When Did Late Night TV Lose its Smarts?

Another anchor reels in and sails off.

By Steve Burgess 24 Nov 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Tuesday night, Ted Koppel signed-off after 26 years as host of ABC's Nightline program. Both Nightline and Koppel will continue, and it may well be that both institutions will prosper. But it was the end of a great era and a chance to salute one of the few remaining titans of TV journalism.

Locally, Koppel's sign-off was marred by a cruel, but somehow fitting technical screw-up. He was just launching into his final farewell to Nightline viewers by telling a story about new ABC interns and how they rarely remember the great journalists of the past.

At that precise moment, the Nightline feed was interrupted by A-Channel's local simulcast of the Jimmy Kimmel Show, which kicks in automatically at a pre-set time. In the US, ABC was letting Ted run overtime before Kimmel began, but the automated switching systems here would have none of it. Bang -- like the former greats he was paying tribute to, Koppel was blasted offstage by a braying announcer for an obnoxious talk show host. So long Ted. We hardly knew ye.

Frenzy of calm

Koppel's Nightline program was born from an ad-hoc series of broadcasts that followed the 1979 hostage-taking at the US Embassy in Tehran. It was the sort of dedicated, single-topic news show that would later become familiar during media frenzies like the OJ Simpson trial. Nightline did it first, carrying on after the hostage crisis to tackle news stories in-depth every night. In a time slot that found other networks cracking wise with late-night talk shows, Koppel carved out a solid audience with his calm, penetrating appraisals of pressing issues. It's a crime that Koppel and David Letterman usually aired at the same time -- very different guys, but two of the smartest guys on TV.

Doubly cruel then, when it leaked out some years ago that ABC was hoping to replace Nightline by swiping Letterman from CBS. It never happened, but the Koppel-ABC relationship was permanently soured, and Tuesday's departure was the delayed but inevitable result.

Inspring the 'click-reflex'

There are few personalities who inspire the automatic click-reflex. Koppel did that for me. At 11:35 PM, I would always flip to ABC to see what Koppel is up to. A large part of Nightline's appeal was always Koppel himself. There are other smart people on TV but not many of them to match Koppel and fewer still who have the opportunity to employ intellect and experience in exploring a broad range of topics.

This is the work of a team of course; a fact that Koppel was at pains to point out on his final broadcast Tuesday. I have a sister who toils as a documentary producer for the CBC's The National, so I am keenly aware that people tend to focus only on the faces before the camera and forget the people behind it. Still, you can tell some things about a guy when you watch him long enough, and Koppel was clearly a man whose instincts could be trusted. It was not really a surprise to read this week that he spoke fluent German, Russian and French -- at a time when almost the only thing French in US TV news is the pea-brained anti-Gallic ravings of Fox's Bill O'Reilly.

Nightline will return November 28 with multiple hosts and a format that will feature several stories per night. The new version has already been test-driven during Koppel's periodic absences from the show. It holds promise as a solid newsmagazine. But it will definitely be missing something.

Koppel is rumoured to be discussing projects with HBO. It makes sense for Koppel, but it would be a loss for Canadian viewers who can't pick up HBO. There may be no one else like Koppel on TV today. And in Vancouver, we didn't even get to hear him say goodbye.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's entertainment critic, who never says goodbye to his audience or his TV.  [Tyee]

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