BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Friday, news lovers got a shock. Reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that Nightline was falling under the axe at Disney-owned ABC. Launched with Ted Koppel at the helm during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis, Nightline carved out a niche among an affluent, older audience. But Koppel himself conceded to OTM last year that it could only have survived in its 11:30 time slot because there the competition wasn't so fierce.
TED KOPPEL: We would have been off the air a long time ago if we were in prime time, because our ratings would not have been high enough. At 11:30 at night they're just fine!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Reports suggest that the show loses too much money to justify its continued existence in tough economic times and that ABC has been luring David Letterman to fill Nightline's time slot. We've invited TV Guide's Max Robins to explain the how's and why's of the network's decision. Welcome back to the show, Max.
MAX ROBINS: Hey, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nightline is one of ABC's crown jewels, so is this really just a matter of dollars and cents? Is it actually losing that much money?
MAX ROBINS: In the wake of this news, David Westin, the president of ABC news in a meeting on a conference call said that Nightline was actually making 13 million dollars a year! Not only does it make money; but it adds a certain luster to the network and to its news division! You called this a crown jewel. It certainly is! And it's not only a crown jewel for ABC but a crown jewel of the news business all together. This is as good a regularly scheduled news broadcast as exists, and they're willing to say goodbye in order to lure David Letterman to the network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well let's talk about David Letterman. He has said not just now but in the past that he did not want to be responsible for knocking Nightline off the air, and he has repeated that claim, but he was told that Nightline was going anyway. Do you think that's true? Do you think if Letterman held back Nightline would stay?
MAX ROBINS: In a negotiation like this when you're dealing with a star of, of Letterman's magnitude, the network that's doing the wooing tells him what he wants to hear. I think Letterman is sincere in saying that I think that quite frankly would ABC jettison Nightline if they couldn't put a proven earner like a David Letterman in its place? I really don't think so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they're telling Letterman that or so it's being reported.
MAX ROBINS:A lot of times the business of wooing talent is a lot like any kind of seduction, Brooke and-- that means sometimes the seducer can be less than honest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What else did ABC news president David Westin say on that conference call on Friday? First of all is it a done deal?
MAX ROBINS:Westin did not say that. He said that this whole thing blindsided him as well, and I think that speaks to the diminished importance within the corporate structure of, of Disney and ABC of news. In the past, when Westin's predecessor Roone Arledge was president of ABC News, they would never even entertain a decision of this kind of magnitude without involving him in it and without him there putting up a r-- the good fight to keep it from happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But some justifying this have said off the record that cable coverage and the 24 hour news cycle has made programs like Nightline redundant!
MAX ROBINS: That argument is utter nonsense. The cable news networks do do some international coverage, especially CNN, but it is rare that they do it with the kind of depth and breadth that a Nightline will do it. And let's remember too - I mean the cable news networks - they have a minuscule audience. When Nightline airs, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN combined, combined -- their combined audience! -- is still a fraction of the audience that tunes in for Nightline every night!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which is about--?
MAX ROBINS: Five and a half million people! That's none too shabby!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact that's roughly the same size as Letterman's audience isn't it?
MAX ROBINS:It is about the same size. The difference is, is that Koppel's audience does skew somewhat older, and when you deliver an audience - a younger audience - to Madison Avenue - David Letterman's aud-- audience is more valuable. But it's very expensive for CBS because not only do they pay Letterman himself more than 20 million dollars in salary, they have to license his show from his production company. I've even talked to people inside CBS that really say it's a loss leader! - that they're not making money off of Letterman! This is fuzzy math when you get into the business of network economics because Letterman does give them a great promotional platform; and he is a star - he is a brand name - and those brand names help a network. But the same can be said for Koppel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So from a sheer monetary standpoint it isn't a slam dunk that Letterman would make money where Koppel lost it.
MAX ROBINS:This whole deal is far from a slam dunk, at least on the surface. It really seems like there's something else at play here. Who knows? Ted Koppel's been quite outspoken in a forum within ABC news. Questioned Michael Eisner, the chairman of the Walt Disney Company about that company's commitment to news and that was in the wake of cutbacks about a year ago. Look -- corporations take heat when they have news organizations that aren't afraid to rock the boat! If you don't have to do it, why do it? And that may be their attitude -- that if they can make as much or more money or a little bit less money with David Letterman and there's no headaches, why not? That may be their thinking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Max Robins, thanks again.
MAX ROBINS: My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robins writes The Robins Report for TV Guide. [MUSIC]