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JIM AND TAMMY: TOTALLY IN COMMAND : 'Nightline' Ratings Set Record as Koppel Interviews Dethroned but Still Charismatic PTL Couple

May 29, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Times Television Critic

Ted Koppel had confronted the world's most powerful figures since the inception of ABC's "Nightline" seven years ago.

He'd handled master propagandists, interviewed villains and heroes, held his own with tyrants, revolutionaries, political and spiritual leaders and just about everyone else. He'd presided over late-night jubilation and tragedy. He'd traveled to South Africa and the Philippines in the heat of turmoil and was battle-hardened.

But Wednesday was the first time he'd been told on national TV that God loved him.

No wonder that at that point, after nearly 80 minutes of amazing dialogue with two of the best performers ever to smile innocently at a TV camera, he seemed awed by Jim and Tammy Bakker.

ABC's "Nightline" returned to the scene of some of its greatest ratings this week with two special, hour-plus programs on the soaring shame of PTL, concluding with Wednesday's live satellite interview of the exiled Bakkers from the living room of their Palm Springs home-away-from-home.

This time "Nightline" was airing the Bakkers' first extended, live-TV interview since they were barred from returning to their scandalized PTL ministry by a new board headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Koppel applied the pressure, but the Bakkers were brilliant.

"Is it going to be possible for you to get through an interview without wrapping yourselves in the Bible?" he began, sternly.

He had only his intelligence and journalistic skills, though. They had their scriptures and TV charismas, shaped and polished from years of teary preaching to millions of their Christian followers.

"I want to go home to our puppies and the people we love," said Tammy, helplessly, her eyes glistening, her voice cracking.

Oh, yes. Pour it on. And when the Bakkers ended the program by exclaiming, one after the other, "God loves you," it was standing-ovation time. What's a few million bucks out the window? These people were downright adorable.

TV just does not get any better than this. Someone--surely the entrepreneurial Bakkers have thought of it themselves--can make a fortune by marketing this as a home video.

If Koppel can only sign the entire gang from the PTL melodrama to regular appearances, moreover, he will do what Joan Rivers couldn't do: put Johnny Carson out of business. "Nightline" had more than twice the audience of "The Tonight Show" Wednesday, according to overnight Nielsen ratings.

And speaking of that, what irony. The Bakkers' late nighter with Koppel put them opposite "The Late Show" on KTTV Channel 11, the very talk program from Fox Broadcasting Co. that they claim they were asked to host temporarily following Rivers' recent ouster.

The Bakkers hosting "The Late Show"? Cynical but logical.

After all, the PTL scandal is a story about TV that is being played out on TV by TV people.

What strikes you about all of the principals is their command of the camera, how comfortable and persuasive they are using TV as both a pulpit to reach their flocks and a link to the secular public.

They're easy to believe. Falwell accuses Bakker; you believe Falwell. Bakker accuses Falwell; you believe Bakker. These are the Lord's electronic militia, heavily armed with smiles, seductive deliveries and insights into human nature. Years of TV preaching have made video smoothies of the Bakkers, Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart, who also was overpowering in rejecting early charges that he sought control of PTL. And no slouch either is John Ankerberg, the TV minister who was the first to go public on TV with details of Bakkers' alleged unministerly behavior.

Tuesday's first "Nightline" program was devoted to charges by Bakker, in a taped interview with Koppel, that Falwell, now the chairman of PTL, had plotted from the outset to steal the TV ministry from Bakker and subvert its brand of fundamentalism.

On the same program, Falwell press spokesman Mark DeMoss and PTL attorney Norman Roy Grutman defended Falwell against accusations from former PTL executive Gary Evans and the Rev. Mike Smith, who at various points exasperated Koppel by first waving a piece of paper and then an audio tape that he insisted contained incriminating evidence against Falwell.

The screen was split into quarters for the four squabbling men, making "Nightline" resemble "Hollywood Squares" as the program bogged down in confusing charges and counter-charges.

It was absolutely uninformative--and absolutely wonderful TV.

Then came the ever-smiling Falwell's remarkable Wednesday-morning press conference--carried live by CNN--at which he rejected the charges made against him on "Nightline" while accusing Bakker of being greedy, unrepentant and unfit to return to PTL, with having "homosexual problems" dating to 1956 and with having lied about the extent of his tryst with Jessica Hahn.

Falwell added that he loved Bakker.

That set the stage for Wednesday night's live interview with the Bakkers, in which "Nightline" beat scores of other TV programs and news organizations to the punch.

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