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Panel Discusses ABC's Replacement of 'Nightline' With Letterman

Aired March 9, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. If you're used to tuning into ABC late at night for serious interviews and analysis from Ted Koppel, you might have to get used to this instead.


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: What a wonderful group we have here tonight ladies and gentlemen. Do we -- yes, sure, do me a favor. I want you to think of yourselves as temporary detainees, all right?


KURTZ: The fallout intensified this week from the stunning news that ABC is negotiating with David Letterman to take over "Nightline's" 11:30 time slot. Ted Koppel delivered his reaction this week, not on his program, but in a "New York Times" op-ed.

"I have one complaint, and that is about the anonymous suggestion from one of our corporate executives quoted in the "Times" that "Nightline" has lost its relevance. I would argue in these times when homeland security is an ongoing concern, when another terrorist attack may at any time shatter our sense of normalcy, it is at best inappropriate and at worst malicious to describe what my colleagues and I are doing lacking relevance. When "Nightline" is gone from the ABC schedule, and should the occasion arrive that our work might again seem relevant to the anonymous executive, it will not then be possible to reconstitute what is so easily destroyed."

Well, joining us now in New York, Bill Carter, chief television correspondent for "The New York Times," and Adam Buckman, television columnist for "The New York Post." In Indianapolis, Ken Bode, former NBC network correspondent, now a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and here in Washington, Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Bill Carter, the anonymous ABC executives who told you and other reporters that "Nightline" is irrelevant, it's lost its zip, it's past its prime. Has that turned into something of a public relations disaster for ABC? I mean, they're getting rid of or trying to get rid of Koppel show, why trash the anchor in the process?

BILL CARTER, NEW YORK TIMES: I think the purpose of that really was clear. They were intending to send a message through me to the Letterman people that they were very serious about what they had promised Letterman, which was that they -- he was not the one responsible and was not going to be held responsible for any change at "Nightline," that they had made a decision about "Nightline" and they made it pretty clear that they wanted that message out, and I think that's why they chose to use the words they did.

KURTZ: Adam Buckman, before we all canonize St. Ted, why all this fuss over a guy who anchors three nights a week and who you have described as perhaps being a little bit pompous.

ADAM BUCKMAN, NEW YORK POST: Well, I think the fuss is that these are -- these are big names. They get paid a lot of money, and for all the pomposity that seems to have set into "Nightline" lately, you know, a lot of people watch it, millions upon millions. Newspaper reporters like me and like Bill Carter were around last time in 1992 when there was another late night war that broke out somewhat similar to this one. And so we remember it was a big story then, and we're making it a big story now, and I think it's justifiable if you look at the ratings.

KURTZ: Ken Bode, this is a business. If I don't put up the numbers, you could see Conan O'Brien in this time slot next week. So why shouldn't ABC try to make more money in that time slot, perhaps as much as $100 million more by putting Letterman if they can get Letterman from CBS?

KEN BODE, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY: They're going to do it. I guess we've all known all along that eventually programs like "Nightline" were going to fall victim to the obsession with the bottom line.

It's a question of values. They sent such a clear message. They told Ted Koppel and his whole staff that "Nightline" was the gem of the crown, and then they dissed him by not even telling him, not telling the president of ABC News that they were negotiating with Letterman. It's just a solid signal that goes right across the board in television broadcast news, which is that ultimately it's all on the line. And that means -- that means the anchors of the nightly news shows as well.

KURTZ: That signal has certainly been heard loud and clear, Robert Lichter, from everybody at ABC News and indeed everybody in network television. Do you see this as really kind of a raw power struggle between news and entertainment for supremacy in the network world?

ROBERT LICHTER, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: You know, Howie, I think this is such a big story, not because the person in the streets would say, oh, my God, we're talking about around the water cooler about whether we're going to have to watch Ted Koppel during prime-time instead of late night.

KURTZ: Koppel held hostage day seven ...

LICHTER: It's a big story because journalists are so worried. They're saying nobody is immune. If they can do it to Koppel, one of the best journalists around, they can do it to anybody. We're losing our leverage. It's an old struggle for power over who determines what the news is, between the board room, the executives, the bosses who run entertainment departments, as well as news departments and the journalists.

