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After 25 years, Koppel departs with little fanfare

He treats his final 'Nightline' as nonevent and says to give new team a chance.

November 24, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

TED KOPPEL anchored his final "Nightline" Tuesday night, leaving a job he has held for a quarter-century, and a network, ABC, that has cut his paychecks for 42 years. (It was also the 42nd anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and the day that the president practiced his pardoning powers on a pair of turkeys, though neither event made "Nightline.") That is a long time even in real life, but in TV years it's just a minute short of forever.

It has already been, with the retirement of Tom Brokaw, the resignation of Dan Rather and the death of Peter Jennings, a year of massive turnover in the American news-anchor business. (Koppel was not a network nightly news anchor, technically, but an end-of-the-night news anchor, as well as his show's lead reporter, interviewer and managing editor.)

That this is happening almost all at once seems to betoken some kind of major cultural shift, if not quite a national crisis; it is, at the very least, a generational handover, and as such is mildly disconcerting to the generation doing the handing over. As with the Supreme Court, an institution undergoing a similar upheaval, it is a job its select few hold for as long as possible, with the result that every so often the talking heads all turn gray -- Koppel is 65 -- the least favorite color of the television executive.

"Nightline" was born out of "The Iran Crisis -- America Held Hostage," the nightly report ABC mounted upon the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that was, in its obsessiveness, a forerunner of the sensationalized crisis news that Koppel is on record as deploring -- what he's called "McThought, or the journalistic equivalent of fast food."

But under his rule "Nightline" became something quite different. To be a good reporter, after all, you must wait until the facts are in, and to be a good interviewer you have to imagine not only the best questions, but also what the answers might be, so that you do not become the tool of the self-serving. This takes reflection, which is little prized in a world that values speed, but which was a hallmark of Koppel's journalism.

Ratings for "Nightline" have been slipping, but the show still averages about 3.7 million viewers a night, a number of whom are Koppel fans particularly, and for whom Tuesday night was a crisis perhaps comparable to Sammy Hagar taking over for David Lee Roth in Van Halen. (Koppel will be replaced by a triumvirate of anchors from the ABC stable, and each edition will, as in other TV newsmagazines, look at multiple subjects rather than closely at one, as was Koppel's wont.)

Koppel, who in March announced his plans to leave, making definite an eventuality first bruited some years before, was himself more sanguine, and apart from a general shout-out to his many producers the anchor played his final "Nightline" as a nonevent. ("We really want to go out with the least possible amount of fuss," he told GQ, which named him its Man of the Year.)

"Trust me," Koppel said in the program's concluding moments, "the transition from one anchor to another is not that big a deal. Cronkite begat Rather, Chancellor begat Brokaw, Reynolds begat Jennings. And each of them did a pretty fair job in his own right." Or to use another television analogy, millions are now living who don't remember Johnny Carson. The world goes on.

The show that preceded this valedictory was therefore appropriately devoted not to the news of the day, the week, or even the month or year, but, in essence, to eternity: It was a look back at Koppel's three visits a decade ago with Morrie Schwartz, the dying ex-sociology professor who inspired Mitch Albom's bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie." These shows brought death -- real death, not TV death -- out in the open in a way rare for the medium. (David Letterman's hour with the dying Warren Zevon is the only comparable broadcast I can remember on American television.)

This revisit to what were reportedly the show's most popular broadcasts was obviously intended as a gift to fans. But it was also chosen, I'd guess, for its particular theme -- the inevitability of change, which comes whether we want it to or not and is best met with dignity, grace, humor and a sense of proportion.

Those are qualities that have always been present in Koppel's journalism, as stiff and stern as he could sometimes seem, and they were all there in his closing remarks: "You've always been very nice to me," he said finally, "so give this new anchor team at 'Nightline' a fair break. If you don't, the network will just put another comedy in this time slot. And then you'll be sorry."

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