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New ‘Nightline,’ Same Promise

Nov 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

It’s not exactly out with the old, but it’s definitely in with the new at “Nightline.”

That’s the challenge for executive producer James Goldston as he dances as fast as he can toward 11:35 tonight, the official beginning of the post-Ted Koppel era at “Nightline.”

It’s also Mr. Goldston’s chore to tread the extremely fine line between talking up how the new-era show will be an improvement-it will, for example, originate live every night, a schedule “Nightline” hasn’t kept regularly for years-and insulting the original version.

“My hope and expectation is that we can make the show vibrant again,” Mr. Goldston said. “What we are promising viewers is a show that’s true to what ‘Nightline’ has always been and the way ‘Nightline’ has always covered stories and the courage to do stories that other people aren’t doing.”

On the other hand, “This is an opportunity, and an opportunity we’ll take, to modernize the show in some ways. The show, in presentational terms, will change significantly,” said the executive producer, who indicated the opening of the show will be conventional in the sense of letting viewers know exactly what stories are scheduled that night. There will be new music, graphics and sets-including the primary set in ABC’s Times Square Studios in New York, and one remaining in “Nightline’s” old home base, Washington, where the majority of staffers will continue to be based.

“I don’t think it has any implications for the quality of our journalism,” Mr. Goldston said during a press call last week, when there still was little sense outside ABC News of what to expect from the new “Nightline,” a program born in 1979 during the Iranian hostage crisis that went on to become a jewel in the ABC News crown.

A short presentation was fed to ABC affiliates early in the week.

The brief peek earned a thumbs up from Ray Cole, president and chief operating officer of Citadel Communications, who oversees the group’s three ABC affiliates and is the secretary of the ABC affiliates advisory board as well as the ABC affiliates’ representative in the northern Central time zone.

Mr. Cole said the presentation, while only a few minutes long, reassured him that news out of Washington and the rest of the world-perhaps even with a “renewed focus on breaking news”-will continue to find a place on “Nightline,” which on most nights will cover a variety of topics in its four segments, starting with timely topics in the first and second blocks, series in the third block, and closing with a more playful segment (think President Bush’s comical attempt to exit the world stage via a locked door last week).

“I remain confident there is a place for ‘Nightline’ in late-night,” Mr. Cole said.

Station executives may be heartened to hear Mr. Goldston say his top priority is to boost viewership, which is flat year to year, with a slight increase among the target news audience of 25- to 54-year-olds.

Ever since ABC’s furtive attempt in 2002 to give “Nightline’s” time slot to CBS funnyman David Letterman fell apart so publicly-and ABC rather unenthusiastically said Mr. Koppel and crew could continue to call the time slot home-fatalists have presumed that “Nightline” would last only until ABC develops what it thinks is a sure-fire late-night entertainment winner.

“I don’t believe that,” Mr. Goldston said.

He did not shrink from suggesting that “there are many people out there who are ready to prejudge” the new “Nightline” based on some of the names attached and other presumptions about the practice of TV journalism in a lite-news, ratings-driven age.

“There’s an assumption that change by its nature means the show won’t be as good as it was before, that it will become a tabloid show,” Mr. Goldston said. “I refute this utterly.”

Succeeding Mr. Koppel on the program are Terry Moran (the former White House correspondent who was in Iraq last week gathering material for a series on the war that will run this week on “Nightline”); Cynthia McFadden (the former legal correspondent who will continue to contribute to “Primetime” and who is just back from India with a three-parter about AIDS for this week); and “20/20” correspondent Martin Bashir, like Mr. Goldston a British TV alumnus.

Mr. Bashir is better known for a Michael Jackson documentary that renewed questions about the singer’s relationships with young boys ( a documentary on which Mr. Goldston collaborated) than he is for his “20/20” assignments. Mr. Bashir will continue to report for “20/20” as well.

Former “60 Minutes II” correspondent Vicki Mabrey will join quintessential “Nightline” holdovers Chris Bury and John Donvan as primary correspondents.

Asked whether he feels more compelled initially to emphasize what’s new about “Nightline” or what’s true to the “Nightline” tradition, Mr. Goldston didn’t hesitate to say “the latter.”

“We’re asking the ‘Nightline’ audience to accept a lot of change,” said the executive producer, who wants that loyal core to know, “The new ‘Nightline’ will respond to their wants and needs.”