NEW YORK -- For James Goldston, executive producer of Nightline, the prospect of a prolonged writers' strike that paralyzes much of the television industry offers an awkward upside.
The longer a work stoppage keeps The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Show with David Letterman in repeats, the better shot the ABC late-night newsmagazine -- which remains on the air live -- has at drawing more viewers.
Indeed, Nightline, which introduced a new anchor team two years ago, has already enjoyed an immediate lift. During the first week of the writers' strike, the usually third-place program drew the largest number of households, according to early Nielsen data of 56 metered markets. The newsmagazine pulled an average of 2.8 million households, while Letterman had 2.7 million and Leno had 2.6 million.
"We take no pleasure in there being a strike whatsoever," Goldston said. "It's no good for anybody. What's also true in the odd circumstance this presents us with is that it is an opportunity of sorts for people who have maybe not sampled the new Nightline or who are looking around for alternatives to come to the show."
Nightline is not the only news program that stands to benefit from the strike. As the broadcast networks ration their dwindling supply of original comedies and dramas, news divisions have been instructed to prepare to pick up the slack. If the walkout drags into next year, the prime-time schedule could be filled with NBC's Dateline, ABC's Primetime and CBS' 48 Hours Mystery.
For newsmagazines, the situation offers a chance to flex their muscles. In their 1990s heyday, they were on as much as 20 hours a week, but their roles have steadily diminished. Dateline, which once aired five nights a week, was not scheduled to be back on the air until after football season ends early next year.
Now newsmagazines are readying to be tent-pole shows again. "The reality is that 48 Hours is the utility player for the network, a role we cherish and consider part of our core responsibility," said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of the CBS newsmagazine.
In anticipation, producers are sketching out story ideas and stockpiling shows, with an eye toward delivering new material in January. Last week, Dateline staffers were instructed to be ready to produce as many as three hours a week after the new year. The show, which has long served as a fill-in for NBC, has spent this fall readying new episodes, including a few new installments of its controversial To Catch a Predator series.
ABC's Primetime, which did not get a regular time slot this season, has sped up production of limited series like Family Secrets, Medical Mysteries and The Outsiders that were already in the pipeline. Over at CBS, 60 Minutes would likely be called upon to package some of its most popular interviews into thematic specials, while 48 Hours Mystery could end up producing extra episodes.
But as much as news producers relish getting extra airtime, gearing up to meet the expected need won't be easy. Cutbacks have deeply eroded the news divisions' long-form units, some of which have lost more than half their staffs in the past 15 years, according to producers.
Once the strike is resolved, it's unlikely that the programs will be able to retain prime real estate. For now, many newsmagazine producers just hope to make the best of the situation. Nightline has been aggressively marketing its stories.
Last week, the show did pieces on Ryan Seacrest and Girls Gone Wild's Joe Francis, but Goldston said the show was not being programmed differently to appeal to late-night comedy viewers.
Instead, he hopes to get extra airtime for presidential politics and coverage of the primaries.
"The whole thing is made for Nightline. You're going to be seeing a lot of big-name, big-J journalism. It's going to be very exciting."
Matea Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Read more about the writers' strike at baltimoresun.com/writersstrike