Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Stupid Nightline Tricks

There are two parts of the Ted Koppel/David Letterman story that haven’t been talked about much this week. They are “Talent Management” and “Quality TV.”

Ted Koppel is absolutely one of the best newscasters of all time, and “Nightline” is certainly Quality TV. For a long time, “Nightline” was THE place you went at 10:30pm (CT) for coverage of whatever the big story of the day was.

However, the show has been around for 22 years and the state of the art has evolved. The internet has changed the way we gather news, radio has changed the way we hear news, and cable news networks have changed the way we see news.

Americans no longer have to wait until 10:30 at night to see Ted Koppel interviewing the talking heads about whatever the Story Du Jour day is. They will have already been with Larry King or Bill O’Reilly or Chris Matthews or Brian Williams earlier that evening. We can go online and read all the opinions and interviews we want with all of these people, and more. Thus, “Nightline” is not the exclusive venue that it used to be.

Let’s be honest about something else. When Ted Koppel’s doing a five-part series on the horrors of what’s going on in the Congo, while that may be a great story, most of us don’t watch. Do a lot of that, and the ratings go down.

It’s like documentaries on TV. News veterans are regularly heard whining, “Oh, whatever happened to the great news documentaries? It’s a blight on the industry that there’s no place on TV for that any more.”

Here’s what happened -- no one watched them. Compare the viewing for your average “Frontline” on PBS versus “Dateline” on NBC. “Dateline” (with its hidden camera exclusive about corruption at the laundromat) gets several times the audience. That doesn’t mean that news documentaries are bad, but they don’t attract enough eyeballs.

Popularity is not the only benchmark by which newscasts should be measured, but it’s an important one in the world of commercial broadcasting. Katie Couric got a huge new contract because of her ratings, not the number of Edward R. Murrow awards she’s won. Even on “Nightline,” the ratings go up when the topic is immediately relatable (war) and/or sensational (some of Koppel’s highest ratings came during the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker saga).

On “Nightline,” the story is part of what draws people in, but Koppel is a bigger part, because he’s just so good. If Ted is in the chair, they’ve got a better chance of getting people to watch.

The problem for ABC is that Koppel is very rarely on the “Nightline” show -- he takes as much vacation as Carson did when he’d been doing “The Tonight Show” for two decades. Since Koppel is not only an institution but also 62 years old, nobody in the news division is going to say, “Ted, you have to work more.” Ted’s not going to work more, even to save his show.

Now, onto Talent Management. It’s remarkable that in the “communication” business, so many people are so bad at communicating with their colleagues, bosses, and underlings.

David Letterman has had legendary problems with the way management deals with him (or at the very least, in the way he perceives that treatment). Supposedly, he feels that the current crop at CBS haven’t treated him very nicely.

On the other hand, the management at ABC hasn’t managed its talent very well, either. Look what they did to Regis Philbin and the “Millionaire” show. Even when they were thinking of developing it into a syndicated daily show, they made it clear that he wasn’t going to be the host of that version. Trouble is, they didn’t tell him. They let it slip out in the press. Nobody took Reege aside and said, “Sorry, old pal, savior of the network, but you’re not gonna be the guy, and here’s why.”

Similarly, last year, Barbara Walters had her long-established Friday night show “20/20” bumped to Wednesday night to make room for “Once and Again.” But nobody told Barbara! She had to read about it in the paper.

Now, ABC is considering making changes on “This Week,” the show that nobody watches on Sunday morning with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. USA Today reports that ABC wants to bring in George Stephanopolous and Claire Shipman to do a new version of that show. When the newspaper asked Sam Donaldson about it, he said, “No one told me that they were even thinking about this.”

Bad talent management is a problem in our business. I’ve had it happen to me many times in my career. There are people who are good at it -- some very good -- but there are lots of managers who are horrible at it. They either don’t realize it, or they don’t care.

The fact of the matter is that for those of us who sit on this side of the microphone or camera, we wouldn’t do what we do if it weren’t for an inflated ego on our part, and we need that ego to be stroked every once in a while. Not constantly, but occasionally. It’s nice to have your listeners or viewers or fans stroke your ego, but it’s also much better when your boss tells you how things are going, both good and bad.

When the boss doesn’t tell you, when there’s a lack of internal communication, and you hear about it from other people -- that they’re looking at somebody to replace you, they don’t know what it’s gonna be but whatever it is you’re gonna be out -- or you read about it in the newspaper or you get a phone call from a reporter one day (“Hey, I was just talking to your boss, and they tell me you’re being replaced soon”), well, that shot to the ego is awfully hard to take.

What’s unbelievable is that ABC would treat Ted Koppel like that. This is not some new part-time weekend engineer kid who was getting fired but they didn’t tell. Ted has been with the network for 39 years -- and they’re treating him like crap. That should be all that David Letterman needs to know about ABC. Look at Ted, look at Barbara, look at Regis, look at Sam. These are some of their biggest stars, getting the lowest of treatment. Why would Dave want to work there?

Take it from me, he won’t. Letterman is going nowhere except to the bank with a bigger check from CBS.

And Ted Koppel? If he’s smart (and we know that he is), he’ll cut down on his workload even more, take his production company and go do great news documentaries for somebody else. I’m sure PBS would be happy to have him.

Someone speculated yesterday that Ted would move to CNN, where he’d be a “perfect fit” for a primetime hour of news and interviews. Fit or not, the problem is that CNN would insist on him actually being there five nights a week.

No one wants to tune in and hear, “...filling in for Ted tonight, here are Greta Van Susteren’s old eyes.”