The party had the potential for turning ugly. On a rainy November night, some 350 people filed into Washington’s Kennedy Center for ABC’s going-away fête for Ted Koppel. Here was Barbara Walters, there was Tim Russert, there was the anchor ghost of yesteryear, Dan Rather. As a three-piece jazz combo played in the Terrace restaurant above the Potomac, the room swirled with admiration, warmth, and anxiety. Two days earlier, when I had mentioned to Koppel that the ABC brass seemed nervous that he might take parting shots in his final days, he grinned mischievously and replied, “They’re terrified. They’re afraid I’ll say something bad about the new show.” Nightline is moving from its humble D.C. studio to a glitzy Times Square set, and Koppel’s one-anchor, one-topic format will give way to a three-anchor, multi-segment form.
After 42 years with ABC, Koppel, the last of a generation of TV-news lions still with a nightly anchor chair, was leaving the network, vacating his seat as the host and managing editor of the pioneering late-night long-form news program Nightline. Officially, Koppel left Nightline voluntarily. Unofficially, he was elbowed out by ABC News president David Westin. Westin, of course, was the evening’s master of ceremonies.
During the cocktail hour, Westin kept insisting he wasn’t the villain. “I would have loved for Ted to stay, and I think he knows that,” he said. “I tried everything I could within reason to make it possible.” The “within reason” qualifier (Westin is a former ABC corporate lawyer) didn’t exactly exonerate him.
At the podium, Westin went out of his way to lavishly praise Koppel’s “extraordinary body of work.” “He’s taken on stories no one else wanted to do,” said Westin, citing Nightline’s shows on AIDS, race relations, criminal justice, death and dying—topics of high civic importance, but no match in the ratings game for Leno and Letterman. Nightline’s ratings have slipped from 4.8 million households ten years ago to 2.8 million this fall. Leno currently draws about 5.6 million, Letterman 3.4 million.
With a rueful nod at his own tangled relationship with Koppel, Westin closed by saying, “He has always been brave in speaking what he sees as the truth and telling people things they may not want to hear, including those in power who didn’t want to hear it, and even some of us who thought we had power over him.” People snickered knowingly.
Koppel has spent thousands of hours speaking unscripted on television, but he carried a sheaf of written remarks with him to the podium. (“I wanted to be sure I got it right,” he says.) Koppel began by telling Westin, “I think, David, each of us in his own way has been dreading this evening—which has been a truly lovely event.” Koppel thanked Westin for allowing him to do the show his way for the last few months, right up until the end. “You told me that Nightline would continue to be my broadcast until I left, and you’ve stayed with that commitment.”
After an Oscar-night round of thank-yous, Koppel made a surprising move, inviting the new Nightline team to join him. Cynthia McFadden, the only one of the anchors present—Terry Moran and Martin Bashir didn’t make it—was caught off guard. She was on her way out the door when Koppel called her up. Once she and Nightline’s new British executive producer, James Goldston (famed for producing Bashir’s controversial Michael Jackson BBC documentary), were onstage, Koppel continued. “Even I am getting tired of the question in print—‘Can they fill Ted’s shoes?’ ” Then he offered the new crew the equivalent of a parting gift.
After reading two reviews of Nightline by the Washington Post’s Tom Shales—a vicious put-down after the first broadcast on March 24, 1980, and a rave ten months later—Koppel closed by saying, “I don’t know if everyone will give you a fair amount of time, but I promise you—I will.”
The crowd cheered. Westin was visibly relieved. One of Koppel’s friends marveled afterward at how the anchorman deftly handled the situation: “Ted is a class act, and he doesn’t want his retirement to be muddied with crap being thrown back and forth,” the friend said. “But on the other hand—he’s pissed.”
At ABC’s Washington bureau, Koppel’s relatively small office is tucked away in a third-floor corner. In addition to some of his 42 Emmys on display, there’s a motorcycle poster taped on the door (he rides a BMW), a photo of Koppel applying makeup to Bruce Springsteen, and a sign above the doorway with the immortal words of the Wizard of Oz: NO ONE GETS TO SEE THE WIZARD. NOT NO ONE. NOT NO HOW. With two weeks left before his final show, the office was stacked high with boxes, the shelves half-empty.