Late-night talk show host David Letterman cut short ABC's high-stakes courtship yesterday, telling viewers that he will remain at CBS. He said he did not want to damage ABC News's Nightline, which holds the same 11:35 p.m. slot as his Late Show on CBS.
Despite Letterman's decision, Nightline anchor and managing editor Ted Koppel said last night that his network's owner, Disney, has seriously undermined the program's future by pursuing the late-night host.
In a statement, Nightline executive producers Tom Bettag and Leroy Sievers joined Koppel in demanding a clear sign of support from its parent company. They did not question Disney's motives but said the company had inflicted "collateral damage" on Nightline and ABC News.
"We hope the corporate leadership of Disney understands that it would not be reasonable to expect all of us at Nightline to continue our work in a climate of ongoing uncertainty," the three Nightline executives wrote. "No one in this business expects a program to last in perpetuity, but we need something more than bland assurances or a short-term guarantee. We need to be able to plan, to prepare, to settle down to work again."
In response, ABC News President David Westin said: "We've always believed strongly in Nightline and are gratified that it will remain in this time period."
The decision by Letterman to stay with CBS is a major blow to ABC, however. ABC and Disney hoped to revive the network's sagging fortunes much as CBS had in 1993. When NBC named Jay Leno to succeed Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show, CBS lured Letterman to create his own competing program and become one of its signature figures. An ABC network spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment last night.
Back from a week's vacation, Letterman said last night, "Ted Koppel at the very least deserves the right to determine his own professional future. My personal hope is that it will continue to be occupied by Ted Koppel and Nightline for as long as that guy would like to have that job. That is just the way it ought to be."
Rob Burnett, Letterman's executive producer and president of the production company World Wide Pants, said the nearly nine years of history at CBS cemented his decision to stay there. "At its core, this is a personal decision," Burnett said in an interview last night. "Building something like this is much more difficult and challenging than most people understand. God knows, there have been many attempts to try."
In addition, Burnett said, CBS significantly amplified its commitment to Letterman, making it clear the late-night host was valued. Previously, industry officials say, Letterman felt slighted by the network.
"We are thrilled that CBS will continue to be the home of David Letterman," said Leslie Moonves, the network's president. "Without question, he is one of the great talents of our time, and his comic genius will be an ongoing source of pride."
ABC and CBS were offering Letterman contracts worth roughly the same amount: $31 million annual salary and $40 million toWorld Wide Pants for the show.
While the 30-minute Nightline often draws larger audiences than the comparable half of Letterman's hourlong Late Show, the ABC News program's viewers tend to be older. As advertisers prize younger viewers, commercials aired during the show earn less for the network. Disney and ABC officials made it clear they believed the network could earn more money in the late-night slot than the $13 million profit earned by Nightline last year. The network is in third place.
Koppel, Bettag and Sievers said their network needs to make a ringing declaration that the show is not merely warming a spot for the next hot talent. "There must be a great many talented comedians who would welcome the opportunity to take over the Nightline time slot," the three news professionals wrote. "Our hope is that Disney will send a clear and unmistakable signal to them, to us, to the advertising community and to all of our loyal viewers interested in the robust future of network television news that Nightline can count on serious corporate backing."