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Ted Koppel hasn’t anchored ABC’s “Nightline” since 2005. Yet he’s had a new influence on the late-night news program since last week.
“Nightline” has, at least for now, returned to the format that brought it critical renown and TV fame. Since last Monday, the show has spent its regular late-night half hour delving into the world’s coronavirus crisis. And, starting tomorrow night, it will for a time return to its original perch, airing right after late local news, just like Koppel did. Repeats of late-night mainstay “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will start after midnight.
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“We are just leaning more heavily into our roots,” says Byron Pitts, who co-anchors the program with Juju Chang.
On one recent night’s broadcast, ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman offered viewers a you-are-there look at his efforts to get out of Italy before the country was locked down, then checked himself in to an Airbnb to recover. The show has also brought viewers on the ground in New Rochelle, NY, an epicenter of that state’s outbreak. At the end of each recent evening, Jennifer Ashton, ABC News’ chief medical correspondent, has taken viewer questions collected via Twitter.
The “Nightline” pivot, in place since last Monday’s broadcast, is likely to be just one of a number of programming changes made across the nation’s news outlets. The Trump news cycle, filled with blunders and scandals, drew people in like a car wreck on the highway. But the coronavirus crush may turn into a chronicle of a changed way of life across the globe and carries with it a very real threat of death.
CNN has already aired two town halls on the subject, anchored by two mainstays, Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who have been on the network for years before the Trump era started. CBS News has had to temporarily leave its New York headquarters after a handful of employees have tested positive for the virus. Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network have made some big changes, scrapping the large part of the Fox Business primetime schedule to devote behind-the-scenes resources to coronavirus coverage On Friday, Fox News went so far as to pre-empt Laura Ingraham’s regular 10 p.m. hour for a news show led by Bill Hemmer.
“My hope is that the world doesn’t see this get worse, but we are committing to this for as long as it feels like this global crisis is ongoing,” says Steve Baker, the executive producer of “Nightline,” in an interview.
The changes have lent the show quick momentum. Executives estimate last week’s five-day run of “Nightline” put up the program’s strongest viewership in nine months.
“Nightline” rose out of a series of late-night reports Koppel began to deliver during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980. Within months, the show became an official part of the ABC schedule and was known for its deep dives into a single topic over the course of 30 minutes. Since his departure in 2005, “Nightline” has powered through changes in its anchor roster as well as being pushed back to air after midnight to make room for Kimmel, who ABC determined last decade would bring the network more advertising dollars if his show started before midnight. None of that has kept producers from trying to deliver a nightly newsmagazine that can, over the course of three segments, offer anything from an immersive report from a South American rainforest to an exclusive interview with a pop music singer.
“Nightline” had more of that ready to go last week, before he coronavirus crisis gripped the nation. After ABC aired a coronavirus-focused “20/20” on March 6, however, news division president James Goldston asked Baker to start covering the outbreak exclusively.
“Being able to answer the viewers’ questions, it’s such a critical part of what we do, giving information to our audience,” says Baker. Producers put aside a stack of developing pieces about the border and politics to focus on the story at hand. And to make sure the show stays on the air with a familiar face each night at a time when anyone might catch the illness, Pitts and Chang agreed to work a schedule so that only one of them is in ABC News’ New York headquarters at any given time.
“We are going to get to those stories in a few weeks,” says Baker. “We will see what still has legs.”
The “Nightline” of 2020 bears little resemblance to the one of Koppel’s day. Koppel introduced the show with opening music that emulated the blare of trumpets and often held intense one-on-one interviews with everyone from Yasser Arafat to Madonna. The modern show tries to get viewers out of the studio, so to speak, with stories told from the perspective of someone who is on the ground. In recent days, a half-hour of the program can take the audience from the U.S. east coast to Europe with a few deft splices from the edit room. “Nightline” now has a female announcer and graphics that emulate the time of day at which it appears.
“Narrative and storytelling are part of who we are, and so we still make an effort to give the facts, but also show that people are still connected,” says Pitts, who believes that in times of crisis, broadcast TV “sort of becomes the nation’s chapel.” Viewers of the show can “hear the latest information and get the facts and get context” before heading to sleep.
Last week, Pitts ended the broadcast by telling viewers that the show was “born in response to a crisis, giving facts, context and, when possible, comfort as our nation dealt with the Iran hostages. Forty years later the Coronavirus is our new challenge. Now, like then, facts, context and, when possible, comfort will be our goal every night.”
“Nightline” is approaching its 40th anniversary on air, but that hasn’t kept the current team from testing new ideas. In 2018, a “Nightline” documentary on the Parkland shooting tragedy was placed on Freeform, the sister cable network operated by Disney. Producers have talked to Koppel about taking part in a celebration of the looming milestone and are hopeful he will participate in weeks to come.
In the meantime, “Nightline” will stay with its deep-dive format for at least a little while longer. Right now, he adds, “we are committed to coverage of coronavirus. It’s all hands on deck.”
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