'NIGHTLINE' WITH TED KOPPEL

Show is waning, but the need for it is not

Wave of mass-appeal fare threatens to swamp explanatory journalism


ABC News' Ted Koppel, right, interviewed Secretary of State Colin Powell at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., earlier this year for "Nightline."

ABC
Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 31, 2004 at 11:44 p.m.

One balmy Las Vegas afternoon in March, more than 500 TV journalists packed a ballroom inside the city's convention center to see, hear, ``experience'' Ted Koppel. They cheered wildly when the ``Nightline'' anchorman emerged and took a seat on a small stage.

Koppel was wearing a pullover shirt, khakis, loafers with no socks and a look of sincere astonishment. He has long felt an uneasiness with journalists treated as stars and icons, particularly when he is the icon.

But in a matter of minutes, Koppel seems as comfortable as a local who just strolled into his favorite watering hole to exchange shoptalk with old buddies. In very un-Koppel-like, stream-of-consciousness style, he talks about his career and the careers of others, about ABC, television news, war coverage, David Letterman, 24-hour cable news, his idol (Edward R. Murrow), even motorcycles; whatever crosses his mind.

``I can't prove it,'' he said at one point, ``but it seems likely to me that when we began processing news for the young and treating news as an off-shoot of the entertainment business, when we began taking our journalism more lightly, people began taking us less seriously.''

Loud applause.

``I have no problem with comedians and entertainers pretending to be journalists,'' Koppel said at another point. ``My problem is with journalists pretending to be entertainers.''

Loud, long applause.

``I wanted the Third Infantry to make it out there with as much speed and as few casualties as humanly possible,'' he said of his embedded assignment during the war in Iraq. ``There's no doubt in my mind which side I wanted to see win. But patriotism in journalism is when you're doing the job as effectively as you can and your sentiments are equally divided between the Iraqi Army and the American Army.''

Thunderous applause.

Even if Koppel didn't enunciate in near-perfect syllables, with near-perfect efficiency, in near-perfect paragraphs, as though a thesaurus or TelePrompTer were planted in his head, what he said these days could never be taken lightly.

Whether he's pointing out with disdain the softening of serious news or devoting an entire evening of ``Nightline'' to reading aloud the names of U.S. servicemen and women killed in the Iraq war, what Ted Koppel says still matters.

Even if he is disappearing right before our eyes.

The collective feeling about Koppel, who has logged 40 of his 64 years on this Earth at ABC News, is that he's going away. Soon.

By his own choosing, to some extent.

Koppel is now a ``Nightline'' anchorman three days a week (correspondent Chris Bury pinch-hits Mondays and Fridays). Koppel adds more time when the really big stuff happens - the war in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the death of former President Ronald Reagan.

Gradually and grudgingly, it seems Ted Koppel is fading away, right along with his pre-revenue-hungry, pre-corporate-meddling, pre-video phones, pre-technology-as-the-real-star ilk who spanned the birth and, arguably, the death of network news.

Koppel and ``Nightline,'' the splendid nightly news program that is one of the few places where viewers can find explanatory journalism on TV, are hanging on, day-to-day, wondering if ABC will eventually pull the plug. Pressure continues to mount on the network to find a competitor (or clone) to rival Jay Leno's ``Tonight Show'' on NBC and Letterman's ``Late Show'' on CBS. ABC is desperate to attract younger viewers and higher revenues - something ``Nightline'' simply can't deliver.

Koppel survived an embarrassing coup attempt two years ago, when ABC's parent company, Disney, aggressively and publicly wooed Letterman to leave CBS and take over the time slot ``Nightline'' has held since 1979. (Letterman would eventually decline, feeling slightly ashamed for nearly being the one to kick ``Nightline'' to the curb.) Now, the latest talk centers around WWCD - What Will Conan Do?

Funnyman Conan O'Brien, aching to move out of his late, late night perch on NBC and into an earlier time slot, is the latest possible replacement rumor. ABC, which learned a lesson about doing its dirty work with discretion, isn't commenting on O'Brien or, for that matter, its own Jimmy Kimmel, whose 12:35 p.m. talker would become a serious ``Nightline'' alternative if it ever catches ratings fire. ("Entertainment Tonight'' is sandwiched between Kimmel and Koppel.)

Koppel has never lost sight of that fact, or what it means to work for a commercial network or in a business where viewer levels are dropping and paranoia is rising, where journalism is being redefined, and where profits mean far more now than they did when he first signed on as a correspondent at age 23.

``It's become easy and acceptable to focus on stories that have mass appeal rather than significance because of fragmentation. We're fighting for the audience we once took for granted,'' said Koppel. ``We've never been pressured to cover the Scott Peterson case or Kobe Bryant or any other tabloid story. But ``Nightline's''

fastidiousness in its story selection is becoming an unaffordable and unsustainable luxury throughout most of our industry.''

