- Some highlights from this interview
- The myths of television's "golden age"
- What sports coverage and TV news have in common
- Cable and the fragmentation of the TV audience
- The limitations of blogging and citizen journalism
Koppel joined ABC News in 1963, working as a foreign and domestic correspondent, a bureau chief and a weekend news anchor before being named anchor of a new late-night news program, Nightline, in 1980. In 2005, Koppel left Nightline and ABC to develop and produce documentaries and news programming for the Discovery Channel. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 15, 2006.
[After leaving Nightline], why [did you choose to move to] Discovery Communications?
It's a long story, but in the final analysis, we're here because this was a place where my colleagues and I could do the kind of programming that is becoming ever more difficult to do at the commercial networks. There are very few places left. ... It's more and more difficult ... at the commercial networks for the simple reason that there is not a [time of day] when you can put on a serious one-hour documentary and expect to get the kind of audience, not only numerically but also demographically, that they feel they need to get.
... One of the things I was most interested in about Discovery is the economics of this place. ... I don't know what the exact breakdown is, but roughly half their money comes from cable fees. Now, the difference, obviously, between money that you get through a cable fee and money that you get through an advertiser is the advertiser will want young men or young women, 18 to 35. The person who gets a cable fee doesn't really care whether that $39.95 a month comes from a 17-year-old, a 75-year-old or, for that matter, from the estate of a recently deceased 100-year-old. As long as the money keeps coming in, it can be used to produce the product.
... [There's] always been the profit side, making money, so there's always tension there?
Well, let me correct your predicate. There hasn't always been that divide. In the very early days of television news, when I first joined ABC in the early 1960s, basically the network didn't care what the hell the news division did. They gave the news division a few million dollars a year, said, "Here it is; go do whatever it is you people do, and do not come back for any more money." They didn't expect news divisions to make money.
Then one day, along came this new program on CBS, and it wasn't an immediate success, but after two or three years, 60 Minutes started to do something that no news program had ever done before: It began to turn a profit. Now, all of a sudden, the presidents of networks were going to the presidents of their news divisions and saying: "CBS is making money off that -- what are they calling it, a magazine program? Why don't you do that? You do a magazine program."
And so 60 Minutes begat 20/20, and then 20/20 begat Dateline, and Dateline begat Primetime Live, and there was a biblical epic of begatting that went on in the television industry. And now, all of a sudden, making money became part of what we did. Originally news divisions were there to act as a fig leaf so that when the president of a network was called before a congressional committee to justify his license, he could say, ... "We have Edward R. Murrow. We have David Brinkley and Chet Huntley and people like that, and they are doing very serious news programs." So in a way, the news divisions were not about money. These days they are. ...
How did news divisions and people like [former ABC president] Roone Arledge deal with corporate takeovers, in the '80s, of network news divisions?
It didn't matter as long as he was making money, as long as we were all making money. That was the big change that came about with 60 Minutes. They realized we could make money, and once we could, the imperative was: Do it. You're just an operating center like any other operating center, like the Frigidaire division of General Electric. We expect them to make money; General Electric expects [its subsidiary] NBC News to make money.
“I happen to believe that it's perfectly reasonable for the entertainment divisions of every television outlet out there -- networks, cable, satellite -- to appeal to the tastes of their audience. ... News organizations are a little different.”
Then in the early 1980s, you had a new development, and that was cable, CNN. In I guess it was 1979 or 1980, Ted Turner came up with a revolutionary new concept, and that revolutionary new concept was brilliant. He said, in effect: "Look, I realize you're all very busy men and women out there, and maybe 6:30 in the evening is not a good time for you. Maybe you'd like to watch the news at 1:00 in the morning or at 3:00 in the afternoon or at 10:30 in the morning. We're going to be here all the time, 24/7." In its original manifestation, the concept was brilliant. The execution has been something less than brilliant, but that's for another question. ...
