'Nightline' Ups the Star Power but Delivers Less Wattage

Cynthia McFadden and Martin Bashir, whose style makes him seem more of a third wheel than a third anchor.
Cynthia McFadden and Martin Bashir, whose style makes him seem more of a third wheel than a third anchor. (By Heidi Gutman -- Abc)

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By Tom Shales
Thursday, December 15, 2005

ABC's "Nightline" might as well be retitled "Night Light," but not because it's illuminating. No. The late-night news program now is simply more about style than content, and the style isn't all that special.

Obviously it is no easy task to follow Ted Koppel and the old "Nightline." Having evolved from a series of reports about the Mideast in crisis, the program survived a shaky start to become a true broadcast of distinction. It represented a double breakthrough, covering a single topic in depth on most editions and featuring Koppel's thoughtful, penetrating interviews with newsmakers of the moment.

There were numerous production innovations and a good deal of ambitious risk-taking in the ensuing decades.

It should please Koppel that it's taken three people to replace him since he left the show last month and even then, the roster seems deficient. Cynthia McFadden and Terry Moran do good anchor work, but the team's third member, Martin Bashir, might as well be from south Pluto. He is jarringly incompatible with his colleagues, and he slows the program with the old-fashioned formality of his questioning. He also manages to combine solemn pretentiousness with a hefty trace of the tabloid.

After all, Bashir first came to America's attention two years ago with a lengthy Michael Jackson interview that was highly watchable but also on the sleazy side. You couldn't feel all that good about having seen it.

In a "Nightline" segment devoted to the legacy of the late comic icon Richard Pryor that aired Monday, Bashir assumed a grimly serious demeanor as he put very studied, whither-thou questions to Whoopi Goldberg. Bashir: "How did he help define the role of the black comedian?" Goldberg (emphatically): "I don't know."

She went on to say that although Pryor's work had special significance for African Americans, she thought of him as a pioneer for all comedians, a "storyteller" who influenced comics regardless of their ethnicity. She appeared to resent, and rightly, the notion of implicitly limiting Pryor's identity and impact through the shaping of the questions.

That was the third of the usual three segments on the program, traditionally the spot for news of the pop-culture scene -- a plug for George Clooney's film "Syriana" was the attraction on another night. Then comes each night's flippant little postscript, a gimmicky smirker called "Sign of the Times" that deals superficially with some item in the news that might not be a sign of the times at all.

After the Goldberg appearance, for instance, the "Sign of the Times" piece was some nonsense about a "dress code" for players in the NBA. Even though it arguably had nothing to do with the subject at hand, footage of a 2004 brawl involving Indiana Pacer Ron Artest and other players was shown for approximately the thousandth time, a cheap and, at this point, probably ineffective way of grabbing a viewer's attention.

Then came a list of new rules -- about on- and off-court apparel (including those long, saggy-baggy shorts) -- that the NBA imagines it can impose on players. That was about that, except for Bashir returning to say philosophically into the camera, "Shorter shorts -- a sign of the times?" Probably not.

On the next night's show, the "Sign of the Times" had to do with an increase in bank robberies, especially bizarre ones. The peg for this was the arrest of the sophomore class president at Lehigh University for allegedly having pulled a bank job. There was also footage of the kooky cell-phone bandit, and that was pretty much that. As with many of the segments that have aired during the post-Koppel program's first two weeks, these closing pieces were utterly devoid of substance and sometimes surprisingly unsophisticated.

Often viewers might think they've just seen the introductory portion of a piece and then discover that, au contraire, they've seen the whole thing. That's all there is, there isn't any more. Tuesday night's program opened with a solid investigative report by Chris Bury (rhymes with "furry") on the ever-growing matrix of political contribution scandals on Capitol Hill. Bury concentrated on allegations concerning Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who allegedly enjoyed such funsy outings as a golf trip to Scotland financed by a corporate sugar daddy.

Moran unfortunately felt the need to follow the report with a sappy sentiment that sounded like something out of an old radio crime show. "Congressman Bob Ney," Moran said sternly, "seems to have a lot of explaining to do." Oh, no! Constant Viewer almost fell off his couch.

Moran sounded similarly specious Monday night with a report he taped in Iraq. "It's not the place you see on TV every night," he said. "Much of the media coverage here is one-dimensional." So then, what? We should put on our 3-D glasses? "Nightline" was going to show all the bad boys of broadcasting how to do it? Moran's report wasn't revolutionary and didn't justify his lecturing others in the TV news business.

The report perhaps could have used more context, but it also could have used more report. It took up two segments, yet still seemed cut short. McFadden's piece on "The War at Home" -- mainly about an activist coping in her own way with her husband's having to serve in Iraq -- was good but also seemed over too soon. Clearly, this hit-and-run stuff is part of a strategy to make "Nightline" appeal to younger audiences, the goal of virtually every show on television, but viewers who don't have MTV attention spans might feel downright cheated.

There's a sort of edgy glitz to the show's new opening, computer animation of a runaway comet, or maybe a jet-propelled Tinker Bell (Disney owns ABC, after all), zooming through a neon Manhattan on its urgent way to the Times Square studios of ABC News.

The three-anchor format, meanwhile, is mainly just irritating. You never know who'll pop up from where after a commercial break. It would be nice to see the anchors side by side in the same room once in a while; otherwise, it appears they aren't on speaking terms.

Bashir's windy performance clashes so sharply with his colleagues' that one has to wonder if a two-anchor format might not be better. And Bashir's stiff British accent -- "shed-yuled" instead of "scheduled" -- is off-putting on a nightly telecast. Craig Ferguson gets away with a Scottish brogue on the CBS "Late Late Show," but he's in the comedy business.

The reaction to the new "Nightline" heard most often around the office has been that it's "just another magazine show." In fact, just another magazine show is ipso facto more desirable than just another talk show in the 11:35 time slot. As much as one might be rooting for ABC News to hang on to the time period and not surrender it to the entertainment division, however, "Nightline" has to improve for it to have real value. If not "Night Light," then it's "Night-Lite," a sallow shallow shadow of its former splendid self.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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