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Koppel will do in-depth shows for Discovery

Ex-'Nightline' anchor to focus on topics like international affairs, race and religion.

January 05, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — AFTER a month of ardent wooing, the Discovery Channel signed veteran ABC correspondent and anchor Ted Koppel to a three-year deal to produce long-form programs for the cable channel, the network announced Wednesday.

His hiring is a significant coup for the 20-year-old cable channel, which is best known for its nature documentaries such as "Sharkbite" and such popular unscripted series as "American Chopper." With Koppel, who now has the title of managing editor, the network is acquiring a figure of substantial journalistic cachet and the ability to quickly produce pieces about topical stories around the globe.

Koppel, 65, who retired from ABC in November after 42 years with the broadcast network, is bringing with him his longtime executive producer, Tom Bettag, along with eight other former producers of "Nightline," the late-night news program that Koppel anchored on ABC.

"As word has spread through the halls here at Discovery this morning, our entire company is just thrilled," Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks US, told reporters in a midday conference call. "Simply put, Ted Koppel represents the very best of television journalism."

Campbell said the new team will produce at least six shows a year for Discovery Channel, including town-hall forums and documentary-style pieces -- programs that he said fit squarely with the network's mission.

"At our core, we are a knowledge-based organization," he said. "What Discovery does is teach people every day about the world and things that they're curious about that they can't find anywhere else."

Koppel, who was also in discussions with HBO, said that he and Bettag decided to go with Discovery because they were convinced that the network will give them the freedom to pursue in-depth, hard-hitting journalism. He declined to comment on his salary except to call it a "very generous arrangement."

"I several times emphasized that what we would be doing, on occasion, would end up being controversial, and would we, in the final analysis, get the kind of support here at Discovery that we would need if we were going to do that kind of programming," said Koppel, who added that the answer was "an enthusiastic yes."

"There was only one proviso, and that was, 'Get it right,' " he said, adding: "There is enormous flexibility here, but even more important, just tremendous enthusiasm for doing that kind of thing and the availability of time in which to do it."

Added Bettag: "If you want to do serious journalism in this country, this is the best place that we could possibly find."

Koppel and his team start immediately, with the aim of producing their first show for this summer or fall. He said he does not yet know the topics he will pursue, but indicated that he hopes to cover the kind of weighty subjects like race, religion and international affairs that have been the hallmark of "Nightline."

Discovery Channel -- part of Discovery Communications, which owns 14 networks in the U.S., including TLC, Animal Planet and the Travel Channel -- is the most widely available cable channel in the country, reaching 90.4 million homes. The network draws an average audience of more than one million viewers during primetime.

Koppel and Bettag have been mulling their next move for the last five years, when they began discussing leaving "Nightline" after its 25th anniversary in 2005, Bettag said. About a month ago, Discovery executives got in touch with him about the possibility of having Koppel come on board, setting off a fast-paced round of negotiations that lasted through the holidays.

"We were very aggressive in pursuing this team," Campbell said. "From the moment that we thought we had a chance, we played as hard as we could."

Koppel was also in discussions with HBO, which ultimately fizzled over the limited amount of airtime that the premium cable channel would be able to offer, those familiar with the talks said.

"Theirs is essentially an entertainment company and we would have been, I suspect, something of an appendage there, and here I feel we're part of the mainstream of what this organization is," Koppel said.

Koppel said that he did not have any discussions with any of the cable news channels. While noting that those networks produce some good work -- including his daughter, Andrea Koppel, CNN's State Department correspondent -- he indicated that he is often disappointed by the tone of the all-day news channels and their treatment of less flashy news.

"I think there is a tendency on the part of some of the cable networks to be in a desperate race to be first with the obvious," he said, adding: "Can you imagine going to any one of those people and saying, 'Give us three hours of prime time'? It wouldn't happen."

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