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Requiem for a Heavyweight

We don’t know what the new Nightline will become, but it is clear that the Nightline we’ve known and loved on ABC is morphing into something else.

The news that the show would “sort of” move to New York wasn’t shocking, but it was an announcement that hurt no less for being anticipated. The handwriting has been on the wall so long that the news value of the move has almost faded away.

For some time now, we’ve known that Ted Koppel will leave the show Nov. 22, though he is irreplaceable. He might have stayed a little longer if ABC hadn’t courted David Letterman in 2002 to bring his talk show over from CBS.

Koppel took the hint and prepared to leave. According to some reports, he and executive producer Tom Bettag may take their talents to HBO, where Koppel will host periodic specials.

Those should be good programs, but on an immediate basis, the changes at Nightline could be a net loss for journalism. The program put the news of the day in context or advanced it, thanks to one of the best interviewers in the history of television. (The show too often suffered because of Koppel’s frequent absences.)

Yes, news is everywhere today, which is different from when the show debuted 25 years ago. But there is still a need, perhaps now even more so, for a recap and a thoughtful take on the day’s biggest stories.

Koppel is being replaced by a multi-anchor format. The new program may end up softer, more New York/more L.A. According to one source, the program probably will not open with topical news unless the story is a “grabber,” and Hollywood stories may get played up to boost low West Coast numbers.

Maybe that’s giving the people what they want, but Nightline had been giving them more than that.

The Koppel Nightline was, in that Washington way, wonkish. There’s very little of that on commercial television these days, outside of Sunday mornings. But it seems to us that there is something valuable about a television news show that mostly strives to be measured for its importance and its information, not for its breezy, fast pace.

Something will be lost if Nightline becomes “Entertainment Tonightline” in an effort to chase the demos of Dave and Jay and Jon. The Nightline heartbeat has been Washington, where Koppel, as our surrogate, put kings and commoners through the ringer, if that’s where they needed to go, and showed us what came out in the wash.

We’ll miss Nightline when Koppel’s gone and the show moves its headquarters from somber Washington to go-go Times Square. The new program, we bet, will be more glittery. But it may be hard for it to shine in quite the same way. We hope ABC proves us wrong.