The broadcast journalism community was stunned last week when it was announced that ABC was in negotiations with David Letterman. They intended to replace Ted Koppel's Nightline with a late show hosted by CBS's Letterman. Corporate parent Disney made sure that few people in their own family knew what was going on. Even ABC's news president David Westin was one of the many left out of the loop.

At Nightline's Washington headquarters, the possible change struck like a thunderbolt. Anchor Ted Koppel and Executive Producer Tom Bettag learned of it from the New York Times. The outrage spread through the network's news division. A clear signal was being sent by Hollywood that entertainment would trump news.

Even though no one except perhaps Letterman himself knows if he will make the move, journalists throughout print and broadcast are ready to man the ramparts in support of Nightline.

The justification that Disney makes for the potential shift has everything to do with ratings points and money. Although Nightline garners a bigger audience in its 11:35 p.m. EST timeslot than Letterman, it is a different audience. It draws the baby boomers, while Letterman draws the viewers that advertisers treasure - the 17 to 30-year-olds. Never mind that the older audience buys big-ticket items such as homes, SUVs, and financial services. Networks would rather sell Cokes and Fritos.

What makes Nightline so deserving of salvation in its late-night spot, especially with the abundance of news from cable networks the likes of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox? Including prime-time network news, and all the magazine shows - Dateline and 48 Hours - that pump out news 24-hours-a-day?

First, there is Ted Koppel. His history in reporting network news goes back when he was a correspondent for ABC on the battlefields of Vietnam. His professional life has been forged through the great events that have touched the lives of the baby-boom generation. His gravitas in broadcasting is a result of his incredibly high IQ, combined with tact, persistence, and a salt-of-the-earth presentation. Arguably, Koppel is the best interviewer in television.

Unlike the other prime-time news magazine shows - the venerable 60 Minutes and PBS' Frontline - Nightline is able to turn-on-a-dime when it comes to news. Any producer at the show who has sweated for weeks over a project to be aired always has to hold his or her breath, knowing that at any moment a breaking story could knock their show out of the schedule. Yet, despite this, enough of these planned shows do make it to air, and have created Nightline's reputation for diversity and sensitivity.

There is never really a "formula" for Nightline's "specials," which would generally air on Friday nights. Koppel, along with his producers Tom Bettag, Leroy Sievers, and Richard Harris, display an inexhaustible curiosity about almost everything. Bettag, in particular, has become known for trying unconventional means to
cast his net.

Bettag was the first to embrace the "video journalism" concept, bringing in new talent, and making use of new technology such as small digital video cameras. Nightline quickly became the first place this new breed of television reporter called on. Many contributors to The Digital Journalist produced their first documentaries as Nightline specials.

Over the past two years, Disney has been cutting back dramatically on the budgets that make these innovative shows possible. For the past two years, they have been cutting the acquisition budgets and finally, by mid-year, cut off the use of outside material entirely. There is still a backlog of worthy programs on the shelf that has not been aired as a result of that decision.

One of the biggest errors that Disney and top ABC executives are making is to think that Nightline is "yesterday." Far from it, the show is constantly pushing the envelope, not only to come up with new stories, but new ways of telling them.

At a retreat for the show's staff in the summer of 2000. Bettag announced that he felt the future of the show would be the World Wide Web, and ever since he has been experimenting with new means to create an interactive environment with the show's viewers. Bettag would like to be able to combine the Web with television, to expand even further on the quality journalism Nightline produces.

As we write this editorial American troops are engaged in heavy fighting against the Taliban. The Bush administration has formed a "shadow government" in what they consider the credible threat of a nuclear weapon being exploded in the nation's capital. If ever the public needed the kind of professional journalism Nightline offers, it is now.

Hopefully this mess will be settled soon. According to the New York Times, Disney is aware that they have created an enormous public relations problem. President Bob Iger flew to Washington on March 5 to meet with Koppel. Perhaps this imbroglio will help to refocus not only Disney but all the parent companies of the networks on preserving and enhancing their news divisions, which are their most important service to the public trust.

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