INTERVIEW: Ted Koppel reflects on storied career
By Paul J. Gough
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) – During his 42 years at ABC
News and 26-year run on “Nightline,” Ted Koppel has seen — and
reported — it all.
As he prepared to anchor his last edition of “Nightline”
Tuesday night, Koppel spoke about his experiences as an anchor
and reporter for the show long regarded as the smartest news
program on TV.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: OF ALL THE EXCELLENT WORK DONE ON
“NIGHTLINE,” WHAT STANDS OUT THE MOST FOR YOU?
Ted Koppel: What I’m proudest of is that there have been a
number of you could almost say “universal issues” — but
universal in the sense of being so widespread, not necessarily
beyond the borders of the United States — that we’ve stuck
with. I’m very proud of that. South Africa is one of them;
apartheid is one of them. Racism in this country. We’ve been
doing a series for years now called “America in Black and
White.” Our prison system. We’ve been doing a series for years
called “Crime and Punishment.” The Middle East. AIDS. These are
all huge issues that we’ve been covering for almost the entire
THR: YOU HIGHLIGHTED THE SPREAD OF AIDS AND DID AN
INTERVIEW WITH KEN MEEKS, A MAN DYING OF AIDS IN THE
AND HIS PARTNER LONG BEFORE ROCK HUDSON’S DEATH PUT AIDS
THE NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT.
Koppel: Rock Hudson made it somehow all right to talk about
AIDS and gay people. That’s why I’m particularly proud of the
work that we did because, from the beginning, the programs that
we did were based on the premise that a) this is not God’s
judgment on anyone, that b) this is an issue that has to be
dealt with from a national point of view and, most important,
c) that you can’t just discard however many million people are
involved simply because you feel uncomfortable with the subject
THR: IS THERE ANYONE YOU REGARD AS A FAVORITE INTERVIEW
Koppel: We have (had) presidents, presidential candidates,
movie stars — all kinds of people come into ABC headquarters
in New York, and barely an eyebrow is lifted. But when (Muppet)
Kermit the Frog and the gang showed up, people came streaming
out of offices to watch that show being done. He clearly is up
there. At the other end of the spectrum … I came to love
Morrie Schwartz, who was the man dying of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s
disease, who agreed to talk about the process of death and
dying, which is something nobody wants to talk about,
especially when they’re dying.
THR: DO YOU THINK “NIGHTLINE” IS LESS OF A FORCE NOW THAN
IT WAS IN THE 1980S?
Koppel: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Of course. Because if you are
one among three, you stand out far more than if you are one
among 33. And the fact of the matter is that the number of
television outlets has just exploded over the last 25 years.
Now having said that, the network news organizations — all of
them, NBC, CBS and ABC, all of us — still have a far, far
larger audience than any of the cable outlets, any of them.
There is the sense that cable is ubiquitous, it’s on the air
constantly, therefore its reach is that much greater. It’s not.
If you want to reach 10 million-15 million people at the same
time, there’s still only one place to do that, and it’s still
on network television.
THR: WHERE DID THE NAME “NIGHTLINE” COME FROM?
Koppel: We hated the name. (ABC executives) Roone (Arledge)
and David Burke and Dick Wald and Bill Lord, who was the first
executive producer, and I sat in Roone’s office for about 2-1/2
hours coming up with one terrible name after another. Dick Wald
was the one who said: “There’s such a thing in the racing form,
horse racing, as the morning line: Which horses have injured
themselves, which jockeys are available. It’s all the
information, and it’s called the morning line. Why don’t we
call this ‘Nightline’?” And we all hooted him down and just
said, “That’s an awful name.” Justifiably, Dick said, “Well, I
haven’t heard anything better, and we’ve been here for about
two hours already.” So finally, Roone said, “If we called it
‘ABC News Nightline,’ it won’t sound as awful.” So grudgingly
– this was on a Friday, and we were going on the air on a
Monday — we all agreed “Nightline” it would be, but none of us
liked the name.
THR: HAVE YOU WARMED UP TO IT?
Koppel: I’m sort of getting there. Maybe in another 20
years I’ll like it.
THR: LOOKING BACK OVER 26 YEARS OF SHOWS, I’M STRUCK BY HOW
“NIGHTLINE” HAS TRULY BEEN A CHRONICLE OF OUR TIMES.
Koppel: It’s amazing, it really is. It’s funny, because I
knew that I was personally in trouble with a new group of
interns, and I made reference to the Jim Jones massacre (the
1978 mass suicide of more than 900 members of a cult by
drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid) and was talking about not
drinking the Kool-Aid, and I could see a lot of blank faces
around me. And I explained it to them. One of them raised his
hand — this is about five years ago — and said, “Ted, I’m
very sorry, but you have to understand that I wasn’t born when
‘Nightline’ began.” That made me realize all of the sudden the
years had really whipped by.