They say "Goodnight, America" now at the end of "Nightline." All three of the new anchors say it -- Cynthia McFadden, Terry Moran, Martin Bashir -- they trade off. They also sometimes say: "Jimmy Kimmel is next."
It is a symbolic if small shift in the post-Ted Koppel broadcast. Koppel, a guardian of the firewall between the news and entertainment divisions at his former network ABC, wouldn't tease to Kimmel, just as he didn't tease to "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" in the years that Maher's more compatible series followed "Nightline."
After 25 years, Koppel signed off his last broadcast, Nov. 23, saying to viewers, "You've always been very nice to me, so give this new anchor team at 'Nightline' a fair break. If you don't, the network will just put another comedy in this time slot. And then you'll be sorry."
Is two weeks a fair break? "Nightline," a slicker-looking news package piloted from Times Square in New York, isn't some end-of-the-world devolution from Koppel. But it's just a respectable if slightly overheated newsmagazine now, well produced, with good bookings.
They cover two or three or four stories where Koppel would burrow into one. The result is faster and less substantive, lacking a voice. It opts for movement from hard news into features, the involving story about female soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder gliding into the sit-down with George Clooney about his film "Syriana," McFadden asking the movie star teasingly: "Is George Clooney trying to save the world?"
It turned out he isn't.
Two weeks ago, accompanying "Nightline's" new debut, the show dispatched Moran to Baghdad to file a week of segments on whether the U.S. should stay in Iraq or pull its troops. But it did this without also delving into the renewed political heat this question has on Capitol Hill. Moran, meanwhile, did a day-in-the-life piece on U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, went on a hunt for insurgents with U.S. troops and Iraqi police in Baqubah -- a policeman in a lead vehicle was killed by a roadside explosive device -- and held a "town-hall" meeting in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad.
It was serviceable -- feature stories with raw feeds, at times slightly oversold (a "historic TV gathering," "Nightline" trumpeted the town-hall meeting).
Friday night, McFadden moderated an hour with Ohio mothers of fallen soldiers. But it's hard to imagine this show reading off the names of the war dead in Iraq, as Koppel did last year, prompting the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group to pull the episode from affiliates.
"Nightline" was his show, its gestures his gestures; now, you sense, it's been returned to the network, as the departures of Jennings-Brokaw-Rather have left nightly news in a place of youth-driven flux, no longer shepherded by history-tested stewards of the public trust.
The reason to watch "Nightline," even if you could go away from it for a day or two -- or 20 -- was to see an old hand like Koppel fix his gaze on a political topic and root out the subtext, not letting his guest off the hook. No guest is on the new "Nightline" long enough to move much beyond a talking-points memo. "Will troops be in Iraq a year from now?" McFadden asked Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he estimated they would be, she asked, "Two years from now? Five years from now?"
He didn't want to guess, and you wondered who these questions were for, the anchor or the audience? Within the last few days, the story mix bounced from reports of CIA-run prisons for terror suspects in Eastern Europe, to the U.S. soldier who kept secret from his wife the valor that earned him a silver star, to the last day of freedom for Victor Conte, who was convicted of giving illegal steroids to top athletes as head of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative.
Bashir handled that story; he'd already interviewed Conte previously, on "20/20." Now his segment was dubbed, Geraldo style, "one man's journey from success to the slammer." "I don't think I've ever seen you without your Rolex," Bashir said to Conte as he prepared to drive to prison.
Bashir, it seems, will handle such intimacies with controversial folks. He is, after all, the outsider who famously found a way to earn Michael Jackson's trust in Neverland. But "Nightline" would do well to keep the acronym "WWTD" displayed prominently somewhere: "What would Ted do?"
The loss of Koppel is the loss of a filter, a star, in a time of wider transition following the departures of Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. ABC gave "World News Tonight" to the more telegenic Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff after it was thought the "Good Morning, America's" Charles Gibson was the front-runner, while rumors are swirling that Katie Couric will take over the "CBS Evening News." None of these are ascendancies, they're casting choices in an industry that finds itself now having to move beyond the shadows of departed giants.