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ABC Mulls Changes To 'Nightline,' With Or Without Koppel

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page C01

Suddenly it's double or nothing for "Nightline."

Under one proposal making the rounds at ABC News, the award-winning 30-minute news program would be transformed into a younger and hipper hour-long show, performed live at 11:35 -- and without anchor Ted Koppel, who has made clear he has no interest in burning the midnight oil every night.

Under an alternative approach being developed by Koppel's staff, a more traditional "Nightline" would expand to an hour while remaining largely a taped and edited program.

But while ABC News is fighting to keep control of the hour, Disney, the network's corporate parent, is also entertaining suggestions for a sports or entertainment show that would end the quarter-century run of "Nightline" -- and could propel Koppel into the Sunday morning chair at "This Week."

Koppel, who turned 65 yesterday, is in the final stretch of a contract that expires at year's end, and no change is expected until the program celebrates its 25th anniversary this spring. If Koppel leaves "Nightline" and doesn't take the Sunday job, his longtime executive producer, Tom Bettag, 60, would go with him and the two would likely launch a new venture, either for ABC or another outlet.

"There's been endless speculation and there will continue to be more speculation," ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said yesterday. "Our job is to keep doing the best broadcast we can do."

ABC News President David Westin has made no decision on what version of "Nightline" to promote with his corporate bosses. Sources familiar with the situation provided details of the debate, declining to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media about internal deliberations. Some elements of the proposals have leaked out in reports by the Los Angeles Times and Newsday columnist Verne Gay.

Another ABC star whose career could be affected is Clinton White House aide turned "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos. His name has been floated as a potential anchor for the live version of "Nightline," which might be based in New York instead of Washington. Colleagues say Stephanopoulos, 43, who has increasingly been filling in on "Nightline," is open to such an offer. That would also ease him out of "This Week," which has slid to third in the ratings behind "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" despite time changes in many cities, including a 9 a.m. start in Washington. Bettag took over supervision of "This Week" in 2003.

Koppel has long resisted being drafted for Sunday morning duty but this time has left that door open. "If Ted Koppel wants to be the host of 'This Week,' everyone sees that as a win-win," an ABC News executive said. "If Ted Koppel remains at 'Nightline,' that's a great thing too."

Another possible anchor for a Koppel-less live show would be Chris Bury, the most frequent substitute anchor over the last four years.

"Nightline" ratings have declined by 4 percent since last season, to 3.8 million viewers, compared to 5.8 million for Jay Leno's "Tonight" show on NBC and 4.6 million for David Letterman's CBS show. Letterman nearly triggered the demise of "Nightline" in 2002 when ABC tried to lure him to take over the time slot.

Now, however, ABC has no obvious entertainment star to front a late-night show, especially since NBC signed Conan O'Brien to a new contract that designates him as Leno's successor in 2009. A late-night sports show -- Disney is majority owner of ESPN -- might have trouble attracting a mass audience. But both alternatives would probably appeal to the younger viewers coveted by advertisers. "Nightline," for its part, is famous for avoiding celebrity interviews, but garnered favorable reviews during and after the Iraq war, which Koppel covered as a correspondent embedded with American troops.

Much buzz has surrounded a recent sample taping hosted by correspondent Jake Tapper and Bill Weir, co-anchor of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America." ABC executives say the 10-minute sessions, which ranged in subject matter from Michael Jackson to Iraq, is not a pilot, but some view it as a backup plan for the news division if "Nightline" fails to survive.

Clashing views over the future of "Nightline" have already claimed one casualty. Longtime co-executive producer Leroy Sievers quit last year after disagreeing with ABC's potential plans to take the program live.

Koppel is often criticized for anchoring only three days a week, but he deliberately cut back after signing his last contract to ease the way for a successor. He had planned to anchor even less until the Letterman episode put the program on the defensive.

After "Nightline" emerged from the nightly updates on the Iran hostage crisis that ABC launched in 1979, it was usually live in an era when satellite interviews with foreign leaders, for example, were still noteworthy. Now the program is live about once a week, usually to deal with breaking news.

"When we need to do 'Nightline' live, we do it live," Koppel said in a 2002 interview. "Why do we need to prove our endurance by asking guests to hang around for an extra six hours instead of talking to them at 5:30 or 6:30? I don't think most people can tell."

Koppel and Bettag have argued that taped programs distinguish "Nightline" from cable talk shows by allowing more finely crafted storytelling, particularly on foreign assignments. They recently did an 8 p.m. Washington town meeting on Iraq, profiled a drug addict and the woman who saved him, and followed actor Don Cheadle to Africa for tonight's report on Sudanese refugees -- all of which required advance editing.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company