Good news for news shows
For James Goldston, executive producer of “Nightline,” the prospect of a prolonged writers strike that paralyzes much of the television industry offers an awkward upside.
The longer a work stoppage keeps “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Show With David Letterman” in repeats, the better shot the ABC late-night newsmagazine -- which is remaining live -- has at drawing more viewers.
Indeed, “Nightline,” which introduced a new anchor team two years ago, has already enjoyed an immediate lift. During the first week of the writers strike, the usually third-place program drew the largest number of households, according to early Nielsen data of 56 metered markets. The newsmagazine pulled an average of 2.8 million households, while Letterman had 2.7 million and Leno had 2.6 million.
“We take no pleasure in there being a strike whatsoever,” Goldston said. “It’s no good for anybody. What’s also true in the odd circumstance this presents us with is that it is an opportunity of sorts for people who have maybe not sampled the new ‘Nightline’ or who are looking around for alternatives to come to the show.”
“Nightline” is not the only news program that stands to benefit from the strike. As the broadcast networks ration their dwindling supply of original comedies and dramas, news divisions have been instructed to prepare to pick up the slack. If the walk-out drags into next year, the prime-time schedule could be filled with NBC’s “Dateline,” ABC’s “Primetime” and CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery.”
For newsmagazines, the situation offers a chance to flex their muscles. In their 1990s heyday, they were on as much as 20 hours a week, but since, their roles have steadily diminished. “Dateline,” which once aired five nights a week, was not scheduled to be back on until after football season ends early next year.
Now newsmagazines are readying to be tent-pole shows again.
“The reality is that ’48 Hours’ is the utility player for the network, a role we cherish and consider part of our core responsibility,” said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of the CBS newsmagazine.
In anticipation, producers are sketching out story ideas and stockpiling shows, with an eye toward delivering new material in January. Last week, “Dateline” staffers were instructed to be ready to produce as many as three hours a week after the new year. The show, which has long served as a fill-in for NBC, has spent this fall readying new episodes, including a few new installments of its controversial “To Catch a Predator” series.
ABC’s “Primetime,” which did not get a regular time slot this season, has sped up production of limited series like “Family Secrets,” “Medical Mysteries” and “The Outsiders” that were already in the pipeline. Over at CBS, “60 Minutes” would likely be called upon to package some of its most popular interviews into thematic specials, while “48 Hours Mystery” could end up producing extra episodes.
But as much as news producers relish getting extra air time, gearing up to meet the expected need won’t be easy. Cutbacks have deeply eroded the news divisions’ long-form units, some of which have lost more than half their staffs in the last 15 years, according to producers.
“You’d love to use this opportunity to strut your stuff,” said one producer who did not want to publicly voice misgivings about the extra work. “But there’s not a lot of money and not a lot of time. It’s not like I don’t want to be a savior to the network, but it creates such a sense of chaos and irregularity.”
And once the strike is resolved, it’s unlikely that the programs will be able to retain prime real estate.
“When newsmagazines expanded in the ‘90s, it was part of a new world where news was valued as part of the network,” said a veteran producer. “Now it’s just fungible programming they put where they need it. Everyone is going to push and stretch and strain, and then will go back to being underappreciated.”
On top of that, the news divisions may have their own labor disputes. On Thursday, more than 500 CBS radio and television news writers represented by the Writers Guild of America are scheduled to vote on whether to authorize a strike after working without a contract since April 2005. Although a walkout would hit local and network radio operations the hardest, the network television news division would also be affected. Meanwhile, negotiations between ABC and its 200 WGA news writers have also stalled, raising the specter of another work action.
For now, many newsmagazine producers just hope to make the best of the situation. “Nightline” has been aggressively marketing its stories.
Last week, the show did pieces on Ryan Seacrest and “Girls Gone Wild’s” Joe Francis, but Goldston said the show was not being programmed differently to appeal to late-night comedy viewers. “I think it would be a mistake to chase people in that way,” he said.
Instead, Goldston hopes to get extra airtime to spend on presidential politics and coverage of the early primaries.
“We’re coming into big, big political times, and we’re going to be all over it,” he said. “The whole thing is made for ‘Nightline.’ You’re going to be seeing a lot of big-name, big-J journalism. It’s going to be very exciting.”