In the final episode of this season of StoryTech, Jeff talks once again to legendary broadcaster Ted Koppel, this time about the birth of the show that defined his career from 1980 to 2005: the iconic ABC News Nightline.
At a time when news stations focused more on traditional interviewing methods, Ted explains how advances in satellite technology allowed him to report on stories in a way that had never been done before. By interviewing multiple people from across the world live on TV, Ted and ABC created a diplomatic stage that was able to break controversial stories in a way no one else could.
You can listen to episode ten of StoryTech free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music right now. Or if you’re more of a reader, just scroll down for the full episode transcript and highlights from this week’s episode.
Ted Koppel has had a fascinating career, as you’ll know if you listened to StoryTech episode two, The 16mm War, where he talks about being one of the first journalists to share footage of the Vietnam War with Americans back home.
Now fast forward to 1979 and Ted is hosting a special nightly segment on ABC News covering an American hostage situation in Iran. He believed this would be over quickly and regular ABC programming would continue. Instead, this news story transformed Ted’s career and led him to become anchor of one of news television's most iconic shows, ABC's News Nightline.
This 32 minute podcast episode was transcribed in 13 minutes by Trint’s super-powered AI. View the full transcript below or jump ahead to notable points from Jeff’s interview with Ted Koppel.
[00:00:02] Jeff (V/O): This is StoryTech. I'm Jeff Kofman. On November 4th, 1979, a group of armed men stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage.
[00:00:22] Archive Broadcast: Good evening. The U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been invaded and occupied by Iranian students.
[00:00:28] Jeff (V/O): That's ABC anchor Sam Donaldson. It was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. The hostages were taken by militant revolutionaries opposed to the US's longtime support of the recently deposed Shah.
[00:00:42] Archive Broadcast: The Americans inside have been taken prisoner and, according to a student spokesman, will be held as hostages until the deposed Shah is returned from the United States, where he's receiving medical treatment for cancer.
[00:00:55] Jeff (V/O): ABC reporter Ted Koppel was at home in Washington that day when he got a call from his assignment desk.
[00:01:04] Ted: It was Sunday. I was diplomatic correspondent. So the desk called me, told me what had happened, and said, we want you to come in and do a piece for the evening news. And I said, you know, I didn't want to come in. It was Sunday.
[00:01:19] Jeff (V/O): If you've been following StoryTech from the start, you know that I worked with Ted at ABC News and that we previously released an episode called The 16 Millimeter War, about how film cameras shaped his reporting on Vietnam and shaped the outcome of the war. But let's go back to 1979. Ted thought the hostage situation in Iran would be over in no time. After all it had happened before.
[00:01:46] Ted: My response was, you know, this happened a few months ago. I think it was back in February of 79 that a bunch of young people stormed the embassy and the U.S. ambassador came out, talked to them, talked them down and got them out. I said, this will be over before I can get in there. And they said, Well never mind, come in anyway, we really want you to do a piece for tonight.
[00:02:19] Jeff (V/O): So he gave in.
[00:02:21] Archive Broadcast: The action against the embassy may or may not have been ordered by Iran's religious leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei. That is not clear, but it does appear to have his blessing, which adds to Washington's difficulty in trying to resolve this dangerous situation. Ted Koppel, our diplomatic correspondent, is standing by at the State Department with the latest on that. Ted.
[00:02:39] Archive Broadcast: The State Department is doing what it can, but for the moment at least, that doesn't appear to be much. There has been no direct contact.
[00:02:46] Jeff (V/O): Ted Koppel was wrong about the crisis being over quickly. It would be 444 days until the hostages were released. The other thing Ted didn't know was that this news story would transform his career as anchor of a new TV news program, ABC's Nightline. And it would transform how TV news told stories from faraway places. Because the birth of Nightline came just as satellites were coming of age, which meant that for the first time, newsmakers around the world could talk to each other live on TV.
[00:03:24] Jeff (V/O): From Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in cooperation with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station. This is StoryTech.
