Saturday, June 18, 2005

'Nightline' Newsies Can Relax

Source: Broadcasting and Cable Look for Nightline to get jazzed up over the coming weeks. But that doesn't mean a move to the ersatz smoky nightclub set, complete with jazz combo, that I wrote about a couple of months back when ABC was weighing replacement formats pending Ted Koppel's departure at year's end.

The network shot some pilots, toying with a top-to-bottom reinvention of the show that included changing its name, focus and base of operations, from Washington to New York.

But now the idea is to let Nightline keep its name and evolve over the next six months into what it will look like in the post-Koppel era. Last Friday's edition, for example, at press time was scheduled to have Bob Woodruff anchor a show with different stories built around a Father's Day theme. Other Nightline newscasts throughout the summer are likely to trade the show's traditional single-topic format for a multi-topic structure. Nightline won't abandon its news and public- affairs roots, but look for the show to retain the live format that helped make its reputation, as well as sprinkle in more human-interest and pop-culture fare.

In addition to Woodruff, a number of ABC News stalwarts, including George Stephanopoulos, Terry Moran, Chris Bury, John Donvan and Jake Tapper have surfaced as part of a rotating anchor cast. One idea being bandied about is to do away with the traditional anchor format altogether and go with something more akin to 60 Minutes, where a cadre of high-profile correspondents each introduce their own pieces.

“We can't just move into a post-Koppel era by simply putting a new person in the anchor chair,” says Nightline executive producer Tom Bettag, who plans to go out the door with Koppel. “I was at CBS when we did that, going from Cronkite to Rather, and it can just be disastrous if you don't shape the show to fit who the talent is going to be.”

Bettag has told Nightline staffers that, for “the foreseeable future,” the show will continue to be done from Washington, although, within ABC News headquarters in New York, it's still an open question whether the show may eventually make Gotham its home. Either way, the noise from New York is that the days of Nightline's being a quasi-independent D.C. fiefdom are coming to a close. ABC News brass is intimately involved in all changes being made, and network higher-ups are keeping a watchful eye. Nobody is happy that Nightline's ratings have been in descent in recent years. About 3.6 million people on average watch Nightline, down from 3.9 million a year ago. That's significantly below the 5.8 million who watch Jay Leno or the 4.5 million who tune into David Letterman.

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