The man most responsible for the success of "ABC News Nightline" is the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The man second most responsible is Ted Koppel.
If not for the hostage crisis and ABC's commitment to broadcast nightly reports on it, "Nightline" would perhaps never have become a permanent network fixture, as it did last March. This week it expanded from 20 to 30 minutes, and in April goes from four nights a week to five.
This man Koppel -- short, pugnacious, cocky, droll, 40 -- has helped pull off a double garbanzo: first that a news show would give Johnny Carson a run for the late-night ratings (occasionally beating him, never getting creamed by him) and second that ABC News of all Newses would come up with a broadcast this smart, classy and relatively schlockless.
"Nightline" represents the most successful programming initiative in ABC News history. Executive producer William Lord can take bows, but Koppel gets a medal. He's moved to front and center of network news.
He's a smoothie. He's a pro. He's a rocket. What makes "Nightline" click is Koppel's bull's-eye interviewing style, a verbal and rhetorical combination of Sugar Ray Leonard and Michail Baryshnikov -- a succession of jabs, rejoinders and judicious-to-delicious interruptions: Koppel a cappella.
Koppel has jousted with Jesse Jackson, deciphered Carl Sagan, jawed with John Ehrlichman, tussled with Ted Turner, harassed Harold Brown, and exchanged parries and thrusts with other guests as diverse as Muhammad Ali, Leonard Matlovich, and the Imperial Wizard of the KKK.
He confesses, though, that he has an "electric advantage." All guests, even those in ABC's Washington studios, are wired to Koppel's voice by an earpiece. He can use it to head them off; "When you have that little thing stuck in your ear, it's very difficult to keep talking while I'm trying to interrupt you . . . when I'm droning in your ear, right there in your head.
"The challenge of the live interview every night is what I particularly love about doing 'Nightline,'" Koppel says. "It can go wrong, and it can go right, and either way it never allows you to get complacent."
Complacency does not seem a likely pitfall for the hard-driven Koppel. Even chatting fairly casually in his office he keeps up eternal vigil for openings and vulnerabilities: "I think you're phrasing that question incorrectly." "I must tell you that I couldn't disagree more with that analysis." "I think that's an outdated question." Koppel does everything but give you a report card.
Almost as a grisly homage, Koppel and "Nightline" returned to the Iran crisis Tuesday night. ABC interrupted prime-time programming for a bulletin that may have blown the hint of an imminent solution way out of proportion. Later that night "Nightline" returned to dwell on the subject that had given it life. Koppel yesterday defended the information ABC News relayed on Tuesday but conceded a bulletin may not have been the best way to relay it.
"I understand to this moment behind everything we said in that bulletin," he said: "I do have qualms about the act of bulletining it. In doing that, we conveyed something more than perhaps we should have conveyed. I have just a flicker of a qualm in the pit of my stomach.
On the question of giving thanks to Iran for the success, even the existence, of "Nightline," Koppel admits to being "testy." He was a regular contributor to "America Held Hostage," the late-night alarmism that grew into "Nightline," and later took over anchorage from Frank Reynolds. Koppel says, "It is as ludicrous to suggest that we have ridden to success on the backs of the hostages as it would be to say that David Halberstam rode on the back of the Vietnamese people or that anyone who writes about or deals with any tragedy -- Ted Sorensen's book about Jack Kennedy -- has done that.
"That's nonsense. That really is.
"I don't think that's a worthy question."
Koppel is sitting at his desk in his shirt sleeves and orangey camera make-up, eating a gooey chocolate chip cookie. sA Chinese flag hangs on the wall nearby, a souvnir given him by U.S. Marines at the "Red Ass Bar" in China, where Koppel spend many jade moons on assignment.
A heightened ordinariness is usually accountable for the success of people who get lots of regular television exposure; Johnny Carson, for instance, has that same rarefied nextdoorness and of late has acknowledged the competition by referring in a monologue to TV anchorman "Ted Floppel." But about Koppel some things are extraordinary. Including one he's tired of talking about: the way he took a year's leave of absence from ABC so his wife could finish law school. Koppel stayed home and took care of the house and three children (daughters 9 and 17 and a son, 10). His wife, Grace, has just been admitted to the D.C. bar.
Although ABC insiders say it's practically gospel that Koppel is being groomed to anchor ABC's "World News Tonight" in prime news time, Koppel claims he's not interested in that right now. "I'm very uncomfortable with the question," he says. "If I say 'Yes, I'd like to anchor,' then it sounds like a terrible, ambitious, aggressive younger man trying to push Frank Reynolds out.
"If I say, as happend to be the truth, that I really don't want to do that broadcast, I really do enjoy doing the broadcast I'm doing now, it sounds kind of pretentious. The fact is, I'm in the uniquely intersting and envious position of being totally content with what I'm doing professionally. I'd be a damn fool to leave that in order to do something I know I wouldn't enjoy as much."
But Dan Rather of CBS News says whoever does the evening newscast is perceived as being the best, and he wants to be so perceived. "Look, Dan has to follow his drummer, and I have to follow mine.
Koppel's contract with ABC is up in June and is now being renogotiated. He suggests strongly he's not leaving for another network, but his salary can be expected to go from somewhere below $500,000 a year to somewhere considerably about it, though no one at ABC News will confirm or deny or even play around with that. Unique in the high-priced world of glamorboy newtwork anchors, Koppel does not have an agent to wheel and deal for him.
