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David Letterman Decides to Stay on CBS

Aired March 16, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

The big news came from the big man himself.


DAVID LETTERMAN, CBS HOST: What I have decided to do, and this has not been a very easy decision for me, I have decided to stay here at CBS. And I want to thank...


KURTZ: And what did Dave have to say about Ted?


LETTERMAN: Because of the kind of guy he is and the kind of show he ran, and what he has done for this country and the world of broadcasting, this guy, at the very least, deserves the right to determine his own professional future.


KURTZ: So, what will happen to "Nightline" and Ted Koppel? It's been the talk of the tube.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are public airwaves. We own them. Disney doesn't own them. We, the people, own them. They've got the use of them, for free. They should have a responsibility not to just do entertainment, but to put on some good stuff, "Nightline".


KURTZ: As for Ted Koppel, this week he told his bosses that it would not be reasonable for him to continue doing the show unless Disney and ABC send a clear and unmistakable signal that "Nightline" can count on serious corporate backing beyond just a short-term guarantee.

Well, joining us now in New York, Michael Wolff, media columnist for "New York" magazine. And here in Washington, Terrence Smith, media correspondent for PBS's "News Hour with Jim Lehrer" and Paul Farhi, staff writer for "The Washington Post."

Terry, why -- you bumped into Ted Koppel the other day -- why doesn't he just declare victory and move on?

TERRENCE SMITH, PBS CORRESPONDENT: Well, because there's no victory here, I don't think.

I've never seen a more naked and brazen example of just how the corporate world and the corporate owners approach the news divisions in the networks that they own. And where they fit in the pecking order.

ABC and Disney was absolutely unapologetic about trying to get David Letterman and they jettisoned Ted Koppel to do it.

I did run into Ted, and I asked him if this gave him more leverage, and he said he was going to push as hard as he could to get the kind of commitment that you just mentioned, that he's asking for.

But nobody is sending one over there. There are no guarantees, and if Letterman didn't fill that slot, some other entertainer, a Jon Stewart or somebody like that, might do it later.

KURTZ: They're feeling pretty bruised and battered.

Michael Wolff, you write in your forthcoming column that you like the idea of "Nightline," but that you haven't really watched the show for several years. Why?

MICHAEL WOLFF, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE: Well, because I find it, oh jeez, I think I'm going to have to say the word, irrelevant.

You know, and it was a funny thing. When this whole brouhaha started, I felt the same way everyone does. Oh, Ted Koppel, that's, you know, that's quality, how can they screw around with quality.

And then it occurred to me, I don't watch the show anymore.

KURTZ: But why irrelevant? It's a serious news show. They have important people on. They do taped stories. You find it to be just irrelevant as a news product?

WOLFF: Well, I find it doesn't speak to me, and I think lots of people find that. I mean, just because it's serious, just because we say it's quality -- and Ted Koppel seems like a serious guy to me. But that doesn't mean that he's on top of the news.

I mean, he's been doing this how for 20 years. You're going to get to the point, eventually, and I think lots of network news has gotten to that point, where it's old. Move out. Move over. Give someone else a chance.

KURTZ: All right. Michael in favor of the youth movement.

Paul Farhi, you are agree with critics who say that "Nightline" has grown somewhat stale and outdated, and could the best news show on the planet compete with the likes of Leno and Letterman?

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I don't think it's irrelevant. I don't think it's outlived its usefulness.

"Nightline" is an ornament in American journalism. It's one of the great things that television has brought us over the entire history of television.

I would say, though, that Ted overplayed his hand a bit. His public shaming of Disney was extraordinary to me. In fact, it was unnecessary, because every editorial, opinion-maker, every media outlet, was intervening on his behalf.

KURTZ: He's fighting for his life, or the life of the show.

FARHI: He publicly shamed his bosses. Who, in this society, can get away with that?


SMITH: You know, Michael, I really have to disagree on the relevance point.

I think -- the argument was made, for example, that because there is cable news 24 hours a day, this and other channels, that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this serious look at the news.

But in fact, I think you do.

WOLFF: What are we talking about when we say a serious look at the news? What does that mean? To me, it sort of means self-serious.

KURTZ: Let me pick that up. Because originally people were saying, boy, it's just like every other cable show, talk, talk, talk, with the same kind of faces.

SMITH: And it's not.

