March 6, 2002

Why We Need ‘Nightline’

What’s left of broadcast television journalism is at stake now, many in the business believe, in the war within the Disney Co. over whether to replace “Nightline” with the late-night comedy of David Letterman. The people who run Disney seem intent on displacing “Nightline” from the 11:30 p.m. time slot it has held for 22 years — thus likely weakening or perhaps destroying it — no matter what.

One explanation publicly offered by an unnamed Disney executive quoted in the press is that bcause of competition from cable news the “relevancy of ‘Nightline’ is just not there anymore.”

Another is that “Nightline” has run its course, since its star and creator, Ted Koppel now has cut back to three days a week. “Ted is the show,” an anonymous Disney executive says.

Both statements reveal the depth of misunderstanding among people who run Disney now.

The notion that “Nightline” has lost its relevancy because national news now airs in prime time (on cable) is demonstrably false. At a time when all broadcasting is losing viewership due to proliferating competition, “Nightline” has done pretty well by comparison. “Nightline’s” audience is down 8 percent over the past five years. Meanwhile, ABC’s prime-time entertainment programs in the half-hour before local news are down 18 percent. “Nightline’s” audience, even Disney executives acknowledge, is comparable to Letterman’s, perhaps larger, depending on which numbers you examine.

Disney executives also have suggested that “Nightline” is losing money. But internal ABC numbers shared last week with staff reveal this is false. “Nightline” is projected to make $ 13 million for the network this year. The comedy show that follows it, “Politically Incorrect,” loses money.

Finally, they suggest that “Nightline” attracts an older audience. But in fact its demographics, again according to the actual internal numbers, are younger than those for the evening news, “Good Morning America” and most of the prime-time magazines on all three networks — and only a couple of years different from Jay Leno’s and Letterman’s.

What Disney executives are really arguing is that journalism is just another kind of content; that communication is communication. In other words, if people can watch Larry King at 9, or Chris Matthews’s “Hardball,” or the “O’Reilly Factor” on Fox, Ted Koppel becomes irrelevant.

But what most people understand post-9-11, which Disney does not, is that when television journalism increasingly becomes defined by talk shows, celebrity and consumer segments and soap-operatic episodes on, say, “Dateline,” a show such as “Nightline” actually becomes more relevant — because it is so rare. Inside television, “Nightline” is now an island.

Which brings us to the second Disney misunderstanding: that Koppel is “Nightline.” Over the past nine years, the “Nightline” format has grown beyond the six-minute setup piece and 15 minutes of Koppel live interview to become a well of documentary, independent filmmaking, long interviews and more. In the current sad state of television news, “Nightline” has become much more than Koppel, or even its superb producers, Tom Bettag and Leroy Sievers, or its fine reporting and producing staff. “Nightline” keeps alive the idea that citizens are intelligent, capable and interested in the process of self-government. It embodies the idea that television can be a genuine medium for journalism.

Ted Koppel once noted that turning a camera on an event is technology, not journalism. Journalism is making choices about what to present, editing, synthesizing. This is the relevancy of “Nightline,” and the reason why what becomes of it is important. And it is why corporations that have benefited more than most from the idea of informed citizens and self-government should be expected to contribute to its continued health.