Guest Commentary: Late-night soap opera

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

So here are the questions.
Is the Koppel-Letterman drama a story of corporate greed driving corporate need?
Or is it just the law of unintended consequences playing itself out as the need to keep Ted happy and on “Nightline” allowed the program to lose its way as he went from five nights to four and finally to three? And as this happened, did the program more and more become or was it allowed to become less and less about what people first tuned in for: the best damned take on the day’s top story that you could find?
Or was it a maddening combination of the two with a dash of the “Decline and Fall …” thrown in for good measure?
First, remember how “Nightline” was born, or rather sprang from Roone Arledge’s brain in 1979.
From his arrival, the 11:30 p.m. news special became a staple. Bing Crosby died. John Wayne died. Fire. Earthquake. Skylab’s crashing return to earth. All reasons to take air. And Arledge was right, because the audience was there. A 25 share was the norm. A quarter of the households watching television turned to ABC News “for the right news program.”
All Arledge needed was the right news story to stake a permanent claim, and along came the Ayatollah, “America Held Hostage” and the rest is history.
“Nightline” was created and prospered. Did groundbreaking stuff. Covered the hell out of any and every breaking news story, and the audience was there. Johnny Carson would joke about it on his air, asking when the news would let up so he could have his audience back. But that was long ago before the broadcast universe changed.
Cable networks wore born, and the rules of competition were tossed on their ear. The news junkies who had turned to “Nightline” now had other places to go. “Nightline” changed too. It had become a grind for Ted, and periodically-generally
toward the end of each contract-he let it be known that he was getting tired; wanted a break; wanted off.
Bottom line
That could not be allowed to be. The program was still generating big numbers and big revenue. To lose Ted would be to lose the franchise, because as many are saying now, Ted is “Nightline.” So he was able to leverage the threat. First a four-day week. Then a three-day week. Then the go-ahead to stay up late fewer nights by doing more programs that could be pretaped.
And that was the start of the decline. It wasn’t just CNN out there anymore, but a bunch of them. Each taking some audience at 11:35 and each covering the hell out of any story that appeared to be breaking news, while “Nightline” went about its business.
The audience ain’t a dummy. It began to drift away and just didn’t come back. It also got older and became worthless to advertisers, so profit margins shrank-and according to some in this drama, disappeared.
But the competitive changes and the changes in “Nightline” weren’t the only shifting sands. Capital Cities was replaced by the Mouse House and its complicated set of financial needs that suddenly put ABC and ABC News in the position of having to worry about whether a lion died at Animal Kingdom or the turnstile clicks were down in the Kingdom. If Disney’s bottom line bled, then everybody bled.
And that led to a graceless elevation to oblivion for Roone Arledge, who had to be moved to control the bottom line of ABC News, where spending with both hands had become a way of life and saying no to Roone was an impossibility. What Capital Cities couldn’t accomplish, Disney did, and so Roone went, elevated to the meaningless title of chairman, and with him went the news division’s protector.
His replacement, David Westin, was moved to the presidency of ABC News from the presidency of the entire network, where his performance had been spotty and where he left behind few friends because of a management style many described as Attila-like.
Westin inherited Roone’s division, which because Roone believed in “vigorous internal competition,” was a series of warring fiefs, none more powerful than Koppel’s “Nightline,” which continued to go its way, while the rest of the world changed around it. Ratings continued to be not what they were, and bottom line financial numbers across the news division slid producing tectonic pressures that had to produce quake.
And quake it did as the Letterman-for-Koppel story broke and continues to break. And the bad news for all the players-except Letterman-is that no matter how it ends, everybody loses.
If Letterman jumps to ABC, clearly it will be one of those great “gets,” but it will always be tarnished by the ouster of the icon.
And if the icon wins and stays, it is still no win.
Down a notch
Koppel and his broadcast are damaged because there is still the undenied story that Letterman got from ABC an assurance that “Nightline” would go with or without Letterman. Clearly a clock is running, and Ted and his staff have to know it.
Westin, who had made a deserved recovery in esteem around his division for the way he handled 9/11, will be horribly bruised because it happened or almost happened and he didn’t know. He was blindsided, and in light of the friends he didn’t leave behind at the network, there has to be a question of whether damaging him might not have been part of the game.
And for ABC News, its slide from the Arledge glory years of the ’80s and early ’90s, when wrong could not be done, has just been accelerated.
It’s a helluva business isn’t it?
Jeff Gralnick has been in broadcasting for 42 years, working for ABC News, NBC News and most recently for CNN as executive VP of financial news. Currently, he is an Internet and broadcasting consultant and analyst.