With an hour left before the 5:30 taping (the broadcast has been prerecorded since 1992), Koppel excuses himself to write the show’s close. When he emerges, it’s as if he’s had a personality change—the curmudgeonly anchor replaced by the morale-boosting team captain. Taping promos in the studio, Koppel deliberately blows his lines to lighten the mood. Introducing a segment on newly found Charlie Chaplin movies, he says, “He was known as the tramp—no, that was his wife. He was known as the Little Tramp.” Rather than tape a straight handoff to George Stephanopoulos, who will be appearing live at 11:35 to handle the night’s election coverage, Koppel quips, “Now I can go have dinner with my wife. Here’s George.”
Right after the broadcast, Koppel and Tom Bettag, Nightline’s longtime executive producer, disappear into a side office for a private farewell with a 24-year Nightline floor manager who had just been pink-slipped in advance of the new regime; she emerges with moist eyes. Koppel looks shaken. “The only people I know are going to be all right are the people who are coming with Tom and me,” Koppel says (he and Bettag are setting up their own production unit). “I’m in no position to extract any assurances about what will happen to anyone else.”
How did the simmering acrimony between Koppel and ABC end up in a divorce? You could make the case that Koppel and Nightline have been at war with ABC ever since the Letterman debacle. In February 2002, Michael Eisner, then chairman of ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney, tried to woo the late-night comic, whose CBS contract was up, to replace Koppel in the 11:35 time slot. Koppel was at his vacation home in Florida when he got the news by phone from Westin (Westin had also been kept in the dark). Koppel was irate that the network, for whom he had earned more than half a billion dollars, hadn’t even given him a courtesy heads-up. “I never questioned their right to put someone else in; they have a right to do what they want,” Koppel says. “But they did it in a shabby way.” Indeed, an anonymous Disney executive was quoted bad-mouthing Koppel in the press, claiming that Nightline was no longer “relevant” and implying that Koppel was phoning it in. (In 2000, at age 60, Koppel had reduced his schedule to three days a week in anticipation of retirement.) Once Letterman decided to stay put, Koppel demanded, and got, a commitment that ABC would keep Nightline on the air for two more years, but the ill will lingered. “The public and embarrassing flirtation with Letterman put Ted in a difficult position,” says Good Morning America’s Charlie Gibson. “When your baby is shopped, the way a ballplayer is shopped, that leads to a degree of, well, I wouldn’t use the word bitter. Say, disappointment.”
Since then, says Leroy Sievers, a Nightline veteran who took over the show’s day-to-day producing reins from Bettag at the end of 2000, there has been nonstop friction with Westin and the rest of the ABC brass. “I’ve never worked for a network that was trying to kill its own show,” says Sievers. Sievers says he repeatedly begged executives to promote the show, to no avail, and that budgets were tightened. He also says he clashed with Westin on the show’s direction. “David wanted a Good Morning America sensibility. I was told that people want to go to bed happy.” (Westin declined to comment on specific events regarding Nightline. “One of the things I’ve learned in this job is that I never discuss process,” he says.)
Tensions built up. Koppel got a bad rap for not being a team player over an incident that occurred during the invasion of Iraq. Embedded with the Army Third Infantry Division, Koppel twice found himself in danger zones, with shots being fired nearby, at times when he was scheduled to appear on Good Morning America. “There were battles going on behind us. I said, ‘Once you put the satellite up, you’ve got to use us right away,’ ” he says. “They kept me waiting a couple of times, longer than I thought was either polite or safe. So I said, forget it.” He refused to appear on the show for several days. “David was furious,” says one ABC correspondent.
Koppel says he offered to give up some of his salary if ABC would invest in ‘Nightline.’ But “corporations don’t want to save money per se,” he says. “They need bodies.”
Ratings for Nightline spike when major news events happen—when Hurricane Katrina hit in August, more than 5 million people tuned in to Nightline—but the show generally remains a distant third in its time slot. With executives constantly grumbling about the show’s profitability, Koppel says he volunteered last year to give back to ABC a hefty chunk of salary (he won’t say how much, but when I asked whether he was talking seven figures, he didn’t demur) if the company would invest it in staff salaries and travel to revive the show. His offer was turned down. “The way corporations operate, they don’t want to save money per se,” he says. “They need bodies.” One brand-name ABC staffer, who has not always seen eye-to-eye with Westin, offers a different version of events. The network president, he says, isn’t entirely to blame. “A few years ago, David went down there and said, ‘You’re losing millions of dollars. Fix it. I’m behind you. I can come down and impose my views, but you guys value your independence. You fix it.’ And they never did.”