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Nightline: Exit Interviews

Ted Koppel and Tom Bettag ponder the state of TV news 11/11/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remembers back in the 1970s being impressed with Ted Koppel, then ABC News’ chief diplomatic correspondent. “I offered him a job as my spokesman at the State Department,” Kissinger recalls, “which he wisely turned down and went on to higher things.” The height of Koppel’s accomplishments in a 42-year career at ABC News was anchoring Nightline since its inception 25 years ago. He’s giving up the position—and is leaving the network—on Nov. 22, moving on with longtime executive producer Tom Bettag to make documentaries. A trio of co-anchors (Martin Bashir, Cynthia McFadden and Terry Moran) will host the revamped incarnation of the show.

It’s just as well they’re starting afresh. Although Nightline was the brainchild of Roone Arledge, who coveted a late-night news slot, and although Dan Rather was the anchor ABC wanted for the show, Koppel quickly made Nightline his own when it came into being during the hostage crisis in Iran. Over the years, whether he was running a town meeting or quizzing guests, who ranged from the Dalai Lama to Tammy Faye Bakker, Koppel brought the same penetrating approach to his interviews. The final broadcast will revisit a memorable trio of talks that Koppel conducted in 1995 with Brandeis University professor Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. (Those interviews spurred writer Mitch Albom to visit his old teacher, leading to the inspirational bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie.) As Koppel and Bettag prepared to leave, B&C’s Mark Lasswell talked to them about the show, its future and the state of the news business. First, Ted Koppel:

The New York Times is going through its second meltdown in a matter of years, and CBS is still suffering from the fallout of its National Guard story. You’re leaving the air, Brokaw’s off, Rather’s off, Peter Jennings passed away. Bloggers are supposedly dismantling the mainstream media. Is the news situation as dire as people say?

TED KOPPEL: First of all, we haven’t found anything to reverse the laws of nature yet. People get older, people retire, and, tragically, people die before their times, in the case of Peter. Even the best organizations occasionally have their scandals big and small. [Journalists] don’t write off any organization any more than we’ve written off the White House over the years, and there have been a succession of scandals there.

If you want to turn the coin around, you can say that there are a lot of really good, smart young people on the scene, just in the wings, waiting to take over.

Programs come, and programs go. People who are very well-known one day are not so well-known a few years later.

One of the experiments I always used to conduct when we had a new batch of interns come in was that I would say, “OK, how many of you here recognize the name Eric Severeid?” No hands would go up. Just a look of absolute bewilderment. I would say, “All right, how about Howard K. Smith?” Again, none. “How about Frank Reynolds?” None. “Chet Huntley?” None.

Then I’d get to David Brinkley, and maybe one or two hands would go up. When I got to Walter Cronkite, maybe half or three-quarters of them would go up.

I remember when Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were arguably the two best-known people in the entire country. Granted, that was 45 or 50 years ago. But the fact is that most of the young people today have no memory of the most famous people in the country back then. So I’m not that pessimistic.

Do you sense that networks have the corporate determination to pursue substantive news as patiently as they have in the past?

T.K.: I think it’s too early to tell. Clearly, things have happened over the last 15 years or so that have decreased the commitment to certain kinds of news. At one point or another, people started looking at foreign news and saying, “OK, how many pieces are coming out of the Moscow bureau every year that are in fact being used on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, 20/20, Nightline?” And when they did the calculus, it wasn’t worth it to them to keep it going.

I think that’s a step in the wrong direction. But I understand that businesses have to run according to business models.

In the early years, one of Nightline’s hallmarks was that it was broadcast live. Why did you move away from that?

T.K.: Number one was the arrival of cable networks. We felt a real responsibility at 11:30 at night to bring people up to speed on what had happened since 7:30, but once you had CNN and Fox and MSNBC and CNBC, all of them updating constantly, the imperative for doing that seemed less and less.

Then came a couple of other factors. One was that I did it for 15 years of the past 26 years and I really felt a need to be able to go home and have dinner with my wife.

The number of guests who were willing to stay up until midnight to do the program also seemed to diminish. It came to us at some point or another that, very often, we could pre-tape earlier in the evening without really shortchanging our audience in any fashion.

Nightline came into being during the hostage crisis in Iran, and now a quarter of a century later, as you’re leaving the show, Iran is still a trouble spot.

T.K.: We’re still a problem for them, and they’re still a problem for us. It’s interesting—almost every week someone comes up to me, and I recognize the accent right away, and it’s an Iranian accent. An awful lot of Iranians were watching at the beginning and stayed with the program over the years. By definition, if they’re in this country, they tended to be people who fled after the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power, and they liked the program very much.

One of the great joys I get from having done Nightline is that so many foreigners who came to this country say, “I loved watching Nightline because you speak so clearly and I can understand what you were saying. I even learned English from you.” That’s kind of nice. I like that.

How did the decision come about to devote Ted Koppel’s last Nightline to the interviews that he did with Morrie Schwartz?

TOM BETTAG: Ted has given a lot of thought to this. How do you do it? It would be too easy, saying, “Let us show you our greatest hits.” A little too self-referential. One thought was to do the day’s news and not make it special until the final comment. Nobody does closing remarks quite like Ted.

But what we’re going to do is a show reprising one of Ted’s favorite broadcasts. One reason we like it is because Morrie was somebody who wasn’t a celebrity, it wasn’t somebody anybody knew. The broadcast will have a little bit of a retrospective look to it, but it has a significance and importance, and it’s something that only Nightline would do. In the television world today, talking about death—it’s a downer. Clearly, Les Moonves wouldn’t approve. That wouldn’t work with a nude anchor.

How has TV news changed since you started at Nightline 14 years ago?

T.B.: I think the dramatic change is the ownership issue of the networks, where you’re part of such a large corporation that there is a huge distance between the news division president and the CEO of the corporation. It really happened in the mid ’80s, when I was on the CBS Evening News. We used to be owned by television entertainment companies, which creates [its own] problem, but now we’re owned by people who aren’t even television companies. That creates a huge distance.

The other huge rift is the advertisers’ demand for the 18-49 demographic. All programming is trying to aim at only one segment of the population.

That is a real distorting factor. People can’t figure out why 24-hour cable news is about blondes reporting on missing blondes. It’s because they’re looking for that young-female demographic. That didn’t exist 14 years ago.

Fourteen years ago, you were programming to the whole nation. We still do, but there’s some real pressure to go that way. The advertisers have to decide how to run their business, but it seems to me it’s pretty dumb.

You get yourself caught in situations where, say, come elections, if you don’t spend much time covering the election because people under 50 don’t vote, you create a chicken-and-egg situation. If you’re not covering the election, not creating any buzz, for sure, the people under 50 are not going to vote. That’s not good for a democracy.

What’s ahead for you two?

T.B.: One way or another, we’re going to set up a group that only produces Ted Koppel long-form projects on things not getting said any place else on television. People are so research-driven that they just walk away from fascinating subjects.

What has it been like working with Koppel?

T.B.: I always tell people that he’s just like he seems on TV, except much funnier. This is a man of enormous caliber.

An executive producer’s job is to make the anchor look as good as he possibly can. You would feel something wrong in making Ted Baxter look like an anchorman, making somebody who was a bit fraudulent look like something he wasn’t.

But Ted Koppel is this person; the integrity that seems to be there, is there. Married to his wife for more than 40 years, devoted family man, a man of enormous values, somebody who is extraordinarily sympathetic to anybody who is hurting. He is a human being of real magnitude.

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