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Letterman, Koppel dance continues



LOS ANGELES, California -- Relations between David Letterman and his current network CBS are warming up a bit, according to reports.

CBS has agreed to meet David Letterman's salary demand of $31.5 million a year, but contract talks aimed at keeping him from jumping to ABC hinge on clearing other hurdles -- like promotion, control and respect, sources close to the talks told Reuters news agency on Thursday.

The host of "The Late Show with David Letterman" was initially upset at the "hardball" negotiating stance CBS took in the early rounds of contract renewal discussions, said one source.

"CBS was extremely aggressive in the early rounds of the negotiations, so much so that they wanted to cut back both on Dave's salary and the money they give the show," the source told Reuters. "The arrogance bothered him. It was not the money."

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But, as reports leaked out about ABC's interest, the tone has changed, said the source.

A CBS executive wouldn't address the issue directly. "We have the utmost respect and admiration for David Letterman," the executive said.

CBS recently agreed to bump Letterman's annual salary from about $30 million a year to $31.5 million and to continue to pay an additional $40 million a year to license rights to the show from his production company, Worldwide Pants Inc., sources said. CBS actually gets about $11 million of that back in production costs and rent for the Ed Sullivan Theater, which it owns. "The Late Show," which is broadcast at 11:35 p.m., generates about $200 million a year in revenues, leaving CBS with a handsome profit margin, one source said.

Issues that overshadow salary

By all accounts, discussion of salary and licensing fees has been secondary to other other issues in the talks.

In order to become more competitive with NBC's "Tonight" show and its host, Jay Leno, the Letterman camp wants CBS' parent, Viacom, to do more promotion on its other networks, including MTV and VH1, which have more of the youthful demographic prized by advertisers, the sources told Reuters.

Indeed, ABC has seized on the cross-promotional clout of its Walt Disney Co. parent as a major selling point in its strategy of trying to lure away Letterman to its 11:30 p.m. spot, a move that would displace news veteran Ted Koppel and his "Nightline" show.

ABC has, in particular, cited the "synergistic" potential of its "Monday Night Football" broadcasts and its ESPN sports network as platforms from which to boost viewership among young males, an important demographic to Letterman.

What about Koppel?

Meanwhile, there has been fevered speculation about what would happen to Koppel if ABC cancels "Nightline."

Several competing networks have expressed an interest in the "Nightline" host, including CNN, CBS, and NBC.

"We'd love to have conversations if Ted Koppel wanted to, and could," CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson told The Associated Press.

CNN already employs several former ABC News journalists, including Aaron Brown, Connie Chung and Jeff Greenfield. Moreover, Ted's daughter, Andrea, is a prominent CNN correspondent.

CBS and NBC executives both said those networks would have an interest in Koppel if he were to become a free agent.

The 11:35 p.m. time slot wouldn't be available at NBC because of the long-running "Tonight" show, but NBC's cable news networks, MSNBC and CNBC, could probably make room, according to the AP.

Last Sunday, CBS show "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer made an on-air invitation to Koppel to join his network, and Dan Rather wrote to The New York Times to support his ABC colleague.

"Obviously, everyone here has a tremendous amount of respect for Ted Koppel and any network would be lucky to have his skills," said CBS News spokeswoman Sandra Genelius. "But it's premature to speculate."

Koppel wasn't commenting about his future on Thursday, although a representative characterized him as gratified for the support others in the news business have shown. Koppel has worked at ABC News for 39 years.

One door appears shut: the top-rated cable news network, Fox News Channel.

"We respect Mr. Koppel's journalistic background," network spokesman Brian Lewis told the AP. "But we have no plans to speak to him about coming to Fox."



 
 
 
 


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