30 Years Later: Ted Koppel on Nightline‘s Evolution

By Alissa Krinsky 

It was the fall of 1979, and Iranian militants had seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 53 Americans hostage.

The late Roone Arledge, then president of ABC News, wanted extended network coverage.

“Roone had decided a long time before,” Ted Koppel tells TVNewser, “that any time a big news story [broke], ABC News was going to do a special broadcast at 11:30 at night. And one day, it was his dream that there’d be a story that had such legs to it, that was so enduring, that he would actually be able to seize the time period.”


He did just that. The ‘temporary’ program America Held Hostage: The Iran Crisis launched November 8, 1979 — four days after the Americans were taken. Frank Reynolds was named anchor. Koppel, then ABC’s chief diplomatic correspondent, was a contributing reporter.

A few months later, Koppel took over anchoring duties at Hostage, a program slated to continue as long as the crisis lasted. But as the show gathered a following, it was re-born as Nightline, and has been a part of ABC’s late-night lineup ever since.

Nightline debuted March 24, 1980, with Koppel at the helm — but only, he says, after both Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw declined offers to anchor the new program. Koppel, of course, became synonymous with Nightline, anchoring until his retirement from the program in 2005. Ted Koppel talks with TVNewser thirty years after it all began.

TVNewser: What was the impact of the program during the hostage crisis?

Koppel: Arguably, not the program, but the event — which was clearly magnified by the program — I think the event cost Jimmy Carter the [presidential] election [of 1980]…

[The story] was huge. Roone Arledge — you really have to give him credit, he had a brilliant nose for the level of engagement that the American public had in that story…

TVNewser: Iran is still very much in the headlines in 2009. How do you think the networks and cablers are doing covering developments these days?

Koppel: …Because of the internet, and Twitter, and blog sites, the explosion of satellite channels, and cable…the money that the networks are able to make…has gone way, way, way down. And one of the most expensive things to cover in television news is foreign news…

So when you ask about how the networks are doing in covering Iran today, they’re doing a lousy job. Because they don’t really cover it unless and until there’s a visible crisis…

You don’t have a lot of coverage of Iran anymore…that’s tragic, but it’s all part of the economics of television.

TVNewser: November 22 will mark four years since your retirement from Nightline. What are your thoughts on the program in its current incarnation?

I think it’s a very lively program. I think they do a fine job — but obviously, it’s a much frothier program than it used to be. And I think they’ve achieved what they set out to achieve, which is to attract a younger audience to a late-night news program.

And to attract a younger audience, the perception is that you can’t talk too much about serious issues — you’re better off getting lighter subjects — and that the public attention span is not what it used to be, so you can’t really focus on one subject for half an hour. Rather you do three or four subjects a night — and they’ve made it work. Nightline is very successful.

I’m glad the program survived. I wish that there were more of a public appetite for serious news than there is today, but I take some comfort from what’s happening with NPR, which is doing extremely well…they’re getting big, big crowds…

TVNewser: You’re currently an analyst for NPR and for BBC America. Any plans to return to the airwaves on a more regular basis? Are you in talks with any of the networks?

Koppel: I’m not talking to anybody right now, other than you! But we’ll see. If something interesting came along, I ain’t dead yet.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]