'Nightline' -- Revisiting the intercontinental salon


"Nightline: History in the Making and the Making of Television," by Ted Koppel and Kyle Gibson. Times Book. 479 pages. $26

Once upon a time, before everybody started staying up way too late, the stretch after the last local newscast was a sleepy little hamlet populated by performing poodles, "Baretta" reruns and a benevolent deity named Johnny Carson. If you were on another network you didn't even bother mounting serious competition; this, the execs said, was "Carson time."

But for one scrappy ABC producer, the hour "opposite" Johnny was like a scrabbly vacant lot that could be had cheap. In 1980, Roone Arledge staked out the neglected time slot and began an experiment called "Nightline" to utilize emerging technology that allowed more instantaneous audio/video transmission.

And in the early years, prior to the bombardment of analysis and image one sees today, "Nightline" had a magic quality. Here was an "intercontinental salon" hosted by anchor Ted Koppel, a poised, British-born 40-year-old, who could summon the leaders of the world, then grill them as if they were wayward schoolboys. Here were the stories of the decade - South Africa, hostages, Tiananmen Square - unfolding in your bedroom via the magic of satellite.

What Mr. Koppel and company do is now vastly devalued. These days everybody has a video camera and his own cable show! "Nightline" is on the wane - under heavy bombardment from imitators like CNN.

Perhaps anticipating the end of his reign, Koppel has collaborated with a former television producer named Kyle Gibson on a chronicle of the show.

Making a book about an influential TV show is a reasonable idea, but at nearly 500 pages and 26 bucks, this will appeal only to "Nightline's" most rabid fans. The problem is mainly that it looks as if there has been no content editing whatsoever. (Not line-by-line editing; the writing by principal writer Gibson is quite good.)

Why, for instance, do we need 17 pages of the mini-essays Mr. Koppel wrote to "open" the shows? One or two would have been enough to get across the point that Mr. Koppel is one heck of a smart guy. Also lovingly reproduced are many transcripts of purportedly historic exchanges between notable guests, which aren't all that interesting without the heat of live TV. Mr. Gibson, a former "Nightline" producer, was probably too close to the subject (and industry politics?) to see this stuff with a discriminating enough eye.

What does one call a conglomeration like this anyway? It's not really a biography, or an '80s history or a Koppel memoir and it's too reverent to qualify as industry "dish."

The best I can figure is that it's what marketers call "a brand extension," like a Pocahontas Happy Meal.

But leave it to the always-erudite Mr. Koppel to come up with a good way to describe the unsatisfying quality here: "[I]t seems to me," he writes in the book's introduction, "that the shifting focus of our attention ... has barely kept pace with our accelerated capacity to transmit information... We have become purveyors of an intellectual fast food: McThought."

This is sort of a McBook.

Stephanie Gutmann is a freelance writer living in New York. She has written for Cosmopolitan, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and Playboy, among other publications.

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