Nightline Seeks Lebensraum

021907 article dana Nightline Seeks LebensraumOn the afternoon of Feb. 9, the cast and crew of ABC News’ Nightline convened quietly in the network’s Times Square studio to shoot two secret pilots of an hour-long version of the half-hour 11:30 p.m. news show, according to three sources familiar with the project.

The test versions were prepared for ABC and Disney executives, who will consider whether to further develop an expanded version of the show. Nightline has done hour-long episodes in the past, as when its founding host, Ted Koppel, conducted celebrated news-breaking panels in Israel and South Africa, but the show has never owned an entire hour of regular late-night real estate.

In its current incarnation, the show has three hosts: Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir and Terry Moran. One of the pilots featured Ms. McFadden as the solo anchor of the broadcast. In the other, Mr. Bashir joined her behind the anchor desk.

Mr. Moran’s absence from the project may be explained by the fact that he lives in Washington, D.C.

Disney executives in Burbank, Calif., gave permission for the pilots in January. Nightline executive producer James Goldston relayed the news in a Jan. 18 conference call with his staff.

Were ABC to pick up the longer version, the extra time would fill the slot currently held by Jimmy Kimmel Live, the network’s underperforming answer to David Letterman and Jay Leno’s talk shows on CBS and NBC. According to Nielsen, Mr. Leno averages about 6.1 million viewers a night, Mr. Letterman 3.9 million, and Mr. Kimmel—confined to a later, less-attractive half-hour—1.8 million.

Nightline averages some 3.5 million viewers and actually beat Mr. Letterman’s Late Show on a handful of momentous nights this past summer and fall. But the talk shows, which charge a premium for commercials, are far more profitable enterprises.

Nightline still loses a small amount of money for ABC—although not nearly as much as it did when Mr. Koppel was running things, two sources said. Given the fixed costs of putting on a broadcast, a majority of Nightline’s senior management believes that the extra advertising revenue from stretching the show to an hour could put the program in the black for the first time in a long while.

Two sources said that Mr. Goldston described Mr. Kimmel’s show as losing “buckets of money” during the conference call.

Still, one ABC News executive urged caution. “I would not read a whole lot into this,” the executive said. “We are always experimenting and trying things. This is an idea that bubbled up from Nightline, and it would not be unusual for the network occasionally to look to Nightline to do an hour here or there, and it also is a potential hedge against a writers’ strike down the road.”

The ABC writers’ guild has been without a contract for over two years, and the network sees the threat of a strike as distant but feared.

Aside from anchor adjustments, the hour-long pilots filmed Feb. 9 looked a lot like the regular show, the three sources said. Ms. McFadden and Mr. Bashir took turns introducing a slate of pieces that had already appeared on the program. Leading the fake broadcast was a piece by veteran correspondent John Donvan on South Carolina schools. Also included was an interview that Mr. Bashir conducted with Forest Whitaker, a piece by Jessica Yellin about a company whose employees are all nice to each other, and a story about giant rabbits. There were a few other tweaks and innovations, including a contribution of some sort from a star of the Australian version of American Idol. The sources had difficulty precisely explaining the singer’s role.

Nightline hasn’t always had luck with test pilots in the past. In early 2005, the network tried out a few unconventional ideas, which drew snickers when they leaked to the press. One featured a nightclub-like setting, complete with smoke machines.

When Mr. Goldston took over in the summer of 2005, he brought considerable but measured change to the critically beloved news show. He went from one anchor and one topic per half hour to three anchors and multiple topics. He moved the show, which had always been produced in Washington, to New York, where it was filmed live out of the Disney-owned second-floor studio at 1500 Broadway.

The new Nightline has paid more attention than the old version to popular culture, with Ms. McFadden scoring a big get early on with Angelina Jolie. One of Mr. Goldston’s innovations has been to use celebrities as a vehicle for telling serious news stories—as in a piece following Hotel Rwanda star Don Cheadle around Africa.

Purists have reacted badly to the new version. Washington Post critic Tom Shales, who panned the 1979 debut of Nightline and then reversed his opinion in print weeks later, also panned the second generation when it debuted, calling it a “sallow shallow shadow of its former splendid self.” Mr. Shales hasn’t retracted that opinion—nor have other critics—but he did laud the new Nightline a few months later for pressing on in its tenuous commitment to the coverage of foreign news.

Viewers, meanwhile, seem to enjoy the new Nightline—certainly more than they enjoy the midnight talk show that follows it. Nightline’s audience has grown steadily in the last year and a half, and on its best nights, it has occasionally topped five million viewers.