It was and it wasn't. It was in the sense that nobody really cared what news divisions did, and so we were all filled with a certain amount of hubris. We were the legitimate rationale for all of that crap that the rest of the network turned out. But the fact of the matter is also, most of what we did was pretty boring and not terribly well done. I'm speaking now most especially of ABC News, with which I'm most familiar.
If you go back, again to the early, mid-60s, what did we have? We had at ABC a 15-minute black-and-white evening newscast, and I think on Sunday mornings -- I'm not sure when it began, but certainly by the late '60s, early '70s -- we had Issues and Answers, which consisted primarily of an interviewer and whichever congressman or senator the then-producer of that program happened to meet at a cocktail party during the week in Washington. That was it. We didn't have anything else. I mean, that wasn't a particularly great news division. It became a great news division, but it became a great news division in the hands of a great producer, Roone Arledge. Roone Arledge knew that he had to cater not just to what the public ought to see but, to a certain degree, what the public wanted to see. And he, I think, maintained that balance pretty well. ...
... The legend of CBS ... is that [CBS founder Bill] Paley wanted the prestige of a news division, so he was willing to let them lose money and do good reporting, and if nothing else, it was a prestige factor. If you have more distant corporations, fewer ties to news divisions of companies owning and making decisions, doesn't that remove that incentive for them?
First of all, that legendary relationship between Bill Paley and his fellows in the news division is just that. Not in its entirety; everything you said was accurate to a point. But when, for example, the CBS affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., called Bill Paley and said, "Look, your boy Howard K. Smith has been saying that those little girls that were bombed in the church [in 1963] were bombed by the Klan, and some of our leading citizens here are members of the KKK, and if you don't do something about that, we're going to pull our CBS affiliation," guess where Bill Paley came down in those days? He didn't come down on the side of Howard K. Smith. He came down on the side of maintaining that affiliation. And as history will record, the legendary relationship between Bill Paley and Edward Murrow and [Murrow's producer and future CBS News President] Fred Friendly also went sour. And it went sour for very similar reasons: because he was feeling political and economic pressure, and as soon as he felt real economic pressure and real political pressure, guess what had to give?
Fred Friendly ended up leaving CBS News to go over to Columbia University, because he couldn't get Bill Paley to carry the hearings on the Vietnam War that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the Senate Armed Services Committee [were] carrying during the day. Basically the programming that would have been sacrificed would have been a second or third rerun of I Love Lucy. So I don't think that things have changed that much in that regard. It's always been about the money. ...
[Roone Arledge is an] interesting figure because he came from sports.
Yes, as [President of CBS Sports and CBS News] Sean McManus does now.
What is it about sports and news?
Well, first of all, they both deal in real-time events for the most part, and secondly, they both require ... democratizing. By which I mean that football, for example, is certainly something that many guys like to watch; if you want women to watch it, you've got to put something else into that broadcast that appeals to most women, or at least to some women.
Roone Arledge knew how to do things like that. He was working with a bunch of very skilled technicians, and when they came to him, he said: "Look, we can slow the action down on videotape, slow mo, and we can replay it so if they happened to miss the play the first time, we can show it to you again. And if it's really interesting, ... we'll show it to you 19 times over the next two or three minutes." Roone understood how to draw in an audience and how to widen the base of that audience, and that's a skill that he applied also to the news division. ...
In 1979 there was a hostage crisis, a confrontation with Iran, and Nightline is born. Take us back to that creation of Nightline.
Well, it's a pretty complicated story, because the network didn't have a clue what was being done to it. What Roone Arledge wanted to do was to get a one-hour newscast in the early evening hours. The affiliates said: "Not on your life. We're not giving up that half hour of time. ... That's much too profitable." So Roone said: "I'm going to get me a one-hour newscast. Maybe I have to have half an hour in the early evening, and I'll get the other half an hour late at night." He began plotting long before the hostage crisis. Every time there was a major news event, Roone would order us to do a late-night special, and his premise was that one day a story would come along that had legs, that just lasted long enough that we would be able to establish ourselves in that time slot.
