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New-look 'Nightline' is a work in progress

The producers of the newfangled ''Nightline" were aching for a way to update the old look, and what they seem to have settled on is motion.

The lights of Times Square blink dizzyingly behind Cynthia McFadden's head. The graphics dip and swing. Terry Moran succumbs to the current TV news fad, walking toward the camera during standups -- a handheld camera, mind you, that doesn't stop jittering.

It's all meant to convey modernity, excitement, live TV. It's the visual equivalent of trying. Hard. As are we, the viewers.

It has been impossible, after all, to watch ''Nightline" this week without thinking of Ted Koppel's final exhortation to his fans: Give these folks a chance, or the network will drop the show. We ought to want the new crew to succeed.

So here goes: The best thing to be said about this nouveau ''Nightline" is that it's substantive -- no minor achievement, given the state of network news. The first few episodes, at least, have managed to tread free of celebrity fluff and overblown true crime. The subjects have largely been serious: Iraq, the Catholic Church, the abortion debate.

The trouble is, substance and depth are not the same thing. And what's missing most from the new ''Nightline" is the thing that's most irreplaceable: a familiar voice that can be trusted implicitly. Even when he wasn't there -- in his final years, he had reduced his involvement to a few nights a week -- Koppel's mere involvement lent a trustworthiness to the enterprise. This group needs to earn our trust.

So far, they've been spotty on the gravitas front. McFadden has yet to master the Koppelesque art of managing difficult guests. Martin Bashir's reports are so self-referential -- ''The race to complete a face transplant is something I've been covering for the last year" -- that you half expect him to dredge up clips from his famous Michael Jackson interview.

Moran has been busy on the ground in Iraq, but some of his reports have fallen into a familar news business trap, mistaking access for revelation. His day-in-the-life story about US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, billed as ''exclusive and important," was basically a one-source puff piece. (Moran did score some points with Wednesday's skeptical interview with Iraqi politician and onetime US government darling Ahmed Chalabi. Citing Chalabi's campaign slogan -- ''We Liberated Iraq, Let Us Build It Together" -- Moran snapped, ''We liberated Iraq? You and what army?")

It's a start, and again, we should be patient. New talent must be groomed, and new chemistry needs time to develop. But it's hard not to wonder if ABC will let it all unfold; it's harder to identify a serious, breakthrough talent than it is to tinker with sets, graphics, and formats.

In truth, ABC has a good chance to build something here; ratings are already up from a year ago. (One wonders if these are new viewers or on-again, off-again old ones, trying to take Koppel's advice to heart.)

To stick around, viewers will need a broadcast that offers something substantially different from cable-channel chit-chat and newsmagazine puffery. There is some small reason for hope. All in all, this new enterprise is far more respectable than, say, Diane Sawyer walking the African beaches with Brad Pitt. And at least there's no news ticker. Yet.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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