Nightline and the Future of ABC News

nightlineanchors.jpgYesterday ABC News’ Jake Tapper wrote about the announcement of Nightline’s trio of hosts by saying, “one of the great ABC News shoes has dropped.” The network’s news division has been adrift for much of the last few months as it wrestles with the disappearance of its two great leaders: Peter Jennings, who died in August, and Ted Koppel, who will retire next month after a quarter century heading Nightline.

In a certain way the appointment of the new Nightline team and their eventual vision means more to ABC than the new host of its flagship World News Tonight. Nightline has always been the shining jewel in the news department’s crown: It’s the show that no other network does. It’s one of the last places on broadcast where one can get thoughtful debate and in-depth reporting on issues of the day-and, perhaps most importantly to the show’s persona, overlooked and ignored issues that should be on the front-burner.

The eventual appointment of someone like Elizabeth Vargas and/or Bob Woodruff to head World News Tonight will not likely herald a seismic shift in the show. In fact, it’s telling that the show’s ratings have not suffered this year when viewers didn’t really knew who would be hosting from night-to-night. The evening news will change over time, but it’s not going away anytime soon.

There’s something much more fundamental at stake with Nightline, the show that ABC staffers point to with pride as evidence of their network’s commitment to serious journalism. The show’s death has been prematurely written more times than Mark Twain‘s. For now, though, it’s still here. But virtually no one is betting on its long-term prospects. If its future was a tradable commodity, even the staff would be shorting Nightline at this point–and yesterday’s announcement would have done little to ease the urge to sell.

In that vein, rumors of mass lay-offs at Nightline have been vastly exaggerated. A much larger question is whether the staff who have worked alongside Ted Koppel, Tom Bettag, and Leroy Sievers for so many years will want to stay under the new administration. The question on everyone’s mind yesterday was: “Is this the end of serious news on Nightline?” It’s never a good start when one of the nation’s leading media columnists describes one of the new hosts as “oily, obsequious…[and] creepy.”

ABC has always been a bit untraditional in some of its news department decisions. Some have been embarrassing failures (think Leo interviewing President Clinton) and some others have been more successful. The selection of George Stephanopoulos as host of Sunday morning’s This Week was initially considered a journalistic travesty, but Stephanopoulos is slowly building a Sunday show that’s fresh and offers a voice distinct from the other talk-fests.

Given that history, we won’t initially damn the selection of Bashir/McFadden/Moran to host Nightline. The onus, though, is on ABC to say to its loyal viewers and its staffers that it is still serious about news.

Let’s hope that new Executive Producer James Goldston lives up to his billing that the show will be “all about context and bringing light where there is otherwise heat.”

For now, this announcement raises a lot more questions than it answers, and it doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouth.