Monday, November 28, 2005

Nightline - how far have we fallen?

I've been sort of interested in all the huzzah's being directed at Ted Koppel and Nightline the last couple of weeks, but I recall that back at the time, the opinions were more circumspect. For perspective, here's Tom Shales of WaPo reviewing the first episode of the program renamed 'Nightline' on day 142 of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

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Late-Night Newsohol on ABC's Diluted Report
by Tom Shales
The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 26, 1980


No less a world figure -- and no more -- than the Iranian charge d'affaires, Ali Agah, took note of the fact that Day 142 of the Iranian crisis saw an end to the ABC News broadcast hysterically, titled "America Held Hostage" and a beginning for a new Monday-through-Thursday late report called "ABC News Nightline."

The new program is the first regularly scheduled and permanent (in the transitory TV sense of the world) late-night network news report, but to judge from the Monday premiere, it is not likely to see America Held Spellbound.

Ali Agah found some encouragement in the change of title for the show. Could it be we have turned yet another corner in what has become a ridiculous maze? Probably not, though network news reports have had the crisis turning about one corner a week.

As for the program, it represents at best a great leap sideways and at worst a pratfall backwards for network news. The premiere did not provide viewers with anything worth knowing.

Worse, it was highlighted by a contrived confrontation between Agah and Dorothea Morefield, wife of an American hostage. When anchor Ted Koppel announced that "for the first time" on live TV such a clash would occur, he sounded like a host of one of the old heart-tug and humiliation TV shows of the '50s -- the "Strike It Rich" and "This Is Your Life" sort of thing.

The gimmick was cheaply theatrical, hokey, mawkish and self-promotional. It was preceded by a soap operatic taped report on the Morefield family of San Diego; cameras even glimpsed them watching a previous ABC News report on the crisis.

Then Koppel said, "Well, Mrs. Morefield, we'll give you the opportunity to speak to an Iranian official in a moment." But first a word from the sponsors. All they needed was a wheel of fortune and cash prizes to come up with the first news game show in TV.

It wasn't news, of course; it was the new news, neo-news, non-news, a sugary news substitute. Newsohol. In fact the program was produced like an entertainment show, starting with its dizzy, busy, outer-spaced motif at the outset -- a virtual duplicate of the outer-space motif used on the late-night "Wide World of Entertainment" shows.

Because the pointless Agah-Morefield split-screen spat ran long, a report on the Ted Kennedy Candidacy was eliminated. "Live television" was to blame, Koppel said, through there's no law that says the broadcast couldn't have run overtime and delayed the "Barney Miller" rerun by a few minutes. Who would have minded? It would simply have been a little less situation comedy and a little more of Roone Arledge's situation news.

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