Ted Koppel Bets on Quality

Nightline anchor Ted Koppel prepared these remarks for the RTNDA Paul White Award Dinner on April 19, 2004 in Las Vegas. “The Daily Show”‘s Jon Stewart introduced Koppel via videotape.


I had a couple of reasons for asking Jon Stewart to introduce me this evening: Although for the life of me I can’t remember what they were. He has (as we’ve just seen and heard) a wonderful, smart-ass sense of humor. He’s funny, he’s clever and — most important of all — his new contract makes it highly unlikely that he, at least, will be replacing “Nightline” anytime soon. It was very nice of Jon to do this and I thank him most sincerely.


What is most relevant to all of us who labor in the vineyards of broadcast news, though, is that Jon Stewart is stealing our audience. He’s not alone, of course. An alarming number of young people today will tell you that, insofar as they get their news from radio and television at all, they get it not from Jennings or Brokaw or Rather; not from Lehrer or Blitzer or Koppel. They get it from Stewart and Leno and Letterman. They get it from Howard Stern and Don Imus. And we, the old news professionals, are piqued and bewildered.

It’s one thing for me to get clobbered in the ratings by Jay Leno. He is, after all, a brilliant entertainer; and you put good comedy up against hard news and — not all of the time, mind you, but most of the time — you expect to get beaten in the ratings. But that’s not the issue. The question is: Why are the kids turning to the comedians and the satirists to get their news?


Mind you, I have no complaint against Leno, Letterman, or Stewart. They’re terrific. For them to make fun of our political leaders or to satirize events in the news is absolutely right. I have no problem with comedians and entertainers pretending to be journalists. My problem is with journalists pretending to be entertainers.


It’s really no mystery. We all know how we got here. Although if you’ll humor me for a moment I’ll return to the days when television news and I were very young, just in case there are a few among you who don’t remember.

Once upon a time, the networks regarded their news divisions as loss leaders, useful trinkets to be tossed in front of the FCC or troublesome Congressional committees. Owning a network, back in those days, was like having a legally sanctioned printing press for hundred dollar bills. Carrying a news division was the modest price you paid for being permitted to run that printing press the remainder of the time.


Forty-one years ago, when I joined them, my network, ABC, was the runt of the litter; a recent spin-off from the very earliest days of television when NBC had two networks, the red and the blue. By the early to mid-’60s, ABC was making plenty of money, although it had by far the smallest printing press.

In those days, the President of the News Division, begging bowl in hand, would go to the President of the network and say something like “Please sir, may I have some porridge?” And he would walk out with — I don’t know precisely how much, but say, $10 or $20 million dollars, a tiny amount by today’s standards; and the President of the network would say: “Don’t ask for any more. I’ll see you next year.”


Jumping instantly on every event leads to a confusion in the public mind between what is most recent and what is most important.Which, in a curious fashion, was kind of liberating; because, in those days, nobody expected a news division to make money. It was the network’s serious side, its responsible face. We were there in case somebody started asking embarrassing questions about ABC’s commitment to the public interest, necessity and convenience.

We were actually a pretty slender reed during the very earliest days. ABC News — when I joined them — had one, 15-minute program every weekday evening: John Cameron Swayze and the Camel Cavalcade of News. I seem to recall that the sponsor required that a lighted Camel cigarette be kept burning in an ashtray on the anchor desk. As for the newscast itself, it was pretty thin gruel; pathetic, in fact. But we had almost nothing else.

There was some religious programming on Sundays. That was produced by the news division, as was a really tedious interview program called “Issues & Answers.” But essentially, we had John Cameron Swayze, before he moved onto the next phase of his career, attaching Timex watches to the propellers of outboard motors.


NBC and CBS News were both leagues ahead of us back then. CBS News, in particular, with Ed Murrow and his team, were doing some really important work. They set the standard, we tried to copy it. But nobody, at their level or ours, was expected to make a profit. Which meant that editorial decisions really were made on the basis of what the news managers perceived to be the most important events of our time.


That began to change when Murrow was obliged to do a personality-driven, prime time show called “Person To Person.” He hated it. But he reluctantly bought into the seductive notion that if he earned some money for the entertainment division, there’d be more money for two of Murrow’s news writers. It was a mistake, and it set a bad precedent for crossing the line between news and entertainment.

In October of 1958, as some of you undoubtedly remember, Ed Murrow delivered what was probably the most famous speech of his distinguished career before this very body, the RTNDA. That was the speech in which he noted:

The fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.


But in a less well-remembered passage, Murrow issued this prophetic warning:

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.


Well, that’s the question I put to you this evening: Has that day now come? Is it already too late?

