Former ''Nightline'' desk jockey Ted Koppel talks about the threats to good journalism and finding refuge at the Discovery Channel
Credit: Ted Koppell: Jason Reed/Reuters

Ted Koppel just signed a three-year deal with the Discovery Channel, where he’ll soon be wrestling hammerheads and great whites during Shark Week. Just kidding. No, Koppel, who left ABC’s Nightline last fall after 42 years at the network, will be producing more of the hard-edged documentaries he’s known for. ”The American prison system, AIDS, crises brewing overseas — those are the kinds of issues we’re gonna be focusing on,” he says. Hey, if, as he promises, ”absolutely nothing” is off-limits, maybe our Ted will be swimming with sharks after all.

Why the Discovery channel?
Why not the Discovery Channel?

Well, in that case, why not MTV?
Actually, I think my colleagues and I have a little more in common with Discovery than we do with MTV. Although who knows? We have some pretty hip people on our staff.

You were reportedly near a deal with HBO.
HBO is a terrific outlet, and they do absolutely wonderful programming, but most of it is entertainment programming, and everything at Discovery is essentially fact-based. They’re looking to make a move that would make them not only fact-based but also a little more contemporary in terms of breaking events and important events. And that’s what we do. So, they were looking at us and saying, This group would be perfect for us. There’s a limit to the number of organizations out there that will pick up an entire unit of 10 people. And that’s what Discovery was prepared to do.

There’s also a limit to the number of outlets doing hard journalism.
Oh, absolutely. That’s probably the predicate to everything, and that’s one of the reasons [Nightline producer] Tom Bettag and I decided to leave ABC in the first place. It’s been a great home for all us, especially for me. I spent 42 years there and still have a lot of good friends and colleagues there, and they still do fine work. But more and more, I think the economic model is that the advertiser dictates — not specifically in terms of what an advertiser wants to have on the air but indirectly through demographics, by saying the only people that we are really interested in reaching are the young men and women between the ages 18 and whatever it is…it’s like 18 and 35. By saying that, they are dictating the kinds of programming that the commercial, over-the-air networks are going to end up offering. If you look at magazine programs, for example, they have gotten so much softer over the past few years, and as far as actual one-hour documentaries on serious subjects, they’re almost nonexistent. I think Peter Jennings’ program on health insurance on ABC, which aired posthumously, may be one of the last you’re going to see.

Is it different for a cable news network like CNN?
Look, CNN has an additional problem, another aspect that has intruded into the kind of journalism that I grew up with, and that’s the ideological component. I think Fox was absolutely right when it initially came on the scene and said nobody speaks for conservatives. I think there really was a need for Fox, but having established that there was a need and having provided a format, I think it’s gone too far in every direction, and people are much too much concerned about the ideology of their audiences, which really shouldn’t even be something that they’re thinking about.

In terms of the subjects you plan to cover, is anything off-limits?
Absolutely nothing. And indeed, that was the greatest concern I had before agreeing to the deal at Discovery, and that Tom had also. The essence of each conversation was, look, we do hard-edged programming, and it’s not exactly like what you’ve done on Discovery before. And if you start getting some tough reaction from people who are offended by what we do, are you are going to be able to handle that, and how are you going to handle that? And in each case, the response that we got was, as long as you’re factually correct, as long as you get your story right, we’ll be behind you. And that’s all we can ask for.