Ted Koppel said yesterday he is leaving ABC News, ending a 42-year career and a quarter-century run as anchor of "Nightline," because he does not want to do it in the live hour-long format the network is planning.
"I really don't think there's anything else at ABC I would find as interesting or as challenging," Koppel said in an interview, adding: "Of course it's difficult. . . . It will be very hard to leave friends and colleagues behind. But in the words of an old song, you've gotta know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."
ABC News President David Westin speaks at the Television Critics Association press tour last July with Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos.
(Nick Ut -- AP)
The 65-year-old Koppel was offered the opportunity to become host of ABC's "This Week," the Sunday morning program that has struggled in the ratings under George Stephanopoulos, but was not enthusiastic about joining the crowded Sunday field and turned it down. Koppel is expected to stay on the air until his contract expires Dec. 4.
ABC News President David Westin said his "first choice" was for Koppel to remain at "Nightline." "Ted ultimately concluded it was time for him to leave," Westin said. "I respect him for that decision, and I admire him for being willing to leave."
Asked about Westin's plans for the award-winning program, which over the years has evolved from always live to generally taped, Koppel said: "David offered me the opportunity to continue on 'Nightline,' but it would have to have been on the basis of a one-hour program, doing it live five days a week. I've been doing it for 25 years. I'm now at a stage of life where it's not something I feel I can do anymore."
Westin said he feels strongly that "the program has to be live more often than it's taped" because it has shown "a tendency to go off the news" with features and documentaries. "If you have a program in the can, already taped, it puts a higher bar on when you'll open the program up" to go live, even when news develops in the evening, he said.
Asked if officials at the Disney-owned network, who tried to replace his show in 2002 with comedian David Letterman, were insisting on a format they knew he would reject, Koppel said: "I can't entirely disagree with that interpretation." He said of Westin: "I think David knew when he cited those conditions that they would not be exciting to me." But Koppel said he did not feel he was being forced out.
Koppel's impending departure accelerates a generational passing of superstar anchors in which NBC's Tom Brokaw, 64, and CBS's Dan Rather, 73, have stepped down in the past four months.
Tom Bettag, Koppel's longtime producer, who will quit at the same time, said he is "very bullish" on the future of "Nightline": "Ted and I leave saying that this team is perfectly capable of doing a great broadcast and keeping the tradition going after us." Bettag said that anchoring five live broadcasts a week "is a staggering task, physically demanding, that didn't work for Ted" and that they would make an "aggressive" proposal for a new journalistic venture outside ABC.
"We may crash and burn, but we're at a stage in life where we can take that chance," Bettag said.