News+notes

The ABCs of Late-Night

EW speculates about ABC's next move in late-night TV -- As ''Nightline'' host Ted Koppel plans to leave, we ask experts what the network should do next

Since it launched 25 years ago, evolving from nightly specials on the Iran hostage crisis, ABC's Nightline has been an innovative — and serious — alternative to the other networks' late-night formula of comic-hosted celebrity talk shows. Now that anchor Ted Koppel has announced he will leave the program and ABC News in December, ABC has the opportunity to innovate once more. But how? Officially, executives say they want to keep Nightline — for now. (There had been rumors that George Stephanopoulos might anchor a revamped show.) But only three years ago — in an attempt to boost ratings and attract younger viewers — ABC tried to lure Late Show host David Letterman to its 11:30 p.m. time slot. Now, we like Top Ten lists and Michael Jackson jokes as much as the next guy, but if ABC's gonna ditch Nightline, shouldn't it try something different? ''It's not that easy to find a great alternative night program,'' says Nightline executive producer Tom Bettag, ''and many have failed at it.'' Still, there are plenty of options:

Ted Harbert, E! CEO and former ABC entertainment chairman Back in the late '70s, when I was scheduling ABC late-night, we made a fortune off of repeats of [hits like] Charlie's Angels, Starsky & Hutch, and Baretta — a business the networks have let go to cable. It's not as elegant as a Letterman or a Leno or a Jon Stewart, but it'll make a lot of money.

Robert Morton, former executive producer of Late Show What are they going to do, find another comedian who's gonna stand up in front of a curtain and tell the same jokes about the same things that Dave and Jay are telling? Nightline is such a wonderful alternative to have at that hour. Get an Anderson Cooper in there, somebody you care to hear from. Make it into a new franchise for the next 25 years.

Dennis Miller, host of CNBC's Dennis Miller As smooth as [Disney CEO-elect] Bob Iger is, I'm sure he's realized that his first move at ABC should not be like the Clinton health care plan — something he can be bludgeoned with for the next four years. So I think he'll play it safe and keep Nightline. I would go off the beaten path and pick Al Michaels to host because they might lose Monday Night Football to ESPN and because Al's a genius. If ABC is really looking to be smart and carve out new territory, it should take that time slot and program a racier sitcom or drama that would not suffer the restraints of prime-time network FCC stipulation. Make it a place to experiment, loosen up the reins of censorship.

Babette Perry, head of broadcasting and news for talent agency ICM Ted is a distinctive personality. During the Iraq war, when the Pope dies, we need a person we can trust in that role. ABC might look at the cable news organizations, look at what Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly are doing. Those are hybrid shows. Jon Stewart might not be the first person to come to mind, but there's something to be said for his authenticity and likability. Maybe we're ready for that.

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