KURTZ: So "Nightline" shifted, and now they do more investigations and more taped pieces, into things like civil war in the Congo, drug trafficking in Mexico, women in Afghanistan, Bush's first 100 days. So then critics come out and say, well, it's not live very much. Isn't there a place for reporting and journalism of this kind, or maybe not at 11:30 -- Michael Wolf.

WOLFF: I don't know if there is. Maybe there isn't. I mean, there is -- I am reluctant, and I wonder why we give Ted Koppel this singular franchise, why he's the only serious guy in town. Why his way is the only way.

SMITH: I'll tell you why, it's very simple. More millions of people watch Ted Koppel every night than watch David Letterman every night.

Television is a great democracy. People vote with their remote controls. They have voted for Ted Koppel for two decades. WOLFF: Well, actually, the advertising community, part of what they're saying about this new science of demos, is that people don't watch Ted Koppel, is that that's a passive audience, that's the audience that, for some inexplicable reason, probably because it's comatose, has not gone to another station.

FARHI: Well, see, the advertisers say the wrong people watch Ted Koppel. That's the problem.


SMITH: It's people like me. Advertisers have no interest in my money, evidently. But I believe that in fact the show does groundbreaking things, and there is room for it, and it is in that timeslot.

But make no mistake about it, the owners, the corporate owners, have made it clear just what they want to do with that timeslot.

David Letterman didn't come, but somebody else might, and they'll go like that.

KURTZ: It could be Jon Stewart. It could be Howard Stern. It could be celebrity mud wrestling. The Tonya Harding boxing match did pretty well on FOX.

FARHI: Well, I think we're overrating the ability to program at 11:30 at night. I mean, David Letterman is singular in the history of television, because he was able to take on "The Tonight Show" successfully. No one else has really been able to do that with the exception of Ted Koppel.

KURTZ: Right. Disney chairman Michael Eisner was interviewed Friday on CNN, and Paul Zahn asked him, would he make the commitment, the commitment that Koppel was asking for, for a long-term arrangement for "Nightline," would it stay on the air long-term.

Here's what he had to say.


MICHAEL EISNER, DISNEY: I have talked to Ted Koppel. I have a very good relationship with all of our newscasters, as does Bob Iger (ph). I think you know that. We are very supportive of ABC news, and I personally have not continued the conversations about what the show is going to be and how long it's going to be and all the rest of it.


SMITH: Something less than an ironclad guarantee.

KURTZ: He danced around the question as gracefully as any politician. But, Michael Wolff, you follow these corporate moguls as closely as anyone. Does Michael Eisner care about news in the vast expanse of the Disney empire? WOLFF: No. Well, I think he cares that he wants to get out of the news business, or at least substantially cut back on ABC's commitment to news, and I think actually there is a larger explanation, which is that ABC is in some sense already out of the news business.

Because they don't have other platforms, news cable stations, for instance, like NBC, they can't really compete with NBC, with CNN, with other people -- with other corporate entities who have other alternatives, who can lay off, essentially, their costs across the network.

FARHI: I find this really silly. I find this ridiculous.

ABC news is quite a profitable division of the Disney corporation. If that is all you assume Disney wants, and that's a perfectly good assumption, ABC news is performing very well for them. Maybe not "Nightline" as well, but let's take just the "Nightline" piece. The rest of ABC news does fine.

KURTZ: And that's leaving aside the question of prestige and public service and should you have some news rather than put on...


SMITH: That's right. It used to be used. Public service, responsibility and convenience. That's what they're supposed to do.

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, you wanted to jump back in here?

WOLFF: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a question of what does doing fine mean.

NBC does better. I mean, they do better, just on an accounting basis. They can take their network news shows and leverage them across MSNBC and CNBC. That means it cost 1/3 -- an NBC NEWS SPECIAL will cost 1/3 what it would cost on ABC.

Now, does that mean that ABC can't make money? No, they can make money, but in a competitive environment, Michael Eisner is essentially saying, why should I try? Why should I compete on this basis?

SMITH: Well, the answer is, his news programs, or those of ABC, are second in the morning, second in the evening, and first sometimes in late night. So that's a position worth building on.

WOLFF: Well, it's only a position -- it may not be, actually, a position worth building on. I mean, you have to be able to accept that Eisner, who I agree, and I think everyone thinks Eisner is one of the great television knuckleheads of all time, but let's step back from there, and maybe he has this other idea.

And maybe the idea is, well, why do I have to be in the news business?

