'Nightline' sees post-Koppel changes

New and old weigh in on the shifts in structure, content

NEW YORK -- "Nightline" in its current form is the brainchild of James Goldston, an accomplished TV producer in his native Britain who was brought across the Atlantic for the task of renewing the brand.

"Nightline," since its early days, had been known for a solid brand of TV journalism that encompassed world leaders and Miss Piggy, stories about AIDs and the travails of Tammy Faye Baker, whose interview gave the show one of its biggest ratings.

It was a daunting task.

"After you lose Ted, it's hard to maintain a program," acknowledged ABC News president David Westin.

It was Goldston who insisted that the show be live, to bring back an energy that "Nightline" had been missing and to capitalize on breaking news. Goldston also conceived of a multi-story, nightly magazine show unlike anything that had been seen. It was as far from the original "Nightline" as could be in structure, and different from what most magazine shows do now.

"They've gone the other way. They're not live and they're single topic and single themed," said Goldston. "It leaves a big wide area for us to operate in. There really isn't anyone on television that does what we do."

Instead of replacing Koppel with one anchor, Goldston picked three: Cynthia McFadden and Martin Bashir in New York, and Terry Moran in Washington. There's one anchor every night, while the other two are on the road working on stories.

"Nightline" still embraces a wide range of topics, from looking at the crisis in Rwanda and bringing viewers behind the scenes with John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to interviews with Cher, Madonna and Robert Redford.

"The beauty of 'Nightline' is the variety of what we get to do," McFadden said.

And if there's a decided emphasis on doing things as creatively and as expensively as possible — McFadden recently went to Rwanda with only a cameraman — there's also the determination to do what it takes to get the story right.

Correspondent Dan Harris' story, which aired earlier this month, shows the lengths to which the new crew is dedicated. Harris and his producer, David Scott, spent six months working on a story showing how tragically easy it was to buy a child in Haiti.

"How to Buy a Child in 10 Hours" was a stunning piece of journalism. And, said Bashir, it¹s another example of how the new "Nightline" is respecting the former show¹s traditions.

"Nobody can suggest that this show is dumbed down and not serious journalism," Bashir said. "These are the types of stories that 'Nightline' has always done."

Goldston said that he's tried to keep hold of the "Nightline" fundamental spirit.

"There's an ambition on the show, a journalistic ambition and a creative ambition," Goldston said. "The show is a good watch every day. It's very rarely uninteresting to watch. It's always telling you something you didn't know before, always doing stories that other people aren't doing, and it¹s always telling these stories in a way that other people aren't."

For his part, Koppel acknowledges that he doesn¹t watch the program regularly as he's not up at 11:35 p.m. much anymore. But he's liked much of what he's seen, and thinks the new regime has done what it had to do to improve ratings.

"There are some very good things that they do and other things that I find are a little too glitzy, but that's a question of taste," Koppel said. "If they've been able to hold onto a reasonable audience doing that, why not? I always used to say when I was doing the show, there's no subject that we cannot do, there is no subject that we should not do. I think it's a question how you do it sometimes."

Boston University professor Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent whose worked appeared on the show in the past, said "Nightline" 2.0 has worked well. He said that its second life has vindicated Roone Arledge¹s "Nightline" innovation.

"There is a potential news audience at 11:30 p.m. at night, people who are so anxious to get public affairs programs that they don't watch Jay Leno or in those days Johnny Carson," Zelnick said. "If you put on something that's reasonably attractive, you're not going to necessarily win the time slot but you're going to do OK.²