By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006
The turning point in his decision to join Discovery Networks, Ted Koppel said yesterday, was when executives showed him part of a documentary on China on a big-screen monitor in the conference room of their Silver Spring headquarters.
"It's exquisitely shot, it's beautiful, but it isn't going to ruffle any feathers in Beijing," the former ABC newsman said. So he posed the question: "What if we were to do a real documentary in China in which its legal system and human rights record is questioned?"
Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks U.S., said he had no problem if it was accurate, and Liberty Media President John Malone, whom Koppel described as "the 900-pound gorilla" on Discovery's board, later told him: "I guess that's one that wouldn't be shown in China."
Once he determined that Discovery wouldn't shy away from controversy, Koppel decided, along with his executive producer Tom Bettag and eight former producers at "Nightline," to walk away from a nearly completed deal with HBO and sign with the Maryland company, which reaches 1.2 billion viewers in 160 countries and territories.
Koppel praised HBO but said, "Theirs is essentially an entertainment company and we would have been, I suspect, something of an appendage there," while Discovery is "a better fit."
The Koppel unit will produce six to 10 programs a year, which will include long-planned documentaries, town meetings and breaking-news specials within days of a major event. Such programs could run from one to three hours and be repeated several times.
The venture is a departure for a high-toned operation that runs such networks as the flagship Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Kids and the Travel Channel, and whose programs include "Trading Spaces," "What Not to Wear," "Total Family Health," "Mythbusters" and "Monster Garage." But Campbell, noting Discovery's partnerships with BBC America and the New York Times and some ventures with former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, said the 20-year-old company has always valued fact-based reporting.
" 'Nightline' doesn't have a whole hell of a lot in common with 'Desperate Housewives,' either," Koppel said, referring to the hit ABC show.
Koppel, 65, decided early last year to leave "Nightline," the program he anchored since its 1980 debut, after ABC News President David Westin insisted that he do the 11:30 p.m. show live every night rather than tape in advance. Koppel, who will hold the title of managing editor at Discovery, would not discuss compensation but said the company had given him and his team "a very generous arrangement."
The first contact came on Dec. 1, the week after Koppel's last "Nightline" broadcast, when Don Baer, a Discovery executive vice president who previously worked in the Clinton White House, e-mailed and then called Bettag. After a series of phone conversations, Koppel had a 90-minute cup of coffee with Campbell on Dec. 9 and all four men held a conference call on Dec. 16. The deal was essentially sealed after Koppel spoke to Malone over the Christmas holidays. Koppel had set a Dec. 31 deadline for Discovery because otherwise his producers, who had resigned from ABC along with Koppel, would be without paychecks.
"Our entire company is just thrilled," Campbell said. Discovery is jointly owned by Liberty Media, Cox Communications, Advance/Newhouse Communications and founder and chairman John Hendricks.
Koppel said he was approached by 10 or so media organizations but did not negotiate with any of the cable news networks. He said they had a tendency "to be in a desperate race to be first with the obvious, to pay attention to what is recent rather than what is important." He said CNN, where his daughter, Andrea, is a reporter, "does some really fine documentaries" but tends to "bury them on a Sunday."
Koppel and Bettag also made clear that they believe the broadcast networks are no longer interested in the kind of documentaries they want to pursue. Koppel said these networks are obsessed with luring younger viewers and would not be receptive, for example, to the five-part "Nightline" series he did on the Congo.
"This constant downward spiral toward the lowest common denominator is not healthy," he said.
At the height of the program's popularity, he said, ABC agreed to let him do four prime-time documentaries a year, just as the late anchor Peter Jennings periodically did such programs. "They were indulging me," Koppel said. "They were indulging Peter."
"And the days of indulging are just about over," Bettag added.
ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, saying the division is "very happy" for Koppel and the other former colleagues, added, "It is our intention to continue to be a leader in long-form documentaries, as we have been for years."
Koppel said he had not yet decided on potential topics, having just signed the contract Tuesday, but would definitely pursue stories in foreign countries. Were the unit up and running now, he said, he might try to crash a special on mine safety in the wake of the accident that killed a dozen miners in West Virginia.
He will likely be playing to considerably smaller cable audiences in the United States -- although his programs could be shown worldwide. Last season, "Nightline" averaged 3.5 million viewers. Discovery's prime-time lineup averaged nearly 1 million, although some programs, such as the extreme fishing program "Deadliest Catch," topped 2 million.
"When I sit in the studio," Koppel said, "I don't think I'm talking to X millions of people. I think that I'm talking to one person. . . . We're going to be able to love what we're doing. If we end up with a slightly smaller audience, that's okay."
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.