Late night battle building at network

TV: ABC's pursuit of David Letterman ruffles Ted Koppel's feathers.

March 02, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

ABC's efforts to land late-night host David Letterman have cast a shadow over the fate of Nightline, Ted Koppel's highly regarded news program at the struggling network.

Staffers at ABC said that the news division, including ABC News President David Westin, first learned of the Letterman negotiations on Thursday night. Like Nightline, Letterman's current CBS show airs weeknights at 11:35. But senior ABC network executives have recently made it clear to Letterman they would be willing to shift or cancel the news program to accommodate him.

Several people at ABC News confirmed the network's eagerness yesterday to pursue Letterman, even at Nightline's expense. Koppel was said to have been infuriated and surprised by the news, first reported in The New York Times, and was flying back yesterday to meet with the show's staff, according to ABC News colleagues who spoke on condition they not be identified.

The nightly show was improvised in 1979 to chronicle the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis before the existence of cable news channels. Along with CBS' 60 Minutes and PBS' Frontline, it has set the bar for quality reporting in broadcast news. The apparent willingness of Disney-owned ABC to kill the program without consulting news executives shocked many of its current and former employees.

"It became this unique franchise, a cornerstone of ABC News for more than 20 years," said former Nightline senior producer David Bohrman, now executive producer of CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown. "I think the news division deserves the courtesy of knowing it's in the fight."

In the standard morning conference call with news staffers yesterday, Westin said the cancellation of Nightline would be "a very bad thing," but he did not dispute reports it could happen, according to several people who heard his remarks. Westin also angrily disputed the notion that the show had ceased to be profitable, saying it earned $13 million in profits last year.

Several in the industry noted such feelers from other networks often come to light during contract negotiations, as they did while NBC was seeking to retain Katie Couric, and CNN was negotiating with Larry King.

Month-to-month, Nightline often draws higher ratings than Letterman's Late Show, though Letterman attracts a more desirable demographic profile for advertisers. Both shows are outdone by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, however, and Letterman has made no secret of his desire to be top in the ratings. As a network, ABC's ratings have experienced serious erosion.

Various officials at both CBS and ABC declined to comment yesterday. Rob Burnett, CEO of Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, released a statement to the Associated Press: "We are continuing negotiations with the CBS television network. It would be inappropriate at this time to discuss any inquiries that we have received from other networks."

The acerbic talk show host's contract with CBS is set to expire in August. He joined that network in 1993 after a tumultuous process in which he and Jay Leno vied to replace Johnny Carson as host of NBC's Tonight Show.

Letterman previously had been host of NBC's Late Night, which aired weeknights at 12:30, but saw Carson's retirement as his opportunity to reach more viewers in the earlier 11:30 p.m. time slot. ABC made its most recent run at Letterman at that time, but the former stand-up comic found open arms at CBS, which made him its signature personality. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, his return to the air was taken as a sign of renewal and perseverance for New York.

ABC executives told the Times that they had been considering dropping Nightline even before this week's intense talks with Letterman. That statement was taken by some news staffers as one in a series of disrespectful moves taken by the network in recent years, including the creation and swift cancellation of several news programs, such as 20/20 Downtown and America '01.

"News used to be about the compact we had with the public to be their eyes and ears," said an ABC News producer who spoke on condition he not be named. "This is demoralizing, not only for Nightline, but for ABC News as a whole."

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