When the going gets tough in network land, there are usually two remedies: Produce your way out of trouble or raid the competition for their top talent.
ABC tried the latter last week, first bagging Fox NFL color commentator John Madden to join Al Michaels on Monday Night Football. At week's end, The New York Times
reported, ABC was also chasing David Letterman, trying to get him to leave CBS and bring his late-night show to ABC. No one involved was talking, though CBS leakers were already speculating that Comedy Central's Jon Stewart could be a more than adequate replacement for Letterman.
Letterman's contract is up this summer, and CBS was not able to conclude a renewal during an exclusive negotiating period earlier this year. Last week, sources confirmed that Letterman was in serious talks with ABC, which would move the long-running Nightline
with Ted Koppel out of 11:30 p.m. One source said it was possible Nightline
could become a series of prime time specials. Politically Incorrect
with Bill Maher, which now follows Nightline, will be gone by fall, regardless of what happens with Letterman.
Elsewhere, now that the Olympics are over, Bob Costas has nothing much left to do at NBC. Disney's ESPN is reportedly talking to him about moving to ABC, where he'd do NBA play-by-play (NBC passed on renewing rights), baseball on ABC Family and a show on ESPN. HBO is also looking to increase the number of Costas's On the Record
interview shows. His NBC contract ends in May.
Monday Night Football
and the late-night lineup are two problem areas for ABC. Ratings at MNF
were down 10% last season, to an 11.3/19, according to Nielsen Media Research, near the show's all-time low. Worse, the program's 18-49 demo was down 13%, to a 6.9.
In late night, Nightline's
ratings have also trended down in recent years, particularly among 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic that most advertisers seem to covet. Season-to-date, the program's 18-49 demo is down 6%, to a 1.6.
CBS sources say the contract talks with Letterman have been particularly tough. He reportedly makes $20 million a year and gets 10 weeks off but wants "substantially more" salary and several more weeks off as well. Letterman's importance to CBS extends to prime time, where his Worldwide Pants production company supplies one of the network's biggest hits, Everybody Loves Raymond.
Madden, meanwhile, is taking a pay cut to work for MNF. He signed a four-year contract that pays him $5 million a year, which is $3 million less a year than his reported salary at Fox. "This isn't about money," said the 65-year-old Madden.
Madden wrapped his deal with ABC last week in one day. Madden's agent at IMG asked Fox early in the week to let him out of the last year of his contract. Last Wednesday morning, Fox agreed. Roughly seven hours later, Madden had an agreement with ABC.
Analyst Dan Fouts and comic relief Dennis Miller are out after two years in the MNF
booth. However, ABC is talking to Fouts about another sports job.