NEW YORK — Yes, Cynthia McFadden, Bill Weir and Terry Moran of ABC’s “Nightline” are still at work at ABC News, and this summer, even noninsomniacs can see them.
The “Nightline” team is behind “The Lookout,” a prime-time newsmagazine that has gotten off to a slow start on Wednesday nights. “The Lookout” is both a chance for the journalists to try something new and an olive branch by network bosses for evicting “Nightline” from a time slot it held for three decades.
At the same time, “Nightline” is changing its focus to respond to a shift that has it starting at 12:37 a.m. now.
“The Lookout” emphasizes consumer issues with a mix of investigative and trend stories, striving for a hip look that breaks down walls with viewers. Weir went to Switzerland to hunt an infomercial king that the U.S. is seeking to pay back customers he misled about a weight-loss product. In a McFadden report, a house with a mold problem was rigged with hidden cameras and contractors were brought in to estimate repair costs.
Jeanmarie Condon, executive producer for both “Nightline” and “The Lookout,” used to work on consumer-oriented programming on the former newsmagazine “Primetime Live.” She believes it’s an underserved area in network news.
“Nobody doesn’t care about getting good value for their money — rich, poor, young and old,” she said.
Weir’s quarry, Kevin Trudeau, complained about “ambush journalism” when the correspondent stopped him on a Zurich street. That doesn’t mean Weir turned into Mike Wallace.
For the story, Weir interviewed one of Trudeau’s disgruntled customers while driving around in a Bentley that Trudeau once leased. He carried a life-size cardboard cutout of Trudeau. When the infomercial king pleaded poverty, Weir pointed to his ring and a gleaming sparkle was added. The correspondent calls Trudeau one of the most outrageous liars he’s ever seen, using a profane term that’s partly bleeped out.
In an interview with a government official tracking the case, Weir offhandedly asks whether he has a gun, a question seemingly pulled from “The Daily Show” playbook.
Through most of the report, Weir has a bemused smile on his face.
“You can’t help but laugh at the audacity of his claims — both on infomercials and in court,” Weir said. “I told him on the street in Zurich that watching him sell and spin is like watching Ted Williams take batting practice. He is a unique case, but when appropriate, I’d like to use the same approach to go after bigger fish. Bringing the audience along on the chase helps liven up all these stories filled with boring documents.”
ABC is trying to tell the stories in a fresh way, McFadden said. Some graphics, like identifying people on the screen with written names and an arrow, seemed tailored to entice a younger audience to watch news programming that usually skews older.
“I don’t think we’re setting out to make the stories entertaining,” McFadden said. “You can get into a lot of trouble when you stop focusing on the journalism and start making it — quote — entertaining.”
The first airing of “The Lookout” attracted 4.1 million viewers, Nielsen said. That was lower than “60 Minutes,” two episodes of “Dateline NBC,” two episodes of “20/20,” even Brian Williams’ soon-to-exit “Rock Center.” CBS’ news series on the Brooklyn district attorney’s office competed directly and got a larger audience, but “The Lookout” did better among young people.
Unlike a series of prime-time specials that aired in the summer of 2011, the new series doesn’t carry the “Nightline” name. Condon said she thought it would be confusing to viewers.
“This isn’t ‘Nightline’ at 10 o’clock,” Condon said. “It’s not the same show with the same mix of stories that you would get at 12:30. It’s made by the same people and infused with the same sensibility, which we think is a good one.”
As expected, the changed time slot in January to make way for Jimmy Kimmel sharply cut the “Nightline” live audience as well as hurt morale. The show was averaging 3.9 million viewers each weeknight in its 11:35 p.m. time slot, and has been averaging 1.6 million viewers since.
In what might be galling or affirming to the news people, depending on their point of view, Kimmel isn’t doing as well as “Nightline” did.
Kimmel’s show averages 2.5 million people in its new time slot, Nielsen said. A more fair comparison is with the first half-hour of Kimmel — “Nightline” is a 30-minute show — but the 2.9 million average is still below what “Nightline” achieved in the earlier time slot.
“We believed that as long as we were winning, and under budget, we were safe,” Weir said. “So everyone learned to shoot (pictures) and edit, and our little band of true believers spilled blood, sweat and tears to win our slot and still tell as many meaningful stories as we could. But on a broadcast network, even runner-up comedy makes more money than first-place news.”
Weir said he understands that top ABC news executives Ben Sherwood and James Goldston fought hard to keep “Nightline” from being canceled altogether, “so we’ll keep grinding with everything we have. It sounds corny, but everyone here believes that a real democracy depends on real journalism and the ‘Nightline’ legacy is a precious thing worth fighting for.”
Forced to deal with the new situation, “Nightline” is adjusting its approach, Condon said. While the program devotes episodes to big, breaking stories like killer Oklahoma tornadoes or the Connecticut school shooting, it is otherwise cutting down on reporting day-to-day news stories.
Instead, “Nightline” has put more resources into enterprise pieces, the kind of stories that can more easily live outside of the context of the program itself, she said. Full episodes of the show are posted online; ABC didn’t have an immediate count of how many people watch “Nightline” segments this way or whether they watch later on DVRs.
“We kind of like the way we’ve been able to reshape the show at 12:30,” she said. “It’s given us more freedom.”
Stories from Greenland, the Philippines and the Congo, Dan Harris’ piece where he experienced time in solitary confinement, Diane Sawyer’s story about violence in Chicago and a series on guns in America are among the deeper dives to which Condon refers. McFadden mentioned stories she has worked on about the new face of the Ku Klux Klan and the availability of abortion services in Mississippi.
“When we look back on all of this we’re going to see this as a turning point for a whole new set of opportunities,” McFadden said. “I hope I’m right, but that’s what I believe.”