Tuned In

Ted Koppel: Why I Didn't Watch Him That Much… and Why He Still Matters

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Ted Koppel left Nightline last night after 25 years. His last episode, devoted to Morrie Schwartz, the professor and subject of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, was a typical, graceful signoff: thoughtful, modest and unsentimental. It was the sort of gesture that obliges a TV critic to thank Koppel for his service. Or it would, anyway, if that didn’t make me feel like a hypocrite. Because the fact is, I haven’t watched a lot of Nightline—hallowed, lionized, unimpeachable Nightline—for years.

This isn’t a knock against Koppel. Maybe it’s a knock against me. But the fact is, I follow the news for a living: I read several newspapers and news web sites a day, listen to NPR, read magazines and usually keep one TV in my office tuned to cable news for the headlines. Sure, I’d watch Nightline occasionally, to see a special episode or keep up out of professional obligation, but I didn’t need it every day.

Obviously, plenty of other people did need Nightline, and do—even if ABC lusted after David Letterman, the in-depth news show kept respectable ratings, considering the general sad state of network news. Still, while I can’t speak for every other TV critic, Nightline was clearly more universally admired than it was universally watched. The news media have changed over 25 years: there are more, if not always better, sources, and people choose from them cafeteria-style.

The old anchor system we’ve heard so many obituaries for this year—Rather, Brokaw, Jennings, Koppel—depended on delivering big audiences regularly. Ironically, for all the complaints that the Big Anchor Era was killed by corporate money pressures, the Big Anchor Era is a big reason those money pressures exist. It was by developing star anchors that networks discovered that news divisions could make big money. So naturally they came to expect them to make big money—in part, to justify the big salaries of those big anchors—and those expectations only grew when the networks were bought by megacorporations.

For better or worse, serious news on TV is going to need to adapt to the atomized media system of today, to find ways to be smaller while retaining a bigness of purpose. That’s why it’s less important today to reflect on Koppel’s last 25 years than to focus on what he’s doing for his next act. Rather than retiring or being shunted off to the sidelines, Koppel is cutting a deal with HBO to produce documentaries. That’s potentially a great format for Koppel, who will be able to haul off on subjects in depth, without having to draw a giant network-sized audience. Losing his big broadcast perch could even be liberating for him.

Not that Koppel himself has given up on big, nightly network news: he fought tooth and nail to save Nightline and urged his audience on his last show to watch the new version that premieres next week. But the best service Koppel can give in his new HBO incarnation will be to show that, in the era of blogs and digital cable, sometimes it’s better for a smart newsman to deliver quality, not quantity.

You know what? I’ll even watch him.