Cynthia McFadden Explains Why ‘Nightline’ Is On Top

Cynthia McFadden (Photo: ABC News)

Cynthia McFadden (Photo: ABC News)

Not that long ago, it seemed like there would never come a time when it would be possible to make this statement: “Nightline” is the No. 1 show in late-night.

Among those who are most surprised (and also the most pleased) about the turnaround: Cynthia McFadden, one of the venerable ABC newscast’s three rotating anchors (the others are Terry Moran and Bill Weir).

“Isn’t it amazing?” McFadden said on the phone with xfinityTV on Friday. “When we were asked to step in when Ted Koppel decided to retire almost six years ago now, I don’t think there was anybody – certainly not me – who thought the show would be around a year later. It was a distant third most nights in the ratings.”

Now it’s sometimes in first place, such as in the most recent late-night ratings report for the week of March 7-11. For those five days, “Nightline” — at 11:35 p.m.-12:05 a.m. (10:35-11:05c) — beat every other show with an average nightly audience of 3.85 million. Yes, it should be noted that David Letterman’s “Late Show” and Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” were in repeats that week.

But “Nightline” has out-ranked the comedy shows at other times too, when they haven’t been in repeats, and breaking news has drawn the attention of viewers away from the late-night funnymen.

Indeed, the first “Nightline” with earthquake coverage from Japan on March 11 drew 5.23 million viewers — the show’s biggest Friday audience in six and a half years. “We do fantastically well when news is breaking,” McFadden said. “The challenge is figuring out how to keep the broadcast vibrant and fresh on the nights when things aren’t blowing up. Lately, that hasn’t been a problem.”

McFadden theorized correctly that “Nightline,” as the only show of its kind in late-night – a news program with a mix of hard news and up-to-the-minute cultural and lifestyle features – is benefiting from the explosion in late-night comedy shows that are “splitting” the male audience. As a result, women are flocking to “Nightline” and driving up the show’s ratings, McFadden said.

Nowadays, there’s no more talk around ABC about dumping “Nightline,” moving “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to 11:35 p.m. and other scenarios that were frequently gossiped about. “Nightline” and its personalities have such a strong grip on their time period that McFadden was recruited recently to co-host next Tuesday’s two-hour prime-time special saluting the movies on ABC, starting at 9 p.m./8c. The special – titled “Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time” – was produced in association with People magazine, which asked readers to vote on their favorite all-time movies.

For McFadden, who co-hosts with Tom Bergeron, the film special was a welcome respite from the tragic news she and her colleagues have been reporting on “Nightline” lately — from Japan to Libya. “With all the news that’s going on in the world right now, what a nice change of pace,” she said. “Two hours of pure entertainment — what’s not to like?”

“Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time,” hosted by Cynthia McFadden and Tom Bergeron, premieres Tuesday, March 22, at 9 p.m./8c on ABC.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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