‘Nightline’ topics hit dimmer switch

“A BRIGHTER TAKE on the day” say the ABC News promos, but enough time has elapsed since Ted Koppel’s departure to conclude that “Nightline” — once broadcast news’ shining beacon — has actually hit the dimmer switch.

Two years after the Koppel-fronted “Nightline” raised Republican hackles with its sober recitation of names honoring the then-700-plus Iraq war dead, the ABC News program has devolved into one of the net’s primetime newsmags — just sliced in half time-wise, as in “20” or “Prime.”

The latenight program’s latest Memorial Day broadcast seemed a logical time to take inventory on what the franchise has become under tri-anchors Terry Moran, Cynthia McFadden and Martin Bashir, and, in a larger sense, what that reveals about TV news.

Divided into a trio of stories as opposed to Koppel’s single-topic approach, the new “Nightline” betrays the demographic tyranny that has beset the news business in general — pressured to provide lighter, more culture-oriented coverage that feels particularly incongruous given the program’s prestigious history.

In the worst example, correspondent Jessica Yellin delivered a recent “Sign of the times” piece maintaining that President Bush’s sagging approval ratings have emboldened celebrities “to feel new freedom to kick him around” — utter nonsense, as anybody who pays attention to talkradio, People magazine or the Drudge Report can testify. If outspoken music and movie stars have been consistent about anything, it’s a devotion to progressive social causes and antipathy toward the current administration.

Driving the inanity home, McFadden finished off the report by musing, “Nothing like bad poll numbers to bring out the critics.”

In the same dumbing-down dept., almost every segment now seems to be part of an ongoing series. A profile of Lewis Black aired under the heading “Seriously Funny,” though even the comic questioned “Nightline’s” misguided priorities, telling a concert audience, “They’re following me around because, apparently, there is no more news.”

The slap clearly eluded Moran, a holdover from the old “Nightline” who has become a parody of the sensitive anchor — adhering to the “Tommy” school of journalism, as in, “See me, feel me.” Toward that end, he closed a grim Memorial Day piece about an army “Polytrauma unit” designed to treat horrible maimed soldiers by unnecessarily adding with cloying sincerity, “And we wish Sgt. Jones, and all the wounded, all the best.”

Then again, at least that evening “Nightline” tackled and stuck with the day’s biggest story. By contrast, the multi-topic approach frequently causes the series to undermine its better work by insisting on cute cappers to tuck the audience into bed.

Consider John Donvan’s poignant look last week at an autistic man ill equipped to deal with romance. What followed, however, undermined the show’s “Sharper. Smarter. Brighter” slogan, offering an arched-eyebrow take on the bidding war for pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s baby — one of those reports that cynically cashes in on celebrity fluff while simultaneously creating the illusion of standing above it.

Another recent piece (under the recurring “Faith Matters” theme) dealt with college kids who choose to abstain from sex — the hook being that they attend Biola U., a Bible college in Southern California, where everyone is promiscuous and hangs on the beach, as viewers of “The OC” know.

And what of “The Fallen,” the Iraq war tribute that caused such a stir in 2004? Moran said “Nightline” was again recognizing those slain, before directing viewers to ABC News’ Web site for the list. While the roster has roughly tripled since Koppel first read the names, punting to the Internet hardly qualifies as “continuing in a tradition” established under the old guard.

Koppel readily acknowledged that “Nightline” wasn’t above engaging in a little commerce to “pay the bills” — covering the O.J. Simpson trial or other ratings-friendly topics to justify more substantial reporting. That was the tradeoff required to carve out a latenight haven devoted to news, as opposed to the comedy stylings of Jimmy Kimmel.

Recognizing those dynamics, Koppel entreated viewers in his farewell last November to give the next generation a chance, saying, “If you don’t, the network will just put another comedy in this timeslot. And then you’ll be sorry.” Ratings have stayed solid enough to keep the show afloat for now, anyway.

Yet the choice for committed news viewers is sadly representative of one they now regularly face — namely, between a bastardized “Nightline” and none at all.

Well, with apologies to Ted, dim the lights and send in the clowns.

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