So when the hostages were taken, Roone ordered us to put on a late-night special, and then the next day another one, and the next day another one after that. After about three weeks or so, we went to Roone, those of us who were putting the program on every night, and said, "You know, Roone, there's nothing going on today." ... He said: "I don't care. Tell me what an imam is. Tell me the difference between the Shi'a branch of Islam and the Sunni branch. Tell me about the history of the United States and Iran. I don't care what you do. Put a program on tonight and tomorrow night and the next night."
And after about three or four months, he and his senior vice president, David Burke, were called up to the network offices. Leonard Goldenson, who was the founder of ABC, and Fred Pierce, who was the president of ABC at that time, and a couple of other executives were there, and they said, "Guys, how long can this go on?" Because you should understand that this was special programming; they were not allowed to advertise. They were losing a ton of money. They had already lost a couple of million dollars by the time this conversation took place. And they said: "David, you've been around Washington a lot. How long do you think it can be before President Carter has to do something?" David said, "Oh, it can't be long; this will be over in a couple of weeks at most." And Roone said: "Yes, I'm sure it will, but what I'd like to do is I'd like to announce that, until it is over, we're going to be doing this program every night. But this won't be for long."
So, as they both told me the story later on, "We were riding back in the car singing to one another, 'Give me some of that old razzle dazzle, razzle dazzle,'" and then they're singing all the way back to West 66th Street, because they had nailed it. They'd got it, and they knew, a, that night we announced that we will be on the air until this thing is over, and b, the affiliates can't chuck it because it would have been unpatriotic to chuck it. So this program is now a fixture until the hostage crisis is over. And of course, there is absolutely no chance that this hostage crisis is going to be over for at least months to come. So in March of 1980, roughly four months after we had begun, they said, "We're going to turn this into a permanent broadcast."
It was doing brilliantly. I mean, the ratings were terrific. We were beating The Tonight Show, and it was just a very good show, so they made it permanent.
I was not the number one choice. They even talked to Dan [Rather]; they wanted Dan to do it. They wanted Tom Brokaw to do it. They wanted Roger Mudd to do it. And when they couldn't get any of them, they just said, "OK, guess it will have to be Ted." …
In early 1980, you had Nightline, you had The Tonight Show, and then on CBS you had some rerun of a cop show; I don't even remember what it was. Among the three programs [combined], we controlled 70 percent of the viewing audience. ... Over the course of the next 10 years, you would have a fragmentation of the entire industry -- cable channels would be born; satellite channels would be born -- so that by the time I left Nightline, and to this day, Nightline and The Tonight Show and now the David Letterman show, among the three of them, probably control about 28 percent of the viewers. …
There was a time in the early years of Nightline -- I don't think this is giving away any great secret, because these are the gross numbers -- but they were grossing over $100 million a year on that program. A lot of money. That amount came down startlingly over the course of the next 25, 26 years, in large measure because instead of it just being three major networks and a couple of independents out there, now all of a sudden you've got 100 outlets, 150. And some of them are only getting a few tens of thousands of viewers or a few hundreds of thousands of viewers, but those are a few hundred thousand viewers you're not getting at ABC, NBC and CBS anymore.
Is that the media landscape that we live in for the foreseeable future?
Yes, but I still think it will be another generation or two before the networks become irrelevant. They're not now. The fact of the matter is the evening news programs are still seen collectively by -- I would guess ABC, NBC and CBS news may still get about 30 million viewers a night among the three of them. That's a huge number, and that's not going to go away for the foreseeable future. If you really want to make a statement, you've still got to do it on one of the big three networks. Now Fox maybe can be included in that, but I don't think Fox, for the most part, is up there yet either.
