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Ted Koppel Opens Up About Meet the Press, Nightline and Conan

5 Questions For…Ted Koppel

Alissa Krinsky
TVNewser Contributor

Ted Koppel.jpg Ted Koppel is managing editor at Discovery Channel, where his Koppel on Discovery long-form programming has explored topics such as cancer and Iran. Koppel, also a senior news analyst for National Public Radio, previously worked for 42 years at ABC News. He was Nightline‘s anchor and managing editor for 25 years.

Over the past several days, Koppel’s name has surfaced as speculation continues over who will be named permanent host of NBC’s Meet the Press. Would he be interested in the job? “I honestly don’t know,” he tells TVNewser. “I really don’t. I’m not going to be cute with you. My hunch is that Tom [Brokaw] will be so good in that job, that he will want to do it for a longer period of time. Other than that, I still have a year to go on my contract with Discovery. I realize I’m sounding like a non-Presidential candidate right now, but I’m just not going to go beyond that. Nobody has asked, so I haven’t been put into that awkward position yet.”

Koppel’s newest Discovery series, The People’s Republic of Capitalism, a four-part look at contemporary China, premieres Wednesday, July 9 at 10pmET, continuing for the next three nights thereafter.

1. TVNewser: My upcoming China special is the result of…
Koppel: The Koppel Group (most of whom came to Discovery with me from Nightline) came out of a ‘hard news’ background. Still, we’ve been trying to find programs that both suit the Discovery brand and our style of work. During one of our story conferences, one of our associate producers, John Alexander, suggested China. “Not just one program on China,” he said, “but a series; something in depth.” We were all enthused by the idea, but John went one step further. He volunteered to live in China while we were putting the series together. So, our work on the programs began in September of 2007, when John first flew to Chongqing.

(Photo: Severi/Discovery)

Tragically, John died suddenly a few months later from heart failure believed to have been brought on by a virus. He was just 26. As you can imagine, that only intensified our determination to make these programs the best we could possibly do. Our audience will be the ultimate judge of that. But I can assure you that no group of producers and editors has ever worked harder or with greater passion on a project. Over all it was ten months in the making and we couldn’t have asked for greater cooperation from the authorities in China; cooperation, in this instance, largely taking the form of absolute non-interference.

2. TVNewser: This stage of my career — working for Discovery Channel and NPR — is:
Koppel: The great advantage of producing 256 half-hour programs a year(which is what the Nightline team did…and still does), is that tomorrow always offers the opportunity to make up for today. We did a lot of great shows at Nightline over the course of the 26 years that I anchored the program; ‘a lot’ as in, perhaps, fifty. That’s out of more than 6,000 programs, though. There may have been a few hundred that were ‘very good,’ and several hundred more that were just ‘good.’ That leaves a lot of room for ‘just ok,’ however.

When you produce only six hours a year, as we do for Discovery, there’s a lot more pressure to make each program ‘great.’ Obviously, we don’t succeed as often as we’d like to, but you need to know that we throw ourselves into each project striving for nothing less.

3. TVNewser: At 11:35 pmET each night, when Nightline comes on, I….
Koppel: Even when I worked on Nightline, I didn’t watch the program more than a few times. For fourteen years, we did the show live every night; and then, when we began pre-taping, I went to bed before the show came on. The program these days (and, truly, I’ve only seen a few) is a lot faster-paced and there’s much more variety within each show. Obviously, if that’s what I had wanted to do, I would have done it.

4. TVNewser: My greatest journalistic achievement:
Koppel: I’d like to think that the strongest work I’ve done over the years has been related to race relations. My colleagues and I did an important series on apartheid in South Africa in the 1980′s, we focused attention on Congo in l999 with another week-long series from Africa; and over the years it was a constant focus of Nightline‘s attention on our ongoing series ‘America in Black and White.’

5. TVNewser: Despite my having been on television for decades, here’s something the American people don’t know about me:
Koppel: I was spinning my wedding ring on the Nightline anchor desk when Conan O’Brien was running coffee for the editor of The Harvard Lampoon. I hereby challenge Conan to the North American Wedding Ring Spinning Championship — on his home turf. And if he loses, he’s going to have to promote our China series every night it’s on. If I lose…well, I don’t intend to lose.

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