KURTZ: Pick up that point though, Carter. Has this become such a mega story? After all, it's being debated almost every day on every channel on every network because journalists are kind of circling the wagons around one of their own. As much as they may think David Letterman is a funny guy, they're deeply offended that a show like "Nightline" could just be disappeared into thin air.

CARTER: That's obviously a big part of it. I think you have to remember a couple of things. One of the -- one of them is that "Nightline" is the only news show in that time period, and there's never been any requirement that there be news in that time period. I mean, I think there's been some interesting points made that somehow ABC is offending or violating their licenses by taking this off -- if they were to take this off, but the other two don't do news in this time period, so you shouldn't judge them too harshly by saying, well, they're going to kill their news division.

I've heard that a little bit. I think that's really extreme. On the other hand, they are certainly sending a message that any show is vulnerable, and I think that message is what scares journalists.

KURTZ: Do you think, Bill Carter, that ABC executives were fully prepared for this storm of media criticism that was going to greet this announcement? I mean, they had to know that this was not going to go -- that Koppel was not going to go quietly.

CARTER: Well, obviously they kept this as quiet as they could because it would only work in secrecy. That's why they didn't tell Ted, and they didn't tell ...

KURTZ: David Westin.

CARTER: ... David Westin, the president of ABC News. But once they knew that I was going to write the story, they had to go out and tell them, because otherwise they would read about it in "The New York Times."

So I think they really were in a bind, and I don't think they meant to offend their -- the people, but they knew that if that was going to happen, they would take that chance. It was all on the chance that they could get a big star, and they were willing to risk this because let's face it, ABC's entertainment is in big trouble right now. It's doing very, very poorly and to get Letterman would be a big coup for them.

KURTZ: I was stunned when I got onto the story late at night to find out that David Westin found out about it only a couple of hours before I did. You would think that he might have been clued in.

But Adam Buckman, it doesn't sound like you're going to lose any sleep if "Nightline" indeed is replaced by Letterman's "Late Show," and I wonder whether you find the -- I wonder whether you find the journalistic reaction here to be just a little bit overheated.

BUCKMAN: I don't really want to be painted as the guy who never watches "Nightline." In fact, I think that "Nightline" serves a definite purpose in late night. It's an alternative, if you don't feel like watching the silly pranks and jokes on Dave and Jay.

But are we making too much out of it? I don't -- I don't know. You know, I look at it from "The New York Post" perspective. What do we circulate, around half a million a day, and many more people than that in New York, our readership area watch these programs. Therefore, we know that a great deal of potential buyers in the morning will be interested in this story, and it's really as simple as that. I mean, it's interesting to a lot of people, and that's why we're publishing stories every single day.

KURTZ: No I'm not trying to paint you ...


KURTZ: ... as anti "Nightline." Go ahead, Ken.

BODE: Could I get in -- yes. You know, I think what Bob Lichter said a little while ago is very important, and that is that this is about something beyond Ted Koppel and "Nightline." Ted Koppel's going to land some place. He might go to CNN. He might go to the "Sunday Morning Show," which needs a new male anchor pretty soon on ABC.

But basically, he probably won't go to prime-time, because if they put it in prime-time, that that's just an excuse to show that it can't get the ratings and it'll probably be gone. The interesting thing about this is that when the public says they want news, they want news in depth. They want news unbiased, and they want news that's on the issues. That's what they tell us. And that is "Nightline."

KURTZ: I think "Nightline" is a terrific show, and there's an argument, Bob Lichter, that, well, do we really need "Nightline" because we've got cable 24 hours a day. When "Nightline" started, it started as American held hostage in 1979. There was no cable. The idea of doing satellite interviews with world leaders, that was a novel thing.

But "Nightline" has changed over the years, and I'm wondering if you think why is it that there -- that -- it doesn't seem to appeal in those all important demographics to younger people who, at least if you filled a survey, they said they wanted serious news or real news.

LICHTER: Well, generally, younger people are less likely than older people to watch the news ...

KURTZ: Of any kind.

