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Koppel, ABC Reach Deal on Future of 'Nightline'


NEW YORK — ABC has made what the network described as a renewed commitment to its late-night news program "Nightline," whose future was recently threatened by the network's attempt to lure comedian David Letterman from CBS to fill its time slot.

Both sides remained mum on what exactly was said that allowed them to get beyond that episode, which fueled uncertainty as to whether "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel and his key staff members would continue at ABC while setting off a discussion about the future of network news within major entertainment companies.

On Monday, Koppel gave his first interviews about the situation, which he addressed previously in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. Koppel also issued a statement on March 11, the day Letterman announced his intent to stay at CBS, chiding ABC parent Walt Disney Co. for what he characterized as the "collateral damage" done to "Nightline" and ABC News.

"What we have is some private assurances, and the nature of the agreement depends on those assurances remaining private," Koppel said Monday, adding that he was "very happy and satisfied by the outcome of the conversations."

Disney President Robert Iger, meanwhile, issued a statement saying that the company looks forward "to working with ABC News to make a strong program even stronger in the coming years."

ABC News declined to comment about a wire service report stating that the network had committed to keeping "Nightline" in its current time slot for a minimum of two years.

Koppel said the expectation is that the show will go on for years but that there was no specific conversation about it continuing beyond his existing contract, which runs through 2005. "My personal hope is that it will survive long after I'm gone, but I have no immediate plans to leave," he said.

Yet even as Koppel appears to have secured his position at ABC, many of the deans of the television anchor corps are leaving the scene. Bryant Gumbel said last week he is walking away from his anchor job at CBS' "The Early Show"; Mike Wallace was quoted Monday as saying he planned to reduce his "60 Minutes" workload; and Cokie Roberts has announced she is stepping down from ABC's "This Week."

NBC, meanwhile, is wondering whether Tom Brokaw is next. Brokaw's contract with the top-rated "NBC Nightly News" expires at the end of the summer, and the anchor has been dropping hints for more than a year that he might be ready to leave to spend more time in the outdoors and writing books.

NBC colleagues are getting increasingly antsy as Brokaw puts off a decision, although if he does leave, he is still expected to maintain an NBC News presence, most likely on the newsmagazine "Dateline." One reason NBC executives are nervous is that Brokaw's decision is also expected to affect Brian Williams, the MSNBC anchor who is Brokaw's heir apparent. Williams' contract is up at the end of the year, and he is expected to look elsewhere if Brokaw stays for the long term.

Brokaw took a good chunk of last summer off to think about the future and work on a book. Still, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, colleagues reported that he was energized by his work, and two weeks ago he reported on rising Mideast tensions from Lebanon and Israel.

An NBC News spokeswoman said, "Of course, we want Mr. Brokaw to stay with NBC News," but otherwise declined to comment on private negotiations.

As for "Nightline," Koppel said his schedule of anchoring three days per week would remain, although he noted that this last year he anchored on four days because of the amount of breaking news, and he was prepared to do the same in the future.

Adding that he also anchors a half-dozen weeklong series per year, Koppel said, "The notion that I'm going into semi-retirement seems a little excessive." Asked whether he had been prepared to leave the network, as "Nightline" executives had told some outsiders was a possibility, Koppel said, "It never came to that."

Koppel said he doesn't know the status of a "Nightline" proposal to expand into the half-hour slot now occupied by the controversial discussion show "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," whose fate remains uncertain. "I'm just satisfied that the first half-hour will go on and live on," he said.

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