Out of the Spotlight, Newsmen Still Shine

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

Network news has dominated the television playing field for so long that we tend to think of those who leave its confines as being shipped off to the minor leagues, where they relive their glory days by playing to far smaller crowds.

But there is a flip side to the equation: a liberation from the constraints of major networks that can provide breathing room for a more innovative approach to journalism.

Tom Brokaw has done nine specials for the Discovery Channel in addition to his NBC work, on subjects ranging from bioterror to global warming. Dan Rather, having been squeezed out by CBS, is launching an hour-long program this fall for the high-definition channel HDNet. And Ted Koppel makes his Discovery debut next Sunday with "The Price of Security," a three-hour look at the tension between national security and civil liberties -- the kind of long-form programming that is outside the realm of possibility at networks, which make their money from entertainment.

Even with an hour-long documentary, the former ABC newsman says, "the idea that they'd blow out 'Desperate Housewives' is just not going to happen."

After his quarter-century at "Nightline," Koppel looks slightly out of place in Room HC-05B of Discovery's Silver Spring headquarters, in a wing that is dedicated to the Animal Planet channel. But he is surrounded by his team: Ten staffers, including his former top producers Tom Bettag and Leroy Sievers, have made the move with him. And Koppel is reveling in being able to produce a show he calls " 'Nightline' on steroids" -- an hour and a half, followed by a town hall meeting of the same length. So now he can say everything he wants?

"Knowing we had 90 minutes, we went out and did far more than we had room for," he says. In fact, the rough cut was 35 minutes too long.

Although he is no longer part of ABC News, Koppel does not feel more free to be opinionated. "My personal point of view . . . is really irrelevant," he says. "I don't think this is like 'American Idol,' where at the end Simon Cowell says, 'You really didn't do very well tonight, and let's put it up for a vote.' It's far too important for that."

Still, Koppel is willing to say that the Bush administration may be justified in considering extraordinary measures against terror suspects. "If one accepts the premise that the next 9/11 could be a nuclear 9/11, you would be naive and foolish to just dismiss it out of hand. . . . I accept it as a rational hypothesis. This is not a war that can really be fought with high-altitude bombs or aircraft carriers or even tanks and armored personnel carriers."

A 90-minute program, it turns out, has a very different pace from your typical television segment. When Koppel interviews officials at Guantanamo Bay about the treatment of detainees, what evolves is a conversation about the limits of interrogation, rather than the usual thrust and parry of tightly edited interviews.

In a discussion with Rear Adm. Harry Harris, for instance, Koppel asks whether sleep deprivation amounts to torture. "I believe sleep deprivation is a practice that we do not do now," Harris says.

"I didn't ask you that," Koppel says in his trademark style, and "with all due respect" repeats the question. This time Harris says: "I believe it's cruel, but -- and I don't believe it's torture." When Harris maintains that use of stress positions, extreme noise and extreme temperatures would not be considered torture if used against Americans, Koppel expresses his amazement with one softly uttered word: "Really?"

The program ranges from interviews with current and former Bush administration officials -- Condoleezza Rice, Tom Ridge, Karen Hughes -- to a Canadian deported by U.S. agents to a Syrian prison, where he describes being tortured. Koppel also visits the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas to examine techniques for identifying cheating gamblers, which are being emulated by government "data mining" efforts.

Koppel plans six or so programs a year, and Discovery has launched a major promotional campaign (slogan: "Not Just Another Pretty Face") -- the kind that Koppel says he "begged" for at "Nightline." He hopes to draw 1 million to 2 million viewers, but asks: "Will we get a credible number? If we don't, are they going to feel so disappointed that the support will wane? I don't know. We'll find out."

No matter what happens, Koppel will find gainful employment. But this may be an important test of whether cable channels whose identities are not tied to news can fill part of the void left by the fragmenting of the broadcast network audience. Discovery, HBO, Court TV, A&E, Bravo, the History Channel and the Sundance Channel have occasionally aired important programs and documentaries amid their niche programming, and this can provide a new way of reaching viewers with well-crafted substance. But original reporting is expensive, and if such efforts bomb, it's always easier to put on movies, dramas and sports shows.

Koppel, for one, is struck by the major networks' determination to stick with prime-time entertainment.

"Here we have the government losing sleep over an existential threat, one that would change our way of life forever," he says. "But the notion that we can actually scrub a highly rated entertainment program to have a serious discussion of that, it's just not going to happen. Them days is over."

Changing of the Guard

Katie Couric makes her much-chronicled CBS debut tomorrow after having gotten an on-air blessing from Bob Schieffer.

On Schieffer's last appearance as the "CBS Evening News" anchor Thursday, he strolled onto the new set just constructed for Couric and welcomed her to the neighborhood. She narrated a piece about his career, including a dark-haired Schieffer covering the national miniature golf championship in Rockville and, in a never-aired outtake, asking quizzically: " Who wants more pizazz in the standup?" Schieffer choked up on camera while recounting the support of his wife and mother.

At a Manhattan party that night, CBS President Les Moonves drew cheers when he called Schieffer "possibly the man who saved CBS News."

Schieffer, who held the job for 18 months and will continue as a commentator, boosted "Evening News" ratings by 300,000 viewers this season, narrowing the gap with the other newscasts.

Unlike Couric's situation, Schieffer says, "there were no expectations for me. Nobody thought I was going to be here for very long. But with her, the expectations are so great that she's got to jump over the moon or somebody's going to write that they're very disappointed. That's unfair."

CBS executives acknowledge that sky-high expectations -- fueled by a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign that includes Couric's face on just about every New York City bus -- could be a problem. They say they are being realistic in cautioning that ratings progress tends to be slow and that Couric's newscast should be judged over months, not days or weeks.

The revamped program has just hired its own historian, author Douglas Brinkley, and has taped outside contributors delivering 20 possible commentaries for its new "Free Speech" segment (including a couple by Washington Post op-ed columnist Eugene Robinson).

One lingering mystery: Will the first newscast use a taped introduction -- and implicit endorsement -- from legendary predecessor Walter Cronkite? CBS executives are undecided. One big-name guest who will definitely show up (on tape) is President Bush, who granted Couric an interview for a 9/11 anniversary special that will air Wednesday. Four nights later, the new anchor will make her first appearance on "60 Minutes" with a report on the World Trade Center site.

Plagiarism Watch

The Salt Lake Tribune fired reporter Shinika Sykes last week after discovering substantial similarities between her story on the cost of a music festival at the University of Utah and one in the school's student paper the day before. Sykes told the Tribune that she spoke to everyone she had quoted.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company