LICHTER: ... of any kind, and whenever a news department wants to appeal to younger people, and we have a recent example in headline news' remake, you go for jazzier graphics, quick takes ...

KURTZ: Former actresses.

LICHTER: ... former actresses, just the opposite of that old spade, just the facts ma'am, Ted Koppel out there in the old Walter Cronkite mode, this is the basic news. You know, one important thing about "Nightline" is it's not aimed at just the big young audience. It's the way that opinion leaders and opinion makers communicate to each other. It's used as a tool in international diplomacy. It's something special, and the problem is those special qualities don't translate into marketplace values.


CARTER: Bob, I want to ask, don't you think that "Nightline" has changed a little bit from what you just described, that it isn't doing exactly what it used to do in terms of you know trying to capture the big story of the day, trying to get the big interview of the day. It's much more like a magazine show now than it used to be, very well done, extremely well done. But I think that what you described is what we all think of "Nightline" because we grew up watching "Nightline" -- it hasn't changed from that.

LICHTER: Yes I think like everything else, "Nightline" has been pushed toward that mold that I've been describing and toward what the prime-time news magazine shows have been pushed toward, which is more a compelling story, at the worst case a soap opera, at the best case turning a news event into something like a fictional narrative with heroes and villains and so forth.

KURTZ: And you know "Nightline" is not up on some pedestal. I mean, "Nightline" covered the hell out of the O.J. trial. It covered Monica. There has been some lighter shows, but Adam Buckman, I can't help but laugh when I think about the way in which "Nightline" has changed, and people are saying, well, it's become more like a magazine show.

I don't know any other network that would send its anchor to spend a week in the Congo and report about two and a half million people dying there. I mean, that's the kind of serious commitment to news that you don't see on cable. So, I wonder whether ABC understands that distinction, or it basically doesn't care because it doesn't bring in the huge bucks.

BUCKMAN: Well, I don't know how much bucks the Congo series brought in. I mean, it certainly was an interesting series, but I'm sure it wasn't as high rated as some "Nightlines" that would have been dealing with even just a week ago when that aired with more current issues and stories, the kind of stuff that the news viewer has seen all day on cable.

And the justification for "Nightline" to continue in that kind of environment is to continue the national conversation that's kind of under way during the day, to sort of segue to the Congo is really not the way of news today. Now, in a perfect world, all networks would send correspondents around the world and bring back video and stories about the hot spots and what's going on. But if there's no real American interest or American tug there, the reality is that most of the news media is going to ignore those stories and are going to concentrate on the ones that -- quote -- unquote -- "everybody is talking about." And when "Nightline" goes to the Congo, I don't think the Disney executives appreciate it very much.

LICHTER: You know, Howie, everything's moved in the direction of what we call softer news, but the difference between "Nightline" and everybody else is still there, and I think what we've just been hearing is that once upon a time the network's executives were willing to take a little less profit in return for the prestige of the kind of thing ...

KURTZ: The prestige ...


KURTZ: And no one cares about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) prestige any more ...


KURTZ: ... it's all about ratings, points, and how much you can sell each minute to advertisers and that sort of thing. And I'm wondering, Bill ...


BODE: It wasn't just prestige.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

BODE: Remember, it was a sense of obligation. They had the free use of the airwaves. They made a ton of money using those airwaves and the news division was, if it lost, it was that part of giving back to the public interest in return for all the money they were making with the entertainment section. There is no sense of that anymore, because all of the news divisions are part of networks that are owned by people who have no interest in news, and the ...


BODE: Go ahead.

KURTZ: I didn't mean to cut you off, Ken. Go ahead.

BODE: Go ahead. And the values of news are just not -- are just not valued in those corporate boardrooms.

KURTZ: Obviously, these are companies that didn't grow up as part of the news business. We're talking about Viacom, General Electric, and in this case Disney, which owns ABC. Bill Carter, I once asked Koppel, "why don't you try to do more in prime-time?" Obviously, he's a name brand. And he said, "well, you know, you'd have to be more entertaining at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. You'd have to draw twice as big an audience as "Nightline" does, which is about five and a half million viewers, in order to compete with sitcoms and dramas," and he didn't have any interest in doing that. And now is that an elitist point of view on his part?

