Koppel defends `Nightline'

Response: ABC news anchor argues for show's relevance in opinion piece.

March 05, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Silent in the first days after learning that ABC is seeking to drop him in favor of CBS's David Letterman, Ted Koppel now argues that Nightline remains relevant, competitive and profitable -- no matter what his corporate employers may say.

"We have contributed to the network's commitment to operate in the public interest," Koppel writes in an opinion piece in today's New York Times, "but we have also helped pay the rent. Conservatively speaking, Nightline has earned well over half a billion dollars for a succession of corporate owners over the years. The program continues to be profitable to this day."

Born from nightly news specials during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, Nightline quickly became one of ABC's distinctive programs. In recent years, Koppel, the show's chief anchor and managing editor has scaled back his participation to three nights a week. But the show has continued to make a mark by blending discussion of newsworthy topics with documentary-style work on underreported stories -- such as civil war in the Congo.

ABC News President David Westin, who had been blindsided by ABC's talks with Letterman, angrily told news staffers on Friday that Nightline made $13.1 million last year in profits. Letterman's program is said to have made tens of millions of dollars more by people inside the industry.

In an article in Friday's Times detailing the network's pursuit of Letterman, an unnamed ABC official explained his network's thinking: Nightline lacked relevance in the age of cable news. While Koppel's half-hour show typically draws larger audiences than Letterman's Late Show, the hour-long CBS talk show pulls in a slightly younger audience, generating far higher advertising income. (Both lag behind NBC's Tonight Show.)

Koppel takes strong exception to that analysis. "Over the past years, with the arrival and evolution of cable television and 24-hour news networks, our audience has diminished, our role has changed," Koppel writes. "But Nightline's viewership remains, to this day, four or five times that of the highest-rated programs on cable."

As U.S. troops execute a global battle against terrorism, Koppel writes, "when, in short, the regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy is more essential than ever, it is simply wrong to describe what my colleagues and I are doing as lacking relevance."

Zenia Mucha, senior vice president of corporate communications for ABC, did not return messages left late last night seeking comment.

While Letterman is said to feel slighted by CBS in recent years, the network remains anxious to renew him. That anxiety has been significantly heightened by the disclosure of the willingness of ABC -- and Disney, its corporate parent -- to dislodge one of television's most familiar and distinguished news anchors.

While current staffers are limiting comment, Koppel's former colleagues say the network's actions undermine the news division's credibility.

"Just the idea that this would be a choice between Koppel and Letterman is indicative of the erosion of the network news concept," said Fox News Channel Washington bureau chief Kim Hume, a former senior producer at ABC News. "The idea of an elite, gold-plated and world-wide newsgathering organization supplying news for a relatively small window of network time seems to make less and less sense to the entertainment-oriented media companies."

"In the end, Disney's culture is entertainment," Hume said. "It no doubt would see Letterman as a unique opportunity and Koppel as a semi-retired fading star."

Right now, the notion of dropping Koppel's show would be as if CBS Radio had dropped broadcast news reports in March 1942, right after the outbreak of World War II, said former Nightline producer David Bohrman, now at CNN.

In his op-ed piece today, Koppel grants that it is "perfectly understandable that Disney would jump at the opportunity to increase earnings by replacing Nightline with the more profitable David Letterman show."

But he warns, "when Nightline is gone from the ABC schedule, and should the occasion arrive that our work might again seem relevant to the anonymous executive, it will not then be possible to reconstitute what is so easily destroyed."

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