Shunted Off to Wee Hours, ‘Nightline’ Loses 2 Million Viewers

Bill Weir. Cynthia McFadden and Terry Moran of ABC's "Nightline" (Photo: ABC)

ABC’s “Nightline” paid a steep price for its forced move to a later time period last week — the loss of more than 2.1 million viewers virtually overnight.

The fate of “Nightline,” a late-night TV powerhouse practically since its inception way back in November 1979, was largely ignored by the entertainment media while the lion’s share of media attention focused on Jimmy Kimmel’s move to weeknights at 11:35 p.m. eastern time. The move — announced last August and finally coming to pass this past Tuesday — pits “Jimmy Kimmel Live” directly against “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on NBC and “Late Show with David Letterman” on CBS.

But lost in the shuffle was “Nightline,” which was shunted to 12:35 a.m. (eastern), where it joined TV’s second tier of late-night shows — NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” on NBC and “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” on CBS.

As it happened, “Nightline” beat “Fallon” and “Ferguson” in total viewers over the three nights — Tuesday through Thursday — for which the ratings are available. “Nightline’s” average audience was 1.761 million, while “Fallon” had 1.475 million and “Ferguson” had 1.434 million.

“Nightline” even edged out the other two in the age group the networks and their advertisers crave — 18-49s.

Jimmy Kimmel even joked about replacing “Nightline” in his Tuesday monologue — watch:
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While those victories are worth noting, the total-viewer number represents a substantial loss of more than 2.1 million viewers for “Nightline,” compared to the show’s average at 11:35-midnight in the fourth quarter of 2012. In those three months, the ABC News show averaged 3.9 million viewers, which was enough to beat both Leno and Letterman. In addition, “Nightline” beat Leno and Letterman in the battle for 18-49s as well.

And yet, “Nightline’s” relatively strong performance in the ratings was not enough to prevent ABC from moving up the “Kimmel” show and shifting “Nightline” to the wee hours of the morning. By the same token, just because “Nightline” is holding its own against Fallon and Ferguson, the security of the venerable half-hour news show is not assured there either.

Here’s why:

Plain and simple, ABC wants to establish a much stronger foothold in the comedy late-night business. And that means moving the one-hour “Kimmel” show into direct competition with “Leno” and “Letterman” for all 60 minutes of the time period’s first hour. That way, ABC can learn once and for all if Kimmel, 45, can out-duel Leno, 62, and Letterman, 65, for younger viewers — the 18-49s everyone wants to reach. For week one of the switch, Kimmel came in third in total viewers. But he did indeed eke out a victory against the older guys in 18-49s.

If last week’s trends continue, that will become the set-up in late-night’s first hour, at least until Leno and/or Letterman steps down: Leno and Letterman will draw more viewers every night, while Kimmel will draw more younger ones (and by the way, his total-viewer tally is way up from what he used to get at midnight). That bodes well for Kimmel’s future at 11:35 and, so far at least, should indicate to ABC that it made the right move.

We predict that someday, ABC will seek to replicate the 11:35 situation with a 12:35 comedy late-night show of its own designed to compete against the other two networks for that full hour too. When it all shakes out (and this second component may take years to figure out, for all we know), ABC will be competing on a more or less equal footing from 11:35 p.m. to 1:35 a.m. with CBS and NBC.

Though we wish “Nightline” well, we cannot see how this show can be sustained at 12:35 p.m. The thing we’d always heard about “Nightline” was that it doesn’t draw nearly the commercial dollars as the comedy late-night shows it competes against. The reasons include the fact that it is only 30 minutes and also because it’s a news show, which is simply not as inviting an environment for late-night advertisers as a comedy talk show. Just look at Kimmel — he often opens his show with commercials he and his sidekick Guillermo do themselves. You’ll never see the “Nightline” anchors doing that.

And maybe even more importantly, like other news shows, “Nightline” can be expensive to produce. And while the expense may have been justified at 11:35 (which is certainly debatable in view of ABC’s decision to move it), the show is now getting 2.1 million fewer viewers and, as far as we know, it still costs the same. Based on that arithmetic alone, how can “Nightline” continue?

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

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