Defying conventional wisdom, ABC's late night news program succeeds with substance. And it's not all Ted Koppel; CBS refugee Tom Bettag has reenergized the show, and its team approach is a critical element.
By Marc Gunther
Marc Gunther, who has covered network news since 1983, is a senior writer at Fortune magazine.
Ted Koppel is one of the most secure, self-assured people in all of television news – until you stick him on the peak of a mountain. Koppel, as it happens, is afraid of heights, and so on an Outward Bound trip to Maine last summer, he got the jitters when the time came to strap on a harness and make his way down a steep rock wall.
Koppel requested a small favor. Could he go first? "If I watch the other people," he explained, "I'll never make it."
Cheering him on was Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC's "Nightline." That they took a vacation together says a lot about their partnership, as does the fact that they opted for a challenging five-day adventure on the coast of Maine. Working as a team, Koppel and Bettag had to navigate sailboats to a deserted island, survive a day in the woods with minimal provisions and endure a variety of exercises in group survival.
They were well-prepared for such tests, if only because "Nightline" – which looks to the casual viewer like a one-man show – is, in fact, the product of some of the most extraordinary teamwork found anywhere in television.
"The Outward Bound philosophy is that you have within you the resources to do anything you need to," says Bettag, back in his ABC office. "That only in sharing and working together can you solve these problems. That's what this place is all about. To a large extent, it was 'Nightline.' "
Call it "Tom and Ted's Excellent Adventure" – the trip to Maine or, for that matter, the story of "Nightline" since Bettag arrived as executive producer in 1991. Since then, Bettag and Koppel, along with a tightly knit group of producers, editors and researchers, have taken "Nightline" to new heights in television. They rank slightly behind Jay
Leno and ahead of David Letterman in the late-night ratings competition, deliver prestige and profits to ABC News and, most important, defy conventional wisdom about the appeal of serious news on television.
"What has so bothered me in the last five, six years is the sense that serious journalism doesn't sell, the sense that serious journalism is passé," Bettag says. "And that is patently absurd."
Koppel, who has anchored "Nightline" since its creation in 1981, says, "The program is as healthy as it has ever been. Across the board, we have the strongest team we have ever had."
This story isn't about Koppel, though. It's about the "Nightline" team, the unheralded behind-the-scenes players who help him look good. They do so by keeping the anchor engaged and enthused after more than 15 years on the job, which is no small feat. They do so by setting aside individual egos for the sake of the group, with a cooperative spirit that is rare in the news business. They do so by resisting the temptation to pander to viewers, and by hewing to their values about doing news that matters.
Together they produce a daily program that is smart, thoughtful, wide-ranging, unpredictable and, on its best days, surprisingly entertaining. The "Nightline" story, in essence, is a story about doing good and doing well, about nice guys (and gals) who finish first. In the journalism business these days, that's news.
That Tom Bettag now sits atop the world of TV news is sweet, given that he was staring unemployment in the face not that long ago.
After the Persian Gulf War, Bettag (pronounced b'tag) was removed as executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather." Instead of considering another position, he quit. With his stubbornly old-fashioned approach to news, Bettag figured his career in network television might be over.
"I was scared to death," he says. He was 46, and he had spent his entire career at CBS.
His family roots were in print. Bettag grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his stepfather, the late Jim McKenna, outdoor editor for the Booth newspaper chain, instilled in him a sense of journalism as public service and a strong work ethic. Bettag had a low regard for television until he went to journalism school at Columbia and came under the sway of Fred Friendly, the charismatic former president of CBS News.
Bettag joined CBS News in 1969. He worked for the evening and morning news, and for "60 Minutes" until he was named executive producer of the evening newscast in 1986.
That year, business executive Laurence Tisch gained control of the network and began paring down CBS News. Bettag resisted, just as he and Rather resisted pressures from the network hierarchy to soften their broadcast. So long as the show was number one, they had the clout to run things as they pleased. But as their ratings slid, Bettag's power waned.
His determination, however, did not. Bettag is a rail-thin, bespectacled man with graying hair and an unassuming mien who looks more like a professor than a television producer. But his low-key style is deceptive – truth is, he is tenacious. "He is totally self-effacing," Koppel says. "Don't let that self-effacing front fool you. He is the most competitive man, next to myself, that I know." At CBS, Bettag fought to keep the evening news on the high road. By his own admission, he became a pain in the ass about it. "I tend to be a preacher," Bettag says. "I railed about quality, which is a word that Larry Tisch never wanted to hear. I talked about television as a public trust."