And he claims to be embarrassed, when asked, about the enormous amount of money he and his colleagues are paid.
"It bothers me a great deal." Pause. "I really feel very uncomfortable with these things because it sounds self-serving, and remember, you asked the question."
Pause and recoil.
"I think it's outrageous! I think the salaries are outrageous, and I think the kinds of lives that we can lead as a result are outrageous. I feel very guilty about having so much when there are so many people who have so little. It's easy for people to say 'Well fine, don't accept a monumental salary,' but this is an industry of perceptions, and it is an industry in which your influence, your clout, the degree of input you have as a newsman, depend very much on the perception everyone has of you -- how you are perceived to be perceived by the powers that be.
"There are a few ways that kind of thing can be interpreted, and one of the easiest ways is by the salary that they pay you. Therefore it becomes dogma overnight that if CBS pays Dan Rather $8 million for a five-year contract, that they therefore have invested not only a great deal of money but a great deal of CBS's future in his future.
"That translates into immediate power."
Koppel wants immediate power? "I do have great interest in exercising power -- I hope for the good. Therefore as embarrassed as I am by it, and I genuinely am, it bothers me a lot, I'm gonna go for every last buck I can get, and then try to do good with that money."
He says he and his wife give a lot of money to charity.
Koppel is not exactly charming, but he is disarming. He is liable to greet a perfectly amiable TV critic with a "How are you, you sleazy bastard?" One night he appeared -- almost directly opposite himself -- on NBC's taped "Tomorrow" show with the indefatigably incorrigible Tom Snyder.
"This is a very boring interview," Koppel complained to Snyder at one point. "Get obnoxious!" Later: "Can I finish? God! Such an aggressive intgerviewer!"
And then Koppel turned the tables and started interviewing a flustered Snyder on his feud with Rona Barrett. Snyder said the matter would be settled soon. "Oh," said Koppel, "so poor old Rona's out, eh?"
Koppel also surprised Snyder with an astute impersonation of William F. Buckley Jr. Impressions are a hobby. "I'm told I do a very good Henry Kissinger," he says. "My wife likes my Cary Grant. There are quite a few others -- Adlai Stevenson, but that's dating myself. Oh, and Ronald Coleman." (Doing Coleman): "Benita, my pet . . ."
Born in Britain, Koppel was not naturalized as an American citizen until 1963, the same year he joined ABC News -- which was then considered, he says, "the doormat of the industry." Wizardly Roone Arledge was supposed to change all that, but Koppel was among those repulsed by Arledge's early splashed in the pond and the Rooney Tunes approach he brought to the news. Now Koppel sings to the skies the praises of Arledge and ABC News.
"I think I am as conscious of ABC's weaknesses as anyone," he says. "But the perception that you in particular have of ABC as a news organization is outdated."
"Couldn't we say the perception 'some people' have?" he is asked.
"No, I mean you. I don't mean som e people, I mean you."
"Was there a time when my perceptions of ABC News were correct?"
Koppel concedes not all of Arledge's decisions are pips. When he turned over 20 minutes of "World News Tonight" to the Son of Sam case, "I think that was an error in judgment," but he says Arledge has made other decisions since "for which he deserves great praise -- Iran being one of them." Also, it was "stupid" of Arledge to insist that a post-presidential debate report on "Nightline" be extended after Koppel had successfully wrapped it up. "Yeah, it was stupid. That particular instance was stupid.
"But most of the time he makes very good suggestions or will simply say 'Let it go', as he did the night after the election." This was the night when "Nightline" and Koppel went from merely good to brilliant; Koppel interviewed the leader of the Moral Majority and such electoral victims as former Senator George McGovern, and Arledgte extended the air time by 45 minutes because it was such a superior show. It may have been the best thing done on the evangelical right, and most of it was impromptu, live and electric.
I think that show was a milestone in television news broadcasting," says Koppel. Immodestly, perhaps? He means because Arledge let it run, because he told money-grubbing ABC "I am taking another 45 minutes of network time."
Koppel is a beacon of dignity at ABC News and for some reason a personality that, though sober and sometimes pompous, appeals to those folks at home. "I like him, and I tried to hire him once," says a top producer at another network. "He's a helluva reporter and a bright fellow."
And ABC News Washington bureau chief Carl Bernstein says, "Ted has terrific instincts that come from being a reporter. He's very direct. And more than anything, he always understand context. That's very difficult for television."
Koppel himself seems slightly mystified at the way he's zoomed. "I did the Saturday news for two years, and it somehow managed to fall short of being a runaway national success. I was diplomatic correspondent for nine years, and I'm amazed at the number of people who come up to me now and say 'Boy, you're wonderful, you're terrific, you're fantastic, where have you been, where did you work before you went to ABC?' When I tell them I've been with ABC over 17 years now they say, 'How come I never saw you?'"
But it's Koppel's year. He'll be plastered at over national magazines in the coming weeks.
Almost all success in television boils down to the wearability of personalities. Would Koppel be upset if he found out most people watch the show not because of its journalistic content but because they feel comfortable with him? "It would bother me if I thought they were watching because they thought I was devastatingly handsome, but I'm confident that's not the case."
Indeed, many are the viewers who've written or called to say Koppel reminds them of Howdy Doody, the late great marionette, or Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman (in person, his face doesn't look quite so quirkily asymmetrical). Whatever they think, it's likely that millions and millions of them don't really tune in "ABC News Nightline." They tune in Ted Koppel.