Latenight’s Third Option: Is ‘Nightline’ Worth Saving?

With so much attention focused on NBC and CBS — and the former prematurely proclaiming Conan O’Brien “the new king of late night” based on one week, which is sure to piss off David Letterman — the folks at ABC’s “Nightline” have been clamoring not to be forgotten in discussions of the latenight ratings race.

I’m happy to oblige, but perhaps not in the way they intended.

Surveying the show, I increasingly find the once-laudable notion of a latenight news alternative to be evaporating as the ABC News program stirs up a cocktail that’s invariably about two parts fluff to every shot of hard news.

During the current week, “Nightline” delivered a breathless piece about Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey” and a hard-hitting (heh heh) examination of “sexual addiction” with Martin Bashir in the anchor seat. Surely it was happenstance that the latter aired the same night that ABC broadcast the NBA Finals, feeding a large number of men into its latenight block. (In Los Angeles, KCAL-TV often runs what’s derisively nicknamed the “sex news” following Lakers games, full of strippers and such, pandering to the male audience.)

On Wednesday, with Terry Moran at the helm, “Nightline” opened with the Holocaust Museum shooting but gave the troubling story short shrift in order to do a feel-good piece about a children’s choir. In similar fashion, instead of discussing the brewing battle over health-care reform on Thursday, the show led with a soft piece about calorie-counting at restaurants, followed by a South American animal preserve. Nice scenery, but little substance.

Although I can understand departing from the single-topic approach associated with Ted Koppel’s storied run — attention spans being what they are these days — “Nightline” proves consistently irritating in its habit of short-changing major stories in order to make time for soft lifestyle or celeb-faux-tainment segments. On slow news days, that’s fine. But when something truly major happens, do we really need the piece on the “word nerd” (as they quaintly dubbed him) who calculates how many words there are?

In short, the hand-wringing that once greeted the prospect of ABC bumping “Nightline” in favor of talk/comedy no longer seems quite so dire. The reason critics felt compelled to fight for the program when ABC pursued Letterman a few years ago was not to preserve latenight news per se but a true hard-news show — an increasingly rare commodity. The current incarnation simply doesn’t rise to that description often enough to merit such support.

To give “Nightline” its due, as ABC has noted, the ratings continue to be more than respectable. It’s just the show itself that’s a lot less respectable than the incarnation that began as “America Held Hostage.” I just spent the better part of a week watching the new “Nightline,” and for now, my own hostage ordeal is over.

Back to the funny guys.

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