A quiet revolution in late-night network news has erupted while most of the nation slept . . . or watched Johnny Carson. Slipping in amid a rash of extra coverage of the continuing hostage crisis has been one of the most meaningful advances in commercial TV news coverage, "ABC News Nightline," which airs at 11:30 to 11:50 four nights a week (Monday through Thursday).
Under the unrelentingly professional guidance of host Ted Koppel, "Nightline" has progressed from a now-and-then special report on the Iranian hostages to a kind of network version of PBS's "MacNeil/Lehrer Report." It has become the thinking man's alternative to Johnny Carson or late-night reruns and movies, the news buff's solution to the deficiency of national and international news on most 10 or 11 o'clock local newscasts.
So popular has the basically single-topic show become that starting in January it will be expanding to a full 30 minutes, and soon after than, in April or earlier, it will go to a five-night-per-week schedule. Meantime, an expanded version of "Nightline" the night after the 1976 elections made recent TV news history by running open-ended until close to 2 a.m. as Mr. Koppel was joined by top ABC news people like Frank Reynolds, Barbara Walters, and Sam Donaldson in commentary and interviews with politicians on the meaning of the Reagan landslide. Many observers of TV news consider this Koppel show to be one of the best of the genre ever aired on any network. Even CBS, seemingly content up to this point with old movies and an occasional Cronkite or Rather news special, is reportedly looking into the possibility of a "Nightline" type of show.
So the late-night network news slot on the commercial networks may soon turn out to be as competitive as the earlier evening network news slot. And the man most responsible for the success of this solid development -- a hardworking, dependable, straight-as-an-arrow, ultimately triumphant tortoise of a newsman -- is Mr. Koppel, a 17-year ABC veteran. You may have watched him recently co-anchoring the election returns on ABC . . . enunciating clearly, restraining premature projections, bringing an air of believable authority to the coverage. Well, that's the mark of Ted Koppel.
Although he usually anchors from Washington, I talked to him recently in New York at ABC Democratic Convention headquarters deep in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Tired after a day of harassed reportage, Mr. Koppel nevertheless appeared calm, neat, and unharried.
How does "Nightline" differ from "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report"?
"The one thing I believe we do that MacNeil/Lehrer cannot do is use the facilities of a major network like ABC -- both the electronic facilities and the human facilities: correspondents and producers, who really set the stage for the discussions which follow. On a good night, the discussion enhances the piece and the piece enhances the discussion, whereas on M/L there is a tendency to just limit it to the discussion. A commercial network, plain and simple, has more money to use satellites and all the other technical advances.
"The genesis of 'Nightline' was the Iran reports. 'Nightline' wouldn't have happened as soon as it did if not for those reports. Not because ABC didn't want to do it but because the affiliates would have resisted it. Once 'America held hostage' had been on for two, three, six weeks it became increasingly difficult for the affiliates to say that they didn't think we could keep it up . . . that we couldn't get an audience . . . etc. We did keep it up, and the audience surpassed everybody's expectations. Indeed, after two or three months of doing the Iran broadcasts, they rather turned it around and said that as long as the Iran crisis continued we could keep doing it. But once the crisis was over, they insisted, people would lose interest. They wouldn't want that kind of broadcast every night. Well, the urgency of the hostages has let up and the audiences are still there. I think we have disproved that theory."
When the hostages are finally released, will "Nightline" do special shows?
"When the hostages are released, that event will seize the air. The ABC news department will just take over large chunks of programming on the network. It will be far larger than any one program, although, of course, we will cover it just as we have every night we have been on."
Mr. Koppel reports that the families of the hostages are loyal viewers of "nightline." "They tell me so -- they write to me, they call me. They know that 'Nightline' is the one newscast they can count on every day to give them at least a 25-second wrap-up on what's happening in Iran today."
"Nightline" is live, for the most part, and Mr. Koppel likes it that way. "Nothing has yet gone terribly wrong -- we have such a fine staff under executive producer Bill Lord. But the fact that we are live and things might go wrong is one element that makes people like the show. They know it is unpredictable. I think people are awfully tired of the predictability and perfection of a show that is pretaped. There are a lot of interviewees who have had a great deal of experience in dealing with the media who know when it's taped that they can control the way the interview is going. They know all of the tricks. But when it is live, I have far more control."
Koppel prides himself on his impartiality:
"I think that what makes a successful anchor man most of the time -- and I qualify that, because I am not sure 'Nightline' falls into this category -- is the person who offends the fewest number of people. I think Walter Cronkite is an extraordinarily successful anchor man because people are not offended by him. People don't know where he stands. He has been scrupulous about not letting people know where he stands . . . with very few exceptions. Which is why it had such extraordinary impact when Cronkite went to Vietnam, came back, and said, 'It is wrong!' Lyndon Johnson said years later that he feels Cronkite had a great impact upon both his [Johnson's] and on the American public's attitude toward the war. But most of the time Walter comes across as being impartial. And that's how I'd like to appear to be, too. . . ."
Despite his desire for total impartiality, some of Mr. Koppel's popularity stems from the fact that many viewers perceive that he has strong opinions that cannot always be suppressed.
What has evoked the greatest audience response so far?
Aside from the hundreds of phone calls and letters after the open-ended postelection show, there was the show about young Iranian prisoners being released from an upstate New York jail after demonstrating.
"We went live to talk to the spokesman for a group of Islamic students who were demonstrating in front of the White House. I bore down kind of hard. I was a little irritated and I suppose I shouldn't have allowed my irritation to show. Here they were protesting the lack of freedom in the United States, unharassed by American police, while in Iran our hostages were being held by the authorities. I guess some of my irritation showed, and I was inundated by mail and phone calls. I guess people want someone to verbalize their frustration. But I must tell you that I find myself uncomfortable with that. I think it's a cheap shot, and I try to prevent myself from doing it too often. I don't think that's the function of the broadcast."
Mr. Koppel claims he has no ambition to anchor an evening newscast. "After doing 'Nightline,' where I have to be involved in every part of the program, early evening newscasts seem terribly boring. I find 'Nightline' much more gratifying."
And gratifying it is, also, to the close to 10 million American nighttime news hawks who, cozy in their beds, now watch Ted Koppel and the real world through their feet rather than Johnny Carson and the world of show biz.