CARTER: No, I think that's a realistic point of view. He wants to do very high-quality programs, and he does them. That's why he does the Congo, and he does them wonderfully. And, you know, ABC has offered him to do it in prime-time, and I think that's why he resists it, because he knows that isn't going to work. He's not going to have the freedom to do that.

But, of course, he has had enormous freedom in this show. He has basically been separated from the rest of ABC's news, and really what he's been doing has been, you know, I guess not like what anybody else does, and I think it's worth noting that no one else, no other network has ever tried to do that. They worked well because they were an alternative. They were the alternative to the entertainment shows.

But now ABC says, we aren't making enough money on this show, and the ratings have declined over a period of time on "Nightline". And so, that's why they looked for an alternative where they thought -- really what happened was Letterman became available in a -- in a way they never expected. They didn't have much choice about timing or thinking about it, and they decided to go for it.

Now it happens to be true that as far back as last summer, ABC executives were telling me that they were looking at "Nightline" and thinking about making a change to entertainment because -- strictly for revenue. Yes, it is about money.

KURTZ: They were eyeing a time slot, and of course it is about money in network television.

Before we go to break, let's take a look at what Walter Cronkite has to say. He's interviewed after this program on CNN's "CAPITAL GANG." He was asked about the "Nightline" situation.


WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER CBS NEWS ANCHOR: I think it's most unfortunate -- it's most unfortunate. That has been a very important broadcast. Ted's done that beautifully, of course, and his staff. And we do not have enough of that kind of serious look at the news on the air.


KURTZ: Walter Cronkite on "CAPITAL GANG" at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll be right back.



Ken Bode, didn't you hear a lot of talk after September 11 about how news organizations and their companies ought to get a lot more serious in this age of terrorism?

BODE: We did, and we also heard a lot of talk about how the public, now again, appreciated the fact that there was a real need for hard news. And what's curious about this is that as we are in Afghanistan, still bombing in Afghanistan, the Middle East is blowing up, and we're talking about an invasion of Iraq, we're talking about news not being very relevant to the public anymore. That's really curious.

KURTZ: Adam Buckman, you're an 18 to 49-year old, is there any news show that ...


KURTZ: ... could appeal to that group with a greater urgency than does "Nightline" or is it always going to be hard to compete against the likes of a Letterman or a Leno or somebody that's just a lot funnier?

BUCKMAN: I think the kind of ongoing repetitive news structure of the cable news channels, ongoing as it is, even between the topical talk shows in the evening, give those younger viewers, perhaps, the same news perhaps in a brighter and more interesting package.

Look, I wish there was an ideal world where everybody appreciated the skill and craft that went into great newscasts like "Nightline" and perhaps "The News Hour" on PBS. But that's not really what's happening. I think what -- there should have been at some point, some greater attention being paid by the people who have separated themselves off from the rest of the ABC News division in "Nightline" to try to change with the times a little bit, a little gradually, kind of making a modern "Nightline" that kind of kept slightly up with the -- with the trends or maybe just behind, and maybe Disney wouldn't have looked upon it as such as an anachronistic program that they would have to replace with something else.

KURTZ: Right. Bill Carter, David Letterman paid about $30 million a year, says he's unhappy. I should be so unhappy. You reported a few days ago that he had refused to take a call actually from the president of CBS, Leslie Moonves ...

CARTER: Right.

KURTZ: ... I reported last year that Ted Koppel had gotten into kind of a public confrontation at a meeting with Disney Chairman Michael Eisner over the question of layoffs. Koppel wanted the news division protected. Eisner said if he did that, he'd have to protect the people who drew the Disney cartoons. Koppel didn't like that answer.

All of which is a long-winded way of asking, is some of this just personal as these superstar anchors make their decisions about where to go and who to affiliate with?

CARTER: Yes it -- for David Letterman, a lot of things are personal. I mean, he -- obviously he's not doing this for money. He could get -- he has all the money he needs, and he could get more from ABC maybe than he didn't get from CBS.