[00:03:42] Jeff (V/O): This is a personal journey I want to share with you. I spent the first 30 years of my career as a broadcast journalist, foreign correspondent and war correspondent, and the last eight years as founder and CEO of Trint - a tech company focused on transcription and streamlining the workflow of storytelling.
[00:04:01] Jeff (V/O): We have seen so much technological change come at us so fast. The idea behind this podcast is to explore how those changes have shaped what we watch, what we read, and what we listen to. Today, Ted Koppel on how the satellite age changed the way TV news told stories from around the world.
[00:04:32] Jeff (V/O): As the hostage crisis dragged on in Tehran, ABC continued to cover it closely. Within days, the network created a nightly special called America Held Hostage to give updates on the situation that transfixed Americans. It aired at 11:30pm after the news on ABC's local stations. Its competition was the late night talk shows. ABC's main news anchor, Frank Reynolds, was covering the 1980 election and needed a break. So they asked Ted if he wanted to fill in.
[00:05:03] Ted: And days go by. Weeks go by. Months go by.
[00:05:10] Jeff: And you're on every night.
[00:05:11] Ted: On every night. Except Fridays. For some reason, we didn't do Fridays and Thursdays.
[00:05:17] Jeff: This is still it's called, America Held Hostage?
[00:05:19] Ted: America Held Hostage. But it's sustaining.
[00:05:24] Jeff: What is sustaining mean? And what.
[00:05:26] Ted: Sustaining meant that this was a special report. It was not a regularly scheduled program. Sustaining means it has no commercial. It has no sponsors. ABC is picking up the tab. ABC is paying for these programs. And ABC is not happy. When I say ABC, I mean the top executives at the network call in and say, Come on, guys. How long is this going to go on?
[00:05:58] Jeff: They're burning money.
[00:05:59] Ted: They're burning money. And the affiliates are unhappy because they, in that time period, used to run reruns of MASH or reruns of.
[00:06:14] Jeff: Something.
[00:06:15] Ted: Something. And they were making money on these programs.
[00:06:19] Jeff: And this is now an ABC News special report.
[00:06:21] Ted: This is an ABC News special report which is making money for no one. So ABC decides to bite the bullet and say, well, if we turn it into a regular program, regularly schedule, it's in your TV guide every week, every day, right? Monday through Friday. Then we can start selling commercials. Then we can start making money again. Now, the affiliates were not happy about this, and a lot of the affiliates did not want to carry Nightline.
[00:07:04] Jeff (V/O): I should pause and explain the network affiliate system because I never understood it until I started working in TV news. Basically, all the networks have local TV stations called affiliates right across the country. KABC in Los Angeles. WCVB in Boston, for example. ABC has around 200 of them. Some owned by the network, most owned by other companies, and they pay an affiliation agreement to play ABC's Content - News, Sports, entertainment. The affiliates make a lot of money for the network, so they carry a huge amount of sway. But despite their financial concerns, America Held Hostage was generating buzz.
[00:07:45] Ted: So America is obsessed with this story.
[00:07:48] Jeff: It's getting an audience.
[00:07:49] Ted: Oh, yes. But we don't know how big an audience because it's not sponsored.
[00:07:57] Jeff: Right.
[00:07:57] Ted: So Nielsen is not counting the number of people who are watching it. But we do know that Americans are absolutely obsessed.
[00:08:08] Jeff (V/O): So rather than bring back reruns of MASH, the network decided to launch a permanent program, one they could sell advertising on. That's when Nightline was born. It needed an anchor.
[00:08:23] Ted: Now the question is who's going to do it? And first, they called Dan Rather. And they're trying to get Dan Rather to come over to ABC and they offer him the evening news and this late night broadcast. And Dan says, well, why would I want to work late at night? No one's going to watch that damn thing. Then they offer it to Brokaw and he doesn't want it.
[00:08:47] Jeff (V/O): He's at NBC.
[00:08:48] Ted: He's at NBC. Then they offer it to Roger Mudd, who is also at CBS, and he doesn't want it. And then finally, they say, Ted, you want you want it? You want to do this for us?
