When longtime Nightline anchor Ted Koppel announced last week that he'll leave ABC News in December, there was heavy speculation that it meant the end of his late night news program. While ABC News execs plan to revamp Nightline, the thinking is that Disney won't be able to resist the temptation to bring in more advertising dollars with a late-night entertainment show. But Koppel — who has every reason to be skeptical of company promises since Nightline's near-death experience a few years ago — believes the show will still be on the air two years from now.
"I do," he told the Biz last week. "I think that it's not as easy as people think to create an entirely new broadcast that has any kind of legs. I'm old enough and have been around ABC long enough to remember how many times the network tried to put on a program at 11:30 at night that failed. When you finally have a broadcast that's survived for 25 years, I think you need to expend all the energy you have to try to keep it alive, unless you've got some really sensational alternative."
Other ABC insiders agree. Three years ago, ABC honchos thought they did have an alternative when David Letterman's contract was up at CBS. They were ready to give up Nightline in a heartbeat, until Letterman decided to stay put.
There is no such alternative out there right now. ABC had a flirtation with Conan O'Brien before he signed a long-term deal that will give him The Tonight Show in 2009. Jon Stewart — whom ABC could have had for a post-Nightline show if they hadn't gone with Jimmy Kimmel instead — is signed at Comedy Central through 2008, just about the time Letterman might think about hanging it up at CBS. If ABC thought Kimmel could improve the ratings in the 11:30 time slot, the network probably would have moved him into it by now.
One non-late-night name floating around is Ellen DeGeneres. But now that her syndicated daytime show is a success, she stands to make tens of millions of dollars in the next few years. Why take the risk of trying to draw a different kind of audience in late night?
"She would have to do a different show," says Katz Media analyst Bill Carroll. "One of the factors that have always been in play in late night is the perception that a show has to be successful with young men. The kinds of things Ellen does relate to the mom who's sitting at home, has a young kid, maybe had a career and is now in that transitional time and this is her outlet to what else is happening out there."
Carroll also believes Nightline will be around for a while because it's still important to ABC's affiliates. While stations feel obliged to clear the time period for a respected ABC News program, they may not feel the same with a new entertainment show with somewhat less stature than, say, Johnny Carson.
Says Carroll, "There is a prestige pressure that doesn't exist if you go with 'fill-in-the-blank.'"