One of the great illusions of the past 10, 15 years has been the public's perception -- and again, I think this is Ted Turner's brilliance -- that CNN is everywhere. No, they're not. At their best time of day -- I don't know what it is now, it used to be the Larry King show at 9:00 in the evening -- they might have somewhere between 1 and 2 million viewers. Well, you know, on the worst night we had at Nightline, at 11:30, 3 to 4 million viewers, and on our better nights, we'd have 5 million viewers, sometimes 6. But 25 years ago, we had 10, 12, 14 million viewers, and those days are over forever. There's nothing they can do to bring that back, because the audience is broken into a million pieces.
Does that bother you as a journalist trying to reach a large audience? At Discovery, you won't have the audience you had at Nightline.
... We'll see what those shows do, but you have a couple of things going for you at a place like Discovery that you don't have at the network. Number one, there's an overseas reach. We have 160-some-odd countries overseas who get Discovery. ... Number two, if Discovery likes a program, they'll play it twice, three times, five times, eight times, so it may be that for our first showing, we get, let's say, 1.5 [million], 2 million viewers. ... By network terms, that's not a big audience, but after it's been seen three or four times, cumulatively you will have reached about 6 or 7 million viewers. Now you're in the same ballpark as the networks. …
But the networks are still very powerful. They can still do things that nobody else can do: They are still a town forum; they are the place that everyone can get to. Not everyone has cable. Not everyone has bought Discovery or HBO or Showtime, so we have a much smaller universe here within the United States than the networks do, but a larger universe around the world. ...
Let me change direction. At Nightline, and for any of the network news people, for Jim Lehrer's show [The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS], they depend on getting guests into a studio in a place like Washington -- not that big a town. What are the pressures of being able to get guests versus grilling them?
Well, again, this is a function of the fragmentation. In the old days, when all you had was the three networks, no one, no public official who wanted to communicate with the American people, could afford a bad relationship with all three networks or all three network news organizations.
Nixon came close to it. ... You go back; you see that what Nixon tried to do was he invited local anchors from around the country to come and visit him at the White House and to talk to him directly. He thought he would go over the heads of the networks. It was a smart thing to do, because let's face it: If you're coming in from wherever it is -- Sacramento or Canton, Ohio -- and you're suddenly sitting in the Oval Office, and you're interviewing the president of the United States, all those tough questions you were rehearsing in the shower that morning, out the window. …
These days, however, he has many options -- the president, that is, or the secretary of defense. If he doesn't want to go on ABC, he doesn't go on ABC at all. If he prefers Fox, he does nothing but Fox. He may on occasion do CNBC, or he may do something for FRONTLINE, but don't count on it, right? I doubt it. Will he come on Nightline much? Not after a couple of tough grillings.
The message gets out pretty quickly: "If you're too tough in your interviews, we're not going to come there anymore." ...
Henry Kissinger was on Nightline many times. Way back, he spotted you as a bright, young diplomatic correspondent for ABC and offered you a job.
He did. In 1974, he offered me the job of assistant secretary of state for public affairs, to be the State Department spokesman. I was very flattered. I was 34 at the time. It was a nice offer. I struggled with it for about three or four weeks, and my wife and I talked about it at great length. I finally decided -- and I think I'm the last one standing in Washington who still believes this -- that you can't keep going back and forth. ... Ours is an adversarial business. Once you go over to that adversary's side and you have become a mouthpiece for the State Department, for the administration on a foreign policy, I just don't think you can ever expect people to take you quite as seriously again as being an objective, down-the-line reporter.
So I turned it down. Very good friends of mine have accepted that job, other jobs like it at the White House, and they're perfectly honorable men and women. ... These days it almost seems quaint to maintain that kind of a separation, but there was a time when we felt that it was important, and I still think it is.
... [What do you make of the pressure to make news programs more "entertaining" to appeal to bigger audiences?]
... I happen to believe that it's perfectly reasonable for the entertainment divisions of every television outlet out there -- networks, cable, satellite -- to appeal to the tastes of their audience. That's what they have to do. They are businesses. News organizations are a little different. First of all, in the old days, the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] still had teeth and still used them every once in a while. And there was that little paragraph, Section 315 of the FCC code, that said, "You shall operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity." What that meant was, you had to have a news division that told people what was important out there. And I just don't necessarily believe that showing me what my pets are doing when I'm not at home to see them falls under that category. ...
