Koppel leaving `Nightline'

Anchor's departure signals potential demise of show

April 01, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Ted Koppel, who as anchor of ABC's Nightline for a quarter-century offered perspective on the day's events to millions of Americans as they headed off to bed, will leave the network when his contract expires at year's end, ABC announced yesterday.

The 65-year-old newsman's departure - and that of his longtime producer Tom Bettag - from ABC is part of sweeping changes in recent months at all three major networks, including anchorman Tom Brokaw's retirement from NBC and Dan Rather's resignation as CBS anchorman. It also signals the potential demise of the celebrated news program credited both with ushering in the era of instant global news coverage (arriving via satellite) and valiantly struggling against commercial pressures to maintain the highest journalistic standards.

"With the passing of Nightline, network television will lose one of its purest, most prestigious and precious news programs in history," said Lee Thornton, a former CBS News correspondent who now runs the broadcast news program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"What network news show can possibly compare with its commitment to serious news and discussion? It held to the high road."

ABC News President David Westin expressed confidence yesterday that Nightline would continue after Koppel and Bettag leave in December. But for the last three years, senior management at ABC and its corporate owner, Disney, have openly been looking for ways to attract younger viewers to late-night television by replacing news with entertainment programming.

In 2002, David Letterman revealed that ABC tried to lure him away from CBS to take over the Nightline time slot, which begins at 11:35 p.m. after late local news. In recent months, ABC has been reviewing proposed replacements for Koppel's broadcast. (Nightline trails NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and CBS' The Late Show with David Letterman in the ratings. Last week, Leno drew 5.3 million viewers, while Letterman's audience was 4.4 million, compared with 3.4 million for Nightline. )

"Ted, Tom and I have had ongoing conversations for almost five years seeking to ensure Nightline's continuity and to create an orderly transition," Westin said yesterday. "All of us are confident that both goals can be achieved."

Producer Bettag said that Nightline in its current format will disappear after December. But he added that an expanded one-hour, live program produced by ABC News under the direction of senior Nightline producers might replace it.

"We have been working on succession for five years," he said. The proposed show "would be made from the same DNA as Nightline ... and that's a big deal with me and Ted. ... While there is nothing settled on who will succeed us yet, this is a show Ted and I would be proud to have as a successor."

Bettag, 60, also stressed that neither he nor Koppel plans to retire from television news - only from ABC News. "While there will be some people who will write about this as one more giant walking off the stage of network news, that's not the way we see it," Bettag said. "ABC wanted to take Nightline to a live hour five nights a week and offered that to Ted - and me. But Ted said that was not something at his stage of life that he wanted to do."

While Bettag characterized today's announcement as an "exhilarating beginning" for him and Koppel, most analysts saw it as another example of the wrenching changes taking place in the landscape of mainstream media.

"No matter how it's described, you can't avoid the fact that two of the most significant figures in the network television in the last 25 years have announced they are leaving the network and may be leaving network news altogether," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington media think tank.

Nightline was officially launched March 24, 1980, under the direction of broadcast visionary Roone Arledge and with Koppel as its host. The program, initially envisioned as a nightly update on the Iran hostage crisis, pioneered the use of satellite technology in TV news - a development that ultimately led to the rise of all-news cable channels.

Koppel, who joined ABC News in 1963 and quickly made a name for himself with international stories during stints as a Vietnam correspondent and Hong Kong bureau chief, set a serious tone both in story selection and the way in which he conducted extended interviews by satellite.

Though some industry analysts say that the numerous cable shows that have emulated Nightline have rendered the original show unnecessary, Rosenstiel vigorously disagreed: "Nightline is one of the few programs on television that is willing to be an agenda-setter, willing to devote sustained time to topics simply because they believe people should know about them. ... That mentality is almost gone in network television, and that's a significant loss."

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