[00:09:01] Jeff (V/O): Want to give up your evenings for the rest of your life?
[00:09:03] Ted: You want to do this program? And I said, you bet. Right. I've been sitting there with my tongue hanging out, waiting for them to ask me.
[00:09:13] Archive Broadcast: Good evening. This is a new broadcast in the sense that it is permanent and will continue after the Iran crisis is over. There will also be nights when Iran is not the major story. That's not the case tonight. Again, today, Iran is the major story and for the first time on television we'll provide the opportunity for the wife of an American hostage to speak live with an Iranian official. Once again today, it all focuses on...
[00:09:37] Ted: And then we go on the air and all of a sudden the ratings start coming in and they're pretty damn good. And I can tell you that I had a friend in the sales department, and later on my first year, they offered me what for any normal human being would have been a very generous salary, for an anchor it was not. And I said, I'll tell you what, I will accept your offer and I will sign a one year contract. And at the end of one year, this program is going to be successful and you're going to have to pay me what I want. And they said, I remember talking to Dick Wald at the time, and he said, Sounds fair to me, you're wrong. So I signed the contract and a year later, Nightline was hot stuff. Nightline was beating CBS all the time. Whatever CBS had on. And when there was a really hot night, we were beating The Tonight Show.
[00:10:54] Jeff (V/O): What made Nightline stand out wasn't just a gripping story and a smart young host who asked questions with icy precision. It was also the technology they were using which allowed them to do things that no one had done before. If you heard our episode with Ted about reporting from Vietnam, you'll know that it took days for reporters to send canisters of film footage back to New York for processing, editing and broadcast. A huge technological change meant that news footage no longer had to be physically shipped around the globe.
[00:11:34] Archive Broadcast: History is about to be made in the science of communication among men. Technicians in Europe prepare to receive a signal from the orbiting Telstar satellite that opens this new era. This is the first formal exchange of an official transmission.
[00:11:47] Jeff (V/O): The satellite age came to TV news in the early 1960s with the launch of Telstar, the first satellite to carry TV signals. By the late 1970s, broadcast satellites circled the earth.
[00:12:01] Ted: The difference was that by 1979, 1980, when the hostages were taken, the American hostages in Tehran at the embassy, we had the capacity to do that live. To interview people live. I could, for example, talk to whoever our correspondent was live.
[00:12:29] Jeff: From Tehran.
[00:12:29] Ted: From Tehran. He might be in front of the embassy and there would be a demonstration going on behind him. And all of a sudden, you know, we had the capacity to do an interview like that live. And then we discovered very shortly thereafter that we could do something else. We could do this from two or even more locations simultaneously. And the person in Tehran could hear the person being interviewed in Washington, could hear the person being interviewed in Moscow. I had the technological capacity to talk to three people in three different locations around the world live, and they could all hear each other. They couldn't all see each other. The viewer could see them all. And we would have a split screen, right, showing them talking to each other. And it turned out that this was not only technologically feasible, but it was diplomatically acceptable.
[00:13:40] Ted: So that, for example, people who wouldn't talk to each other on a bet. Someone from Iran, someone from Iraq, for example, they would come on Nightline because they would, we aren't talking to each other, we're talking to you Ted. But I would ask a question of the Iraqi who would respond, and I could then turn to the Iranian and say, your reaction? And he'd be reacting not to me, but to. They were having a conversation. But I served as sort of a cutout. And all of a sudden Nightline became, or America Held Hostage as it was known in its initial iteration, became known as the place where people who wouldn't talk to each other anywhere else would and did talk to each other because it was a way of reaching a very large American audience.
[00:14:42] Ted: And someone in the public relations department at ABC came up with a slogan for Nightline, which was really brilliant. It was bringing people together who were worlds apart. And that's what Nightline did. And we did it at a time when it was technologically fresh, new, unprecedented. And now every local station can do it. But back in 1979, that was hot stuff.
