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Eisner 'happy to have Ted Koppel'

But he offers no commitment

MARNE-LA-VALLEE, France (CNN) -- Four days after his failed attempt to lure David Letterman incurred the wrath of ABC News' "Nightline" host Ted Koppel, Disney's chief Friday praised the program. But Michael Eisner stopped short of offering the reassurance or long-term commitment the show's executives have sought.

"I personally have not continued the conversations about what the show is going to be and how long it's going to be and all the rest of it," said Eisner, "but I assure you we have tremendous respect for Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters and Charlie Gibson and Ted Koppel and the rest.

"David Letterman is a fantastic performer and we would have been very happy to have both Ted Koppel and David Letterman. We're still happy to have Ted Koppel."

Had Letterman been lured from CBS, he would have retained his 11:35 p.m. EST slot, occupied at ABC for more than two decades by Koppel's "Nightline."

CBS' counter offer to David Letterman trumped ABC's attempt to woo him away, Letterman opting to stay with CBS.  The incident left many industry observers shaken and wondering what place news programming now holds on entertainment-owned networks.

Although Letterman's "Late Show" attracts only a modestly larger audience than "Nightline," Letterman viewers are somewhat younger. Advertisers are willing to pay more for the younger demographic and CBS is able to charge more for commercials, a prospect that attracted ABC's corporate owners and its network negotiators.

"They thought they were going to get David Letterman," said Eisner, who added that he had always had his doubts.

"I did write at one point to a couple of people saying I envision David Letterman saying, 'I love ... ABC ... but you know what? I also like Ted Koppel. I think I'll stay at CBS so we can both stay on the air.' I envisioned that and I guess ... that's what happened."

Eisner made his comments to CNN during an interview about Disney's celebration of the 10th anniversary of its theme park outside Paris. Although the park opened April 12, 1992, the celebration was moved up to coincide with the opening of a second one.

Looking for reassurance

After the acerbic host of the "Late Show With David Letterman" announced Monday he had signed another contract with CBS, Koppel and executive producers Tom Bettag and Leroy Sievers issued a statement challenging Disney to reassure them about the future of "Nightline."

"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. 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.

"No one in this business expects a program to last in perpetuity, but we need something more than bland assurances or a short-term guarantee. We need to be able to plan, to prepare, to settle down to work again."

Eisner said Friday he hopes Koppel remains at the network. "We would be disappointed if he were not at ABC."

A spokeswoman for "Nightline' did not immediately return a call.


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