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With Koppel gone, ‘Nightline's’ light dims

Three anchors provide more flexibility, but result feels generic
/ Source: The Associated Press

The good news: "Nightline" carries on.

The bad news: We barely recognize it.

Befitting 25 years of serious, thoughtful journalism under departed anchor Ted Koppel, the revamped "Nightline" in its first week shunned celebrity fluff and murder-trial shenanigans.

But at the same time, "Nightline" shifted into full default mode. Forget groundbreaking. There is nothing innovative, or even distinctive, about this generic new model. Devoid of its Koppel-era personality, "Nightline" has become a program with none.

In place of Koppel, "Nightline" (which ABC airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. ET) now boasts a trio of anchors: Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir and Terry Moran. They arrived Nov. 28.

McFadden and Bashir are nominally based in New York, with Moran in Washington, D.C. But last week, Moran was reporting from Baghdad, while Bashir popped up in California. And though McFadden stayed put in Manhattan, she also contributed a taped piece on AIDS in India.

Granted, this setup lets all three co-anchors get out and cover stories, not just cool their heels in the studio. But it gives the program an unstable, who's-in-charge-here feel, while scotching any chemistry between them.

It recalls a TV news fiasco a generation ago: NBC's three-anchor experiment on "Nightly News" that paired the anchors in rotating twosomes. Viewers tuned in each night with no idea who they might find. They didn't like it. The plan was quickly scrapped. That lesson may apply here.

More bad news: The multistory format that, at best, makes "Nightline" just a pint-sized newsmagazine. Do we need more of a genre viewers have clearly grown tired of?

By contrast, one of the hallmarks of the old "Nightline" was its single-topic focus, which allowed each edition to give that chosen topic something more than fleeting notice.

While Moran's Iraq stay yielded promising material, each night's story flew by without making much of an impression or, collectively, amounting to much.

Then for Friday's "Nightline," labeled a "Special Event," Moran devoted the entire half-hour to a broad cross-section of Iraqis discussing their country's future. But time was far too short for all 13 guests to be properly heard.

Bashir's feature on a championship high school squad of deaf football players could have been fascinating, but its five-minute length didn't do justice to the subject. What's the secret to how these players and their deaf coach vanquish their hearing opponents, game after game? There was no time to explain — only tug at the heartstrings.

Another problem with "Nightline": Thursday, Bashir interviewed convicted steroids distributor Victor Conte just before he began a four-month prison sentence. But Bashir was obliged to introduce the taped segment with a live standup outside Conte's prison in Taft, Calif.

Similarly, Moran stationed himself in a Baghdad street for live standups on each broadcast.

Message: "Nightline" is live again, like years ago when the broadcast had up-to-the-minute urgency. But last week, there was almost nothing live about it except introductions and interplay between the far-flung anchors. So far, live is just a gimmick.

Sound and furySo is the establishing view outside ABC's Times Square studio, awash in flashing signs and streaking traffic. Such a visual is surely meant to remind us, yup, it's nighttime. But, oddly enough, there is nothing notably nocturnal about "Nightline" in either sensibility or content.

The Koppel-era broadcast reflected its anchor's calm resolve, taking stock at the end of the day. But the new "Nightline" flounces onto the screen with pounding drums and rocketing rays of light that seem to strafe the cityscape. Who needs all this sound and fury right before bedtime?

The new "Nightline" isn't a total loss, of course. It keeps this valuable piece of airtime in the custody of news, a quarter-century after Koppel and his boss, Roone Arledge, first claimed and developed it. If only in the spirit of program diversity, that's good: the major alternatives to "Nightline" are the Frick and Frack of "Late Show" and "Tonight."

No wonder Koppel urged his viewers to have patience.

"Give this new `Nightline' anchor team a fair break," he counseled on his final broadcast Nov. 22. "If you don't, I promise you the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot. Then you'll be sorry."

Gulp! Facing the prospect that "Jimmy Kimmel Live," say, might poach this time slot by moving 30 minutes earlier, maybe we should make peace with "Nightline" as it is, and quit our pining for what will never be again.

The new "Nightline" represents a retreat. But not a full retreat. Maybe that's as much as we could hope for.