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A late-night staple signs off

Ted Koppel's sober style guided 'Nightline' for 25 years. His final appearance is Tuesday.

November 16, 2005|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

As he gears up for his final "Nightline" appearance Tuesday, it's time to pay tribute to Ted Koppel, late-night funnyman.

Asked last week how ABC News, his employer for the last 42 years, plans to mark his departure from the network, the anchor deadpanned, in the steady, sonorous tones that are parodied on "Saturday Night Live," that the going-away party will be "huge. Elephants. Trapeze artists. Semi-naked women. It's gonna be wild."

It's fair to say most news junkies seldom have seen the lighter side of the 65-year-old Koppel, but it certainly exists. He's been known to amuse colleagues with wicked off-camera impersonations of Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger (who, during Koppel's stint as ABC's diplomatic correspondent in the 1970s, offered him a job as assistant secretary of state). And there was that time he performed his own stupid human trick, balancing a dog biscuit on his nose during an appearance on David Letterman's show.

Instead, viewers mostly know the public Koppel, who has prided himself on bringing a strong dose of gravitas to the 11:35 p.m. time slot, where usually the frivolous runs free. Over the last quarter-century, "Nightline" has carved out a unique spot in television news, devoting a highly focused half-hour (and sometimes an entire week's worth of shows) to a single topic: prison life, AIDS, African famine, the Iraq war.

Part newsmagazine, part interview show, "Nightline" has maintained a loyal audience amid brutal and seemingly ever-increasing competition, thanks largely to Koppel's sober presence and famously probing style. And even though the program will continue in his absence -- with three hosts (Martin Bashir, Cynthia McFadden and Terry Moran) instead of one -- many are already ruing the change.

"It's a monumental moment in the history of American television news," Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, said of Koppel's departure. "Nightline" "was the gold standard on television of good serious world affairs.... This is the program all my students wanted to work at" after graduation.

Following the August death of ABC anchor Peter Jennings, Koppel's departure does carry the sense of an era's passage, perhaps for the news business generally as well as the network. Koppel himself, who hasn't formally announced his next move but bristles at any hint that he's retiring, says as much.

"After a while, anticipating departure, you just want to get it over with," Koppel said. "On the other hand, I've spent my entire adult life here; when I joined ABC, I was 23. So I'm leaving a lot of memories behind. But most of my good friends, with three or four notable exceptions ... have passed on, either literally, or passed on to other phases of their lives. Barbara Walters and Sam Donaldson and Charlie Gibson and I are four of the last survivors here."

Acknowledging the diminished role of network news divisions in a world crowded with cable and Internet competitors, he added: "It's clearly not the same kind of operation that it used to be, and that's in large measure because the corporations that all of these news divisions work for -- CBS, NBC, ABC -- have put the squeeze on their news divisions, even though they're making tons of money."

Koppel has felt the squeeze personally. He was incensed when ABC executives, hoping to boost their late-night ratings, secretly wooed Letterman in 2002 to host a talk show that would take over "Nightline's" time slot; Koppel found out about the overture when a reporter called. After Letterman declined the offer, Koppel and the network patched things up, but some damage was already done. "They've been looking to off-load ['Nightline'] for some time," Schell said.

Even so, "Nightline" has kept making headlines. Proof of the show's continuing influence came again in September, when Koppel's grilling of then-FEMA director Michael D. Brown over the government's response to Hurricane Katrina made headlines and helped establish the tone of subsequent news coverage of the catastrophe. Just last year, the program was at the center of controversy when Sinclair Broadcasting instructed its ABC affiliates not to air a telecast in which Koppel read the names of U.S. service members killed in Iraq.

"I think we can take some pride in the fact that we never lowered our standards over the past 25 years," Koppel said.

As it happened, the show owed its creation to a bit of business opportunism on the part of Roone Arledge, the executive who built ABC News into an industry powerhouse during the 1970s and '80s. As he recounted in his memoir "Roone," Arledge (who died in 2002) wanted a late-night news program that could help promote the lucrative early evening newscast -- and maybe steal some viewers from NBC's "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

When Iranian militants took hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, ABC began offering nightly updates on the crisis after the late local news. Within months the updates became "Nightline."

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