Times Staff Writer

Three years after narrowly surviving the ax, ABC’s long-running “Nightline” is in jeopardy again.

Network parent Walt Disney Co. is serious enough about replacing the late-night news show -- hosted by Ted Koppel since 1980 -- to have ordered executives to start devising alternatives, according to sources familiar with the plans.

ABC News last week shot a pilot for one possible “Nightline” replacement, a freewheeling show hosted by Washington reporter Jake Tapper and Bill Weir, the co-anchor of the weekend edition of “Good Morning America,” according to two people inside the network. One of the pilot’s top stories was about the Michael Jackson child molestation trial -- exactly the kind of tabloid-friendly fodder that the generally sober-minded “Nightline” has tended to avoid.


Disney’s ESPN, meanwhile, is said to be developing an all-sports program for ABC’s 11:35 p.m. slot, presumably in hopes of luring the relatively abundant supply of young men watching TV at that hour. An ESPN spokeswoman reached late Friday said she was unaware of such plans.

“This is all being done very quietly,” said one ABC News staffer, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Koppel, 64, has over recent years pared back his anchoring duties to three nights per week (substitutes fill in the rest of the time) and his contract expires in December -- further fueling speculation about the future of “Nightline.” Newsday reported last week that ABC is weighing proposals to move the veteran newsman to “This Week,” the Sunday talk show currently hosted by George Stephanopoulos, as well as to expand “Nightline” to one hour based in New York, from its current half-hour format in Washington. Although “This Week” has struggled in the ratings opposite NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation,” one person who knows him well said Koppel is interested in the job.

ABC News spokeswoman Emily Lenzner said Koppel was unavailable for comment. “Nightline” senior executive producer Tom Bettag declined to comment, and a Disney spokeswoman did not return a call.

Whatever the outcome, people inside and outside the network say “Nightline” is unlikely to last much longer, at least in its present form.

“ ‘Nightline’ will survive through May,” when the program plans to formally celebrate its 25th anniversary, said Leroy Sievers, who served as “Nightline’s” executive producer for more than four years but left late last year following a dispute with ABC management over the show’s future. “After that, I think it’s just a question of time.”


The troubles at “Nightline” come as the broadcast news business undergoes wrenching change. CBS last week tapped Bob Schieffer as the temporary replacement for the retiring Dan Rather, but the search continues for a permanent anchor of “CBS Evening News.” CBS is still reeling from a scandal over a September “60 Minutes Wednesday” story about President Bush’s military service. An independent panel criticized the network for failing to verify documents used in the report and also mounting an overzealous defense of the story once critics weighed in.

The “Nightline” staff -- which has in the past stirred both admiration and envy among ABC News colleagues because of its intense focus and the insulation it enjoys from pursuing much of the spot news and celebrity coverage that falls to others in the news division -- is growing increasingly anxious about the program’s fate.

The show’s roots trace back to November 1979, when ABC began running late-night wrap-ups on the Iranian hostage crisis. The following March, ABC officially launched “Nightline” to air after the late local news. Guided by Koppel’s unflappable presence and incisive interviewing, the program quickly distinguished itself for in-depth, deadline reporting on far-flung topics, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the murder of former Beatle John Lennon.

“There’s an argument to be made to leave it the way it is,” the ABC news staffer said of “Nightline.” “It’s the last bastion of serious journalism on television....They do stories that nobody else will do.”

A quarter-century later, “Nightline” still makes headlines. In April, for instance, Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of seven ABC stations, claimed a show devoted to a roll call of U.S. troops killed in Iraq had an antiwar agenda and refused to run it.

But in recent years, facing fierce competition from the Internet and all-news cable networks (especially Fox News Channel and MSNBC, both founded in 1996), “Nightline” has struggled to stay relevant -- and hang on to viewers. The program last year averaged 3.7 million total viewers, a 40% slide from its 1993 high. By comparison, NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” has recently averaged nearly 6 million viewers, while CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” has delivered about 4.5 million, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.


“Nightline” costs about $45 million per year to produce, including all production costs and salaries, according to a person familiar with its budget, and makes little if any profit for ABC. Executives are hoping that new prime-time hits like “Desperate Housewives” will help reverse years of overall losses for the network but acknowledge privately that much work remains to be done. Against that backdrop, Disney executives increasingly appear to view “Nightline” as a problem rather than an asset.

Three years ago, ABC executives secretly wooed Letterman for a proposed talk show that would replace “Nightline.” The overtures were reportedly made without consulting either Koppel or ABC News President David Westin, who were said to be furious after learning the truth from a reporter working on a story about the Letterman talks. In April 2002, after Letterman decided to stay at CBS, ABC announced a “renewed commitment” to “Nightline,” while declining to offer any specifics.

At the time, Koppel was also vague on the show’s future: “My personal hope is that it will survive long after I’m gone, but I have no immediate plans to leave,” he said.

Given that history, it’s hardly surprising that Disney executives are eyeing possible replacements.

“It seems pretty much foreordained that ‘Nightline’ has very little longevity in the eyes of network suits,” said Orville Schell, professor and dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, “and I think the occasion of [Koppel’s exit] will be the occasion to just offload it.”


Correspondent Bob Baker contributed to this report.