Basking in The Shadow Of Ted Koppel
Thursday, March 2, 2006
The problem for "Nightline," as Terry Moran sees it, lies not with the viewers but with the media.
In the three months since Moran, Cynthia McFadden and Martin Bashir took the helm of a revamped "Nightline," the ABC program -- faster, far from frivolous but in some ways shallower -- has enjoyed modest ratings success. Yet there has been considerable carping about the abandonment of the Ted Koppel tradition.
"Because of the tremendous shadow that Ted and the 25 years of that program still casts on the whole industry, establishing ourselves and who we are is still a challenge in the industry and with critics," says Moran, a former White House correspondent. "The audience is getting it. . . . Because Ted and 'Nightline' were such an icon, any change disturbs people in our business."
McFadden says the criticism "stings" because some of it is true.
"Sometimes we've deserved the knocks," says McFadden, who also co-anchors "Primetime." "We haven't gotten the balance right every night. It's very much a work in progress. . . . Sometimes we don't give things quite enough time." McFadden says it's also fair to question "whether we've had on a few too many Hollywood types in the run-up to the Oscars."
With its flashy Times Square studio, "Nightline" has evolved into a journalistic smorgasbord. The program isn't serving up empty calories, but some stories seem to be of the reduced-fat variety. For all of its strengths, "Nightline" now seems difficult to distinguish from a dozen other newsmagazine or cable shows.
Still, the early returns are encouraging for ABC. For the week of Feb. 13, "Nightline" was up 3 percent in total viewers -- to 3.7 million -- over a year earlier, and 14 percent in the key 25-to-54 demographic. The program still trails Jay Leno and, most nights, David Letterman.
In reinventing "Nightline," James Goldston, the British-born executive producer, also cites Koppel's "long shadow. What one does following Ted was a complicated issue. . . . Was there an audience for the show without Ted?"
Goldston says he is proud of the subjects tackled by the anchors and correspondents Chris Bury, John Donvan and Vicki Mabrey. "The expectation was very clearly that this was going to be a show that wouldn't be substantive. We've proved those people wrong."
He points to Moran's reporting from Iraq and half-hour interview with Vice President Cheney, McFadden's one-hour special with mothers of fallen soldiers, Donvan's four-part series on a neonatal unit, and investigative reporter Brian Ross's debriefing of a former National Security Agency staffer who objected to the administration's warrantless eavesdropping.
Goldston also boasts about the program's features, such as Bashir's profile of Oscar nominee Terrence Howard and McFadden's discussion with Angelina Jolie about working with impoverished children.
"People said the old 'Nightline' never would have done Angelina Jolie," McFadden says, but ABC's George Stephanopoulos interviewed her on the program a year ago, "and did it twice as long!"