Ted Koppel on Bidding 'Nightline', ABC Goodbye

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NPR's Scott Simon talks with Ted Koppel, who, after more than 25 years hosting ABC's Nightline, is leaving the anchor chair — and ABC News.


The end of "Nightline" as we now know it is approaching. Ted Koppel will host his last broadcast of the show on November 22nd and will step down from the program he helped invent more than 25 years ago.

(Soundbite of "ABC News Nightline")

Announcer: This is "ABC News Nightline." Reporting from Washington, Ted Koppel.

Mr. TED KOPPEL (Host): Good evening. This is a new broadcast in the sense that it is permanent and will continue after the Iran crisis is over.

SIMON: Since its beginning, Ted Koppel has won scores of the most prestigious awards in broadcasting and delayed bedtime for millions of Americans who've come to consider "Nightline" to be a kind of national stage and town hall, shedding light and often striking sparks with Mr. Koppel's signature interviews and what can only be called his moral authority. He's been both gracious and pugnacious, sympathetic and exacting, friendly but unflappable and sometimes unforgiving.

(Soundbite of "Nightline")

Mr. KOPPEL: I understand.

Unidentified Man: Well, let me just speak...

Mr. KOPPEL: I understand the rationale.

Mr. GEORGE BUSH (Former Vice President): ...what I think I'm entitled--but you just don't like my answer.

Mr. KOPPEL: No, what I'm saying is I find your answer to the question...

Mr. BUSH: You ask the question, but you don't like the answer. What do you want me to say?

Mr. KOPPEL: I find the answer inconsistent with the evidence, is what I'm saying.

Mr. BUSH: Well, that's your opinion. Dan, I'll take all the credit, all the blame for that if you...

Mr. KOPPEL: No, Dan--Dan--Dan's the other--Dan's the other fella.

Mr. BUSH: I mean Ted.

SIMON: That's then Vice President George Bush getting Koppelted over the Iran-Contra affair. We sat down with Ted Koppel over at ABC this week. He remembered that in November of 1979 when he was first called in to host a late-night news special about the taking of US hostages at the embassy in Tehran, he thought the story just wouldn't last.

Mr. KOPPEL: I didn't for two reasons. The selfish one was that it was a Sunday morning and I really didn't want to go in to work. The more cerebral answer was that there had been a similar incident just a few months previous and the then US ambassador had come out, had spoken to the students and they had given up after just a couple of hours. And I said, `This thing isn't going to last and it'll be over in a matter of hours.' And they said, `Well, come in anyway.' So I did, and it wasn't, and that was the beginning of "Nightline."

SIMON: How much did the technology that was just coming into use then contribute to making a show that was lively and could be topical and where you could actually have people talk to each other directly?

Mr. KOPPEL: Huge, because we discovered, more by accident than anything else, that it was possible to have one person sitting in Tehran and another in Moscow and another in Washington and since they could all hear each other, it simply remained for me, as the host of the tea party, to say, `Well, foreign minister, why don't you respond to what the defense minister here just said?' And before you knew it, you had people, who under normal circumstances wouldn't talk to each other, engaging in the most extraordinary free-wheeling conversations. We had Iranians talking to Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War. We had Israelis talking to Palestinians. We had Irish Protestants talking to Irish Catholics. And we were able to maintain the mythology that they weren't really talking to each other because they were talking through me.

(Soundbite of "Nightline")

Mr. KOPPEL: And it perhaps symbolic of the delicacy with which the negotiations proceeded just to bring this panel together and to bring this audience together, but it has been suggested to me that we need a symbolic divider between our Israeli guests on the one hand and our Palestinian guests on the other. I must tell you that it has been so difficult to arrange this broadcast that that was one small price that we were prepared to pay. So here it is. I will try and spend as much time on one side as on the other. Let me, in fact, as I move across our fence right now, let me go immediately to one of our panelists and I'm going to be introducing...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KOPPEL: And it would be `Well, Ted,' and then the other guy would come back. And as long as you said, `Well, Ted,' before he gave his response they weren't really talking to each other.

