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2002-03-07

Entertainment Takes Over the Network News: Disney’s Stocks Rise As Ted Koppel Fights for"Nightline’s" Survival On Disney’s Abc, Threatened By a Possible Letterman Takeover

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A media ruckus is unfolding at ABC News, as senior anchors confront rumors of their undoing by Disney executives saidto favor entertainment value over old-school news. Disney, which owns ABC, apparently wants to replace Ted Koppel’s"Nightline" with the more lucrative "The Letterman Show," CBS late night comedy show.

Koppel’s "Nightline" has ruled the 11:30 p.m. time slot on ABC since it went on the air 1979. But the message fromthe networks is that prime time news has been trounced by 24-hour cable news channels. On Friday, the New YorkTimes reported that an anonymous ABC executive said ABC’s late-night news show had lost "relevancy" and ABC hopedto lure CBS late-night host David Letterman and his advertising revenue into the slot.

Two days ago, USA Today claimed that ABC hosts Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts would be replaced by Clintonaide George Stephanopoulos in an effort to woo a younger audience. Even as ABC denied the claims, Roberts confirmedshe will leave as co-anchor in the fall.

When Disney bought ABC in 1995, commentators immediately began to suggest that TV news would change as outmodednetwork news was sacrificed "for more-profitable entertainment." Last year, Disney briefly replaced Barbara Walters’20/20 with the weepy drama "Once and Again" until ABC news stars insisted it be brought back.

But "Nightline," more than any other ABC show, has seemed sacrosanct to the network. It has consistently drawn anaudience rivaling late night comedy shows, but the audience is getting old—the average viewer is now 51. Letterman’sshow, with a much younger demographic, draws nets about $175 million for CBS. The Associated Press reported todaythat CBS has offered Letterman a salary of $31.5 million to stay on board.

But not all commentary is focused on the loss of a great news program . . . Christopher Hitchens wrote in the_Guardian_ this week, "Nightline was chiefly a megaphone for the most establishment pundits and "terrorismexpert" pseudo-academics. An incredibly narrow range of opinion, all the way from right to centre-right, wascanvassed on the show."

Today, we are going to discuss corporate network news and entertainment.

Guests:

  • Alexander Cockburn, editor of "Counterpunch" newsletter and columnist for the Nation magazine.
  • Al Hunt, executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal and a panelist on CNN’s The CapitalGang for 11 years. He is currently on a train heading to New York for a special broadcast of his program called "FromBeltway to Broadway."

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