Late-night shake-up?

Mar 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Not all ABC affiliates are applauding the network’s decision to go after David Letterman.
“I have yet to hear one affiliate say they are disenchanted with having `Nightline’ as a companion to their late news,” said Bruce Baker, the Cox Television executive who is chairman of the ABC affiliates advisory board.
Mr. Baker’s reference to “Nightline” is about the network’s apparent interest in ousting the show from its current time period as it makes an all-out effort to land Mr. Letterman.
“Affiliates for a long period of time now have worked to put `Nightline’ in a strong position and are fond of the show and [of] Ted as a journalist,” Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Baker, whose company owns stations in smaller markets, said that while he believes Mr. Letterman would bring salable demographics to ABC and would have an easy time earning clearances from affiliates, he doesn’t think all that would translate into much impact at the local level.
At another ABC affiliate, the general manager of a strong Midwest station for which “Nightline” performs well said he is torn between an “attachment” to news in that time slot and a desire to applaud “bold” thinking by ABC.
“Nightline” and “Politically Incorrect,” the companion show that follows it on most stations, have been losing some $10 million a year, according to The New York Times. Numerous sources said “Nightline” turns a $13 million-a-year profit. Mr. Koppel makes a reported $10 million a year.
Just what ABC might be waving under Mr. Letterman’s nose was uncertain Friday, but someone familiar with Mr. Letterman over the years said this move would not have anything to do with beating Mr. Leno, who has led the ratings race for the past seven years, but would be about who shows Mr. Letterman the most money and, perhaps, jumps through the most hoops.
Mr. Letterman, whose prickly relations with management have long been a staple of his on-air persona and his comedy, has made ample fun of CBS, its demographics and its president, Leslie Moonves.
Neither ABC nor CBS was commenting on the talks-nor was Mr. Letterman’s camp, which has this week off.
There was a sense that the deal could be decided shortly after Mr. Letterman returns from vacation.
A statement issued by a spokesperson for Mr. Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, which produces “Late Show” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” for CBS, said, “We are currently in negotiations with the CBS Television Network. It would be inappropriate at this time to discuss any inquiries we may have received from other networks.”
Mr. Letterman makes some $20 million a year at CBS, which had no late-night franchise until the host left NBC in 1993 after being passed over in favor of Mr. Leno as host of “The Tonight Show.”
If Mr. Letterman were to leave CBS, it is likely that the network would not want to renew “Kilborn,” and ABC does not seem interested in Mr. Kilborn as a late-night option.
Meanwhile, in ABC News’ Washington bureau, Mr. Koppel and his staff spent Friday assessing options and sorting out feelings.
Sources said Disney President Bob Iger had called Mr. Koppel Friday to say that, indeed, the network really, really wants Mr. Letterman, However, Mr. Iger also reportedly said that Mr. Letterman’s chief concern is that Mr. Koppel, who has been a Letterman guest over the years and even performed the occassional Stupid Human Trick, not be bloodied in the process.
Mr. Koppel’s right-hand man, Tom Bettag, reportedly learned Thursday of ABC’s plans to jettison “Nightline” from its time slot of 21 years. Insiders said Mr. Koppel and Mr. Bettag then assembled staffers via conference call to fill them in on the news.
Lending the unexpected revelation a deeper sense of doom was that among those kept in the dark was ABC News President David Westin, the former lawyer who has played the good corporate soldier at some cost to his wish to be accepted as a news executive.
The move comes less than a year after ABC Entertainment executives, trying to save the struggling “Once and Again,” evicted “20/20” and Barbara Walters from their Friday night home, a move from which “20/20” has not recovered.
There was also talk late Friday that Ms. Walters had called ABC Television President Steve Bornstein and noted that the network was on the verge of doing to Mr. Koppel what it had done to her.
More than one person pointed out Friday that Ms. Walters, through her prime-time specials, her daytime hit “The View” and the long reign of “20/20” as the Goliath of Friday night, has been a bigger cash cow than “Nightline” over the years.
So while one insider described the news division as “devastated” by another signal that news is no longer a golden beacon at the network, there also was angry resignation that “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel had only himself to blame for not waking up and smelling the coffee.
In recent years, even as increased competition from 24-hour cable news operations has made most news stories stale long before 11:35 p.m., Mr. Koppel has decreased his visibility and participation on the show and has resisted management’s pleas to do more live, topical shows and to do what other ABC News stars do: promote his show with appearances on other network shows.