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Koppel needs to stay put, save slot

Look up the word 'disquiet' in the dictionary and you might see a little drawing of the ABC logo.

The Disney-owned network has once again shot itself in the foot with the latest revelations that it might be bedtime for 'Nightline' and that it's talking with David Letterman about moving into the 11:35 p.m. time slot where Ted Koppel's hair holds court. This would be the dumbest move involving ABC since that music professor missed the second question on the very first 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'

When the news hit this week, ABC was deluged with angry, incredulous e-mails and calls.

ABC's parent company Ñ Disney Ñ has never been in the business of news. But it is in the business of making people smile and engineering a bottom line that makes stockholders smile. When it comes to the latter, well, Letterman's younger audience can bring in more advertising bucks than the older folks who tune in for 'Nightline.'

Of course, as Koppel points out, 'Nightline' has made a lot of money for ABC since it went on the air 23 years ago under the title 'The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage.' And what would the fallout be if ABC were to scrap what is considered to be network television's shining example of engaging journalism?

I remember interviewing Koppel during the O.J. Simpson trial, asking why 'Nightline' was dedicating so many shows to the proceedings. Wasn't this exactly what 'Nightline' was not all about?

'Doing three shows about O.J.,' Koppel explained, 'allows us to do a show about Rwanda. O.J. brings in more viewers. Rwanda is a more important story.'

Koppel didn't go far enough: The man is far and away the best interviewer the medium has ever known, and the fact is that people tuned in to see Koppel weave his magic. So while Tammy Faye Bakker's eye shadow and Al Campanis' racist admissions come to mind when you think of 'Nightline,' the face of the show has always been Koppel. His weeklong shows from South Africa, the Middle East and, more recently, the Congo deserve separate rooms in the TV Hall of Fame.

But sadly, it is Koppel himself who may bring down 'Nightline.' If you've been tuning in over the past several years, there has been a good chance the host is AWOL Ñ off vacationing or just enjoying the comp-time perks that he has built up during his many years of anchoring the show.

And when Koppel is gone, more often than not I am, too. Forrest Sawyer, Sam Donaldson, Aaron Brown or any of the other fill-ins usually do an admirable job, but it doesn't hit the mark. If I want to watch an interview show, there are dozens of opportunities, which was not the case in the '70s and '80s. 'Nightline' is (was?) Koppel. Plain and simple.

One of the reasons Jay Leno has maintained his lead over Letterman is that the guy hardly ever takes time off. You know if you tune in, you're not going to see some tired rerun.

Same holds true for 'Nightline.' You can't blame Koppel for not wanting to be there night in and night out after all this time.

But you can't blame ABC for thinking about trying something new. Either that or chain Koppel to his chair.

Pete Schulberg hosts 'Portland's Morning News' on KPAM (860 AM). Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .