Dave and Ted -- made for each other

Letterman has decided to stay at CBS. But his real future belongs with Ted Koppel as a celebrity-hating, executive-bashing late-night tag team.

Published March 13, 2002 2:29AM (EST)

What a letdown!

So after all the Sturm und Drang of the last 10 days -- the bruised egos, the corporate intrigue, the "I am too relevant!" New York Times Op-Ed -- the David Letterman-Ted Koppel imbroglio ends not with a deafening Nielsen-grabbing bang but a yawn-inducing whimper. Score one for entropy and the status quo.

CBS president Leslie Moonves offered Letterman 31.5 million reasons a year to keep the "Late Show" at the Tiffany Network -- plus persuasive bonuses and benefits. That, and the fact that hypersensitive Dave clearly didn't want to be known as the Guy Who Killed Nightline (though he still would've come off better than the guy who gave birth to it -- Ayatollah Khomeini), convinced him to stay put.

As for Ted, he earns only $8 million a year but works less than the men's room attendant at a Melissa Etheridge concert, so, now that Dave has demurred, the odds are high Ted will resist the urge to tell Mickey Mouse where to shove his time slot, and keep doing his show at the "happiest place on earth."

What a truly anticlimactic ending to what had been a promising new drama: With the ashen-faced David Westin, president of ABC News, blindsided by a news flash from his own front porch and the Garbo-esque Letterman off on vacation while his deep-pocketed suitors battled it out for his affection -- though I imagine him pacing up and down grumbling, not lounging by the pool. Would it have been too much to ask for a season-ending surprise finale, a breathtaking shocker just before the credits rolled and the lights came up?

Besides the coitus interruptus nature of the denouement, there is also the lingering question of these stars' wounded feelings. As a Letterman confidant told me (in the newly chic Quranic parlance): "Dave hates Les Moonves with the intensity of a thousand white hot suns." And Ted probably isn't feeling all warm and fuzzy about Disney president Robert Iger, who last week promised him that if the efforts to woo Letterman didn't work out, ABC would only replace "Nightline" with a top quality show. Which is a lot like promising your wife that you're not going to cheat, but if you do she should console herself with the fact that it will only be with a really, really hot woman.

Since no one seems to be winning in all this, I have a better idea, one that will provide both a more fulfilling ending to this late-night host-age crisis and the chance for Dave and Ted to stick it to their corporate overlords. In my scenario we all win.

Instead of competing, the two should do what all other industries are doing and merge. They could combine their award-winning programs and their complementary talents and take the new hybrid to another network, leaving the fickle mucky-mucks at Viacom/CBS and Disney/ABC choking on their dust. I'm sure Fox -- which was recently spurned in its attempt to land Conan O'Brien -- would kill to have them. So would just about anyone else.

It's not as crazy as it might seem. "Nightline" and the "Late Show" actually have a lot in common. Both get a lot of mileage out of the headlines of the day. Both feature probing, memorable interviews. Who can forget the Dodgers' Al Campanis on "Nightline" explaining why blacks can't be baseball managers or Al Gore on the "Late Show" taking a hammer to an ashtray -- and his stiff image? And both have helped shape history -- in 1985, Ted brought together Desmond Tutu and South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha; in 1987, Dave reunited Sonny and Cher.

The show's stars are also similar. Both men are chronically dyspeptic, which is, perhaps, what makes them so good. They're also sharp, savvy and have serious issues with their hair. Dave has lost most of his, while Ted's unruly mop continues to look like roadkill after a rainstorm.

I can really see this dynamic duo meshing. After all, Dave's interviewed plenty of newsmakers in his time, often making news while doing it. And Ted has interviewed his share of entertainers, though usually through gritted teeth. He's made it abundantly clear that he hates celebrities. Then again, so has Dave.

Most important, Dave clearly understands newsmen -- look how adeptly he handled Dan Rather in the wake of Sept. 11. In the unlikely event that Ted bursts into tears on the air, we know we can count on Dave to say just the right thing.

For a preview of how well they work together as a team, just flashback to the night in 1994 when Ted played hooky from his own show, skipping a snoozer on the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun to rollerblade through the streets of New York with Dave. They were like a brainy Martin and Lewis, a wacky Huntley and Brinkley.

Now, I'm sure some fans might worry that the two shows' personnel won't blend, that the irony-drenched Letterman crew will somehow diminish "Nightline's" stature, and that Koppel's earnest newsies will put a damper on the "Late Show" high jinks. But I think it would work like a dream.

I've thought for years that Robert Krulwich is the thinking man's Larry "Bud" Melman. And Dave's far-flung correspondents -- including Sirajul and Mujibar, and Dave's mom, Dorothy -- have proven surprisingly adroit at on-the-spot reportage. Take the sit-down interview Dave's mom scored with Don Rumsfeld, during which she asked: "When are we going to put the hammer on Osama?" Let's see Chris Bury top that.

Just think of the genre-bending prospects: Dave overseeing a round of Stupid Politician Tricks; Ted anchoring a five-part investigative series on financial irregularities at the Home Office in Wahoo, Neb.; Michel Martin filling the shoes of the Hello Deli's Rupert Jee by heading off into the field wearing an earpiece and mindlessly repeating whatever Dave or Ted tells her to unsuspecting passersby; and a global town hall meeting with Biff Henderson moderating a debate between Israelis and Palestinians -- first loosening the two sides up by having them don Velcro suits and jump onto fuzzy walls to see who sticks.

Now that's must-see TV.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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