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The Nightline Follies

It's Not a Laughing Matter!

By Carter B. Horsley

A front-page article in The New York Times that ABC-TV was trying to lure David Letterman away from CBS-TV as a replacement for its highly respected "Nightline" news program with Ted Koppel was viewed in many quarters as proof that all was not well with American civilization.

In the early days of television, CBS was the industry lead in quality news, in large part because of the prestigious reputations of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite but for the past two decades or so ABC had became the standard-bearer because of the brilliance of Ted Koppel's program and of Peter Jennings, its anchorman for its "evening news" program.

What made the story so disheartening was that ABC officials gave no hint of trying to save "Nightline" in a different time slot or format and clearly was primarily interested in luring Mr. Letterman in an effort to get more younger viewers, presumably of greater value to advertisers than Mr. Koppel's audience.

After several weeks, Mr. Letterman agreed to renew his relationship with CBS and even indicated his support for Mr. Koppel, as did many other professionals. (Most of Mr. Koppel's colleagues at ABC's news division also went on the record with support for him with the notable exception of Diane Sawyer.)

Before Mr. Letterman renewed with CBS, Mr. Koppel wrote an "Op-Ed" article in The New York Times in which he wrote that he understood the need for television executives to be concerned about profits but also hoped that the "relevance" of programs such as his, particularly in times of crisis, not be minimized. While he has always been known as serious and unflinching interviewer of formidable intelligence and one not to shy away from difficult questions or to mince words, his article was surprisingly mild and gentlemanly since even the program's director had been "kept in the dark" during the network's negotiations with Mr. Letterman.

The general impression that while Mr. Letterman was no longer an immediate threat to Mr. Koppel, the future of "Nightline" not only remained in doubt but that it had also suffered rather grievous damage by the network's callous handling of the negotiations, which apparently came as a surprise to Mr. Koppel and humiliated its news division.

Various pundits even saw the crisis as an indication as an abdication of the networks's responsibility for "public service."

Indeed, in an March 25, 2002 article in New York magazine, entitled "The Koppel Topple: Do not ask for whom the ticker scrolls, Ted. It scrolls for thee: Why Nightline's troubles presage a news-dinosaur extinction," Michael Wolff wrote that "The dumping of Ted Koppel may be the first clear sign that it is not necessarily the network news that is going away but the three-horseman concept of the networks themselves." Whereas once newspapers recoiled from the "competition" of television, networks are now recoiling from the challenge of cable, and the Internet, and the fragmentation of the news market space, and their declining market share.

Clearly, the affair was not a matter of rejoicing except for CBS. It retained its star while damaging its competition, but in the public process the valuation of "news" versus entertainment suffered greatly. For those early-birds who do not stay up late for "Nightline" or Charlie Rose on public television, the drivel of most local news programs and the tabloidism of the so-called news magazine programs has been very depressing and worrisome for a decade.

In his article, Mr. Wolff also noted that the network news anchors are no longer spring chickens: "Network news programming continues to be dominated by faces from another era.they are more famous than anyone will ever be. They are both obsolete (all of them with an increasingly bewildered look - the George Jessels of our age) and yet at the same time necessary."

Mr. Koppel and Mr. Jennings are the finest television journalists not only of their generation, but ever. Murrow was excellent but did not have the breadth of interests and quickness of Mr. Koppel and Mr. Jennings and Walter Cronkite was avuncular and good but not match for the intellects of Mr. Koppel and Mr. Jennings. (Tom Brokaw of NBC is bright and quick but not quite in the same league as Mr. Koppel and Mr. Jennings and Dan Rather of CBS is nice and sensitive but often out of his depths.) There are some other good television journalists. Cokie Roberts, who recently announced that she will be retiring from ABC, is one of the very finest and her loss will be another serious problem for ABC.

Over the past couple of years, some commentators have observed, Mr. Koppel has often been absent from "Nightline" and his substitutes have carried on generally quite ably but without his keen, and ocassionally stern, edge. The single-issue program is usually excellent and often superb and hopefully will continue for a long time.

Some critics have argued that "Nightline" has lost a lot of its earlier importance because of cable news and certainly the television terrain has changed dramatically since the program began 23 years ago, but the fact that some viewers may have gotten a good dose of news coverage earlier in the evening from cable overemphasizes the market share of the cable programs in comparison with that of "Nightline" and, more importantly, ignores the qualitative difference that Mr. Koppel's mature perspective and experience and intellect brings to the program. Peter Jennings is probably the only person who could fill his shoes and indeed his is a more appealing, less professorial personality.

At its best, television news coverage can be spectacular and wonderful but all too frequently its "sound bits" are frustratingly short and its coverage too dominated by visuals.

Ted Koppel significantly raised the standards of television and it is the nation more than one network that would suffer by a dismantling of his "Nightline" operation.

It's not a laughing matter!

Mr. Letterman decided to stay at CBS and ABC decided to keep Mr. Koppel for a couple more years. (5/27/02)


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