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Post-Ted Koppel era begins on ‘Nightline’

New anchors to unveil multi-story format during Monday's show
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like a Broadway show in rehearsals too long, the post-Ted Koppel "Nightline" finally has its opening night.

"There are many people out there who are looking to prejudge us one way or another," said James Goldston, the show's new executive producer. "There's a great feeling of ‘will this remain true to the original ‘Nightline' and all that. All I would say is that I'd like the show to be judged on what we do, rather than a theoretical version of what we might do."

The new "Nightline" with Martin Bashir, Cynthia McFadden and Terry Moran debuts Monday (11:35 p.m. EST).

It's all-new — new anchors, new look, new pace, new production team. It's literally a Broadway show, originating from ABC's Times Square studios. That's new, too.

Part of the newness is inevitable, given the loss of the only anchor "Nightline" has known for nearly 26 years. But it's also by design, an attempt to correct perceived weaknesses while trying not to alienate the show's longtime fans.

"Most programs, if they stay around for a long time, take on a structure imparted by the anchors," said ABC News President David Westin. "So when you change the personality, you have to make changes in the program. Ted is a very strong example of that, but he's not unique."

The multiple anchor format is at least partly a recognition that it would have been a lot of pressure on one person to succeed Koppel, he said.

McFadden and Bashir will be based in New York. McFadden, a former legal correspondent and "Primetime Live" reporter, is a known quantity who has been with ABC News since 1994.

Trying to make a better impressionBashir is best known in this country, in a not altogether flattering way, for an interview with Michael Jackson. But he has a 20-year reputation as an investigative reporter and interviewer from his work in England, Goldston said. (On Monday, Bashir reports on the California School for the Deaf and its football squad, the Riverside Cubs, who are looking to complete an undefeated season as the only deaf team in their league.)

Moran, ABC's former White House correspondent, will be in Baghdad for the first week as a new studio set is built for him in Washington.

Their feelings about succeeding Koppel are a mystery; ABC News, perhaps showing some nervousness about the relaunch, hasn't made any of them available for interviews prior to opening night.

Gone will be the "Nightline" tradition of focusing on a single story each night. That may happen during big news events, but a typical show will have three stories and a wry ending segment.

The old format left "Nightline" vulnerable to missing out on stories that weren't worth the full show, Westin said.

"You have two choices — either you ignore them altogether, or you stretch," he said. "If you go away from the ironclad commitment to the single topic, it gives you more flexibility to cover the stories that you think really matter to people."

McFadden has been working on a story about AIDS in India. Instead of making it the subject of a single show, "Nightline" will break it up and present it over several nights.

Westin also was insistent on making "Nightline" live again, even if it's more of a magazine-type show than a newscast. In recent years, Koppel had been taping "Nightline" several hours in advance, much like the late-night comics.

"I certainly wanted to make sure we were totally responsive to being on the news, and that's hard to do when you've taped the program at 6 (o'clock) in the evening and people have largely gone home," Westin said.

Goldston talks about making the show "vibrant" again. Most of that comes with thought-provoking reporting, but also with an improved presentation. Expect to see, for example, more "teases" about upcoming material heading into commercial breaks.

"In this kind of a multichannel world you have to make a bit of a song and dance about your material," he said. "I don't think it has any implications for the quality of our journalism. I think we can present the show in a much more modern way."

Between McFadden's AIDS series and several upcoming stories on the impact of the war in Iraq and at home, Goldston's plans show that his first priority is convincing the typical "Nightline" audience of 3.6 million people that despite everything new, it's still a serious show that they'll be comfortable with.

Only then can ABC seek someone new, like the 2 million regular "Nightline" viewers who have tuned out over the past decade.

At his going-away party at the Kennedy Center in Washington on Nov. 16, Koppel noted that critic Tom Shales called "Nightline" after its first broadcast "at best a great leap sideways and at worst a pratfall backwards for television news." But 10 months later Shales revisited, calling the show "smart, classy."

"I don't know if everyone will give you a fair amount of time ... but I promise you I will," Koppel said.

On his final broadcast, Koppel also asked viewers to give the new folks a break, saying, "If you don't, I promise you the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot. Then you'll be sorry." It was a none-too-subtle reference to ABC's 2002 courtship of David Letterman to replace him.

Westin said he has no indication that the clock is ticking on "Nightline," any more than it is for every show that must earn its place on the air by doing good work and drawing an audience.

"I've been getting no pressure in that regard," he said. "The only pressure for us is putting on a really good program and succeeding. If we do that, we're fine. If we don't do that, we shouldn't be fine."