This year, television news is news. From happy talkfests at local stations to the Cable News Network’s round-the-clock newsbeat, the nation’s airwaves have become thundering tsunamis of information. Riding the crest is Ted Koppel, 42, the boyish, controlled, sharp-witted (and sometimes sharp-tongued) host of the innovative ABC News Nightline. The show’s success has loosened Johnny Carson’s lock on late night, and Nightline, trumpeted by some as “the thinking man’s alternative,” now reels in an average 6.7 million viewers compared to Carson’s 6.8 million. Its popularity is partially responsible for the creation this past year of no fewer than three post-midnight news programs and three more early-bird offerings. And much of that popularity is directly attributable to its host. Neither as wily as, say, CBS’ Mike Wallace nor as abrasive as ABC’s own Sam Donaldson (Ted’s vacation-time replacement), Koppel’s talent is for lucidity and balance. Often blending three separate live interviews from as many continents, he is the mix master of midnight.
“Ted Koppel is one of the brightest television personalities to appear in the last 20 years,” observes media consultant Frank Magid. “He is curious, unflappable and has an almost Boy Scout-like quality. He draws attention to the topic without drawing attention to himself and asks the questions the audience would want to ask.”
Born in Britain of German parents, Koppel honed his skills as a listener and interviewer during 19 years in network news. Before Nightline, he served as ABC’s Hong Kong bureau chief and Saturday night news anchor, and as chief diplomatic correspondent trailed Henry Kissinger through the Middle East and accompanied Richard Nixon to China. “My years at the State Department taught me to listen very carefully because diplomats are very good at misleading you,” says Koppel. “Language can be manipulated in wonderful ways.” “Ted was always a smarty,” notes his boss, Nightline executive producer William Lord. “He is always linking of ideas that are slightly offbeat, more insightful than the normal approach to news.”
Based in Washington, Koppel begins his day at home with a 10:30 a.m. conference call with news executives and spends much of it on the phone with Lord in Manhattan, a staff of producers split between New York and Washington, and a handful of correspondents in the field. He digests at least five newspapers and a bundle of prepared-research daily. Only 20 minutes before the 11:30 p.m. ET air time, Koppel takes his seat in ABC’s subterranean D.C. newsroom and taps out that night’s introduction with a speed and facility that amaze colleagues. “I’m a procrastinator. What can I say?” Koppel admits. “My parents and teachers used to be exasperated by the fact that I would wait until the last minute, and now people are fascinated by it. I need the pressure.”
As the night wears on, he has plenty of it. Quickly made up (he applies his own bronze KT3 greasepaint), dusted with powder, and fitted with a molded earpiece that wires him to the New York control room, he gears up for the challenge of live interviews—and he never writes any questions in advance. Whether the subject is world hunger, the Mideast crisis, prison rape, drug trafficking or the Miss America Pageant, Koppel receives high critical marks for the flexibility with which he shepherds the show. The mighty are seldom allowed to evade questions, and the meek seldom browbeaten by them. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” says senior producer Stuart Schwartz. “He will not content himself very long with anyone he does not consider to be up to the show’s standards.”
Off camera Koppel has a reputation among Nightline’s staff for wit, warmth and self-effacement. He collects Asian art, does wicked impersonations—Henry Kissinger, Cary Grant and Ronald Colman are among his repertoire—and for relaxation plays tennis, reads, runs and skis (“And I do them all at the same time,” he jests). Koppel receives some 600 letters each month requesting autographs, suggesting stories and offering opinions like “Your toupée is so good it almost looks real.” (His thick auburn thatch is real.) Negative missives are rare, but Koppel has been known to tack them gleefully to his door.
While the press speculates about his promising future at ABC News—he has been mentioned as a possible replacement for World News Tonight anchorman Frank Reynolds, to the consternation of both—Koppel is preoccupied with the present. Except for the grueling 14-hour days that keep him from his lawyer wife, Grace Anne, and four children (ranging in age from 11 to 19), he believes he is roosting on the most desirable perch in network news. “When I was a kid,” says Koppel, “the ultimate concept of magic was Sinbad the Sailor finding a crystal globe and being able to see and hear the voices and faces of people who were thousands of miles away. We produce that kind of magic every single night.”