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[00:15:48] Jeff: Can you give me a sense of what the technological innovations were that allowed Nightline to do these interviews, bringing people together live from anywhere in the world?
[00:16:02] Ted: Well, I mean, first of all that technology had existed domestically for a long time, but you had to send a remote truck to that location, Right? I mean, even in the late 1970s and early eighties, I think we were broadcasting baseball games live, football games live. Right. But that was expensive. And the idea of doing that in order to bring an interview on the air a little bit faster than just doing it on videotape and racing it back to the studio. But the national obsession with what was happening to the hostages and remember, Nightline began in March of 1980. The hostages didn't come back until January 20th of 1981. Almost a full year later. And during that year, there continued to be an enormous national interest in what was happening with the hostages and to of the hostages.
[00:17:14] Jeff: So is it this ring of satellites that started to appear? I think I read the first broadcast satellite went up in 1962. It didn't last. By 1963, it was dead. I think it was Telstar. But by the 1970s, a more effective and reliable group of satellites. I think geostationary, I think is the term, locked in the position over the same place over the earth started to orbit around us or follow us or the Earth as it revolved. Was that the key is that the technological innovation that allowed you to talk to leaders in Tehran and Moscow from Washington live?
[00:17:49] Ted: I believe it is. But I hope you won't think any less of me if I say I didn't care. You know, it was it was of supreme indifference to me how or why that happened. In fact, I remember early on in probably almost certainly during the first year that Nightline was on, one of our senior producers said, I want to do a live program, a live feed from Mt. Everest. My reaction to that was, why? What the hell are you going to see if you put a live camera on Mount Everest? And unless that happens to be a cloud going by, it's going to look exactly like a postcard of Mount Everest. And he said, You don't understand. We have to show that we can do it. And if we can do a live feed from Mount Everest, we can do a live feed from anywhere.
[00:18:55] Ted: The first Nightline that we did, the first program that was formerly Nightline, we had the wife of a hostage and we had the first secretary of the Iranian embassy live from the Iranian Embassy in Washington.
[00:19:18] Archive Broadcast: To both of you. Let me say, obviously, the press has been greatly involved in this crisis all along. And it occurred to us here that you two might have a lot to say to each other, particularly Mrs. Moorfield. Is there anything you would like to ask Mr. Aliaga?
[00:19:32] Archive Broadcast: Well, certainly my first question is how can the government of Iran, in view of the fact that your President admits what has been done, is a breach of international law, the UN has condemned your country for it. How can you continue to hold these innocent people?
[00:19:49] Archive Broadcast: Well, Mrs. Moorfield, how could you remain silent in the past 27 years when your government was involved in torturing and killing and doing all kinds of corrupt action against our people? You see, we cannot really ask these questions out of context. And I am saying this not just to react to you. I am requesting to you to look at the whole picture.
[00:20:26] Ted: We offered to have him come to the studio and he said, If I come to the studio, I'll be arrested by the FBI. I have to stay at the embassy. And we said, okay, not a problem. We'll send a remote truck.
[00:20:40] Jeff: That being a satellite truck.
[00:20:41] Ted: A remote satellite truck. And in fact, from our point of view, he couldn't come to the studio because he's afraid of being arrested. So.
[00:20:52] Jeff: It's a good story.
[00:20:54] Ted: Broadcasting live from the Iranian embassy. And now here is the wife of one of the hostages who had become sort of a spokesperson.
[00:21:03] Jeff: And where is she speaking from?
[00:21:05] Ted: She was I think we had her in the studio, but not in the studio with me. Roone Arledge made the point that whoever, if someone was sitting at the desk with me, they would have an advantage over the person who was coming in via satellite. So let's keep everyone remote. And we did that for many, many years until Gary Hart. And the monkey business story. And he at first dropped out of the race.
[00:21:39] Jeff: This is the presidential candidate.
[00:21:40] Ted: Presidential candidate.
[00:21:41] Jeff: Accused of adultery.
