ABC News: We Should Have Gone Live With 'Nightline'

If a reputable news show were to air the polar opposite of fantastic live coverage of a massive world-wide breaking news story, it would probably feature things like taped pieces about a You Tube sensation and a b-level celeb like Kathy Griffin.

And much to my shock, while many networks and stations late Thursday night here in Los Angeles were airing the latest horrible news from Japan and first warnings of when Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast were going to expect the ripple effects, ABC’s Nightline had exactly that polar opposite scenario.

To call that disappointing would be a significant understatement.

But what was not disappointing – and fully to the credit of ABC News – is they candidly owned up to dropping the ball.

When I contacted the organization Friday morning to ask them to respond to my disappointment, an ABC News spokesman owned up.  He frankly explained that the story really heated up about 50 minutes after the Nightline staff had gone home. And while the news desk on duty was busy reporting out the story, they failed to contact the Nightline people to start the wheels in motion to go live on the west coast.

“Looking back on this, there should have been a live show on the west coast, “ acknowledged the spokesperson.

In my Los Angeles home last night just after 11:35, I was glued to the television (and Twitter and Web streams) watching the horrible events unfold in Japan. Realizing the time, I quickly flipped to ABC, knowing they have Nightline and eager to see how the broadcast network would be all over the story, as NBC and CBS had gone to their late night talk shows.

As a news junkie, I was excited to have Nightline, first called The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage when it was born in November of 1979 as a way to provide up to date coverage of the Iran hostage crisis.  I have written in the past about the need for ABC News to find a way to preserve the venerable brand, if not at 11:35 then via a primetime slot or specials (I said so here in 2008 when Jay Leno was potentially headed to ABC).

So while it has evolved into something much different and lighter, I still expected that the ABC News team would be ready with the latest from this horrific event. While the show often has segments that are much breezier on any given night, it has shown again recently with huge events domestically and abroad the ability to dive into important topics when they break.

But when I flipped to KABC here in Los Angeles, I saw a taped piece about some Justin Bieber-looking kid from You Tube. When I flipped back a bit later to see if they had broken in, there was a taped interview with comedian Kathy Griffin.

And no matter what the excuse, that’s embarrassing for Nightline as major news breaks.

At that exact time Thursday night, shocking pictures were rolling in from Japan, and the cable news networks were all over it, as were feeds from around the world like Al Jazeera, available either on television or the Internet.

Also at that time sirens were beginning to sound in Hawaii and estimates were beginning to come in as to when a Tsunami could hit both Hawaii and then eventually the Western states of the Continental United States. This was a story that could literally impact west coast viewers.

To their credit, several local Los Angeles stations were live with coverage, except for the three English-language broadcast networks (Fox does not air network programming at that time). There were plenty of angles relevant to Los Angeles residents, to be sure.

With Nightline, ABC News had a chance to put a stake in the ground in this story in a timeslot that was actually built on covering a massive worldwide story better than anyone else. But due to the organizational breakdown it failed to do so.

If Ben Sherwood is the guy to lead ABC News, I’m guessing he and his staff are working as we speak to install a new mechanism to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. And again, full marks to the organization for just owning up to the breakdown and saying they’ll do better next time instead of throwing out some lame excuse.

I will give Nightline another shot when major news breaks, but if the show wants to stay relevant, it better remember its roots, as viewers may not be as forgiving with so many other options.