SIMON: Your first interview with Nelson Mandela, what was that like?

Mr. KOPPEL: Well, it was--I wasn't alone. I mean, Dan Rather was there, and I forget who the hell was there for NBC, but there were a lot of--you know, there were a lot of people there and we were all, in effect, as smoothly as possible trying to elbow each other out of the way to get the first interview. I mean, it didn't really make any difference. We all got it for our programs that night.

(Soundbite of "Nightline")

Mr. KOPPEL: Take me back to Robben Island for a moment. Explain--pretend for a moment that one of your grandchildren is here. To someone who has no idea what Robin Island was like. Do you remember the first day or the first night when you were taken there?

Mr. NELSON MANDELA (Nobel Prize Recipient): Oh, yes. I was at the back with another comrade and there were two others in front. And they were very harsh. And then I whispered to my colleagues that, `Look, we must fight right from the beginning. They must know what type of men we are right from the beginning.'

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KOPPEL: You know, it's rare--I don't know about you but over the years I tend to--I tend to become--Lily Tomlin has a wonderful line. She says `No matter how cynical I get, I can never keep up.' And I tend to feel that way about most public figures that I have met. Very few of them live up to the expectations. Nelson Mandela did...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KOPPEL: ...and does.

SIMON: Do you think the growth of the show and the way with--among a great many Americans it seemed to be a way of announcing that an issue was important, is something you've been able to take advantage of and move the viewing public along, issues that you've taken on?

Mr. KOPPEL: I don't think so. I'm afraid there is just too much of us, Scott, too much media. I sometimes think we have become so obsessed with the means of communication that have been developed that we have lost all contact with the message that is being conveyed. And part of the problem is that because, at least at our end of the microphone in commercial broadcasting, we have to worry about selling product. More emphasis is placed now on trying to tailor the news and tailor the stories that we cover to the perceived interests of our favored commercial customers rather than newsmen and women doing what I've always believed we should do and that is tell people what is important, try to make it as interesting as we possibly can, but focus on the importance of the issues rather than focusing simply on what it is they think they want to hear and see.

SIMON: Is there some lesson in "Nightline," though, that you can do an outstanding program and tens of millions of Americans will watch it? And somebody ought to be able to make a lot of money doing that.

Mr. KOPPEL: Yeah, and--look, let's face it. Over the years first Paramount and then Cap Cities and more recently Disney has made quite literally hundreds of millions of dollars, and they have compensated me handsomely for being in some small measure responsible for their making all that money. And it is only fair--and I have no complaint with the system, it has served me very, very well--that as we make less money and as I made more money over the years with each passing contract, that my importance to the company diminished rather than rose. In other words, I cost more, I'm bringing in less, therefore, it's time to bring in a new group who cost less and who, one will hope, bring in more of an audience and, therefore, more money.

SIMON: Just this, bluntly, what are your feelings toward ABC at this point?

Mr. KOPPEL: Wonderful.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOPPEL: I've had--I've had a--look, I was 23 when I came here. I'm 65 now and it's been a joy. I cannot imagine any other profession that would have given me as much satisfaction, as much pleasure and as much comfort in the final analysis as this one has, and that's been ABC. I joined ABC when ABC was fifth in a three-network race and lived to see the day Peter--Peter Jennings and I, you know, dreamed when we were in our early 20s that we would somehow be party to making ABC a network that would rival NBC and CBS. And we did, and that's a source of great, great pleasure.

SIMON: Ted Koppel, thanks very much.

Mr. KOPPEL: Thank you.

SIMON: Ted Koppel will host his last "Nightline" on November 22nd. "Nightline" will continue with new anchors and a new format. Ted Koppel will keep on going, too.

(Soundbite of "Nightline")

Mr. KOPPEL: That's our report for tonight. For all of us...

Here at ABC News...

This is Ted Koppel in Mogadishu...


Wilmington, Delaware...


We'll be back in Washington next week.

I'm Ted Koppel in Ramallah. For all of us here at ABC News, good night.

(Soundbite of "Nightline" theme)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

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