You know, I think it's a reasonable question. I don't know the answer. Maybe he should, but maybe there is no reason.

KURTZ: That question is certainly resonating.

Let's take a step back, Paul Farhi. For the last ten years, news divisions have tarted themselves up. Let's face it, more fluff, more crime, more sensational stuff, more celebrities, more anchors promoted as being sexy. What you might call the "Datelining" of America.

Now, ABC news people are shocked that Disney wants the real thing at 11:30?

FARHI: I disagree with your premise. If you look at the content analysis of the evening news, the network evening news, over the last ten years, foreign news is the number one story that has been covered on the network newscasts.

Crime, certainly, but that's the only...

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) dramatically by their own admission. Until 9-11, they were closing bureaus and blowing off foreign news.

FARHI: Absolutely untrue. The Middle East, Russia, Yugoslavia, all of these stories were very, very well covered for the last ten years. It's a misnomer to suggest that because they closed foreign news bureaus, they stopped covering foreign news.

KURTZ: But I'm talking not just about evening news. I'm talking about the magazine shows, the morning shows. Clearly, the trend has been in the direction of softer news, and so why not get even softer and go with entertainment?

FARHI: The movement of the networks into primetime with "news," and I put news in quotes, is a different kind of news.

We know that "Dateline" doesn't do the news the way the evening news covers the news. It's softer. It's supposed to be broader. It's supposed to attract a wider audience. But that's what primetime television is about.

SMITH: Howard, I think you've put your finger on something. It is a crucial time for network news to prove itself, and to answer the questions that you're raising, and to demonstrate that it serves a purpose beyond the mere numbers. Beyond the mere profit.

And that, if necessary, networks can be reminded that they do use the public airwaves, they do have something for free, and they do have a responsibility.

KURTZ: Well, I...


KURTZ: Brief answer. Go ahead -- Michael.

WOLFF: Well, I'd like to push this, or at least propose that we think about what seems to be inevitable here, that that's going away. That the networks, or at least some of the networks, are not going to be in the news business, or at least the hard news business, in a relatively short period of time. If not this year, then next year.


WOLFF: And what does that mean?

KURTZ: I would have thought that September 11th had answered that question, but maybe people have short memories.

When we come back, we'll continue our discussion and look at the future of the evening news.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we have to say to the people who run the networks and the stations, we understand the need to maximize an audience, but as Ted has written so eloquently, if you give up a serious news effort, when you really need it and people really want it, it will not be there.




Michael Wolff, as you well know, Dan Rather is 70 years old. Peter Jennings is 64. Tom Brokaw is 62. I get the impression from your earlier comments that maybe you don't think that all three networks will have an evening newscast, say in three to five years, and that maybe they don't need to. Your thoughts.

WOLFF: Yeah. No. I definitely think that what we're -- among the other assumptions that are being challenged here is the three horsemen assumption, that the networks should work in lockstep, that they should do the same things.

And if you give it a moment's thought, it ceases to make any sense. And I think we're going to see some change. I think probably Disney very clearly doesn't want to be in the news business anymore.

Now, I mean, the question then to ask is, is that an opportunity for somebody else?

SMITH: You know, it seems to me that change may occur, but elimination is unlikely.

WOLFF: You have to look at elimination on a different basis. I mean, I think, probably, Disney would like to keep its magazine shows, or at least some form of them, but I think in terms of its hard news commitment, it wants to dramatically scale back, and is in the process.

FARHI: There's no economic reason for this to happen. The nightly news is essentially a lost leader for the rest of the news divisions at all of the networks.

In other words, we produce a 30 minutes newscast because we can also then produce an hour of "Dateline," an hour of "20/20," some part of "Nightline" as well.

KURTZ: This argument, that the explosion of cable news has rendered the traditional 6:30 appointment viewing newscast...


FARHI: On any given night, the combined audience for the three nightly newscasts is anywhere from about 25 to 30 million.

KURTZ: That's dropped way down from 10 or 15 years ago.

FARHI: So has every other program on television.

KURTZ: Sure. Right.

FARHI: Ratings have declined for soap operas, sitcoms, sports, you name it. The news is no different. In fact, the news has held on to an audience that is very valuable and can lead to other programs.

KURTZ: Terrence, you're an old CBS hand. Do you think that when Rather retires, or is carried out of there, as I believe will eventually happen, that there won't be some pressure to dispense with the CBS EVENING NEWS?

