'Nightline' Newsies Can Relax

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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.

In recent months, ABC News President David Westin has repeatedly stated his commitment to the Nightline franchise in the post-Koppel era. No doubt, but back in 2002, Westin's corporate bosses were willing to dump Nightline and made a serious but ultimately unsuccessful run at Letterman. The Late Show host ultimately decided to stay at CBS and let it be known that he didn't want to be seen as the guy who knocked Ted Koppel out of his job. “Today, even with Koppel going, it looks like Nightline is safe,” says a veteran ABC News executive. “But we're really powerless if Jon Stewart becomes available and the guys in L.A. decide to make a secret run at him.”

Stewart is tied to Comedy Central through the 2008 presidential election, so Nightline newsies can relax—but not too much. Letterman is basically tethered to CBS until 2007. By that time, Dave certainly wouldn't be known as the guy who put Ted Koppel out of work.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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