For twenty-six years we've come to know him and, if not exactly love him, certainly welcome his steady presence and journalistic gravitas in our living rooms when we had enough of the late-night froth of Leno and Letterman, and the denizens of post-prime-time programming who didn't last.
Last night we bid goodbye to Ted Koppel, the craggy, sometimes relentlessly mirthless fixture of ABC News' "Nightline," a program that began its life with the United States in the midst of a hostage crisis -- a show that, ironically enough, finds the nation caught up in another hostage crisis in the Middle East, this time of its own unwise design. Koppel handed over the reins of the program to multiple hosts who'll produce the show from New York and Washington. Reporters Chris Bury and John Donvan will take over hosting duties, along with Vicki Mabrey, late of CBS' "60 Minutes II," as well as Martin Bashir, Cynthia McFadden and Terry Moran as contributors. The new raft of hosts and correspondents will begin on Nov. 28.
"Nightline" began, of course, with the ABC News program "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage," which aired Nov. 8, 1979, just days after American hostages were seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Koppel introduced viewers to what would become the "Nightline" formula. After "Nightline" began as a formal entity in March 1980, Koppel unveiled the point-counterpoint style of interviewing, pitting two ideological opposites against each other on a given topic, with Koppel aiming thoughtful, sometimes provocative questions at both combatants.
In some respects Koppel's form was the antecedent to the attack-dog style of TV news journalism that's led us to "Hardball" and any number of other confrontational programs. But Koppel's on-air demeanor was a cut above that of the pit-bull interrogators that populate the 21st-century TV landscape.
Even in his globe-trotting prime, Koppel always betrayed a bit of Alistair Cooke in his delivery and his use of language. He maintained a high editorial standard, and resisted doing stories on the lowbrow tabloid titillation of the moment.
Even in last night's valedictory broadcast, when he could have resorted to the summational reflex of a video-grab retrospective -- a greatest-hits approach that's so overdone you wonder why TV journalists bother to do it or why we still bother to watch -- Koppel took another tack, going back to his poignant 1995 broadcasts on the life of Morrie Schwartz, the sociology teacher whose battle with Lou Gehrig's disease gave "Nightline" some of its more riveting moments, even as it gave a young sportswriter named Mitch Albom the storyline for a book, "Tuesdays with Morrie," that's become a publishing phenomenon.
Still, only being human, Koppel couldn't resist taking one final shot at ABC News, the network that almost kicked him to the curb not so many years ago, in the big rush to late-night, stand-up stupidity.
Since ABC is presumably still in the hunt for a permanent anchor for "World News Tonight," a post vacant since the death of Peter Jennings earlier this year, we have to wonder how Koppel might have done in the big chair. ANC could do worse, and probably will.
Last night the ever-charitable Koppel asked his dwindling audience -- down to about 3.6 million viewers from 5.5 million a decade ago, according to "Nightline" producer James Goldston (speaking to AP) -- to give the new hosts a chance to become a regular fixture in their TV-viewing lives, the way he had become one.
“If you don’t,” he said, “I promise you the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot. Then you’ll be sorry.”
But to some degree, we're already sorry at the departure of something modern American television sorely lacks these days: an institutional memory, a hard drive of the historical, a conduit between the present and the past, a tree-ring experience in a time of loudmouthed saplings ... something that lasts.
Image credit: Koppel: ABC News