No matter where David Letterman ends up this fall, the probable loser will be ABC.
If Letterman decides to leave CBS, the Alphabet net will likely end up forking over a license fee north of $30 million per year to snag a “Late Show” that, while critically worshiped, has consistently been a distant second in the ratings to Jay Leno and “The Tonight Show.”
Letterman loyalists inside the host’s Worldwide Pants production company can gripe all they want about weak Eye news lead-ins, but the hard truth is this: America’s chosen Leno, and changing channels — particularly to a net like ABC, currently fourth in primetime — won’t change hearts.
Should Letterman decide to stay put — still the most likely option — ABC could find itself staring down a black hole in latenight next September. Bill Maher and “Politically Incorrect” are now history, while Alphabet execs have all but told Ted Koppel and his “Nightline” staff they’re just taking up space until something more profitable comes along.
Either way, ABC and Disney have once again sent a clear signal that they won’t let loyalty to talent stand in the way of profit. Indeed, in the last year, the net has been at odds some of its biggest stars: Regis Philbin, Barbara Walters, Dennis Franz, Steven Bochco — and now, Ted Koppel.
That’s not to say that landing Letterman couldn’t be good for ABC in many ways.
It’s unlikely Bob Iger and Steve Bornstein and Alex Wallau and Lloyd Braun would be chasing Letterman if they didn’t think it was a sound business move. Letterman’s CBS “Late Show” makes a lot more money than “Nightline” and “PI” (how much more is a matter of some debate).
Some inside ABC believe Letterman could also boost the net’s second-place “Good Morning America.” The prestige of having a huge star like Letterman on ABC wouldn’t be bad, either.
And if ABC is serious about making the switch to entertainment programming in latenight, signing Letterman — despite his huge pricetag — is the quickest, easiest way to go about doing that. Even if “Late Show” takes a Nielsen hit by moving nets, it’s unlikely any other talent currently available could draw the ratings or ad revenue that Letterman would, at least in the short-term.
Whatever happens, ABC News and its president, David Westin, have been humiliated by the mere suggestion that “Nightline” — once thought untouchable — is now expendable. Indeed, Westin didn’t even know his own network was talking to Letterman until a newspaper reporter told him so.
This isn’t about hurt feelings: Westin and Koppel — and for that matter, people like Philbin and Walters — make enough money that it’s hard to feel sympathy for their bruised egos.
What’s at stake here is the impact all this will have on the morale of rank and file ABC News staffers, who these days must feel like even tinier bits of cheese inside the Mouse House empire. Star talent thinking of signing up for Westin’s team may think twice now that it’s known even news gods like Koppel are mere mortals within Disney’s world.
Such complaints probably seem a little unreal to ABC and Disney execs, who — before the Letterman talks became public — likely thought they were closing in on one of the biggest talent coups in recent TV history.
Harder to understand is why Letterman would want to move to ABC.
The news lead-ins may be better, but the Eye has a much stronger primetime base in which to promote “Late Show.” And though some inside Worldwide Pants have whined about feeling unloved by CBS, Disney management doesn’t usually win raves for being all warm-and-fuzzy toward talent.
There’s also the possibility that Letterman could end up looking almost desperate if he moves to yet another network. Three nets in 10 years — only Connie Chung has moved around more often.
If Letterman really does want to leave — and ABC is so hungry to land him — then maybe Eye topper Leslie Moonves ought to let Dave go.
Though most critics concur that Letterman is the funniest man in latenight, he’s also getting up in years. At age 54, the “Late Show” host is in the home stretch of what admittedly has been an amazing career.
Losing Letterman will hurt, but it’s unlikely to be a lasting pain. In addition to saving a huge chunk of change, CBS would be able to make a fresh run on NBC’s latenight supremacy with a younger, less expensive host.
Jon Stewart’s reps may want to keep a phone line open.