[00:21:42] Ted: And he decided to come back into the race. And I called him and said, Will you make your announcement on Nightline and do your interview on Nightline? And he said, I will, but only if I can look you in the eye. I want to sit on the same set with you. So I said, Let me call my boss. I called Roone. I said, strikes me as eminently fair. He knows I'm going to ask him about the monkey business. He knows I'm going to ask him about the affair. He wants to be able to look me in the eye. I said, I think we should do it. Roones said, Go ahead.
[00:22:24] Archive Broadcast: We're talking about something that certainly has about it every possible impression of impropriety.
[00:22:31] Archive Broadcast: I know it was a very, very bad mistake. I've already said that. I will continue to say it. I have to live with that for the rest of my life. It would suggest that I had my picture taken with Ms. Rice, this attractive lady whom I had only recently been introduced to, dropped into my lap. I was embarrassed. I chose not to dump her off and the picture was taken. I shouldn't have been in that situation. I should not have been in that situation.
[00:23:00] Jeff: When you were doing those other interviews where you got, say, someone in Tehran and someone in Moscow, are you seeing them?
[00:23:07] Ted: Yeah.
[00:23:08] Jeff: You can see them. They can't see each other.
[00:23:10] Ted: They can't see each other and they can't see me.
[00:23:12] Jeff: How are they hearing you?
[00:23:14] Ted: Because they've got a little earpiece in.
[00:23:17] Jeff: Through the telephone lines.
[00:23:19] Ted: You're getting into a technology. You know, how were they actually hearing? Probably a telephone line. Yeah.
[00:23:26] Jeff: I love that you don't know it. I think it's really interesting. And you're absolutely right. You didn't need to know. I just need to do it. Yeah.
[00:23:33] Ted: Honestly, I do not know how they heard me, you know?
[00:23:49] Jeff: When you're doing a live interview. One of the challenges, as you know better than anyone, is that people know you've got a limited time. You're up against the clock. You've got 30 minutes less commercials and they can talk down the clock. How do you navigate that as the anchor? Because that's clearly one of the most important skills.
[00:24:07] Ted: You just have to talk louder and faster than they and say, I'm just not going to let you do it. You know, forgive me. You have every opportunity to give an answer. You don't have every opportunity to keep talking. And if you insist on talking, I'm going to cut you off. And it's surprising how quickly word gets around that you don't do that with Ted. He just didn't put up with it.
[00:24:35] Jeff: You just have to call it out? And do they behave?
[00:24:39] Ted: Yeah, for the most part. You know, and on those rare occasions I remember there was a woman who was the spokeswoman for one of these Marina Maharajah guys was making millions by bringing people. And she kept saying.
[00:24:59] Jeff: A cult leader kind.
[00:25:00] Ted: Of cult leader. Thank you. He is. And she kept saying bullshit on the air. And I said, Do it one more time and you're off. And she did. And she was. That was it. You know, it's not that hard.
[00:25:14] Jeff: I'm confused. She was using the word bullshit, or she was just using bullshit.
[00:25:17] Ted: She was saying it. She was saying the word bullshit.
[00:25:21] Jeff: What do you think she was trying to do there?
[00:25:23] Ted: I don't know. Your question was, how do you keep that from happening? You keep it from happening by talking louder and faster than your guest.
[00:25:32] Jeff: But it's so interesting because, you know, today and even 15 years ago, those kind of interviews that you see every day on the cable networks, people talking, we dismiss them as talking heads. But in 1979, 1980, this was radical new storytelling that nobody had ever seen before.
[00:25:53] Ted: Well, it wasn't that they'd never seen it before. Periodically, we would feed something by satellite. So there were times I remember covering a an election in Japan, in Tokyo, and doing a live shot from Tokyo. So they had seen it before, but not on a nightly basis. Right.
[00:26:23] Jeff: So it was a new form of journalism, as you say, on a nightly basis. This idea of bringing people together, hearing what they have to say. And it had a freshness to it.
