LOS ANGELES, March 12 (UPI) -- David Letterman's decision to stay with CBS clarifies his future, but complicates the Walt Disney Co.'s decision about the future of late-night programming on ABC.
Letterman may be relieved now that he has reached a decision on his own future, but his announcement leaves Disney and ABC all dressed up with no place to go.
One week after unnamed ABC executives were trashing "Nightline" and its award-winning anchor Ted Koppel, the network issued a press release telling the world how wonderful Koppel and his show are.
"From the outset, we've always said that Ted Koppel and 'Nightline' would have a significant presence at ABC News," said ABC President Alex Wallau. "'Nightline' will remain in its time period, where it will continue to provide its distinctive brand of journalism for the network."
Under the circumstances, what else could Wallau say?
Well, for starters he could say that "Nightline" will be around for an additional 22 years. But that sort of hyperbole is reserved for happier occasions, when unchecked optimism overrides cold judgment.
If ABC were to issue an optimistic pronouncement about "Nightline" now, it would flunk the giggle test.
The network has few options regarding the 11:35 p.m. timeslot.
Keeping Koppel going on "Nightline" for more than a token period of time -- what you might think of as a "decent interval" before pulling the plug -- does not seem to be an option that the corporate geniuses are considering. But Koppel and company issued a statement of their own, apparently designed to force ABC's hand.
"We need something more than bland assurances or a short-term guarantee," said Koppel and "Nightline" producers Tom Bettag and Leroy Sievers. "We need to be able to plan, to prepare, to settle down to work again."
The statement seemed to indicate that the "Nightline" crew sees an oportunity to gain some leverage from what has shaped up as a public embarrassment for the company that employs them.
"We hope the corporate leadership of Disney understands that it would not be reasonable to expect all of us at 'Nightline' to continue our work in a climate of ongoing uncertainty," said the statement. "There must be a great many talented comedians who would welcome the opportunity to take over the 'Nightline' time slot. Our hope is that Disney will send a clear and unmistakable signal to them, to us, to the advertising community and to all of our loyal viewers interested in the robust future of network television news that 'Nightline' can count on serious corporate backing."
That last bit, the one about all the talented comedians just aching to fill Koppel's shoes, really hits the network guys where they live.
The entertainment industry is, of course, crawling with talented comedians. And there is no shortage of people who would welcome the opportunity to take Koppel's time slot.
Good luck finding someone who has both of those qualities, though.
The really talented comics -- the ones with enough heft to take on the challenge -- are already working. Do they really need to risk their professional reputations on what is essentially a fool's errand?
A relative newcomer might be eager to see what he or she can do, but might also wonder if a budding career could withstand the impact of crashing and burning in such a highly visible fashion. Besides, in show business -- as in politics -- you can't beat somebody with nobody, so ABC is not likely to replace a legend with a guy named Joe.
Late-night TV has been a tough league for a long time. With Letterman and Jay Leno firmly encamped at CBS and NBC, and having alienated the affection of Ted Koppel and his "Nightline" team, the folks at ABC just made it tougher on themselves -- but they will have to come up with something to redeem their judgment and clean up they mess they've made.
They need a home run.
Wouldn't it be wild if they just killed off "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" and expanded "Nightline" to an hour?