Koppel done with Alphabet

Anchor, ABC do the splits

This article was updated at 7:01pm

NEW YORK — Ted Koppel will leave “Nightline” and ABC when his contract expires in December, opening the door for a retooling of the show that could change the competitive landscape of latenight TV.

Koppel’s departure ends months of speculation over the fate of the show, which began 25 years ago as a series of special reports during the Iranian hostage crisis and evolved into one of the most respected newscasts on television.

ABC News executives want to radically change the format to expand its appeal and better compete against competition from NBC’s Jay Leno and CBS’ David Letterman.

ABC developed a pilot in New York for a live one-hour show with multiple stories and a vastly different feel from the Washington, D.C.-based “Nightline.”

But Koppel, 65, and longtime producer Tom Bettag, 60, decided to leave the show rather than participate in the revamped version envisioned by ABC executives.

“Ted and I have discussed a number of options under which he might have remained at ‘Nightline’ or in some other capacity at ABC News, but Ted believes this is the right time to leave,” ABC News prexy David Westin said in a note to ABC employees.

But Koppel and producer Bettag are not retiring. The two will “hang out a shingle,” Bettag said, and field offers for their services.

“This is not dialing back — this is stepping on the gas,” Bettag said. “What (Koppel) really wants to do is get out from behind the anchor desk and do some reporting.”

“Nightline” will continue as a half-hour show until December, with George Stephanopoulos and Chris Bury sharing anchor duties with Koppel, who hosts the show three nights a week.

ABC has the Super Bowl and NFL wildcard games in early 2006 and could use either or both to promote a relaunched “Nightline.”

Slipping ratings

Koppel’s decision to ankle ABC in some ways simplifies the network’s decision to rethink its latenight programming. Koppel was opposed to changing the show; a second producer, Leroy Sievers, left in November due to disagreements in the show’s direction.

ABC News is under pressure to expand the aud of the show, which has slipped in the fight against “Leno” and “Letterman” and is saddled with a much older demographic.

“Nightline” averaged 3.6 million viewers in the first quarter of this year, down 6% from a year ago. That compares with 6 million for Jay Leno and 4.6 million for David Letterman. “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which follows “Nightline” on ABC, averaged 1.5 million viewers.

An hourlong “Nightline” would require the network to push “Kimmel” back a half-hour. Kimmel’s contract is up for renewal in January.

Affils already antsy

It would also mean selling affils on the idea of a two-hour ABC latenight block. So-so ratings for “Kimmel” already have some stations antsy, and many are no doubt itching for the chance to sked their own sitcom or talkshow repeats in the timeslot — a play which yields more profits for local stations.

Advertising executives said there are dangers in a “Nightline” remake, especially if they take the show soft and alienate Koppel’s core audience.

“If it moves toward softer features or nondistinctive or less-relevant journalism, it may lose its base, which is imperative for this show to survive,” said John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations for ad agency Campbell Mithun.

Koppel’s departure ends a 42-year career at ABC that began when he joined as a general assignment correspondent in New York at 23. In 2003, at 63, he was embedded with the Army’s Third Infantry Division for five weeks during the invasion of Iraq and siege of Baghdad.

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