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It’s a small world for `Nightline’

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

I remember meeting Michael Eisner in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington. It was hard to look him in the eye because his eyes are very high up and very, very tiny; maybe he’s a cartoon. He proudly stated then that he had seen stage productions of his company’s dumb-ass “Beauty and the Beast” more than 100 times in cities throughout the world. And I thought, “This guy looks like he has seen `Beauty and the Beast’ more than 100 times in cities throughout the world.” I did not take an instant dislike to him; I already hated him from reading about his $93 million bonuses.
I too had just come from seeing the stage production of “Beauty and the Beast” myself, but for the first and most definitely last time. My mind was so numbed by it that I felt like I needed to stick my finger in an electric socket just to be jolted back into consciousness. Does any other company pollute the cultural environment with quite so much pathetic pandering mush? Except for the stuff it does with Pixar, Disney’s output is almost 100 percent empty fluff, much of it cunningly concocted to turn kids into greedily pleading consumers by the age of 2.
The only good thing on the Disney Channel is “Vault Disney,” beautifully preserved material from the old days when the company had a sense of showmanship. And, perhaps, citizenship.
Call me old-fashioned
Some of us were appalled when Disney bought ABC, thinking it not a fit company to own a network or to be a broadcast licensee. We were proved lamentably correct when word leaked out that ABC cavalierly planned to cancel “Nightline,” one of the few programs on the network’s regular schedule in which it would be justified in taking pride.
But we old codgers who still cling to the notion that the public owns the airwaves and that television and radio frequencies should not be gifts from the people to corporations, with no strings attached (have fun, guys, make lots of money, never mind us)-we tend to forget that words such as “pride” have no place in modern telecommunications. One might as well talk about “integrity” or invoke such antiquated, fusty old phrases as “the public interest, convenience and necessity.”
The shamelessness of the assault on “Nightline” was shocking, and it had a kind of “anything goes” portentousness about it. Why recast the “This Week” show that departing Cokie Roberts and Sam “On-shaky-ground” Donaldson have screwed up? Why not just dump it and put on some cartoons? Well yes, of course “Nightline” is just a television show, and television shows are canceled all the time-that was the kind of bilge spilled by Robert Novak on the competing CNN’s “Crossfire” show. Novak is wrong. Some television shows are more than just television shows.
“Crossfire” could die tonight and probably should, and would not be missed except by a small following of cranks. “Nightline” is a service to the electorate and an admirable exercise in American journalism.
Koppel’s uninspiring response
Ted Koppel’s reaction has not been exactly inspiring. He declined to be interviewed, saying he preferred instead to express himself in a New York Times op-ed piece. The piece made a few sharp points but began with all kinds of toadying corporate kissy-face. Come to think of it, it was sickening. (Koppel was willing to say on the phone, bravely going out on a limb again, that he does not “hate” Michael Eisner as was stated in the op-ed piece-thus lowering himself another notch in the pantheon. Do you suppose if Koppel had been Ed Murrow’s partner he might have said, “Let’s think this thing over, Ed. Are you sure you want to take on someone like Joe McCarthy? He’s friends with a lot of CEOs who play golf at my country club”?)
Maybe Ted’s just tired. He has had, as the saying goes, a long and distinguished career. He didn’t just anchor “Nightline’s” shattering reports on the Congo, he went there and really worked at it. A man can fight the good fight just so long and then other people are supposed to come in and take over. But there doesn’t seem to be a new generation of good-fight fighters around. No one at ABC News even had the brains to groom a proper heir for the “Nightline” anchor chair. Some nights you tune in “Nightline” and the face is so unfamiliar you think maybe they drafted a security guard to host the show.
Or perhaps the concierge from the Mayflower Hotel just across the street.
Nothing is sacred
It’s a pity people don’t care more. Shouldn’t there be, like, protest bonfires in the street with people tossing all their “It’s a Small World” records and stuffed 101 Dalmatians into the flames? Couldn’t David Brinkley put down his glass of cognac and Cuban cigar for a minute, come away from the marble fireplace in his Georgetown mansion and say a few words about the sad fate of the news division where he concluded his career? Thank God for Barbara Walters. At least she had the guts to speak out.
If “Nightline” is fair game, there are no sacred cows grazing in network pastures anymore. Maybe Mel Karmazin will decide that he could make more money with a kicky home-shopping hour than with that old “60 Minutes” thing; after all, it probably skews away from Generations X, Y and Z, right? It isn’t hard to guess which network will be the first to decide a nightly evening newscast is a frivolous luxury in these times. Peter Jennings, a cramped and tiny office at CNN may very well have your name on it. It’s said Peter’s always had a fondness for cheap suits anyway. Just as well. He’d better treasure each last limousine ride while he can.
Suppose David Letterman swallows his pride-which is like saying suppose a hummingbird swallows a whale-and stays at CBS for that piddling $31.5 million they’re offering. Isn’t “Nightline” such damaged goods now, so horribly humiliated and insulted, that the harm cannot be undone? How sad to think of the smart, savvy, ambitious, conscientious people who work at “Nightline” having to dash to the bank with their paychecks-Just In Case.
It’s belt-tightening time, all right. Please forgive me for saying that sometimes I’d like to tighten one around Mickey Mouse’s cute little neck.