Media buyers: Put 'Nightline' to bed

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ABC insists it is still committed to "Nightline," despite the imminent departure of veteran anchorman Ted Koppel. But if media buyers could have their way, it would be long gone.

"I would much rather have an entertainment show," said Geoff Robison, a major movie buyer at Palisades Media Group in Los Angeles. "ABC has an opportunity to do something new."

Mr. Robison, who buys for Miramax, suggested a satirical news show or perhaps an "anti-talk show" akin to HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show." Memo to Steve McPherson, ABC entertainment president: Is Ali G. available?

Overall the late fringe segment brought in nearly $840 million for the big three networks in 2004, that's up from $740 million in 2003. Walt Disney Co.'s ABC pulled in the smallest piece of last year's pie, $206 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence, compared with first-place ad-revenue generator NBC, which brought in $386 million, and CBS which drew $251 million.

Despite ABC News' insistence that "Nightline" will remain on the schedule, albeit in a slightly different form, it seems odd for ABC not to try and capitalize on its renewed popularity this season with TV buyers, particularly given its history of chasing other comedians-including, famously, CBS's David Letterman-for that slot. ABC will be in high demand during this year's upfront with buyers who are buoyed not only by what's currently on air but the upcoming development slate.

Harry Keeshan, exec VP-national broadcast buying, Omnicom Group's PHD, said: "ABC has always intended to compete in that space. This is their opportunity. `Nightline' was a terrific show, and it did a great job, but its time has come."

Few buyers are raving about the ratings. In the 18-to-49-year-old demo for the first quarter, "Nightline," with a 1.1 rating, 5 share, trails NBC's "Tonight Show" (2.1 rating, 9 share) and CBS's "The Late Show With David Letterman," (1.6 rating, 7 share). Ten years ago "Nightline" was drawing 6.3 million viewers, compared to today's 3.8 million.

Donna Speciale, president-U.S. broadcast, MediaVest, part of Publicis Groupe, would also like to see a change. "It would be smart to put an entertainment show there. They are losing out because `Nightline' is a completely different audience and not a place for traditional late-night advertisers."

Those advertisers are more geared toward the 18-to-49 demo, rather than the 25-to-54 news demo. Typical late-night advertisers are the movie studios, cars, personal-finance companies and beer manufacturers. Ms. Speciale said the big question for ABC is who it could get to hold an audience in that slot. She believes advertisers might shy away from anything that was too satirical or political.

How much ad money ABC is leaving on the table is open to debate. The late-night segment is not exactly buzzing with activity, according to buyers, and many claim the viewers they need are over at Comedy Central or MTV or FX at that time. The arrival of "South Park" in syndication this fall may also take money away from late night.

John Rash, director-broadcast negotiations, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun, said "Nightline" offers ABC a way of keeping upscale viewers who might otherwise turn to a book. He hopes it will remain in place.

Gary Carr, senior VP-director of broadcast, TargetCast, an independent media agency, agrees. "ABC will keep it. They'll do something classy with it. It is nice to say you have a point of difference."

Unfortunately, Mr. Carr is not a "Nightline" fan. "I've been hearing bad news all day. I want to laugh a little before I go to sleep, I watch `Leno' and `Letterman."'

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