The night after David Letterman announced he was staying atCBS, Ted Koppel devoted his Nightline broadcast to the subjectof journalists under fire. Granted, the topic was spawned by thegrim fate of Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl and theeight reporters who’ve died covering the war in Afghanistan, butgiven recent events you couldn’t help but think of Koppel’scareer situation.

Although ABC failed to nab Late Show, the news still isn’t goodfor Koppel. ”ABC has made it known that it intends to compete forthe entertainment dollar at 11:35 p.m.,” says one rival networkexec.

Of course, none of this would be going down if the dollars wereplentiful in other parts of the ABC schedule. Currently, theAlphabet’s most-watched prime-time show among advertiser-friendly18- to 49-year-olds is — get this — the No. 12-ranked Monday NightFootball. And as for shows that actually require actors andscripts, No. 26 NYPD Blue comes the closest to being a hit withthat demo. ”[Since] it’s going to take a long time to rebuildprime time, [ABC’s] decided to make it up with sports and in latenight,” says one observer, noting that ”NBC for years was savedby Today and The Tonight Show.”

Letterman would have been the ideal quick fix for ABC becauseeven though Late Show’s audience is smaller than Night-line’s(4.3 million versus 4.6 million), it’s more MadisonAvenue-friendly. The typical Letterman viewer is a 46-year-oldpop-culture fanatic — a magnet for ad-money-rich moviecompanies — while the average Koppel watcher is a 51-year-old couchpotato. ”Anybody who sells ads faces the same imperative: Youfind more customers by [being] in shows that appeal to youngerviewers,” says Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting,which owns three ABC affiliates. ”It would have been wonderfulhad ABC swiped Letterman.”

But it didn’t, so what now? Well, up-and-comers like Jon Stewart(whose Daily Show contract expires in December 2003) shouldn’tprint resumes just yet. ”ABC’ll want to find something to put in[Nightline’s slot] that will reach a young audience, but I don’tthink they’ll do it in any great hurry,” adds Bell. ”In thegraveyard of late-night shows, there are a lot of tombstones:Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, you name it.”

In the meantime, what happens to Nightline? Well, Koppel couldheed the wake-up call and obey the network mandate (issued twoyears ago) to emphasize Nightline’s classic format of liveinterviews. As it stands now, most of the show’s interviews (andthe entire Friday broadcast) are taped in advance.

And then there’s the issue of Koppel’s shortened work schedule.In his last contract negotiation, Koppel finagled a three-dayweek; although a Nightline rep insists he uses those off-cameradays to do reporting, a former ABC exec says his absence hastaken a toll. ”Nightline is unique because of Ted Koppel,” saysthe exec. ”But if it really isn’t Ted Koppel anymore, what areyou doing?”

Disney chairman Michael Eisner may be asking the very same thing.Sources say Eisner has never regarded ABC News as a vital part ofthe company’s fiscal future, and given the recent boom in cablenews shows, questions about Nightline’s relevancy persist. ”Ifthere is a major story, people still turn to Nightline,” says anABC executive. ”If there isn’t breaking news, it’s difficult toget an audience.”

Still, one media watcher wonders if ABC has lost sight of itsgovernment-mandated mission to serve the public interest. ”Thepublic owns the airwaves,” says Jay Rosen, NYU’s journalismdepartment chair. ”The logic’s been, if [a show’s] interestingto most people, that’s a good measure of public interest. Butwhen you have two shows that draw the same number of viewers,but one [gets canceled] because advertisers value [the other’s]demographic more, you’ve done away with that whole rationale.”Hmm, sounds like an interesting topic for an upcoming Nightline.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Battaglio)

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”It was easy to get out of his punishments, but, man, he’s a good yeller — ol’ yeller. A good screaming could put me in my place.” — Drena De Niro, on her father (and Showtime costar) ROBERT DENIRO