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ABC boots “Politically Correct”

By David Bauder The Associated Press
Thursday May 16, 2002

NEW YORK — ABC has pulled the plug on “Politically Incorrect,” which battled sinking ratings and, after Sept. 11, advertising erosion because of host Bill Maher’s reference to past U.S. military action as “cowardly.” 

The topical late-night talk show will be replaced in its 12:05 a.m. time slot with an entertainment show led by Comedy Central’s Jimmy Kimmel. 

In Los Angeles, Maher disputed ABC’s contention that ratings were to blame for cancellation of his show. 

Asked if he thought the network action was related to controversy over his post-Sept. 11 remark, he said “without a doubt.” 

ABC signaled its intention to get more entertainment in late-night earlier this spring when it tried to persuade David Letterman to jump from CBS to replace Ted Koppel’s “Nightline.” 

Letterman decided to stay put, and ABC gave “Nightline” a two-year commitment. But the network is still interested in building a late-night entertainment franchise to reach younger viewers. 

Koppel took a public jab at his parent company’s executives on Tuesday during the presentation of ABC’s fall schedule to advertisers at Disney’s New Amsterdam Theatre, home of “The Lion King.” 

Koppel made a joke about Kimmel, saying he had been talking to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who “told me he was sending one of his kids over here to do a show after ‘Nightline’ and I thought he was pulling my leg.” 

He also talked about some programs “Nightline” was doing on the Middle East and concluded by saying, “our new slogan at ‘Nightline’ is: ‘More relevant than ever.”’ 

It was a pointed reference to a March story in The New York Times, which quoted an unidentified executive of ABC’s parent Walt Disney Co. as explaining the interest in Letterman by saying “Nightline” was losing relevance. 

Koppel’s audience included Disney’s chief executive, Michael Eisner, and its president, Robert Iger. 

Looking unhappy, Eisner walked out of the Broadway theater shortly after the remark. 

“Politically Incorrect” was believed to be in trouble ever since Maher, immediately after the terrorist attacks, referred to the U.S. military as “cowardly” in lobbing missiles at enemies. 

“Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly,”’ he said on the air. 

FedEx and Sears immediately pulled their commercials from his show. Maher later explained that he believed that politicians and not servicemen were cowardly, but he defended his right to offer dissent. 

Maher said his audience stayed essentially the same but ad revenue from his show had declined, which he blamed in part on a lack of network support and ABC’s overall poor ratings performance. 

However, Maher struck a philosophical note. 

“It was time to move on. ... I do feel bad the network felt they had to act like they didn’t know me,” he said. 

He also acknowledged the climate might not be the same for his brand of political satire given national sensitivities after the terrorist attack. But he was confident he would find another network home. 

ABC Chairman Lloyd Braun said Maher’s comments had nothing to do with the cancellation.