To the extent that we're now judging journalism by the same standards that we apply to entertainment -- in other words, give the public what it wants, not necessarily what it ought to hear, what it ought to see, what it needs, but what it wants -- that may prove to be one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American journalism. ...
Now, the fact of the matter is, when there's a war going on, by God, you'll see the networks there, and they spend millions of dollars making sure that you get it morning, noon and night, and get it live to boot. But as soon as the fighting's over, they're gone; there is no correspondent left there; there is no camera crew left there. They retreat to London again and wait for the next crisis to occur so they can hop on a jet and cover that crisis.
We used to have tens of foreign correspondents. Now the networks tend to have five or six. And as smart as these young men and women are, they can't be everywhere all the time, and they can't be in one place long enough to develop the kinds of contacts that you need to have and the kind of background that you need to have to provide context for the stories that they're going to be covering. That's changed, and I think that's changed forever. …
The L.A. Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, they can have one person sitting in Moscow; they can have one person sitting in Kinshasa, [Congo]; they can have one person sitting in Tokyo. And that one person can cover the news for them. The networks need a correspondent; they need a camera crew, need a producer. ... It's just that much more expensive.
Basically, what happened at the networks over these past 10 years is that bean counters came to them and came to the presidents of the news division and said: "Tell me something: How often does your Moscow bureau get a piece on the air? How many times does it show up on World News Tonight? How many times does it show up on Good Morning America? How many times does it show up on Nightline and 20/20 and ... all the other programs?"
Then they would do a count, and they would divide that count into the bottom line of what it cost to maintain that bureau in Moscow over the course of a year. Then they would come to the conclusion that each piece had cost $79,426.12, and they said, "How do you justify that?" ... Once you accept the notion that a news division has to be judged by the same standards -- the same economic standards, business standards -- as any other part of your corporation, you're lost. You can't. …
They're spending millions keeping [journalists] in Iraq these days. ... Can you justify that? Not on an economic, not on a business-model basis you can't. You can only justify it if you see news as being something that we do on behalf of the American public, and giving you that permits us then to put on Desperate Housewives or Fear Factor or whatever the hell the stuff is you're putting on the air that makes a ton of money for you.
... There's been a lot of criticism lately that all of us did not ask tough enough questions in the run-up to the Iraq war. Do you have any second thoughts about that period?
No. I think that's a legitimate criticism. We all could have done more. Part of the problem is, who knew? ... I accepted at face value, because it made perfectly good sense to me, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. ... That made sense. Did I believe that he had a connection with Al Qaeda? No. And I said so, more than once. Did I think we had to go into Iraq when we went into Iraq? No. And we did a town meeting in I think February of 2003, the title of which was Why Now? The essence of that whole 90-minute program was, "Why can't we wait?" What's likely to happen between now and the time that the U.N. inspectors reach their final conclusion?
But should we have been tougher? Could we have been tougher? Yes. But remember now, we're going back to what you and I discussed a little earlier. Anytime that anyone starts getting a little bit too tough in the cross-examination, [they take them] off the list: "I'm not going on that program again, ever." And this is an administration -- I mean, they are not unique; other administrations have followed pretty much the same pattern, but they are more dedicated to the proposition that they will talk to their friends and not talk to anyone that they regard as being less than friendly to them. I don't think you can keep that up for a full eight years, as they are now discovering. But will they try to? Yes. And did they employ that tactic in the run-up to the Iraq war? Yes.
We're going to be speaking with Dan Rather in a couple of weeks. He was at CBS for a very long time, did a lot of journalism, and left under a cloud. ... You have any thoughts about that?