When CBS News faltered during the early days of the gulf war, Bettag took the fall – unfairly, some said. He quit, he says, because he "so disagreed with the direction that CBS was going that there wasn't any reason for me to stay."
Dan Rather, who'd become his close friend, called ABC, and Bettag was soon talking to Roone Arledge about the top job at "Nightline." For Arledge – the ABC News president who created "Nightline" and who looked upon the show as one of his signature accomplishments – entrusting the program to an outsider was a risk. But he was impressed with Bettag, and "Nightline" was faltering. Ratings had slipped, affiliates were delaying the program so they could run more profitable syndicated shows after their late local news, and the show was in a creative rut.
Some insiders felt Dorrance Smith, the executive producer, was disengaged, particularly when there wasn't a big story to cover. Koppel seemed weary, and he was dividing his time and his loyalties between "Nightline" and Koppel Communications, his independent production company. Staffers were restless.
Bettag did nothing less than reinvent "Nightline." The program, he felt, had become too tied to the news of the day and to a formula consisting of a set-up piece, followed by a Koppel interview with two or three newsmakers – what's now known as " 'Nightline' classic." Without giving up on that format, or on the show's mandate to cover major stories, Bettag stretched the idea of what "Nightline" could be. He experimented with investigative reports, half-hour documentaries, day-in-the-life features, profiles and town meetings. "The primary challenge was to be unpredictable," Bettag says.
Kyle Gibson, a former "Nightline" producer who, with Koppel, has written a history of the program, says, "At a point where the show was 10 years old, Tom brought new energy and adventure and a sense of experimentation. He is absolutely brilliant."
Bettag's other agenda was to reinvigorate Koppel. To that end, Bettag says "Nightline" must be about "constant change," an idea that flies in the face of conventional TV wisdom, as practiced by such superstar executive producers as Don Hewitt of CBS' "60 Minutes."
"Don's law is never change anything," Bettag says. "You may get tired of it, but the audience really likes it just the way it is. People would say, 'C'mon Don, can't we change the watch to a digital watch?' And he'd say, 'No way.'
"Our situation is different. Ted, 16 years in, is restless. He wants to be doing new, fresh things," Bettag says. "We are constantly looking at, 'What have we never done before?' "
Senior producer Richard Harris says, "Tom understood that to make the show successful, rule number one was to keep Ted interested. Rule number two was to keep Ted interested. And rule number three was to keep Ted interested. And that's the way to keep the audience interested."
It worked. Koppel was excited, for example, about investigative reporting, and about reporting half-hour taped shows that got him out into the field. After closing his production company, Koppel had more energy to devote to "Nightline." He found Bettag a delight to work with and thought it was the "height of stupidity" for CBS to let him go.
"He's a born leader, the first one in in the morning, the last one out at night. He's indefatigable," Koppel says. "He doesn't drop any threads. And he is enormously generous in making other people's ideas work. That may be his greatest gift of all."
Koppel and Bettag work so well together that "it's hard to know where one picks up and the other leaves off," says producer Kathryn Kross, who's been with the show for nine years.
So who's the boss? "If you get to that question, you've got trouble," Bettag responds. "Our rule is that if one person feels very strongly about something, then the person who feels less strongly demurs." In theory, Bettag's in charge while Koppel has the clout, but both say they've never come to a clash of wills.
While "Nightline" has been blessed with strong executive producers over the years, the consensus is that Bettag and Rick Kaplan, who ran the show in the late 1980s, are the tops.
"Rick may be a shade more creative than Tom. Tom is a better manager than Rick," Koppel says. "But they are both great executive producers, and there are probably fewer great executive producers than great anchors. It's a very, very rare breed."
Bettag, for his part, retains a boyish enthusiasm for the news and for his work, as the great producers, like Arledge and Hewitt and Kaplan, invariably do. Their attitude becomes infectious.
"I love this place," Bettag says. "While I'm not an emotive person by nature, people know that I am incredibly proud to be a part of this and to have landed here."
There's one more thing he loves – the chance to beat CBS' brains out, to prove it made a mistake. And so he was delighted to hear that, when Arledge ran into Larry Tisch a while ago, Arledge reminded the former CBS owner about the success of "Nightline." Arledge told him: "You really blew it when you let go of Tom Bettag."
It's a few minutes after 11 a.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the daily "Nightline" conference call has just begun. Bettag runs the call from a room in ABC's Washington bureau, where he's joined by half a dozen staff members who listen on a speakerphone; others, including Koppel, dial in from home or from the road if they are out covering news.
