The ballad of Dave and Ted

Mar 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

We’d all be rooting for the good guys if only we could figure out who the good guys are. Maybe this time there aren’t any. Maybe good guys generally are a fast-dying breed.
David Letterman used to seem like a good guy, at least in relative terms, but when the news broke last week that he’s in serious negotiations to move his late-night talk show to ABC, thus threatening the existence of the reverentially esteemed ABC News program “Nightline,” good old Dave didn’t sound so good any more.
Letterman has had “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel as a guest and has professed admiration and respect for the newsman and his show. He’s done it in interviews, too. But respect and admiration probably don’t hold much sway when $20 million is on the other side of the teeter-totter, and $20 million is the barrel-bottom starting figure for negotiating Letterman’s new salary. The bum.
Obviously Koppel is a good guy, a veritable Gandhi-like figure now in the world of network television, but that doesn’t make him faultless. Maybe if he didn’t take so many nights off from “Nightline” (he seems to have inherited Johnny Carson’s old work schedule, not that Johnny didn’t earn it), the show’s ratings might be a little better.
But then it’s not a ratings game anymore, is it? It’s all in the demographics, those damned infernal demographics and the endless, ruthless, heartless pursuit of the 18- to 34-year-old and younger. In his New York Times story about the shocking development, reporter Bill Carter pointed out that “Nightline” loses money because its audience, though large, is light on those precious, desirable, luscious, delicious and apparently just hopelessly stupid young adults.
Bad guys aplenty
Bad guys are easy to find in this tale, none more reprehensible perhaps than the anonymous ABC executive who told Carter, “The relevancy of `Nightline’ just is not there anymore.” You can bet somebody who’d say that probably hasn’t seen “Nightline” in a long, long time. The corridors of power at ABC are perhaps crawling with such executives-sewers full of alligators, when you get right down to it.
Who do you root for, meanwhile, in a wrestling match between Macho Man Leslie Moonves, the CBS chief who has apparently angered and irritated Letterman with his tough-guy poses, and Michael Eisner, the Disney uberboss who never met a bonus he didn’t get. These are not grand old men of modern media. I wouldn’t want to meet either one in a dark alley, or a well-lighted alley either.
On my one and only visit to Moonves’ office, he introduced me to a big floor-mounted punching bag he keeps on hand to practice his slugging. When I made my brief call, Moonves told me he had named the punching bag Warren Littlefield in honor of the fellow who was then NBC’s chief programmer. Ha ha, very funny. And kinda sick, too.
No one would talk to me on the record Friday, not even Koppel, whose show I recently praised as the finest piece of daily journalism in American television. The occasion for that encomium was a special “Nightline” produced by Paul and Holly Fine, a portrait of two people who survived the terrorist attack on the Pentagon but were terribly burned in the resulting fire. It was journalism raised to the level of art, a wrenching and inspiring piece about how the victims’ loved ones stood by them through long weeks of recuperation, surgery and therapy.
Oh but darn those 18- to 34-year-olds were busy that night, getting their jollies with Jay or maybe catching up on “Stupid Human Tricks” with Dave. Somebody should tell Dave that putting “Stupid Human Tricks” on television these days is a redundancy, the ultimate in coals-to-Newcastle exercises. It’s stupid human tricks 24/7 nowadays.
And now let’s all join hands and say a few consoling words to Dave-poor, dear, dour Dave, who has almost run out of networks that fail to appreciate him sufficiently. How much love, coddling, hand-holding, back-scratching and butt-smooching does this sad man need? Couldn’t he please get married already and build himself a life beyond the hour a day that’s televised to his faithful fans? Talk about needy. We who are a part of Dave’s vast national support system are getting a little tired of giving till it hurts.
Even Letterman’s logic sounds wobbly in this case. Although a source close to Letterman said he is merely considering the ABC offer and not “leaning” in that direction, it’s also being said that the flirtation with ABC is no mere negotiating ploy for more dough and better treatment from CBS. Dave is miffed about poor lead-ins from CBS affiliates, it is said. Has he looked at the ABC prime-time schedule lately? What a spectacular debacle ABC executives have made of that.
Letterman’s final answer
And if Dave thinks Moonves doesn’t know how to treat talent, he ought to take another look at the way ABC brass have treated stalwarts like Barbara Walters and Regis Philbin in the past 12 months or so.
The Dave Brigade was still insisting last week that Letterman reveres “Nightline” and wouldn’t do a thing to disrupt it. But unless there’s another alternate-universe 11:35 p.m. that we don’t know about, Dave’s moving to ABC late-night pretty well demands that “Nightline” either be canceled or shoved into the outer limits beyond midnight.
Of course some, perhaps many, public-minded ABC affiliates do that already so that they can show cheap syndicated junk in the “Nightline” time slot and rake in more advertising money. Oh it’s a proud business, television. Noble and righteous.
In The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz reported that Koppel is said to be “furious” about the story (Koppel hates Eisner more than Letterman hates Moonves) and that “Nightline” executive producer Tom Bettag is ready to “fight for the program.” Good Lord, you shouldn’t have to “fight” for “Nightline,” should you? And what does it say about us that it’s necessary? The New Craziness seems like something Paddy Chayefsky and Lewis Carroll might have dreamed up on a really bad day.
ABC’s image was already about as tarnished and sleazy as a network not owned by Rupert Murdoch could be. Now it has sunk to depths that by all rights should be unimaginable. Ah, for the good old days when network TV was merely a vast wasteland and not the proverbial Living Hell.