If Koppel was personally hurt by his employer's negotiation with Letterman, he's not letting on - ironically, the man known for dogged pursuit of his interview subjects can duck questions better than most. He often appears very open in terms of honesty and brevity but in sharing what he's grappling with in his heart, Koppel remains emotionally private, saying only: ``I was encouraged by the fact that Dave said `no' and, I must say, got a slight perverse satisfaction from the support we received from many people saying this program is still relevant.''

Over a two-day span, during which Koppel accepted the Paul White Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association, addressed his colleagues in a spirited Q&A, and sat for a brief interview with the ``Star-Telegram,'' he often sounded as if he was delivering a eulogy on the state of television news and ``Nightline.''

``We have now traveled a very long way down that road,'' Koppel said of Murrow's prophetic warning in his speech, made even more poignant because Koppel slyly asked for, and got, ``The Daily Show's'' Jon Stewart to introduce him.

``It's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish anymore between the clowns and the lion tamers; between the comedians and the analysts; the satirists and the objects of their satire,'' said Koppel.

But is it becoming just as difficult for viewers, particularly younger viewers who grew up on the quick-hit nature of 24-hour cable news, to appreciate programs that want to ``explain'' more than merely show? The industry's advances in technology cannot be denied: As a Vietnam War correspondent, Koppel's dispatches took 2 1/2 days to get on air; his Iraq reports reached ABC's newsroom in 2 1/2 seconds.

But TV news' reliance on video has become a crutch, said Koppel.

``All too often, we delude ourselves into believing that by simply focusing a live camera on an event and dropping in the occasional ad lib, we are committing journalism,'' Koppel said. ``We're not.''

Later, in an interview, he adds: ``I understand the pressures on our colleagues with the 24/7 cable networks to switch live to every breaking event. But we really do need to establish in our own minds what's happening before we can hope to explain it to the viewing public.''

Deborah Potter, executive director of the directors association, said viewers will have to learn to live without news shows that focus on what is most important, not just what is most recent, in a post- ``Nightline'' world.

``It takes risks not many other news organizations will take,'' Potter said of ``Nightline,'' whose multipart series on unrest in the Congo, gay life in America and race have earned high praise. ``They will cover a story in a country no one has really heard of. They have been innovative in terms of their use of free-lance reporters with small cameras who can get into places and tell stories a big crew can't, and they'll put it on the air.''

In other words, they have an expansive definition of news.

``Nightline'' hasn't changed much since its accidental birth 24 years ago, when Islamic students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 Americans hostage.

Four days later, ABC News created a special program to follow local evening news called ``The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage.'' Twelve days in, ABC news president Roone Arledge asked the network to let him have the time period for a few weeks to report solely on the Iran crisis. Ratings soared for the new program, which had Frank Reynolds as anchorman.

As the crisis dragged on, and the days that Americans were held hostage piled up, Reynolds tired of the grind and Koppel, one of Reynold's revolving replacements, took over, quickly establishing himself as a smooth and efficient interviewer who never let subjects dodge questions or toss out questionable facts. Koppel was a hit. The program's title was changed to ``Nightline'' on March 24, 1980.

Koppel said that in some ways, ``Nightline'' was built on the notion of Will Rogers' famous quote: ``We're all ignorant, just about different things.''

The show operates on the premise that if you give people a reason to care, they will.

Koppel refuses to take credit for the discovery of the show - that

goes to Arledge, whose other creation, ``ABC's Wide World of Sports,'' influenced ``Nightline.''

``Just like those unknowns in the luge on `Wide World of Sports,' who generated emotion after having heard their hopes and dreams,'' Koppel said, ``by the time our interview segment comes around, viewers have enough background to care.''

Koppel has been a fixture for so long on ``Nightline'' that viewers often don't know about his long reporting career anywhere else. He was ABC's Miami bureau chief in 1968, Hong Kong bureau chief in 1969, and chief diplomatic correspondent, covering the State Department, from 1971 until he took over at ``Nightline.''

Even if Chris Bury takes over ``Nightline'' as anchorman, Koppel will forever be its serious, expressionless face, whether the show lasts another 10 years or 10 days.

Which means viewers also don't know that he can lighten up, as he's done frequently as a guest on Letterman's ``Late Show'' (as a stupid human trick, he once balanced a dog biscuit on his nose) and even in a roomful of his peers.

When asked why he picked Stewart to introduce him during the awards dinner, Koppel told attendees: ``He's funny, he's clever and, most important, his new contract makes it highly unlikely that he, at least, won't be replacing `Nightline' anytime soon.''

Loud, long laughter.

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