- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2011

ABC’s “Nightline” has crept into prime time this summer - or maybe it’s just getting creepy.

The late-night show’s summertime series, airing at 10 p.m. Wednesdays, will cover topics such as satanic possession, religious miracles, psychics and out-of-body experiences.

Later in the summer, the “Nightline” hour-long reports will touch on how the entertainment industry creates child stars and real-life “modern family” tales that include mail-order brides.

“Nightline” is in the midst of a strong stretch as a traditional newsmagazine in its 11:35 p.m. time slot weekdays. Its average of 4.1 million viewers this year is 10 percent over 2010, the Nielsen Co. said. Its typical audience each night is bigger than Jay Leno’s or David Letterman’s, although Mr. Leno leads during the time the three shows compete directly (“Nightline” lasts 30 minutes, the two comedy shows are an hour). After the first half-hour, Mr. Leno’s audience drops, lowering the overall average for his show below “Nightline.”

Success earned the “Nightline” team a prime-time shot. Executive producer Jeanmarie Condon said the goal is to gain more exposure for the brand, possibly leading more people to watch the show regularly.

“When people see what we’re doing, they’re going to like it,” she said.

The “Nightline” ethos Miss Condon promotes is to tell stories in a narrative form, in a conversational style. “We really are like the friend in your group who tells the best stories at a dinner party,” she said.

The prime-time “Nightline” hearkens back to the show’s roots in the Ted Koppel days, with each hour at 10 p.m. Wednesdays tackling a single topic.

“We set out to make them like that great beach read - that big, fat book you take to the beach where you know it will be a page-turner but at the end you feel like you’ve learned something,” Miss Condon said.

Starting Wednesday, “Nightline” will begin a five-part series titled “Beyond Belief,” an exploration of topics that defy easy scientific explanation. Bill Weir travels the world to investigate episodes where people claim to have seen and communicated with the Virgin Mary, while Terry Moran looks at a belief that satanic will or demonic possession can cause people to commit acts of evil.

Juju Chang will report on whether some twins have a psychic connection with one another. She speaks to a twin who claims he could feel it when his late twin’s spirit left his body.

ABC’s Bob Woodruff looks at a deeply personal topic: His own out-of-body experience following the bomb explosion that almost killed him in Iraq in January 2006. He suffered a severe brain injury, and one of the few things he remembers about the immediate aftermath was the sensation of floating in the air and looking down on his injured body.

He talks to people who have had similar near-death experiences as well as scientists to see if there’s any explanation for it. He still doesn’t know how to explain it himself.

“I’ve talked about it with so many of my friends and not only are they curious about it, it’s in some ways very interesting to think about,” he said. “It’s not often you get to have a significant amount of time to look into the explanation for what it is.”

His report is tentatively set for late July.

The “Beyond Belief” stories, at the intersection of science and spirituality, are the kind that many journalists look upon with skepticism, but they are topics that a lot of people think and talk about, and don’t often get looked at with any kind of journalistic rigor, Miss Condon said.

She has experience with skeptics. Miss Condon produced documentaries for Peter Jennings on “The Search for Jesus” and the early days of Christianity. Many of her ABC News colleagues wondered why they were being done - until network executives were stunned with unexpectedly high ratings.

“That’s the formula -going out and asking the kinds of questions that a journalist would ask, but on a topic most journalists wouldn’t touch,” she said.

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