ABC was the loser on two counts last week: It failed to steal David Letterman away from CBS despite an aggressive bid, and it managed to offend Ted Koppel, one of ABC's news stars, and much of the news department in the process.
Insiders said there was a good chance that Koppel might call it quits at the network he has called home for 39 years. He joined ABC News in 1963, at age 23, as a general-assignment correspondent.
Why? Corporate Disney didn't exactly leap to offer the Nightline
host the long-term, unwavering and "unambiguous" commitment to the program he demanded on the day Letterman re-upped with CBS. Indeed, the demand was met with "deafening silence," as one Disney source put it.
PBS President Pat Mitchell told USA Today
she has pitched Koppel on joining her shop—an admission that stunned network executives, who suggested ABC might have grounds for a tortious-interference lawsuit. His contract, at a reported $8 million a year, runs another four years.
Meanwhile, there was speculation that CNN executives want to make Koppel an offer as well, but they hadn't done so at press time. They'll likely wait for some sign that he wants to be wooed, one source said.
Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's Hardball,
aimed quite a few barbs at Nightline
during a Cable Television Public Affairs Association lunch in Washington last week.
He called the hand-wringing over Nightline's possible exit from ABC "hypocrisy" and asked how many people in the audience watched the show at least twice a week. Noting the sea of unraised hands, he said: "That's it. Nobody watches the show." For the record, Nightline
has averaged 4.6 million viewers a night season to date.
Referring to Koppel's abbreviated hosting schedule, he asked, "If the show is so good, why doesn't he show up?" A spokesperson said Koppel had no comment.
Later in the week, Sam Donaldson came to his colleague's defense. He had a message for their bosses at Disney: Destroying the village in an attempt to save it is wrong.
In accepting the Len Zeidenberg First Amendment Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation in Washington, Donaldson told his colleagues to fight what he sees as an effort by ABC and others to reduce the number of serious news programs on the air. Koppel, in the audience, got a big hand.