Producer Bettag Bids Farewell to 'Nightline'

Host Steve Inskeep talks with Tom Bettag, senior executive producer of ABC's Nightline, whose final show will be broadcast Tuesday. The two discuss the changes to television journalism over the last two decades and the commercial pressures that confront reporters, editors, and producers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Tonight, viewers of the ABC Television Network will be bid `good evening' one last time by Ted Koppel. Since 1979, Koppel has been the anchor of "Nightline." It started during the Iran hostage crisis, and since then, it provided in-depth coverage of wars, elections and much, much more. Yet as he prepared to finish his time in the anchor chair, Ted Koppel told our own Scott Simon that he has less and less influence over what to broadcast.

Mr. TED KOPPEL ("Nightline"): 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's 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.

INSKEEP: We're going to talk more about the transition of "Nightline" with Tom Bettag. He's executive producer of the program, has been since 1991.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. TOM BETTAG (Executive Producer, "Nightline"): Thank you.

INSKEEP: You were at another network, CBS, for the first number of years of "Nightline." How, as a viewer, did you come to look at this program?

Mr. BETTAG: I think in the early days, it was this innovative notion of being able to bring people together from all around the world, getting all sides of an issue, and utilizing the new technology of live television satellite hookups that was doing something that nobody else had done before. Everybody else had their evening news broadcast, trying to do 16 stories in 22 minutes, and Roone Arledge said, `There's a way that ABC can set itself apart and seize this late-night period,' and did something that nobody else had done or is doing now.

INSKEEP: Arledge, of course, was the president of ABC News at that time, a former sports executive. How has the program changed over the years?

Mr. BETTAG: I think about the time that I came in 1991, the notion of hooking up people live, the technology had been done for so long, nobody's going to hear the news first these days on "Nightline," so that the emphasis has to be on talking about a story with greater depth, concentrating on analysis, doing it with a twist that nobody else does. Twenty-four-hour cable news now gets you the headlines, but it is often what Ted talks about as being first with the obvious.

INSKEEP: Now I have to ask you about that piece of tape we heard from Ted Koppel, saying that there was so much commercial pressure in television that he didn't necessarily get to put the emphasis on stories that you would like. I thought that was the whole point of "Nightline." I thought that was the reason the program had been there all those years.

Mr. BETTAG: From where I sit, I think "Nightline" has done that. I think it has been swimming against the current all the time, and to a degree I think Ted may be referring to kind of the broader thrust of television. There's been a dramatic shift in the last five years that the advertisers have changed the rules so that in television, the only audience that you get ratings for are the 18-to-49 audience, in some cases, 18-to-52, but advertisers do not pay for any viewer who's over the age of 50. So when there's a major concentration on something like the Laci Peterson story, that is largely because the most attractive demographic is the 18- to 39-year-old upper middle-class woman, and that shapes the news much more than I or I think Ted is comfortable with.

INSKEEP: I want to dwell on this for a moment, if I can, because I think a lot of people will assume that the idea that ratings drive television news is an old, old story, but you're saying it's gotten a lot worse just recently.

Mr. BETTAG: Yes. No, the rules have been changed. It's a certain kind of ratings and "Nightline" has actually been somewhat fortunate, because it does have a younger audience because the older audience goes to bed at that point. But it isn't how many total people you serve, it is how many people who fall within that demographic.

INSKEEP: What should journalists do, in your opinion, when they're in a situation where advertisers call the tune?

Mr. BETTAG: Tough, tough question, but I think that we often sell the audience short. I believe that you don't have to pander to 30-somethings to get them on. Yes, you can do profiles of rock stars, etc., etc. Serious topics will draw that audience if we do them well. I think it means we have to work harder, we have to work smarter, we have to be more innovative, but the truth of the matter is I'm not sure that you don't turn off a lot of that audience by simply pandering to them.

INSKEEP: Tom Bettag is executive producer of "Nightline." As Ted Koppel leaves the program tonight, so will Bettag, and they both expect to find work elsewhere on television. They may express frustration about broadcasters' inability to set the news agenda, but to some degree, they're being modest about the impact of their own program. "Nightline" has taken many chances over the years. Just last year, the program caused an uproar by reading the names of hundreds of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some ABC affiliates refused to air the program, accusing "Nightline" of political motives.

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