[00:26:35] Ted: Oh, absolutely. And look, the interesting thing was really important. People from these different countries came to look upon Nightline as being almost a substitute diplomatic field of combat. We can come on Nightline. We can argue that we're not really talking to those enemies of ours. We're talking to Mr. Koppel. But obviously, our enemy can hear what I'm saying. And can respond to what I'm saying. And I remember one time Alexander Haig, who was secretary of state at the time, and he was up in Ottawa at a meeting, and we wanted him on the show that night. And he said, if I need to leave, I'll talk to you tomorrow night. But if I don't leave now, I'm going to have to stay up here in Ottawa for another night. And I said, Mr. Secretary, let me check with the boss. And I talked to Roone. And Roone said, You tell him that Nightline is live and we only do it live. We're not going to pre-tape it. And the secretary of state overnighted in Ottawa so that he could be on Nightline that night.
[00:28:05] Jeff: There was a power to that that I don't think any of the networks have anymore.
[00:28:08] Ted: Oh, no, they do. I mean, for example, you have variations on that theme. Morning Joe is a program now that certainly progressives, liberals, Democrats running for office, pushing a particular theme. If they want to be seen by other Democrats, if they want to reach the political elite and the journalistic elite, coming on Morning Joe. I mean, their audience may not be huge. I think it may be 1 million, 2 million. All the audiences are much smaller now than they were. I mean, back in the day, we would routinely have an audience of eight or 9 million people a night at 1130 at night.
[00:29:01] Jeff: It's incredible, isn't it? Yeah.
[00:29:04] Ted: Which now I mean, a primetime program that has 9 million. They think they're doing pretty well now. Yeah.
[00:29:11] Jeff: Yeah. When you think about the younger you in that chair at Nightline, what was your goal? What were you trying to do for the audience?
[00:29:21] Ted: As I say, I think what that PR person did at ABC, bringing people together who are worlds apart, we could be a sort of non diplomatic credential carrying location. For people of severely different points of view, angrily different points of view, points of view that were so extreme. That they could not meet in any other forum. They would come on Nightline and they would talk to each other.
[00:29:59] Jeff: There's a certain irony to hearing that phrase when I think about it, bringing people together who are worlds apart. It sounds like the U.S. Congress.
[00:30:05] Ted: We can't do that. Right. Exactly. We're incapable of doing that.
[00:30:10] Jeff: Exactly. We're now just worlds apart.
[00:30:13] Ted: Yeah, but not only that, everybody now has their own network. You've got it in that iPhone that you're carrying. What you are putting together here with this series of programs that you're doing. Is something you could not have done 40 or 50 years ago, But now it will appeal to a certain audience precisely because they're not getting anything like this anywhere else. They're not getting it on the network. They're not getting it on cable.
[00:30:48] Jeff: I think that's as good a place as any to end. Ted, thank you.
[00:30:51] Ted: Okay.
[00:30:57] Jeff (V/O): That was Ted Koppel. Ted was a reporter at ABC News from 1963 to 1979. He was the host of ABC News Nightline from 1980 to 2005. I joined ABC News in 2001 and reported for Nightline and other news programs during my 14 years at the network.
[00:31:17] Jeff (V/O): We released another story with Ted Koppel about his time reporting from Vietnam and working with very cumbersome film cameras. Those cameras brought war reporting into people's living rooms nightly and influenced the outcome of the war. It's a fascinating conversation. That episode is called The 16 Millimeter War.
[00:31:44] Jeff (V/O): StoryTech is produced by Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in association with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station.
[00:31:58] Jeff (V/O): Our senior producer is Kevin Sexton. Our associate producer is Emily Marantz. Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica. Mixing and Sound Design by Phil Wilson. Our theme music is by Josh Spear. Our executive producers are Laura Regher and me your host, Jeff Kofman. If you have ideas, suggestions or thoughts, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you like this show, you can help us grow by telling someone about it. It's easy. If you could get film from around the world on TV, you can help spread the word about storytelling. Share this episode with a friend. Post a link on social media. And don't forget to subscribe.