So he could -- if he just wants to jump, he can jump. It really comes down to, is he comfortable. He's obviously got a very high standard. He's kind of an ethical guy. He wants to not be, you know, sort of cornered by Hollywood, and he wants that freedom of movement and he's -- you know, he's such a big star he can demand those things. It's not that different from what Johnny Carson used to do. Johnny Carson used to drive the NBC people crazy.

And I think Ted is also in his way a superstar. He's an icon, and he has had a lot of freedom. He's been able to pull back and work only, you know, three days a week more or less.

KURTZ: He has a huge amount of freedom, but does Letterman want to be -- go down in history as the man who blew up "Nightline"?

CARTER: He definitely doesn't want to, and that's why when the negotiation began, his side said to ABC if this comes out that, you know, we are the guys that are pushing Ted Koppel out, we can't have it, and they assured him at that point that that would not be the case, that they were going to make some changes in late night anyway, and then if it wasn't going to be Dave, it would be somebody else.

And that's why I believe they have continued, even though they have apologized and tried to back off, even -- they're under such pressure about this, and yet they are still saying we want Letterman, and we'll go all out to get Letterman because they want to keep giving him ...


KURTZ: Let me go to Bob Lichter. With Cokie Roberts saying she's stepping down from ABC this week, Sam Donaldson may be on his way out, do you have the feeling that news edition is scarred or in disarray at ABC News?

LICHTER: Yes what -- I think what's happening is a lot of, I hate to say old-timers, traditionalists ...

KURTZ: But they are older people.

LICHTER: Yes. OK. They're -- but that makes me think I'm an older person too. This -- and this is kind of a last stand, and in a way it is. The pendulum is swinging. If journalists 50 years ago had made this kind of public stink about working conditions, the old press lords would have said fine, you don't have any work to have conditions.

All of a sudden, the news has changed, and the economic conditions are changing. The pendulum on the swinging back to the Boardroom and journalists are saying -- the traditional journalists are saying we don't want this kind of news, and for the public, I think, we have to say what's next.

KURTZ: OK. What's next? We'll find out next week. Bob Lichter, Bill Carter, Ken Bode, Adam Buckman, thanks very much for joining us. And when we come back "The Spin Cycle" and how big media money keeps popping up on Capitol Hill.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Time to check in with this week's "Spin Cycle".

If you've been watching the Enron hearings, and who hasn't? You might have noticed CNN adding little factoids beneath some of the lawmaker's faces.


(voice-over): What if this becomes a full fledged media trend? You know, like VH-1 "Pop-Up Videos." What if every time Senator Robert Byrd appeared, we saw this, or John Edwards or John McCain, or Trent Lott, or Tom Daschle?

Well, guess what? House Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin doesn't think it's fair for CNN to be suggesting, implying, or insinuating that there's something wrong with taking corporate contributions. In fact, he says, he's gotten plenty of money from big media companies as well, more than $70,000 since the last election cycle.

The congressman is right on this point. The networks are big- time givers. Since the 2000 election cycle, NBC's owner, General Electric, has given $3.1 million in federal races. ABC's owner, the Disney Company, $2.6 million, CBS' owner, Viacom, $1.6 million. Fox's owner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, $1.4 million. CNN's parent, AOL Time Warner, has doled out $5.6 million, including the period when America Online and Time Warner were separate companies.

What do these video giants get for their money? The House recently took up an amendment pushed through the Senate by Robert Torricelli to force networks and local stations to give deeper advertising discounts to federal candidates at election time. But the National Association of Broadcasters, which has donated $525,000 in the last three years, put on a full court press, and the House voted overwhelmingly to cut the amendment from the campaign finance bill. Billy Tauzin voted to kill the ad discount.

(on camera): Why haven't you heard about this? NBC, ABC, and CBS haven't carried a word, and cable has barely mentioned the amendment. Seems like we ought to do a better job to make sure that corporate money and media money keep popping up into the story.


That's "The Spin Cycle" for today -- just kidding, Wolf. And that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Tune in tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern for another live edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. We'll talk about the Letterman-Koppel firestorm and our guests will include Laura Ingraham and "Vanity Fair's" James Wolcott. And we'll talk with a reporter in Afghanistan who ran into serious danger amid the ongoing warfare there.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.





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