Tuned In

Does a 10 p.m. Nightline Make Sense?

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A few weeks ago, the New York Times’ Bill Carter and Brian Stelter wrote a piece looking at the possible implications of NBC’s scheduling Jay Leno at 10 p.m. in the fall. One of the lines in the story that generated some buzz was this:

NBC’s move has also caused planning battles inside ABC, whose 10 p.m. hours have been a string of disappointments in recent years. Although ABC will again fill 10 p.m. with new dramas this fall including “Eastwick” and “The Forgotten,” one ABC employee acknowledged that “Nightline,” the late-night ABC News show, has been talked about as a future 10 p.m. possibility.

I’m not sure I take the possibility that seriously now. I mean, I certainly believe the piece that the move has been talked about. Lots of things get talked about. And it certainly would be an ironic reversal of fortune for a news show that, a few years ago, ABC considered killing to get David Letterman. But I suspect that any reactions to NBCs Leno move will be in wait-and-see mode for quite a while—and even then, I’m skeptical that ABC would go with a news show as its alternative.

Still the talk has stayed sufficiently alive that ABC News’ David Westin knocked down the buzz on last weekend’s Reliable Sources. So it’s worth asking: would the move be a good idea?  

The advantages would, of course, be similar to those with Jay Leno: it would be far cheaper than airing five dramas a night. A news program would be counterprogramming not just to CBS’ dramas (and cable’s) but also to Jay. (Though CBS might be the big winner there.) 

But another reason to try Nightline—or a show like it—is that it could solve the problem both of how to make primetime cheaper and what to do with the flagging evening newscasts. I and plenty of other critics have speculated in the past that, with 6:30 news audiences aging and shrinking, we might eventually see a primetime newscast instead. Putting a show like Nightline in primetime could just be a backdoor answer to that issue. 

The audiences for evening newscasts continue to shrink—in recent weeks, the combined three drew around 20 million viewers, compared with 25 or 30 million a decade ago or less. Now, they will argue, rightly, that that’s much more than the cable channels draw at any particular half hour (though that argument ignores the fact that cable news is not on only a half hour a day). But the trendline for the newscasts is undeniable. 

If you were to try to do news in primetime instead, would it make sense to put the equivalent of today’s 6:30 newscasts there? Granted, those shows have moved away from simply trying to provide all the day’s headlines, but that still informs much of what they do, and it’s an increasingly irrelevant service in the Internet and cable era. If you were to try to rethink news for primetime, why not do away with the headlines, and have each night’s newscast go in depth on a few issues, or just one? Why not have it be more like… Nightline? 

A primetime news show like that would not have to arrive as a replacement for the evening news. But someday, if one of the networks decided to give up the 6:30 news, it could replace it by default. (The stars are not aligned for that right now, because the network with the weakest evening-news ratings, CBS, has far and away the strongest 10 p.m. drama ratings.) 

I’m still not about to lay money on Nightline making it to primetime, ever. But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that, if we ever see the vaunted primetime network newscast—perhaps as a replacement for the evening news—it would make sense for it to look less like the nightly news and more like Nightline. 

Of course, there’s also the possibility it could look more like To Catch a Predator. Or Larry King Live. Or The Biggest Loser. Maybe we should try to get Nightline at 10 p.m. while we still have a chance.