A network switch makes sense for Letterman. Though he doesn't think it will happen, Ty Burr explains why a change might work for everyone
Ted Koppel, David Letterman
Credit: Ted Koppel: Bob D'Amico; David Letterman: JP Filo/CBS

A network switch makes sense for Letterman

Why WOULDN’T ABC want David Letterman instead of Ted Koppel? ”The Late Show with David Letterman” may pull in lower ratings for CBS than Leno does over at NBC, but it regularly creams Koppel’s ”Nightline.” More important, it brings in younger viewers, averaging 50 percent more under-35s than ABC’s ”Nightline”-”Politically Incorrect” hour. And that, in turn, brings the advertisers baying: ”Late Show” makes $175 million in ad revenue as opposed to Koppel’s $75 million. So does ABC, staggering ineptly in so many directions, want some of that $100 million? You bet it does.

And why WOULDN’T David Letterman want ABC? Ever since the departure of CBS president Howard Stringer in 1995 — the suit who brought Letterman over from NBC back in 1993 — the prickly talk-show host has remained aloof from his executive-suite keepers. No glad-handing the advertisers, no showing up for brown-nosing promotional appearances, barely speaking to network CEO Les Moonves. For someone with skin as thin as Letterman — and he practically flays himself on a daily basis — why wouldn’t he be open to courting from a network that desperately needs his hip appeal (even if he’d doubtless be bitching about the stupidity of ABC executives within a week of making the transition)?

And, come to think of it, why WOULDN’T Ted Koppel want to dump ABC and jump to CNN or whichever friendly, sympathetic 24-hour news channel wants to give him a berth? Especially since his bosses at ABC and Disney — primarily Bob Iger, president of Walt Disney Communications — have gone out of their way to publicly disrespect him and all of the ABC news division by a) tendering an offer to Letterman without clueing in Koppel’s direct boss, news chief David Westin, b) promising Letterman that ”Nightline” would be history whether Dave came over or not, and c) generally acting like Koppel’s the nerd at the barbecue.

In the end, Letterman will probably stay at CBS — he won’t want to have ”Nightline”’s blood on his hands and the whole episode may have been intended to raise his value with his Viacom bosses. ”Nightline” is toast but Koppel will survive, albeit on a smaller scale. ”Politically Incorrect” is also toast, and Bill Maher won’t survive. And the executives at ABC will really have to rethink their PR strategy.

How out to lunch are the suits? An anonymous ABC exec was quoted as defending the Letterman overtures by saying that ”[t]he relevancy of ‘Nightline’ just is not there anymore.” That gets it exactly backwards. A late-night network news show that intelligently reports on political developments around the world is, without question, more relevant than ever right now — it’s simply that most American viewers are hooked on irrelevance and want nothing to do with information that matters. By courting Letterman, the king of ephemeral irony, ABC is acting in the interests of its shareholders — and millions of viewers too scared to look out the window.

What do you think Dave should do?

Late Show With David Letterman
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