Style overtakes substance in new `Nightline'




Nightline-without-Ted Koppel debuted in the wee hours Tuesday morning after ABC Monday Night Football and late local news. It was probably a good thing that many viewers had presumably already gone to bed.

It was a smooth launch with no major glitches or serious mistakes. Give James Goldston, the new executive producer, credit for delivering a polished-looking production.

But there is polished, and there is excessively slick. In trying to energize the broadcast through the use of flashing lights, banks of video monitors, quick camera cuts and a backdrop of Times Square, Goldston has created a garish-looking TV creature more reminiscent of the carnival midway than the pioneering broadcast whose name it bears. A stylistic marriage of prime-time newsmagazines and MTV, this hyped-up, neon-lit news program seems like the last thing one would want to see before trying to fall asleep.

The irony is that Goldston and ABC News in some ways are trying hard to respect the program that Koppel and the late Roone Arledge built. Cynthia McFadden, who along with Martin Bashir and Terry Moran, serves as co-host of the new Nightline, opened by saying, "Tonight begins in a sense a new broadcast: Nightline without Ted Koppel. Ted's four decades at ABC News is an inspiration, and we pledge to do our best to build on the proud journalistic tradition of this program."

The first segment was a report by Moran from Iraq that was billed as answering the question: Should the U.S. stay or pull out? McFadden set it up by reminding viewers that the first story for the original Nightline in 1979 was from neighboring Iran.

The message: The new Nightline is just as committed to international stories as its predecessor. But despite repeated use of the words "live" and "exclusive" in connection with Moran's report, it offered little insight as to whether the U.S. should stay or leave. It was mostly a day in the life of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

The second major segment featured McFadden at the anchor desk - with Times Square ablaze behind her - interviewing two Roman Catholic priests about a Vatican ruling that homosexuals should not be ordained. The headline used to promote the debate during the broadcast - "True Confessions" - was in keeping with the superficial tone in which McFadden engaged the two.

The last segment - a report from Bashir on a high school football team of deaf students - was almost too gooey to bear. "Why do these kids keep winning," McFadden asked, "when none of them can hear the cheers?"

A new program can't be judged on just one segment. But by the time the broadcast concluded on what was supposed to be a whimsical mini-essay by McFadden about a piece of marble falling off the front of the Supreme Court, one thing was perfectly clear: The balance between substance and style at Nightline had been decisively - and sadly - reversed in the last week.

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