- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Tom Bettag has resumed his duties as executive producer of ABC’s “Nightline,” but the outlook for the venerable late-night news program remains uncertain.

“Its future is as secure as any other program in television,” Mr. Bettag said yesterday.

“Nightline” is a crown jewel in television news, but ABC tried to dump the money-losing program from its 11:35 p.m. time slot in early 2002 and replace it with a talk show hosted by CBS star David Letterman that, more than likely, would have been more lucrative.

When the scheme to woo Mr. Letterman failed, ABC — part of the Walt Disney Co. — agreed in April 2002 to keep “Nightline” in its time slot for at least two more years.

“We were in a period where there was a guarantee. There are no guarantees anymore. We have to sing for our supper,” Mr. Bettag said.

Another “Nightline” brouhaha erupted last month when Leroy Sievers announced his resignation as the program’s executive producer.

In a statement released by ABC, Mr. Sievers said he decided to leave because he and the network were unable to agree on changes to the show’s format and direction.

An ABC spokeswoman declined to discuss those changes, but said “Nightline” has not reached the end of its line.

The program began in 1979 as a nightly update on the Iranian hostage crisis, then evolved into a regular series in 1980. Its popularity has waned in the era of the Internet and cable, but it remains an industry standard.

“Nightline” earned praise this year for its intelligent reporting on the war in Iraq and the presidential campaign. It made waves in April when anchor Ted Koppel devoted one show to reading the names of soldiers killed in Iraq, a moving installment that some affiliates refused to air because they said it was politically charged.

The show averages about 4 million viewers per night, trailing Jay Leno’s NBC program and Mr. Letterman’s CBS show.

“Nightline” could survive without Mr. Koppel, whose contract ends late next year, Mr. Bettag said.

“The last thing we would want is to leave the air just because Ted does,” he said, adding that possible successors won’t be identified until Mr. Koppel’s plans are known.

Mr. Bettag went to New York this week to begin planning the program’s 25th anniversary, which may be commemorated with a prime-time special in May.

He ran the daily operations at “Nightline” until summer 2003, when he shifted his attention to “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” Both programs are produced at ABC’s Washington bureau.

Mr. Bettag breathed new life into a tired format at “This Week,” which lost viewers when David Brinkley retired from the program in 1996. His return to “Nightline” means “This Week” will get a new executive producer.

“We’re feeling good about the show. George has really evolved into a comfortable presence on Sunday mornings,” Mr. Bettag said.

Around the dial …

• Caryn G. Mathes, the general manager of a Detroit public radio station for 20 years, will become the head of the Washington area’s WAMU-FM (88.5) in March. She said she will not change the NPR station’s format, which relies on locally produced news and talk shows.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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