ABC, Disney extend olive branch to news

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Journalists: But unrest lingers for Koppel and colleagues who feel slighted by corporate officials.

March 13, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

For all the mischief they stirred up this winter, ABC officials sure don't seem to have accomplished all that much. On Monday, late-night impresario David Letterman re-upped for another stint working for the people he dismisses as "morons" on the air - executives at CBS - while turning down a similar offer from ABC and its corporate owners at Disney.

Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, whose show would have been displaced by Letterman, replied that the network had inflicted "collateral damage" on both Nightline and ABC News. It would be unreasonable to expect that Nightline staffers would continue without a strong declaration of corporate support, he wrote with his two executive producers.

Yesterday, ABC and Disney sought to bind some of those wounds. In what was described as a friendly exchange, Disney chairman Michael Eisner called Koppel yesterday morning and urged that he continue on the show and renew a strong working relationship with the network.

During his routine daily call with staffers around the world yesterday, ABC News President David Westin expressed his pleasure that the immediate threat to Nightline had passed. According to one person who listened to the call, Westin promised to hammer home the news division's importance to senior network and Disney officials.

But Westin, who initially had been unaware of ABC's negotiations with Letterman, also pressed news staffers to make sure they were more relevant than ever - pushing them for bolder and more innovative programming. As an example of what he meant, Westin praised Monday night's one-hour ABC News special on the hunt for Osama bin Laden for which 20/20 anchor John Miller served as the host.

Yet there remains unease among the network's journalists, according to current and former ABC News staffers, who resent what they perceive as slights from the network:

Reporters were outraged by the ill-conceived special featuring an interview of then-President Bill Clinton by teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. They sniffed when 20/20 was briefly shifted from its Friday night slot for the Disney-owned nighttime soap Once and Again. And they are apprehensive about a forthcoming but adamantly patriotic program about the war against terror from Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has won access denied to the network's reporters.

All the while, Nightline, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and Good Morning America are highly competitive in their time periods against NBC's usually top-rated fare, and all are profitable. Nightline made $13.1 million last year.

There does seem to be some appetite for serious news programs. CBS' 60 Minutes remains one of the top-rated shows on television, while the quirky and thoughtful CBS News Sunday Morning attracts 4.8 million people each week, according to Nielsen Media Research estimates. Even The NewsHour on PBS draws an estimated 1.56 million viewers on average, more than any news-related program on cable except The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel.

But solid ratings and profits are not enough for some network executives. ABC, flying high as recently as 2000 on the shoulders of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, now is in third place, and at times is perilously close to fourth. Many in the television industry say that going for Letterman was a smart move, perhaps an obvious one.

ABC President Alex Wallau issued a statement Monday night justifying his interest in CBS' late-night star. "In today's competitive environment, it is incumbent upon us to explore all programming options, and The Late Show with David Letterman was an opportunity that ABC felt compelled to pursue," Wallau said. "From the outset, we've always said that Ted Koppel and Nightline would have a significant presence at ABC News."

But Nightline's future is not guaranteed in its present form; one unnamed network executive told The New York Times that the show had lost its relevance in the age of cable news channels. Some observers see a network news model that values such viewer-friendly (and profit-friendly) fare as the soft-focus Dateline NBC - and that jettisons serious shows like Nightline.

"It delivered prestige and money," said Jeff Greenfield, a former Nightline correspondent who is now with CNN. "If the standard is that now every time slot must maximize return ... they should at least say we are no different from the widget business."

Letterman's wanderlust stemmed from the sense that he was not valued, but CBS delivered. Koppel now is looking for a similar commitment by ABC, but hasn't received it.

Disney may have accomplished one of its objectives, after all. It has put its investors and the news division on notice that it is willing to do what it takes - even damage its crown jewel - to turn around the languishing network.

WBAL radio wins awards

The National Headliners Awards bestowed a second-place and two third-place awards to WBAL radio (1090 AM). The station was recognized for a newscast from Florida by John Patti the morning after the Ravens' Super Bowl victory, and team coverage of two events: the CSX train tunnel fire and the shooting in Centreville of two police officers.

"It's nice to know that we can compete against networks and still hold our own," said Mark Miller, the station's news director. WBAL-TV (Channel 11) won third-place in a television category for its handling of the train fire, while Steve Davis of WBFF also received third-place honors for sports reporting.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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