Koppel: Will Work for Integrity

Ted Koppel, who for 25 years has anchored ABC’s Nightline, is looking for a new job and a new network.

The driving force behind one of television’s most respected news programs surprised Nightline staffers last week by announcing that he and his longtime colleague, executive producer Tom Bettag, will leave the program and the ABC network at the end of November.

“I plan to relinquish the reins of Nightline late next fall,” Koppel later explained in his daily e-mail to Nightline junkies. “This is turning into a premature farewell. Tom and I have eight months left, and that works out to about 160 programs left to do.”

He added that he looks forward to participating in “most of those” shows.

The qualifier won’t be lost on Nightline followers.

In recent months, Koppel and ABC News President David Westin had been trying to hash out a new format for the program. Westin wants to expand the half-hour program to a full hour, live each weeknight—a commitment the 65-year-old Koppel was unwilling to make at this stage of his career. He cut back to three nights a week 4½ years ago and has no interest in stepping up obligations with the show now.

“That’s clearly not something I’m going to be doing,” he says.

Koppel told Westin when his last contract was signed in 2000 that he intended to phase out his presence on the show but recently amended that plan by offering to help with an hour-long show—but only if more taped, edited segments were used. “Ted and I have discussed a number of options under which he might have remained,” Westin says. “As much as I will regret his leaving, he is firm in his conviction, and I respect his decision.”

Koppel says it’s an “absolute certainty” he and Bettag will remain a team as they search for a gig. Their hunt begins now.

“We’ll be putting up a big sign that says, 'Two highly motivated guys looking for honest work,’” Bettag says. “We’re eager to do something bold and different and based on strong reporting at a time when television does too little.”

Koppel says they have a few ideas for new projects but he declined to discuss details.

Professional Skeptic

Wherever the duo lands, Koppel says, their reporting will continue to resist the subjectivity that has crept into too much of mainstream TV journalism. “The move towards partisanship is forcing reporters to take more policy positions than they should,” he says. “My job as a reporter is not to be pro-administration or anti-administration, but to be a professional skeptic, not a cynic, but a skeptic.”

Koppel and Westin say they are optimistic that Nightline will continue despite declining ratings and brutal competition from The Tonight Show and The Late Show With David Letterman as well as cable. Ultimately, however, the future of Nightline and the late-night time slot will be up to Bob Iger, new president and COO of ABC parent Walt Disney Co. Disney execs embarrassed Koppel three years ago when they tried to lure Letterman and made it clear they’d dump Nightline without a second thought. Bettag says the Letterman dust-up was an aberration because the talk show host’s CBS contract was expiring; a similarly compelling alternative to Nightline is unlikely to be available, Bettag notes.

He also predicts that Iger will remain committed to the storied news franchise. “You need Nightline today as much as ever. The whole notion that Nightline is less relevant in a post-9/11 world is ridiculous,” Bettag says.

Though Nightline is clearly a beleaguered outpost, the show can still occasionally cause a stir on the national stage. Koppel drew fire last May from supporters of the war in Iraq when, as a tribute, he read the names of Americans killed in the fighting. Some ABC affiliates refused to air that night’s program. “Frankly, the hoo-ha seems silly in retrospect,” he says. “I thought it was the right thing to do then and I think it was the right thing to do now. The intent of the program was to remind people that war is not without cost. It was not meant to be pro-war or anti-war.”

Koppel and Bettag say their aim now is to open a “second front” of intelligent television news.

Among news insiders, the departure of Bettag from ABC was almost as startling as Koppel’s. A teaching associate of former CBS News President Fred Friendly at the Columbia School of Journalism from 1967 to 1969, Bettag went on to become a producer for 60 Minutes and other CBS news shows. He served as Dan Rather’s executive producer at CBS Evening News from 1986 to 1991, then switched networks to join Koppel as Nightline executive producer in 1991. In 2003 he became executive producer for This Week With George Stephanopoulos. Bettag returned to Nightline last fall.

Koppel credits Bettag with devising the “day in the life” concept in which an anchor tags along with presidential candidates or other important newmakers. Bettag also helped popularize freeing anchors from the news desk and putting them in remote locations.

Breaking New Ground, Then and Now

Koppel has anchored Nightline since it evolved from a series of special reports during the Iranian hostage crisis in November 1979. The initial reports on the hostages were anchored by the late Frank Reynolds, but Koppel quickly made the program his own, displaying a talent for the show’s novel approach of conducting live interviews on a variety of subjects. It was a groundbreaking format, later copied by other networks, particularly on cable news.

Koppel joined ABC News as a general assignment reporter in 1963. He was chief diplomatic reporter from 1971 to 1980 when he took over Nightline. He also anchored The ABC Saturday Night News for two years in the mid-1970s. Koppel’s first job in journalism was as a desk assistant with radio station WMCA New York.

Koppel says that of the hundreds of Nightline broadcasts he has anchored, there are a handful of shows of which he is particularly proud: the programs on prison that aired as part of the “Crime and Punishment” series, the “America in Black and White” examination of race relations, and early coverage of the AIDS crises in America and Africa.

“I do believe there is room for a program like Nightline that focuses more soberly on one issue than some of the more frenetic programs we compete with,” Koppel says. “We have put a team in place that can handle the program without us being there.”