past, but we can talk about the present and the future, which is that we’re a team working enthusiastically together on making Nightline the best news show it can be,” Mr. Murphy said.
“I think the Letterman episode still has left an indelible mark. People are always going to feel that this is a television program, and in television, programs come to an end. I don’t think anyone is so sanguine to believe that if all of a sudden Jon Stewart or Ellen DeGeneres or somebody with huge entertainment value became available, no one believes that Nightline could survive that. No matter how aggressive Mr. Goldston is.”
After news broke last week that Mr. Goldston had gotten the job and ABC brass began efforts to reassure Nightline employees that he was a reasonable choice, “David Westin made it clear to the staff that they’re gonna absolutely back this, add money and promotion,” a staffer said. “They want to keep the territory for the news division.”
At the staff meeting last Thursday, Mr. Goldston answered questions about the future of the show, which has been unclear since April, when Messrs. Koppel and Bettag announced their plans to leave. The entertainment and sports divisions of ABC had reportedly been preparing proposals for what they would do with the 11:35 time slot, and rumors swirled about efforts to recruit Ms. DeGeneres, Mr. Stewart or Chris Rock to go up against Mr. Letterman and Jay Leno. For now, Mr. Goldston reassured his staff, 11:35 belongs to news, and news is committed to Nightline.
The guy famous for editing Martin Bashir’s Michael Jackson documentary also set to work winning the trust of this close-knit group of producers and correspondents, chiefly by demonstrating he was not just that guy. For the benefit of Nightline’s celebrated staff, Mr. Goldston rattled off his ample bona fides: Before joining ABC as a producer of prime-time news specials in 2004, he was the executive producer of Tonight with Trevor McDonald, Britain’s most-watched current-affairs program. In the middle of a long career that covered hard news and soft news and everything in between, he did a stint as a producer on Newsnight, a BBC show in the same mold as Nightline.
After a vacation with his family, Mr. Goldston will return to Washington and get to work on Nightline. Much about the new format of the show remains to be decided: who will anchor, how many topics Nightline will cover each night, and what those topics will be. But the appointment of Mr. Goldston signals that ABC is committed to the show—at least for the time being.
“Nightline is a unique program,” Mr. Murphy said. “There’s no other program on the air like it. There’s no other news program in that time period, period. It serves an important service to the viewer, and as a jewel in the ABC News group of programs. It is very, very special. Our commitment is to make it such a special program that there’s no doubt about its future and its security on the ABC schedule.”