Preeminent newsman Ted Koppel startled industry executives last week by jumping to a network not known for news: Discovery Channel. The venerated ABC Nightline ex-anchor, his producer/sidekick Tom Bettag and eight former ABC producers will develop at least six specials a year for Discovery on important issues but not necessarily topics that broadcast or even cable news operations care much about. Cable news, Koppel says, “is in a desperate race to be first with the obvious.” He spoke with B&C's John M. Higgins about his new gig:
You said you didn't even approach the cable news networks. Did any of them approach you?
No. I think I've said enough about them in public that I suspect I would not be a welcome commodity there. Take any one of the Nightline programs that Tom and I are particularly proud of: our series on the death penalty, race issues, the Congo. Tell me which daypart you'd put those in at MSNBC or CNN.
Knowing what Discovery typically pays for programming, I'm not thinking you're doing this for the money. You seem to be looking primarily for a place to do your kind of news.
It's correct, but I don't want you to get carried away with your assumptions. These folks are serious. While Tom Bettag and I are a couple of grueling greybeards who can probably afford to go off and retire, the rest of our team are not. They are being very generously compensated.
What are you going to get out of Discovery that you wouldn't get elsewhere?
An environment that is conducive to doing the kind of programming that we want to do. And a relationship with people of integrity and talent that is consistent with the kind of relationship Tom and I have had at Nightline over the years. The great joy of Nightline was, we could always do what we thought was important. The great joy of Discovery is that we can expand beyond even what we have done in the past.
What will a good meaty Nightline topic look like on Discovery?
The big difference is going to be that we have more time, that we will actually have both the financial backing and the time that we need. If next September, God forbid, there's something like Katrina, [Discovery Networks President] Billy Campbell has promised an immediate response. The documentary part of it might be 90 minutes long, followed by a town-hall meeting that might be another 90 minutes.
What do you think of the new ABC World News Tonight?
I thought they were off to a nice, clean start. I see two very talented younger reporters who are now starting to spread their wings as anchors. I know that Bob Woodruff has more experience, especially as a foreign correspondent, than Elizabeth Vargas has. But they're both very smart, very attractive, very talented people, and I see no reason why they shouldn't be a huge success.
What about the new Nightline?
Don't read anything into this. I said on the occasion of my farewell party that the one gift I could give them was not to comment on how they were doing or what they were doing for several months. I know how difficult it is to do a new program and even more difficult to take an existing program and make it your own.