Star power fading at ABC

'Nightline' faithful astonished about network talks with Letterman

— ABC's courtship of David Letterman created some surprise at ABC News about how the 22-year-old "Nightline" was treated.

Perhaps it shouldn't have. The network's news division has received pointed messages about its place over the past year from ABC's corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co.

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Ted Koppel could lose his job anchoring the late-night news show "Nightline." ABC reportedly wants to replace "Nightline" with a talk show led by current CBS star David Letterman.

"The news divisions of the networks are far less a part of these giant companies than they used to be," said former ABC news correspondent Jeff Greenfield, now at CNN, citing the rise of huge media companies that have swallowed broadcast networks.

Ted Koppel has been silent publicly about his show's future and was expected to steer clear of the subject on "Nightline" Monday, his first day back after a vacation.

Letterman, mulling the switch to ABC when his contract with CBS expires this summer, was on an island vacation Monday.

Network, entertainment clash

Instead of coming to the defense of "Nightline" when news of their discussions with Letterman leaked last week, top ABC executives said they were considering scrapping it in favor of an entertainment program even if Letterman stayed put. The shows air in the same 10:35 p.m. time slot.

Badly hurt by the almost complete failure of its prime-time entertainment schedule this year, ABC is looking to make money any way it can, and some think an entertainment show appealing to young people at 10:35 p.m. would help.

The network's news and entertainment divisions also clashed last May when "20/20" was moved from Friday night after 25 years to make way for "Once and Again," an entertainment series that has yet to draw strong ratings. Anchor Barbara Walters was furious.

ABC's entertainment division agreed last month to produce a reality series about the U.S. military in Afghanistan, ignoring objections from the news side, which said that could undermine its efforts to gain better access for journalists to cover the war.

Neither event was considered as serious, however, as the flap over "Nightline."

ABC News President David Westin, who has not commented publicly, was put in the awkward position of appearing out of the corporate loop. He reportedly wasn't told about the Letterman talks until the night before they were revealed in The New York Times.

'Nightline' ratings sink

In a meeting with his staff Friday, Koppel angrily dismissed characterizations of his show as losing relevance. He asked employees not to get involved in a "classless" public fight with ABC's parents, said an executive who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Koppel didn't hear from an ABC executive about the talks with Letterman until late Friday afternoon, when he took a call from Disney president Robert Iger, the executive said.

Ratings for "Nightline" have been sinking the past few years, as they have for most network shows, but it still regularly outdraws Letterman's "Late Show." ABC executives are concerned that "Nightline" doesn't reach the young audience most sought by advertisers, and that the show appears less special in an era of cable news saturation.

In his 2000 book "Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public," Koppel expressed concern about ABC News' place in the Disney empire.

"I truly believe that a network news division falls into a unique and very special category; we're not just another 'budget' or 'cost' center," he wrote. "But I'm increasingly nervous about the prevailing attitude at the network."

Koppel said "there seems to be no particular distinction drawn between the entertainment division and the news division when it comes to responding to the corporation's demand for budget cuts."

On CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday, Bob Schieffer said he couldn't understand why ABC would try to destroy one of its most prestigious shows.

"I have two messages," he said. "Stay home, Dave. You wouldn't be happy over there. And Ted, if they do run you off, keep us in mind."

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