What's next for Ted Koppel and ''Nightline''? After the news Letterman was staying put ABC rethinks its line-up

By Lynette Rice
March 27, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Ted Koppel Illustration by John Cuneo
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The night after David Letterman announced he was staying at CBS, Ted Koppel devoted his ”Nightline” broadcast to the subject of journalists under fire. Granted, the topic was spawned by the grim fate of Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl and the eight reporters who’ve died covering the war in Afghanistan, but given recent events you couldn’t help but think of Koppel’s career situation.

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

Of course, none of this would be going down if the dollars were plentiful in other parts of the ABC schedule. Currently, the Alphabet’s most-watched prime-time show among advertiser-friendly 18- to 49-year-olds is — get this — the No. 12-ranked Monday Night Football. And as for shows that actually require actors and scripts, No. 26 ”NYPD Blue” comes the closest to being a hit with that demo. ”[Since] it’s going to take a long time to rebuild prime time, [ABC’s] decided to make it up with sports and in late night,” says one observer, noting that ”NBC for years was saved by ‘Today’ and ‘The Tonight Show.”’

Letterman would have been the ideal quick fix for ABC because even though ”Late Show”’s audience is smaller than ”Nightline”’s (4.3 million versus 4.6 million), it’s more Madison Avenue-friendly. The typical Letterman viewer is a 46-year-old pop-culture fanatic — a magnet for ad-money-rich movie companies — while the average Koppel watcher is a 51-year-old couch potato. ”Anybody who sells ads faces the same imperative: You find more customers by [being] in shows that appeal to younger viewers,” says Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, which owns three ABC affiliates. ”It would have been wonderful had 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’t print résumés just yet. ”ABC’ll want to find something to put in [‘Nightline”s slot] that will reach a young audience, but I don’t think they’ll do it in any great hurry,” adds Bell. ”In the graveyard 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 could heed the wake-up call and obey the network mandate (issued two years ago) to emphasize ”Nightline”’s classic format of live interviews. As it stands now, most of the show’s interviews (and the 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-day week; although a ”Nightline” rep insists he uses those off-camera days to do reporting, a former ABC exec says his absence has taken a toll. ”’Nightline’ is unique because of Ted Koppel,” says the exec. ”But if it really isn’t Ted Koppel anymore, what are you doing?”

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

Still, one media watcher wonders if ABC has lost sight of its government-mandated mission to serve the public interest. ”The public owns the airwaves,” says Jay Rosen, NYU’s journalism department chair. ”The logic’s been, if [a show’s] interesting to most people, that’s a good measure of public interest. But when 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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