A Hazy New Day Awaits 'Nightline'
Monday, September 26, 2005
"Nightline" as we know it is about to fade to black.
Gone will be the single-topic examination that has been the ABC program's signature for 25 years. Gone will be the single-anchor format once Ted Koppel steps down Nov. 22. And some of the correspondents and producers who built the program into a journalistic powerhouse will likely be gone, too.
"I'm absolutely committed to 'Nightline' remaining a serious, substantive show," says British journalist James Goldston, the new executive producer. " 'Nightline' has a unique place in American television journalism and it's important that should continue. Of course, we wish it to be an entertaining show, but the journalism comes first always."
The likely new anchors are White House correspondent Terry Moran and "PrimeTime" anchor Cynthia McFadden, who have had serious discussions with Goldston and would be based in Washington and New York, respectively. Another possible anchor is Martin Bashir, who made documentaries about Michael Jackson and Princess Diana, although he may wind up as a contributor.
Goldston made a presentation last week to Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC television, and ABC News President David Westin, among others, and got a tentative green light to pursue his vision of the show, say people familiar with the matter who declined to be named because no final decisions have been made.
Left in limbo, for the moment, are such "Nightline" veterans as Chris Bury, John Donvan and others. They have not been approached about the new program, although Goldston is expected to ask some to stay on. (Other correspondents could be shifted to the morning or evening shows depending on whether Charlie Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas or someone else is named to succeed Peter Jennings.)
Correspondent Dave Marash says he has "been disinvited to join the new 'Nightline' " and is disappointed because "who I am and what I do and how I do it have not changed in the 16 years I've been with 'Nightline.' "
Several producers are likely to join a new company being formed by Koppel and outgoing executive producer Tom Bettag, who don't plan to finalize a deal with another media outlet until they leave. The center of gravity for the Washington-based show is clearly shifting to New York, where Goldston lives and where he is seeking funding to hire more staff.
Goldston, who produced Britain's most popular public-affairs show from 2002 to 2004, as well as Bashir's 2003 documentary "Living With Michael Jackson," has maintained in meetings that he has no plans to dumb-down "Nightline." He has argued that the move toward shorter segments will allow more coverage of foreign news and has talked about projects such as spending a week in Iran.
But Goldston is not averse to more interviews with celebrities if these can be tied to larger issues. He will also emphasize edited, taped pieces in the belief that no one else has Koppel's facility for long interviews done without interruption.
The new "Nightline" has done a soft launch, under Goldston's supervision, by having Moran and McFadden host a number of three-topic programs on Mondays and Fridays. The leadoff piece is usually hard news, but there have also been segments on sportscaster Pat Summerall meeting the family of his liver donor; Christopher Reeve's widow developing lung cancer; the fashion industry discovering larger women; and Rickey Henderson's baseball comeback. Whether the wide-ranging approach will erode the uniqueness of "Nightline" remains to be seen.
Beyond the Big Three
When the media's biggest megastars gathered at Carnegie Hall last week, an uncomfortable question hung in the air: Were they bidding farewell to Peter Jennings or the kind of journalism he embodied as well?