News Articles

'Nightline' a Go Go

3/13/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern

I may have seen the future of network news, and it includes an ersatz
smoky-nightclub set complete with a live jazz quintet, two thirtysomething
co-hosts and a comedian. All those elements were part of a super-secret pilot
that ABC News shot as a potential candidate to replace the venerable and
increasingly vulnerable Nightline. The
project even has a logo: “ABC x 2” (read ABC Times Square).

On March 10, ironically the evening after Dan Rather signed off with a
final “courage,” I found myself in Times Square peering into
Good Morning America's storefront studio
that seemed to have had a makeover. Inside, the studio looked like a T.G.I.F.
version of a happening after-hours joint. About 60 people sat around
lounge-size tables sipping drinks, while a smoke machine help create that
special after-hours ambiance. Outside on the street, a crowd of about 35 people
could hear the smooth-jazz group hit its groove.

Later, the news-bistro crowd would meet their hosts. One was to be John
Berman, who had done able work as an embed in Iraq for ABC News. The other was
Jessica Yellin, a recently minted White House correspondent. The plan was for
the two to introduce some taped pieces, among other things—and engage in some
back-and-forth banter. Out on Broadway, we were told, eventually the crowd
inside would see a standup comic doing a Daily
Show
kind of shtick.

About a month ago, word surfaced in the Long Island, N.Y., daily
Newsday that the brass at ABC had asked
Nightline to consider expanding to an hour,
as well as putting out the call to various divisions, including ESPN, to come
up with concepts for an entirely new hour show. The network's commitment to
Nightline has been suspect for years.
Remember, back in 2002, ABC tried to land Letterman to bump out Koppel and
company.

In addition, there is talk about two ABC News stars switching gigs, with
George Stephanopoulos taking the helm of Nightline, perhaps from the Times Square studio, and
Koppel taking over the Sunday chatfest This
Week.
Given that Koppel is making millions to work only half-time on
Nightline, and This
Week
is an also-ran among the weekend politico shows, it made some
sense that these conversations were under way. After all, no matter how
prestigious a news vehicle, Nightline
delivers about 3.8 million viewers a night, less than Tonight Show With Jay Leno's 5.8 million and
Late Show With David Letterman's 4.6
million.

On the heels of that news, there were reports that ABC News shot a pilot
featuring Good Morning America weekend
co-host Bill Weir and veteran political commentator Jake Tapper. The tone of
the project was described as “freewheeling” and more likely to delve into
the seamy side of news, like Michael Jackson's child-molestation trial—the
kind of tabloid fodder Nightline generally
ignores.

“What we're being told is that the network is workshopping a lot of
concepts,” says a source who was involved with the Weir/Tapper project. “It
seems the talent they're putting in place to do these shows are merely
placeholders.”

From what I hear, the folks at Nightline haven't given up yet. Koppel's keeping
quiet, but his longtime executive producer Tom Bettag recently told the
Associated Press that, as the show approaches its 25th anniversary, he and
Koppel were committed to doing everything they could to “make sure it will go
on for another 25 years.”

I hope so, but I'm not counting on it. The way the biz is going, you
may be getting your news through manufactured smoke set to the saccharine tones
of Kenny G.

E-mail comments to:
bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

 

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