Last November, a New York–based ABC news executive, Paul Mason, who had been put in charge of supervising Nightline, traveled to Washington to meet with the program’s staff—without Koppel, Bettag, and Sievers—and things quickly turned rancorous. “Mason kicked the senior producers and executives out of the room, then told us our jobs were in trouble,” says one staffer who was at the meeting. “He was trashing people. It seemed like he wanted to elicit negative information about the leadership of the show.” Koppel won’t discuss the incident, but he made his displeasure known to news management. Mason, who also supervises World News Tonight, subsequently gave up his Nightline portfolio (although he’s now involved again with the new show). In Washington, the outspoken Sievers’s contract wasn’t renewed, and Bettag took over the executive producer’s job again.
With Koppel’s contract set to expire at the end of this year, Westin made him a proposal that was essentially an ultimatum: If Koppel wanted to stay at Nightline, he had to do the show live five nights a week. “I said, that’s not going to happen. I’ve been there and done that,” says Koppel. Koppel also turned down a Westin proposition to take over the ratings-troubled Sunday talk show now anchored by George Stephanopoulos. “Tom Bettag and I kept talking about it, and we couldn’t get excited,” Koppel says. (When I asked Stephanopoulos at Koppel’s farewell party how it felt to have his job shopped, he was taken aback. “Honestly?” he sputtered. Then he laughed. “If someone else is going to get your job, and it’s Ted Koppel, what can you say?”) Ultimately, there was too much bad blood to find a compromise. On March 30, Koppel announced he would be leaving ABC at the end of this year.
In his final working day as an ABC employee, Koppel got into the office at 7 a.m. to appear on Good Morning America. For much of the day, he gave interviews to ABC affiliates and radio stations—after all, he was the story. At 5 p.m., his wife, Grace Anne, who had never before seen a live taping at the studio, arrived. “I didn’t want him to walk out of here alone,” she said.
The control room was standing-room only. Rather than do a highlights program, the standard for a departing news god, Koppel had chosen to rebroadcast interviews with Brandeis professor Morrie Schwartz, who, during three programs ten years ago, discussed his imminent death from Lou Gehrig’s disease (the series inspired the best seller Tuesdays With Morrie). First, Koppel taped the intro. “Roone Arledge, who was president of ABC News at the time, hated the story,” he said. Then he noted that the Schwartz interviews had become Nightline’s most popular series. Next came the sign-off. With his final network news breaths, Koppel urged the audience to give the new Nightline a try; otherwise the network “will just put another comedy show in this time slot. Then you’ll be sorry.” Several hundred ABC staffers swarmed into the studio, champagne glasses in hand. Washington bureau chief Robin Sproul presented Koppel with a Disney parting gift in honor of his 40-plus years of faithful service: a large statue of Donald Duck. “Life is complete,” Koppel said.
Koppel hugged his way through a crowd of teary-eyed loyalists, then he and Grace Anne stood, arm-in-arm, to watch a short clip of tributes. Bill and Hillary Clinton. Desmond Tutu. Henry Kissinger. The actor Henry Winkler joked, “You were so good on Cheers. Oh, it’s not Ted Danson? Ted Koppelman, the news guy?”
Then the applause started, and it built, and it built, and Bettag whispered to Koppel, and Koppel smiled and called out, “Tom says Barbara’s staff clapped for a full five minutes.” From the back of the room, someone yelled, “But she had to pay them.” Koppel smiled, then turned and walked away.
An energetic 65, Koppel can afford to spend his time skiing, hiking, sailing, or visiting his four children and three grandchildren—but he has no plans to fade to black. He and Bettag are kicking around ideas for shows for their new production group—likely a series of documentaries for HBO. Though the deal isn’t done (and may yet unravel, as Time Warner looks to limit costs in the wake of Carl Icahn’s shareholder upheaval), Koppel is hoping to launch with a critical look at . . . TV news. “This is something you can’t do at ABC,” says Bettag. “You’d be accused of fouling your own nest or criticizing your competitors. We have an opportunity in a new venue. TV never looks at itself hard. We want to answer such questions as, ‘Why is 24-hour cable news “blondes reporting on missing blondes”?’ ”