While most of the attention surrounding late-night network television in the last 18 months has centered on the showdown between David Letterman on CBS and Jay Leno on NBC, a 15-year-old ABC News program, "Nightline," has experienced a surge in growth that has put it in the strongest competitive position in its history.
More viewers than ever are watching network television in the late-night hours, largely because of the addition of Mr. Letterman and his hit "Late Show" on CBS. Mr. Letterman moved immediately to the top of the late-night ratings when he switched from NBC in 1993.
But with little fanfare, "Nightline" has more than stood up to the challenge of the competition.
The 5.6 rating for "Nightline" in that half-hour is ahead of Mr. Leno's 5.3 and right on the heels of Mr. Letterman's 5.7. (Each rating point represents 954,000 homes.)
Fueling this climb has been steady growth in the number of ABC affiliates willing to broadcast "Nightline" live each night at 11:30 after the late local news.
In 1992, Ted Koppel, the program's anchor, told managers of ABC's affiliates that he would quit the show if it did not receive more support. At the time, ABC stations representing only 61 percent of the country carried it live. The rest delayed it for 30 to 90 minutes in favor of syndicated shows like "Hard Copy" and "Love Connection."
So top executives at ABC, including Roone Arledge, president of ABC News; Robert Iger, president of the network, and Thomas Murphy, chairman of ABC's parent company, Capital Cities/ABC, began a campaign to persuade stations to give live "clearances" for "Nightline."
The network backed the personal persuasion with financial incentives. Some stations were paid more money directly in network compensation for carrying "Nightline." But most important was an incentive plan: In 1993, local stations were offered the right to sell seven more 30-second commercials in ABC shows, including the prime-time news magazine hours. They were offered three more commercials in 1994 in non-news shows and one more in each of the two additional news magazines then on the ABC schedule. That added up to 12 commercials a station could sell on its own if it would clear "Nightline" to be broadcast live.
The stations have responded. Stations that reach 78 percent of the country now carry "Nightline" live.
Even with the cash and commercial incentives, "Nightline" remains "a very profitable show," said David Westin, who succeeded Mr. Iger as president of the network. "Nightline" attracts a "prestige audience" that many advertisers will pay a premium to reach, he said, adding the program adds so much to the overall image of ABC News that its total value is much greater than its annual profit -- a figure he declined to cite.