Tonight's story will probably be the Bosnian peace talks. The backup: Princess Diana's interview, broadcast the previous night on the BBC.
"They are apparently calling a briefing even as we speak," says correspondent Dave Marash, over the phone from Dayton, Ohio, "so we should know one way or another in the next five minutes."
Moments later, CNN reports that President Clinton is planning a Rose Garden announcement, an encouraging sign. "Presidents don't come out to the Rose Garden to say they've got nothing," notes Koppel. "They have other turkeys that they send out to do that."
Once it's evident that an accord has been reached, there are a couple of ways to go – Marash, from Dayton, could put together a set-up piece about the agreement, or they could do a Washington-based story focusing on Clinton's plan to deploy 20,000 American troops to enforce the peace. After the discussion meanders a bit, Koppel weighs in. "The key to the program tonight," he says, "is that we remember that the American appetite for this story has got largely one aspect to it – how are we involved, and how secure are those troops going to be when they go over there." So they will focus on the U.S. military role, after a Marash set-up piece that folds in congressional reaction, foreign reaction and a correspondent's report from Sarajevo.
The talk turns to the question of booking guests, always crucial for "Nightline." U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke has promised Diana Pierce, a booker, that he will come on, but only if he can be the sole guest. He won't debate anyone, aides say.
Koppel doesn't like that. "Let me see if we can't get Holbrooke for a six- or seven-minute segment on his own, but then still have room for the critics," he says. "He doesn't have to appear with them, but they could still be on the same program."
"As of last night, Ted, he himself was absolutely adamant that he would not be..," says Pierce.
"Let me try him anyway," interrupts Koppel, quietly but forcefully.
They go down a list of possible Republicans – Bob Dole, Phil Gramm or Newt Gingrich – who they hope will question Clinton's plan to deploy troops. Chief booker Sara Just will try them all.
"It looks like we've got something resembling a broadcast," Bettag says after half an hour. Princess Di will wait for another day.
The conference call exemplifies "Nightline" style democracy. Everyone can be heard, but final word goes to Bettag and especially to Koppel, who takes his title of managing editor seriously. "We each get a vote, and then Ted gets 99 votes" is the way one staffer puts it. It's the job of Bettag and Koppel to devise the daily game plan.
But the production of the set-up pieces, the often complex editing, the booking of guests, the research for Koppel – all that is done by the staff of 34 people, nearly all based in Washington. It's a small group by design, down from 52 in the early 1990s and less than half as big as the staff of a prime time magazine show.
"If you go larger than that, then you have sections and departments and rivalries," Bettag says. "Plus, people sitting around and not doing anything makes them very unhappy. Nightliners are a special breed. They desperately want to be involved."
While there are hierarchies – Bettag has three senior producers below him, with producers and associate producers and production assistants below them – people typically coalesce into groups on their own to produce each show after a producer is put in charge. "Once they can see the plan, you just get out of their way," says Bettag. Often, a six-minute set-up piece is split into several segments, which are produced simultaneously by groups of producers and videotape editors, then spliced together as they roll onto the air. When big news breaks, it's become almost routine for "Nightline" to crash pieces onto the air that sum up events and deliver thoughtful perspective. "The biggest thing about 'Nightline' that we do, that nobody else does, is that we work as teams," says Leroy Sievers, a former CBS producer hired by Bettag. By contrast, a single producer usually puts together a spot for the evening news or a prime time newsmagazine piece.
On the day of the Balkan peace settlement, producers in Dayton and Washington coordinate about a dozen people who produce and edit the set-up piece. Holbrooke, as it turns out, agrees to come on even if he is followed by a critic. After Dole, Gingrich and Gramm all turn down the bookers, they turn to Pat Buchanan, a frequent guest and a forceful opponent of deploying American troops to the Balkans.
Booking the program is more art than science. Sara Just, who joined "Nightline" as a desk assistant in 1989 and worked her way up to chief booker, often juggles several guests at once, keeping one choice in the wings while waiting to see if another will come through. One criticism of the program is that "Nightline" turns too reflexively to Washington's white male power structure for its guests. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal watchdog group, did a study several years ago showing that "Nightline" guests tend to be overwhelmingly white male establishment figures and that few representatives of labor, consumer, feminist or environmental groups ever make it onto the program.
Just concedes that the criticism has some merit. "You send a powerful message to the people who are watching when you have middle-aged white men on every day," she says. "You're saying those are the only people whose opinions count." She adds, "It's a challenge we think about every day. If there are people who are equally good, we'll go with a woman or a minority when possible."
