This should be a new dawn for "Nightline." Instead, it could be good night.
After years of lagging behind dueling late-night talk shows, the ABC news program is winning attention with a series of high-profile scoops and closing the viewer gap against "Late Show With David Letterman."
But instead of celebrating, "Nightline" staffers are anxious. Six years ago, Walt Disney Co. tried to lure Letterman to its ABC network, a move that backfired and frayed relations with the news division. Now, the company seems interested in courting Letterman's nemesis -- NBC's Jay Leno.
If Leno landed at ABC, it would probably spell the end of the nearly 29-year-old program, which launched in 1979 as a late-night report called "The Iran Crisis -- America Held Hostage" during the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
"It would be hard for ABC not to make a play for Leno," said Greg Kahn, senior vice president of the ad-buying firm Optimedia. "He is still at the top of his game, and the thinking is that a lot of ad dollars would follow him to another network."
The highly anticipated game of musical chairs begins next year. In May, after 17 years, Leno will step down from "The Tonight Show" so that NBC can install Conan O'Brien as the new host. But, at 58, Leno isn't ready to retire, and most TV executives believe he will seek a new berth. Rival networks ABC and Fox are already mulling over the prospect of recruiting Leno, whose show earns about $50 million a year in profit for NBC.
Maybe not for long, however. Although the ratings gap between "Nightline" and the late-night talk shows has narrowed, it's because the audience for Leno and Letterman has slipped while the news program's viewership has held steady. "Nightline" also has a slightly younger audience, many members of which record the show for later viewing. ABC executives said that has allowed the network to boost what it charges advertisers.
"Nightline" offers a competitive alternative to the entertainment shows," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer of Group M North America, a bloc of major ad-buying agencies. " 'Nightline' has their own niche."
It's been nearly three years since Ted Koppel signed off "Nightline" after 25 years at the helm. Critics were pessimistic about the changes ABC News introduced: three anchors, Martin Bashir, Cynthia McFadden and Terry Moran; a more flashy look; and largely relocating the show to New York from Washington.
Some worried that "Nightline" also would distance itself from its signature in-depth journalism.
"There was a widely held perception that the show would fail without Ted Koppel," said James Goldston, who took over as executive producer in November 2005. "Very few people thought the show would survive, and even fewer thought it would thrive."
But during this year's intensely competitive news season, "Nightline" has been on a scoop tear.
Moran interviewed Sen. Barack Obama in March, on the night of the Democratic presidential candidate's high-profile speech on race. A week ago, the show aired a piece on Bill Clinton, who defended his role in his wife's primary campaign. Thursday it ran a story on Obama's wife, Michelle, and on Friday it aired the exclusive interview in which former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards -- after repeated denials -- admitted that he had an affair with a woman who worked for his campaign.
"The show is starting to matter again, just as it once did," Goldston said. "My hope is that we are going to see 'Nightline' enter a new golden era."
But what that means financially, ABC executives won't say. "We make a nice amount of money. . . . We are doing significantly better from where we were just a few years ago," said ABC News President David Westin. TNS Media Intelligence, which tracks TV advertising, estimates that "Nightline" pulled in more than $50 million in ad revenue in 2007, excluding public service announcements.
Still, Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for ad-buying firm Carat, said replacing it with a talk show led by Leno "would be so much more lucrative." The newsmagazine, she said, draws "a more narrow audience and a more narrow group of advertisers."
But a move would not be without risk and involves myriad calculations. ABC must weigh whether Leno's audience would follow him if he were to switch networks.
Moreover, Leno's contract with NBC prohibits him from appearing on television until 2010, more than seven months after O'Brien takes over "The Tonight Show." NBC is betting that viewers will warm to O'Brien in the interim, making it difficult for Leno to win his audience back.
ABC also would incur millions in start-up costs, including the comedian's hefty salary, staff of highly paid writers and building a soundstage and theater for the new show. The network would have to balance the longevity issue: Leno would be 60 by the time a new show would debut, adding uncertainty about how many years he would devote to it.
What's more, there's the Jimmy Kimmel factor. Bringing Leno aboard would push Kimmel's show on ABC back half an hour, possibly causing him to defect to another network, such as Fox.
Top ABC executives said it was premature to address the issue because they were barred from negotiating with Leno until his contract with NBC expired at the end of 2009. NBC declined to comment.
"The company will make the decision based on what's best for the company," Westin said. "I am hopeful that 'Nightline' will continue to prosper. It's important for the news division to have the strongest alternative that we possibly can, based on the strength of the work that we are doing and the ratings that we are achieving."