These days our voices and images are hurled around the entire globe at the speed of light. Entire cable networks devote themselves to the coverage of news, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The traditional networks allocate many, many more hours a week to the coverage of news than Murrow could even have imagined back in l958. And the money that the network news divisions earn and spend is more than the gross national product of several small African nations. Is not all of that evidence of the most remarkable progress? Would that it were.


The extraordinary progress that our industry has made in its technology has not been matched on the editorial side.

All too often, we delude ourselves into believing that by simply focusing a live camera on an event, and dropping in the occasional ad lib, we are committing journalism. We’re not. Journalism requires context and prioritizing. It entails separating the wheat from the chaff. What is deliberately left out of a news story is every bit as important as what is left in. Events don’t happen in a vacuum. That’s why we provide context.

You’re all familiar with the process. It’s called editing. Doing that “live,” as my colleagues Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw do so skillfully, is the toughest act in television journalism. Their ability to pull it off rests on decades of experience in the field. Youth and good looks are certainly no handicap in our industry, but they are an insufficient substitute for background and experience.


Satellite technology is a remarkable tool. But it is not a mandate. I understand the pressures on our colleagues with the 24/7 cable networks to switch “live” to every breaking event. But we really do need to establish in our own minds what’s happening before we can hope to explain it to the viewing public.


Jumping instantly on every event leads to a confusion in the public mind between what is most recent and what is most important. Simply because something “just happened” doesn’t make it important. Nor, for that matter, does the public appetite.


It is to the enormous credit of our news division president, David Westin, that he has never pressured us at “Nightline” to cover the Scott Peterson case or the Kobe Bryant hearings or any number of other tabloid stories. But “Nightline”‘s fastidiousness in its story selection is becoming an unaffordable and unsustainable luxury throughout most of our industry.


All of our parent corporations regard us, these days, as profit centers. Once upon a time we may have been loss leaders; but now, we are expected to earn our keep. And when you are part of the market economy, you give the market what it wants or you go out of business.

We were beginning to head in that direction back in 1958 when Ed Murrow worried out loud about television being used “to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us.” We have now traveled a very long way down that road. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish anymore between the clowns and the lion tamers; between the comedians and the analysts; the satirists and the objects of their satire.


In the overnight ratings the networks no longer even count viewers who are 50 or older. They have had it drummed into their heads for so long that advertisers don’t care about older viewers that it’s become an article of faith. And if the people who control our budgets don’t care, how long can it be before we don’t; before, indeed, the over-50 set becomes non-persons altogether?

The Holy Grail of the television economy is believed to reside among those of our viewers who are between 18 and 49. Entertainment programming has clearly been tailored to their taste; and increasingly, so is news programming.


I was particularly delighted, therefore, just a couple of weeks ago, to see the following headline in The Wall Street Journal: “Marketing Surprise: Older Consumers Buy Stuff, Too.” Indeed, an accompanying bar graph illustrated what many of us have suspected all along. Excluding home equity, households of the 34 and younger group have a median net worth of $3,300. The median net worth of the 55-75-year-olds is roughly 10 times that amount. We’re talking here about disposable income.

As of 2001 there were 78 million Americans over the age of 50; and we control about 67 percent of the country’s wealth.

The extraordinary progress that our industry has made in its technology has not been matched on the editorial side.And here’s the kicker: The conventional wisdom has it that older people are set in their brand loyalties, so advertisers are best off targeting the young. For most products, though, the Journal reports, the majority of people over 45 are not loyal to a single brand and are, therefore, as susceptible to advertising as anyone else.

That’s based on a study funded by the AARP, the lobbying group for retired people, so it needs to be viewed with a certain skepticism; but among the companies that have become believers, that are now targeting older Americans are Ford, Microsoft, Anheuser Busch, Proctor and Gamble and, I was pleased and somewhat amused to learn, the Disney Company, with a program called Magical Gatherings — specifically aimed at people over 50.


So here’s the irony. We have been alienating many of our older viewers by skewing our coverage toward the young. Young people, meanwhile, are leaving us in droves and getting at least their first take on the news from the Internet and their analysis and commentary from the comedians. I can’t prove it, but it seems likely to me that when we began processing news for the young and treating news as an off-shoot of the entertainment business, when we began taking our journalism more lightly, people began taking us less seriously.


These are perilous times for our country and for us to be letting that happen. I’d like to believe that we can always laugh at ourselves. But should the laughter stop, who will be left to explain what happened and why?

If we set our sights low and continue to lose audience and profit, we lose on every count. We will have sacrificed quality, lost revenue, and our integrity. If we set our sights high, we can only fail on one count; and, who knows, we may even find that the market for quality and integrity is back. It’s a good bet.

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