Editorial: ABC deserves a pat on back, slap on wrist

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

ABC has been taking a lot of heat lately for turning its back on “Nightline,” but the truth is the network has done more than either of its Big 3 rivals to find a late-night market for intelligent, issue-oriented television.
The heat has been on ever since news leaked out that Disney and ABC were trying to convince David Letterman to uproot his late-night franchise from CBS and plant it in “Nightline’s” 11:30 p.m. slot at ABC. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that the network deserves credit for sticking with Ted Koppel’s highly regarded news show for 22 years while both NBC and CBS fattened up their late-night revenues on the American viewing public’s growing appetite for celebrity chat.
ABC even brought in some backup for “Nightline” when it slotted the celebrity-filled but still issue-oriented “Politically Incorrect” as its lead-out. But that quasi-noble experiment suffered a seemingly fatal blow after Sept. 11 when host Bill Maher voiced an unpopular opinion on heroism and terrorism. The already struggling show never fully recovered, and its departure from the ABC lineup now appears to be a done deal.
It’s easy to understand why ABC pounced on the opportunity to woo Letterman. The network has had a disastrous year in the prime-time ratings, and the instant infusion of viewers Letterman would bring to the late-night lineup would at least give a morale boost to a network in need of one-not to mention giving Wall Street something positive to focus on when sizing up Disney’s battered stock.
But what makes the apparent demise of “Nightline” unsettling is that it’s part of a wider trend-a shift away from news at the broadcast networks, where the days are long gone when news was embraced as a welcome expression of the networks’ public service role. These days, the news division has to answer to the network’s bottom line, and if it’s not making money, it’s on shaky ground.
Under Disney’s corporate guidance, ABC has been busy tinkering with the formula, scaling back on news as it tries to resuscitate its entertainment business. Its highest-profile recent move in that direction, before its overture toward Letterman, was temporarily dislodging “20/20” from its longtime home on Friday nights in an effort to boost drama series “Once and Again.”
It’s a sad commentary on the state of broadcast television that news has become the networks’ odd man out, that even a show of “Nightline’s” caliber can’t survive. Koppel’s showcase has been an oasis of thoughtful, timely discussion in an important time slot, a reprieve from the car chases and celebrity crime sprees that define the local news shows that precede it. Its demise will drive more viewers to cable, where “Nightline” imitators “Hardball,” “O’Reilly Factor” and others have flourished. And it will drive yet another nail in broadcast TV’s coffin.