Network television in the US is obsessed with youth. At least that’s part of the reason anchor Ted Koppel offers for making a break after putting in more than 40 years on the platform. Koppel points to the increasing focus on younger viewers – hence talk of replacing Nightline with The Late Show with David Letterman – and to the fact that he didn’t feel story selection should be done on the basis of trying to appeal to a younger demo. ABC’s loss, however, is Discovery’s gain.
In January, Koppel became managing editor at the Discovery Channel, where he is hosting and producing roughly six long-form programs each year for the Koppel on Discovery series. The first, a three-hour primetime special called The Price of Security, aired on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, and reveals the current tension in the US surrounding the need for security versus maintaining privacy and constitutional rights.
In less than two months over the summer, he’d traveled to Jordan, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and Cuba for his Discovery projects, and the 66-year-old shows no signs of slowing down.
One of the reasons you left the world of major networks was because of its fixation on the 18-to-34 demo. To whom do you try to appeal with your coverage? Is it possible to reach that demo with news these days?
Sure. But I honestly don’t think that’s my job – that’s the job of the programmers who put entertainment on the air. Television is a business, [so] the corporations that own stations and networks have every right to expect a decent return on their investment. So, when you’re dealing with entertainment, it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘Whom are we trying to reach, and what does that particular group want to see, and let’s see if we can fill that need.’ That’s great for entertainment, [it's] not great for news coverage. We live in arguably the most dangerous times that I have ever known in my adult life … and at a time like this, I think the responsibility of news organizations should be to make sure that people know what they need to know about the world at large, and about problems that exist in our own country. Whether those items happen to be something that appeal to 18-year-olds or 80-year-olds or 50-year-olds is really no concern to me. I feel I have a responsibility to put the material out there in the most interesting way I can to appeal to the largest audience I can. And having said that, whether that audience is male or female, old or young, I really couldn’t care less.
You’ve said that people are too concerned with audience ideology. Can you expand?
There are two things they shouldn’t be thinking about: one is the ideology of their audience, and the other is the demography and whether this audience is likely to buy the commercials that make the most money for the organization you work for. Those are the two things I think are adversely affecting news coverage these days. Because the market has been so fragmented… there is less money per outlet, each outlet has to be more conscious of its audience, or reaching precisely the audience the advertiser wants, because an advertiser will pay probably five to six times as much for someone in the 18-to-35 demographic group than they would pay for someone over 50.
How does your contract at Discovery work?
The deal I made with Billy Campbell is ‘Look, we’re going to try to do important subjects, we’ll do them as interestingly as we can, and you’ll put them on the air.’ I report to Billy Campbell alone, and if Billy were to say ‘No, I think that’s a dumb subject,’ then I would probably rethink it and try to come back with a new take. So far, we haven’t raised a single issue that he hasn’t embraced, and he has raised a couple of issues we’ve embraced.
What new projects are on your slate?
Two days after [The Price of Security] goes on the air, I’ll be in Iran shooting our second show. We’re also working on a program called The Long War. When the president says we are at war, he’s really not referring to Iraq or Afghanistan. He’s referring to this overall condition of fighting terrorism. The Pentagon has coined this term ‘the long war’ to suggest that this is not a war that’s going to be over anytime soon, so we’re going focus on that and how they are adopting tactics to deal with it. We’re also beginning work on a program on cancer; a program on values in the us; and one on why people increasingly seem to be driven in the direction of fundamentalism – Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
After you left ABC, did you entertain the notion of getting out of broadcasting?
I never did. My wife was certainly urging me [to stay in it] because she knows me well enough to know that I’d be a pretty miserable guy to have around if I were out of journalism altogether.