SMITH: The possible change, either at CBS or one of the other networks, is that they take the ailing evening news, at 6:30 or 7:00 Eastern time, and they move it to 10:00 at night, they give it an hour.

The news is the first 10 or 15 minutes, whatever it requires, and the rest is more of a "60 Minutes" like presentation. That idea has certainly been kicked around. It's certainly possible.

WOLFF: Well, let's look at some other scenarios.

There was the discussion at CBS for a long time that it would effectively sell or merge its news division with CNN. That's a discussion that's a live, for instance, right now at ABC.

Is that good or bad? Is it just a change? Is it another way, a sensible business way for networks to address the cost of giving the news?

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, you recently wrote a piece on George Stephanopoulos, who may be in line to become at least a co-anchor of ABC's "This Week." Cokie Roberts is retiring. San Donaldson's status is unclear.

Is Stephanopoulos sort of the anchor-type of the future? Young, hip, good looking and no real background in journalism? Obviously, he came out of the Clinton White House and from politics.

WOLFF: I don't know. I mean, I think there are aspects of -- no, actually, let me answer that.

No, I think George is probably too ingenuous. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone with George's background and with his, I think I called it his cuddliness.

SMITH: It wasn't so long ago that Tim Russert was in politics. I mean, you know, people have gone through that revolving door.

WOLFF: Right. He was never cuddly, however.

KURTZ: The question is, how long do you have to wait? Of course, Stephanopoulos was such a high visibility part of the Clinton White House.

Paul Farhi, let's take the long view here. Why don't younger people, those 18 to 34's that advertisers want to sell beer to, why don't more of them watch any kind of news, unless it's MTV news? I mean, don't they care about taxes and terrorism in this era?

FARHI: That's a great question, that's the question that underlies all of this discussion.

The question really is that 18 to 34 younger demographic doesn't watch much television, period. They watch selectively. They graze. They're out doing other things. They have lives, so to speak. They're in school. They're out at clubs. They're playing videogames. They're on the Internet. They've got more things to do to carry their attention away.

KURTZ: They have lives. We'll have to leave it there.

Michael Wolff in New York, Paul Farhi, Terry Smith, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, a cable loudmouth takes on Arthur Andersen, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) got a little too close to Jack Welch and the actress-turned-anchor whose gotten off the stage. All that in our media roundup.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Time now for a look at the world of media news.


(voice-over): When Jim Cramer talks, people listen. The cofounder of THESTREET.COM ripped into Arthur Andersen on his CNBC show "America Now," prompting the embattled accounting firm to declare that its reputation had been impugned. Imagine.

Arthur Andersen, which is under investigation for its role in the Enron mess, dumped THESTREET.COM as a client.

Says Cramer, "I'm not the one who shredded the documents." "Slate" magazine is trying to figure out how it got duped. The online publication was embarrassed when one of its diarist, a man who said he was a top auto executive, turned out to be a hoaxer.

Acting editor Jack Schaeffer (ph) thinks he has tracked down the e-mailer, a well-known prankster, Schaeffer (ph) believes, by using the very technology that allowed the man to scam "Slate" in the first place.

Millions of people have seen this picture, a haunting photograph of an Afghan girl taken at a refugee camp back in 1984. The "National Geographic" put it on the cover last fall.

The photographer, Steve McCurry, set out to find her, and finally discovered her in Pakistan, where he removed her burka and photographed her again, providing the basis for an MSNBC special.

Finally, the venerable "Harvard Business Review" might seem an unlikely venue for a sex scandal, but talk about getting in bed with your sources. Suzie Wetlaufer has been forced to step down as editor after interviewing Jack Welch and admitting she was having an affair with the former General Electric chairman.

Wetlaufer pulled the piece, which Welch had been allowed to edit extensively. Standards practice, it turns out, at the "Harvard" monthly.

Two other review editors quit after Wetlaufer was allowed to remain as editor-at-large, one of them calling the arrangement, quote, "a masterpiece of ethical fecklessness."

Oh, and a footnote: Welch's wife is filing for divorce.


KURTZ: And one more note, Andrea Thompson, the former "NYPD Blue" actress who caused such a stir when she signed on as a headline news anchor, especially with those racy pictures of her floating around the Internet, has abruptly bowed out.

Thompson calling it quits after just seven months on the job. I guess the role didn't quite fit her.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch us again tomorrow morning at 09:30 Eastern.




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