Experience Is Not a Dirty Word


News of Ted Koppel's decision to leave Nightline when his contract expires in December was the sort of announcement that puts the shape of the news business in some sad perspective. It is getting to be more and more like the Wild West, but in reverse. We started out with lots of journalistic sheriffs, but their ranks are thinning now that anybody can get their own gun and an official-looking blogger badge. Some college kid sitting at a keyboard in his tighty-whiteys can become a news force to be reckoned with, or at least can get read.

We cannot reverse the Internet-born, digitally driven tide of virtually unlimited outlets with instant access to millions of eyeballs. Nor would we want to. But in the chase for better demos or to out-blog the competition, traditional news organizations must not abdicate their responsibility to remain filters and editors. In fact, we are in greater need, not lesser, of shows like Nightline. Koppel's announcement last week, coupled with the fact that his executive producer Tom Bettag is leaving, too, creates a void that's hard to miss. Koppel, after all, has been in the business 42 years.

News judgment and editorial discretion have been the hallmarks of Nightline and Koppel. He's old enough to know better. How sweet that is. And yes, we're actually endorsing age, because, though it apparently doesn't sell on Madison Avenue, age is usually accompanied by experience and a sense of history. Those are attributes that should still command some respect even in today's news profit centers.

ABC was making noises last week that it is still bullish on the Nightline brand and that the program will continue past Koppel/Bettag. It was less clear whether that would be as a news program or as a more entertainment-oriented news show that B&C recently reported ABC was secretly testing, better to compete with the standup comics on the other networks.

ABC in 2002, of course, tried to woo David Letterman—without informing Koppel or, if we are to believe the reports, even David Westin, the president of the news division. That botched coup was the beginning of the end. Koppel clearly felt dissed by ABC's ham-handed maneuvers. So while we hate Koppel's departure, we like his unequivocal rejection of any half-hearted special titles or chores ABC could have given him as a lifetime consolation prize.

There will be no “emeritus” standing, no occasional specials. He is done with ABC, and he is exiting gracefully—which is a civil gesture because Koppel was one of the few ABC News staffers still around who toiled during the early years when the organization was the journalistic equivalent of a banana republic.

We get the feeling that ABC's loss will be somebody's gain. Koppel and Bettag intend to stay a “team,” and they talked last week about opportunities ahead. We're sure they exist.

There is no way to entirely compensate for the loss of Koppel's experience and, yes, gravitas, but that doesn't mean ABC shouldn't try. Insiders say executives still value the brand. If so, the network will not morph Nightline into a demo-driven news-o-tainment show. Don't dumb down Nightline.