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He Asks: Can Anything Ever Top 'Nightline'?


NEW YORK — Sixteen years after ABC started a nightly update on the hostage crisis in Iran, "Nightline" continues to confound skeptics who said nobody would watch a serious news program late at night.

"Nightline," one of the most honored programs in TV journalism, has averaged 5.4 million viewers per night since last fall, running second to a resurgent "Tonight Show" on NBC with 5.6 million and beating David Letterman's 4.6 million on CBS. Its weeklong series on race relations last month drew 5.6 million viewers a night.

The "Nightline" anchor from the outset has been Ted Koppel, 56, whose three-year contract with ABC comes up for renewal in September. Koppel and former ABC News producer and correspondent Kyle Gibson have written a book about the creation of the program, "Nightline: History in the Making and the Making of Television."

In an interview, Koppel discussed the show, his views on the media and his future.


Question: You recently did an interview with an African American woman who's on welfare and moved into an all-white neighborhood in Philadelphia. You also talked to a group of her neighbors about why they oppose her moving into the neighborhood. You've talked to people in Michigan about the Michigan militia. . . . Why is it so unusual to have ordinary people get extensive air time on network news?


Answer: It's not that we lack the imagination to go beyond the tried-and-true guests, it's that ordinary people who have no agenda and no particular media savvy are often very frightened about going on television and are usually not very good at it. So they don't get booked on shows.

It's been my experience that it helps if you can strike while the iron is hot [on a story]. Also, instead of my bringing a group of people in to see me in the studio, if I go to where they feel comfortable, and--even though I'm not alone--if I can be vulnerable enough for them to say, "It's one of him and a group of us," it can work. And we have producers spending time with people beforehand to convince them to come on. We don't just go to Philadelphia and say let's talk to people.

Q: Why did you want to do a series on race?

A: I think even though we talk about race a lot, we're not listening. We wanted to make people think, challenge their predispositions. The point, swear to God, is not to make white people feel guilty. We'll have some programs on [in the future] that will make black people feel uncomfortable. There's more than enough guilt to go around in terms of why we don't understand each other.

Q: Do you feel the media have contributed to racial division?

A: Yes. Poor communities are particularly vulnerable to the sort of intrusion [by TV cameras] that doesn't happen in wealthy communities. What did O.J. Simpson's neighbors do in Brentwood? They called the cops and said, "Get these [TV crews] off my property." And the LAPD asked the crews to move.

Also, it's how we visualize crime. On Fox's "Cops" or another one of those shows, you don't see a whole lot of Wall Street bankers or TV anchor people being hustled off with their hands in handcuffs for white-collar crime. We have a shorthand. You want to talk about crime? Show some black kid in baggy pants with a bill of his cap off at some angle, and everybody understands.

The media have a hard time showing bank fraud or the savings-and-loan scandal--because it's hard to visualize. It requires more creativity to do.

Q: Your contract with ABC is up for renewal in September. What do you want from your upcoming talks with [ABC News President] Roone Arledge?

A: I don't know; I really don't know. What I do know is that the business is volatile, and it's in the process of making one of those major changes that comes along every 15 to 20 years. I've had a lot of people call me to say they want to talk to me. I'm not free to talk to them until September. I'm going to say to them, "Dazzle me with your creativity." I don't believe anyone is going to have any ideas better than being able to do "Nightline." But I'd be a fool not to listen. Whatever I'm going to be doing in this business, I want challenge.

Q: Are you signaling that you want to leave ABC, or that you're unhappy?

A: I'm not sending any signal at all. I'm going to tell Roone the same thing I'm telling you.

Q: [According to your research department], "Nightline" did 59 shows, or 15% of its 390 programs, about the O.J. Simpson case between the time his ex-wife was killed and he was acquitted. Is that pandering?

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