Being second-guessed comes with the territory. After a November town meeting in Israel, Labor Party advocates complained that the guest list was tilted to the right – an unfair criticism, says Koppel, if only because many Labor officials declined to come on.
"What no one at home is going to pause and consider when they're watching a town meeting from Israel, is, 'Gosh, who got those 900 people into the seats at 6 o'clock in the morning?' " Koppel says. "Trust me, you have no idea how all-consuming a job that is, how difficult it is in less than a week to pull together a well-balanced audience that reflects every major facet of the Israeli political and cultural scene."
Researchers also play a crucial role, first by collecting a package of clips on the day's topic for the producers and bookers to use as background, then by condensing the issues down to a few pages in a memo to Koppel. They also go over program scripts and watch the show as it airs to guard against errors. "Nightline" has never been sued over or tainted by a major factual mistake.
Watching the show one night from the control room, head researcher Dana Miller, a former Harvard Law student, heard a guest, Rep. James Talent (R-Mo.), say the Republican welfare bill "doesn't contemplate orphanages" and that "orphanages is a tactic that's been used" by opponents of welfare reform. Miller knew better and, during a break, she got her information to anchor Chris Wallace, who was filling in for Koppel.
"I'd like to point out that it's the House Republican conference summary of your bill that specifically talks about funds to establish and operate orphanages," Wallace told Talent, as the next segment began. "That's language from the Republicans, not fro" the media or from Democrats."
Staff members also generate story ideas. Senior producer Richard Harris, who grew up outside Boston and keeps up with his hometown by reading the Boston Globe, spotted a feature article about Morrie Schwartz, a retired Brandeis University professor who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Schwartz was willing to talk openly about his approaching death, and Harris thought he might make a good "Nightline" interview. Koppel agreed, and they eventually found Schwartz such an inspiring figure – and such a good television character – that they did three memorable programs during which he spoke with remarkable cheer about facing up to his own death. The "Lessons on Life and Living" series probably could not have been done by any other TV news program.
Two shows about The Badlands, a drug-infested neighborhood in North Philadelphia, came about because cameraman Fletcher Johnson had spent time shooting a piece there for the canceled newsmagazine "Day One." He showed his footage to producer Sievers at "Nightline," who returned with Koppel and produced a gripping look at how the drug trade affects members of a community – particularly two addicts named Art and Tombstone who talked in intensely personal terms about the gruesome reality of heroin addiction.
The lesson from such stories, Harris says, is that "you can take on any subject if it's done in a compelling way." In part because the show has built up a loyal cadre of viewers, Nightliners don't face the pressure to oversimplify the news that comes into play on the evening newscasts. Nor are they driven to do the dramatic and emotional stories that are the staples of the prime time newsmagazines.
The flexibility of "Nightline" offers staff members enormous freedom, so it almost goes without saying that morale is good. "I get to do six-minute pieces, half-hour pieces, even hours," Sievers says. "We do magazine pieces. We crash news. We get to do every possible kind of story. As a producer, it's the best job I can think of in TV."
The camaraderie among the staff is evident even to a visitor. There's plenty of joking around the office and regular get-togethers, including a holiday party at Bettag's home and a Halloween costume party where staff members come as characters from the news. (Koppel came two years ago as a killer bee, with his wife, Grace Ann, as a beekeeper. This year, Bettag came as Lesley Abrahamson, the Menendez brothers' lawyer and ABC's hired consultant during the O.J. Simpson trial.) For Bettag's 50th birthday, the staff filled his office with balloons; as he began to puncture them, he found they were hiding a new bicycle, an apt present because he bikes to and from work each day from his home in upper Georgetown.
About the only drawback to working at "Nightline" is the long hours. Although most programs are now taped before 11:35 p.m., staffers say it's still difficult to have a normal life while working on the show. Women who work there used to call themselves the " 'Nightline' nuns" because they dated so rarely, and former correspondent James Walker once told a new desk assistant that there was one song she'd never hear as long as she worked on the show – the Wedding March. "I don't even buy theater tickets anymore," says booker Sara Just. "You're always just a beeper away from the office."
But few want to leave. "Where would you go?" asks producer Kathryn Kross, who returned to the program last fall after a year as a Nieman Fellow. "Given the surrounding landscape, the mountain we're on looks even higher."
Speaking of which – Koppel eventually did rappel down that cliff in Maine during his Outward Bound adventure. "I think I'm over my fear of heights..," he says. "It's amazing what you can do when you have to." That's true, not just in mountaineering, but also in broadcast news, where "Nightline" towers over the landscape. l