The Late-Night Battle Isn't Only Between Dave and Conan

ABC's 'Nightline' Breaks Ad Push Touting Show's Ratings Success

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NEW YORK ( -- While David Letterman and Conan O'Brien grab more of the headlines in TV's late-night wars, a third combatant -- ABC's newsy "Nightline" -- is taking steps to make sure viewers are mindful of its presence.

CBS has been touting the fact that its "Late Show With David Letterman" is topping NBC's "Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" in terms of overall viewers -- even when "Letterman" is in repeats. NBC has been blitzing the airwaves with promos enticing viewers to watch Mr. O'Brien as well as new "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon. For its part, ABC is launching a short, tactical campaign to tell viewers that "Nightline" is beating both CBS and NBC in terms of overall viewers at 11:35 p.m. Between June 1 (the first night of Mr. O'Brien's "Tonight" tenure) and Aug. 21, "Nightline" averaged 3,459,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, compared with "Late Show's" 3,400,000 and "Tonight's" 3,239,000.

"Late night is going through a huge change, and we're only midway through," said James Goldston, executive producer of "Nightline." The departure of Jay Leno from "Tonight" has "definitely opened up" the time period, he added. "There are people who have watched 'The Tonight Show' for a very long time, and I think they're taking a look around and I think the whole time period remains in flux."

ABC sees a chance to grow its audience during the time slot, he said.

As ABC's salvo illustrates, late-night TV is shaky terrain these days, with many TV networks pouncing on what they view as an opportunity: an audience that sees long-established favorites in the midst of sudden transformation. The longtime face of "Tonight," Jay Leno, will take up a new roost at 10 p.m. weeknights on NBC in the fall, while Mr. O'Brien, whose primary appeal is to younger audiences, now holds forth in his old seat. Meantime, CBS has issued press announcement after press announcement talking up Mr. Letterman's new ratings power.

More than two players
ABC's new promo shows that late night is more than a two-horse race. As of last week, said Mr. Goldston, "Nightline" has increased its total viewers by 14% year over year, and by 35% in the past week alone. "Our feeling is that we've got some momentum and now's the time to just kind of take that message out and remind people about the show," said Mr. Goldston. A CBS spokesman said "Late Show" and "Tonight" audiences are greater than those for "Nightline" when comparing the half-hour news program with the first half hour of either talk show. ABC's audience claims hold up when comparing "Nightline" to the full hour of "Tonight" or "Late Show," owing to audience drop-off after midnight, the spokesman said. An NBC spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

The new "Nightline" promo, which launched this week and is set to appear on both national and local cable over the next three weeks, takes direct aim at its talk-show competition. As a spotlight swirls around a stand-up microphone in front of a colorful curtain, an announcer asks, "The No. 1 show in late-night: Dave? Conan?" The narrator then answers, "No." A TV screen with the "Nightline" logo takes center stage before the promo proceeds to a series of clips of people in the news, including Madonna, Michael Jackson and Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Leno's exit from the timeslot has no doubt helped "Nightline," which just a few short years ago undertook a transition of its own. In 2005, longtime anchor Ted Koppel stepped down after hosting the program and its predecessor news broadcast since 1979, and the newsy half-hour show adopted a different format. Rather than devoting itself to discussion of one topic, "Nightline" examines several subjects every evening, and now has three hosts.

Media buyers and analysts have for months predicted that some of Mr. Leno's audience would defect from NBC's "Tonight" to rival boob-tube offerings while a portion of Mr. O'Brien's younger crowd would follow him.

The new "Nightline" promo shows ABC's news division continuing to take an aggressive stance in the ongoing skirmish for viewers. In March, ABC News ran ads for its popular "Good Morning America" on cable-news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and CNBC between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., urging viewers to turn the channel to ABC. Alan Ives, executive producer and creative director at ABC News, is behind both efforts.

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