Koppel vs. Letterman in the New Late Night TV War

This partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, March 6, 2002 was provided by the Federal Document Clearing House. Click here to order the complete transcript.

Other guests and topics for March 6, 2002 included:
• Steve Centanni: U.S. troops turn up the pressure on Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan
• Jim Angle: President Bush accuses Senate Democrats of playing politics on the nomination of Charles Pickering
• Carl Cameron: Tom Daschle pushes for a resolution that the Senate stands behind the president in the war on terror just days after making some unpopular critical remarks
• Adam Housely: California Congressman Gary Condit is out of office, come January
• Orlando Salinas: Janet Reno battles three other Democrats for the right to run against current Republican Florida Governor Jeb Bush
Order the complete transcript

BRIT HUME, HOST: Few programs in the history of TV news have earned more praise or more awards than ABC's Nightline and its anchor, Ted Koppel. And it wasn't long ago that a top ABC News executive described This Week, then hosted by David Brinkley, as "the jewel in the crown of the ABC schedule."

Now, though, Koppel and Nightline may be on their way out in favor of David Letterman and Cokie Roberts, a fixture on This Week for years, says she is leaving the show. What is happening to network news? For answers, we turn to Robert J. — Bob to his friends — Thompson, director for the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. He joins me now from that city.

Good evening, sir. Welcome.


HUME: What do you think is going on here?

THOMPSON: Well, you know, the network era as we knew it was over. The thing that brought Nightline to the air was we had some important stuff going on with the hostages. And they needed a place to have long, drawn-out analysis of it.

HUME: You're talking about the hostage crisis with Jimmy Carter in Iran back in 1980, right?

THOMPSON: Right. Exactly. And now we have got more 24-hour news channels than we had networks back in 1980. So, it is a whole different ballgame.

What's interesting, though, is that ABC is not only abandoning Nightline, they're abandoning it for a comedy show. They're not trying to goose it up, to make it more modern, to get a younger person there. They're planning on getting rid of what really is, as has been described, one of the jewels in the crown of ABC News and of network news in general.

HUME: Now, what is your sense of the other larger trends here? I mean, look, Ted Koppel may be — you know, he is 62. But he is still relatively youthful, and he's still full of life. He's still bright and sharp. Is this a sign that a whole new generation of talent is being sought here? David Letterman aside, I'm talking about in news.

THOMPSON: Yes, well, I think so. And especially over on Sunday, where we're seeing Sam Donaldson especially as one of the last of the old guard, and Ted Koppel, I suppose, was a late arrival to that. And then you look at those pictures of Claire Shipman and George Stephanopoulos. And it looks like they've just come back from a homecoming dance. I mean, clearly there is a new generation here.

And part of it is demographics. The oligopoly of the three networks is over. This is a dog-eat-dog industry right now. And we're beginning to see the manifestations of it.

HUME: Now, you mentioned, and we showed pictures while you were doing it, of Claire Shipman and George Stephanopoulos. Tell us a little bit about your impressions of them. ABC is denying, of course, that they are the heirs apparent to This Week. But with Cokie gone, they're going to have to replace her. Sam Donaldson seems to be very philosophical about the fact that he is older than Ted and older than Peter Jennings, may be moving on before too long. What is your sense about them as possible heirs to that Sunday morning program?

THOMPSON: Well, my guess is that the first people they put there are not going to be the ones that started Dynasty. And I'm not sure either one of them are going to be the ones that will still be there in five years.

But, you know, it's hard to tell. We're now seeing the passing of the guard from these old people that knew Edward R. Murrow to a whole new generation. And, to some extent, their styles will develop according to the places that we end up dropping them.

The bottom line with this ABC thing, though, is just how badly the public relations of it has been. It's been an absolute textbook on how not to make these kinds of announcements.

HUME: How so?

THOMPSON: Well, the way in this was leaked. It ticked off Ted Koppel. Now he is writing pieces for the New York Times. It has probably corrupted the waters to the extent that David Letterman would actually have a hard time even coming to NBC even if that offer is ultimately...

HUME: You mean to ABC.

THOMPSON: ... to ABC, sorry, even if that offer was ultimately extended.

HUME: Because he wouldn't want to be seen as the guy that kicked the venerated Ted Koppel off the air.

THOMPSON: Yes. Right. And they could have finessed that a lot better. But, yes, now he comes not as the underdog, as he came to CBS. He comes now as the bad guy.

You know, a lot of people love Ted Koppel who don't watch him. That is ABC's problem. Everybody is upset that Nightline is going away. But a lot of these are people who are not sitting on their couches watching Nightline night after night.

HUME: Would it be your sense that Ted Koppel would be an attractive personality to bring into one of the 24-hour cable channels?

THOMPSON: I think, if I had I had to guess right now, I would say that Ted Koppel would probably land at CNN. It seems about the right niche for him. Yes, I think he could do a good job.

I think he could find a place where that old traditional style that he does could actually find an audience. And it doesn't need to be a huge side audience that broadcast networks require.

HUME: Now, if CNN were to pay him the kind of salary that a broadcast network anchor with an audience of the kind that a broadcast anchor can command gets, would they be able to make any money? Or if we did it at Fox, would we be able to make any money off a show like that?

THOMPSON: Well, probably not. And that is the big problem here is that a lot of these old guard journalists are wanting the world to still remain the way it was in the old-fashioned days of journalism as a public interest. But they also want their salaries to be like in the new fashion days of the highly competitive environment. And I think that's one of the many things that are clashing here is that the economics of all of this simply don't add up.

HUME: In what sense? I mean, the audience is too small to bring in the ad revenue that allows them to pay all the salaries and still make a little money, right?

THOMPSON: Right. If you still want to make a profit. And that is the thing with all of this. We have got a journalistic operation that still depends for its stream of revenue upon selling commercials and the size of an audience.

And we decided that way back in the radio days when broadcasting started. And that decision is the one we're struggling with today. Ultimately, ABC has a bottom line to deal with. And that's why we're talking about all these things. And that bottom line includes the enormous salaries that they're paying their news people.

HUME: Now, we've also seen retrenchment at the broadcast networks in their news division infrastructure. Bureaus are being closed. Fewer correspondents are on the payroll. And I wonder if you think this trend is one that will mean eventually that they're basically turning out the lights on those places.

THOMPSON: I think it's beginning to look like maybe that is in the long-term future plans of ABC. NBC, of course has got its own cable news operation to run. And they can use the synergies and going back and forth between those. There is no equivalent over at ABC. There is no MSABC.

And the smell from afar of what's going on at ABC now has a certain sense of a lack of commitment to a long-term presence of news at all. And it wouldn't be a surprise to me at all if, within the next decade, one at least and maybe two of the old big three networks are not going to be doing their own news exclusively.

HUME: You're talking presumably about ABC and CBS?

THOMPSON: That would be my guess. ABC the first one, yes.

HUME: And what would then be the — what would then be the future of the network news? I mean, it would be one network left doing it? Is that the idea?

THOMPSON: Well, the argument would be you just kind of change the definition. Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, I think probably the three of those are going to continue to grow. And news would essentially become something that would go by those operations and go to cable. But then broadcasters, of course, would use those things.

HUME: Professor, thanks very much. Glad to have you. Have to take a break here...

THOMPSON: Thank you.

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