Q&A: Ted Koppel

With multiple jobs, Koppel shows no sign of signing off

For someone who retired after 42 years at ABC News, Ted Koppel doesn't seem to be slowing down much. If anything, he has raised his media profile since leaving "Nightline" in 2005. Koppel works for Discovery Communications doing longform documentaries, the latest of which was "The People's Republic of Capitalism," about the economic growth of China.

He also provides analysis for National Public Radio and just this month joined as a regular commentator on "BBC World News America." Koppel discussed China ahead of the Olympics, whether he'll stay at Discovery when his contract runs out next year and the future of "Nightline."

THR: You've been at Discovery since 2006. Since then, there's been changes in management. Have you had discussions about the future?

Ted Koppel:
I must tell you we even haven't had that conversation yet. They've been awfully good to us, and we've been able to do exactly what we wanted to do and have been very happy doing it. But are we of the same mold as "Mythbusters" and "Dirty Jobs"? Not really. It's a bit of a strange fit. And I'm not sure if it's going to go on beyond this contract.

THR: If 2009 comes along and you don't have a deal with Discovery, what's on your radar?

Koppel: I don't know. We've always been able to do the kind of serious, hard-edged journalism that I hope we'll be able to continue doing.

THR: What about "Meet the Press"? That job will be available after November.

Koppel: I think NBC needs to find someone who is younger than Tim Russert, not someone who is older than Tim. If they're looking at the long-range future of "Meet the Press," they don't want to hire a 68-year-old guy.

THR: You've had a lot of experience reporting from China. What do you think is going to happen with press freedoms during the Olympics?

Koppel: China is a totally different place today than it was in 1973, but one thing hasn't changed: It's still being run by an authoritarian government that fears free speech, that fears too much openness, that fears political activism among its own people.

All of that leads me to the conclusion that they will try to do everything they can to be warm and cuddly during the Olympics. But they are not warm and cuddly. Therefore, if anyone crosses that red line and seems to be moving in the direction of too much freedom of speech or if the press is pushing too hard on a sensitive issue, the Chinese will crack down. That's what they always do.

THR: It's been 21⁄2 years since you left "Nightline." What do you think of the new format?

Koppel: I want you to be sure you hear this in the proper context. I wasn't watching "Nightline" when I was doing it. (Laughs.) I was pretaping a lot of the time, most of the time, and by 11:30 at night I was in bed and counting sheep. So I'm rarely up at 11:30 anymore. I don't watch the program often. I've seen it a couple of times.

There are some very good things that they do and other things I find that are a little too glitzy, but that's a question of taste. If they've been able to hold on to a reasonable audience doing that, why not?

THR: "Nightline" is doing well in the ratings. But if Jay Leno becomes available in 2009 and ABC lands him, that could be the end. You had to deal with that possibility in 2002 when the network secretly wooed David Letterman.

Koppel: I've become a wealthy man over the years by virtue of having worked as a television anchor for 26 years. It would ill become me to complain about the fact that television is profit-centered. It's a business. They're out there to make money.

The competition these days is much greater than it's ever been in the past. Therefore, if they have the chance to pull in the kind of money that a Letterman or Leno could bring in to the coffers of ABC, I have no problem with the fact as businesspeople they will do that.

My objection to the way that Disney did that in 2002 was they did it behind my back, and I resented that. I'm an adult, I can deal with reality, and I expected them to show me the courtesy of at least talking to me about it.