I do, and I've expressed them publicly. I think CBS treated [Dan Rather] shabbily. In journalism, as in politics, you've got to get it all right. If you're 99 percent right and you make one mistake, all anyone is going to remember is the mistake. Dan's team made a mistake. Was the whole story wrong? No, I don't think so. I think they had the story pretty much nailed. But they got one particular part of that story wrong, and that was enough to hang all of them out to dry. We can all get nailed that way.
The game is perfectly fair. We do the same thing to our statesmen, our leaders, our politicians. They can get 99 percent right; they get one thing wrong, boy, are we focused on that. I think what happened to Dan is tragic, because, as you say, he had a long and distinguished career, and he deserved to leave CBS with his head held high and with them shouting hosannas. But that's not the way it went. And in the final analysis, ... we've all made lots of money; we've become more famous than we deserved; we've had wonderful careers. Dan doesn't regret a moment of his, as I don't regret a moment of mine. But I would have wished better for Dan in how he left CBS.
[Tell me about the time when ABC was considering replacing Nightline with (Late Show with) David Letterman.] That must have been a difficult period to have gone through?
Yes, it was a difficult period to go through, but what was difficult about it was not that ABC or the Disney Corporation was toying with the idea of hiring David Letterman to replace Nightline. I truly do understand the business that I'm in, and I know that it's a business, and if David Letterman can attract that younger demographic and can make more money for them than I could with Nightline, I get it.
But I had a lot of friends way up in the corporation at Disney, and I just felt that what they owed me was picking up the phone and saying, "Here's what we're going to do," not to do it behind our backs and then have it come slithering out the way it did. I thought that was tacky, and I told them so. ...
Whether you've set out to become this or not, you became a celebrity journalist, well known by Americans throughout the country and around the world. So give me an example of something [where] being a celebrity journalist actually was good in a way, and give me something where it was a pain.
Look, it helps all the time in that if I want to get through to someone on the phone, I can get through to someone on the phone. If I ask someone as a personal favor, "Would you please do this interview?," more often than not they will do it. There is no question that being well known helps in reaching people. …
In terms of the downside, there are very few downsides to it. If my wife and I are trying to have a quiet evening at a restaurant, if it's in our own neighborhood, people leave us alone. Sometimes when we're off on vacation, or if we go off on a cruise or something like that, people feel that they own a piece of you, and they have a right to intrude at any time. By and large, if you just give them 30 seconds, they'll go away and leave you alone. ... Every once in a while there's an idiot out there, but that's a small price to pay.
... Do you think that [blogging and other Internet technology] is more of the future of journalism? There's a lot of talk about citizen journalism, participatory -- everyone can be a journalist. Al Gore started a TV channel, Current TV, out in San Francisco; anyone can show up with a video.
Yeah. I was giving speeches about this 20 years ago. I say I'm a Luddite, and I am, but I could see the way the industry was going. Look, when I was a young journalist, if I wanted to be seen and heard in the United States, across the land, I had three options: I could go to ABC, NBC or CBS, period, end of story. These days, and for a long time, any person with a video camera and a little editing gear and access to the Internet can be a network by himself or herself. …
Yeah, I think that's inevitable. But having said that, when people want to know a little bit about the reliability or the quality of the information that they're getting -- it may be that they have found a blog site that they now have been accessing for a year or two years, and they find it to be accurate 90 percent of the time, God bless them. That's better than we do. But much of the time, the problem with getting material on the Internet is you don't know where it's coming from, and you don't know anything about the people who are producing the material.
That's OK, but at least when you're watching Rather -- or these days Bob Schieffer or Katie Couric or Charlie Gibson, or whoever it is who happens to be doing the news -- you've seen them for 20 years, 30 years. You know something about them. You know they are part of an organization in which what that one person writes doesn't get on the air just the way he or she writes it. There's at least a producer or an editor who looks at it and says, "You know, Ted, I don't think that's accurate; you made a mistake here," and then you go back and you check it. In the final analysis, the most important thing about journalism is editing. ...