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‘Nightline’ Slot Up for Grabs

Apr 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

“Nightline’s” time slot will remain ABC News’ to lose in the wake of Ted Koppel’s announcement that he will leave ABC News and the 11:30 p.m. series effective Dec. 4, according to the conventional wisdom shared in TV circles last week. “Nightline’s” longtime executive producer, Tom Bettag, is also leaving the program.

TV news insiders also said that cable has rendered 25-year-old “Nightline” so last millennium that any attempt to reinvent the existing show is hopeless.

“Nightline” once was considered the epitome of serious, this-just-in journalism on TV, but episodes now are frequently taped and the show is fourth-ranked in its time slot. ABC is expected to develop a non-news program for the hour starting at 11:35 p.m.

While some say there is no “Nightline” without Mr. Koppel, ABC News President David Westin said that the replacement program can be “a close kissing cousin.”

Mr. Westin said Mr. Koppel’s decision does not “so much increase urgency as it brings clarity. It makes clear our timetable and what we have to work with” as decisions are made about the evolution of “Nightline.”

In addition to finding a replacement for “Nightline,” Mr. Westin has the task of rehabilitating the hard-working George Stephanopoulos and “This Week,” since Mr. Koppel refused Mr. Westin’s request to anchor it. The once-invaluable property has seen its Sunday morning beachhead erode since the heyday of David Brinkley, who anchored “This Week” from 1981 through 1996.

Sources familiar with ABC News’ stable of talent expect Mr. Stephanopoulos to remain with “Week” at least for the short term. “There’s no likely alternative,” said one network insider.

From “Nightline,” Mr. Koppel, 65, and Mr. Bettag, 60, say they intend to go to the land of documentaries, where the voice-of-God news narrative still resonates and where they can continue to work in a manner reminiscent of “Nightline.”

After spending nearly the last year in “intense” contract conversation with Mr. Koppel, Mr. Westin said he thinks it would have been good for Mr. Koppel and ABC News had he stayed. But he added, “My own take is that to Ted, the world is divided into people who leave too early and those who stay too long.”

Though Mr. Koppel is held in high regard by ABC’s competitors, there is a consensus that in profit-driven network news divisions, there is little need for what one veteran described as “someone with his skill set and price tag.” (The Koppel-Bettag team’s combined salaries are estimated to add up $10 million or more per year.)

Mr. Koppel could revive the production company he formed during the 1980s to make non-ABC projects.

After the announcement that he was leaving ABC News after 42 years, Mr. Koppel said he hopes that “Nightline” will continue and that the transition can be seamless.

Indeed, he said, he and Mr. Bettag laid the groundwork for this eventuality with Mr. Westin and Bob Iger, president of ABC parent company The Walt Disney Co., because “just for once there should be something that had been planned way ahead of time” in TV.

As for what is next, Mr. Koppel said he hasn’t heard all of the offers yet, and, “I can kick back for about three weeks, Bettag for about three hours.”