After months of talks with HBO, former “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel has inked an exclusive three-year deal to produce primetime programming for Discovery Channel.
Koppel, longtime producer Tom Bettag and eight other former “Nightline” staffers will join Discovery to produce a slate of primetime documentaries as well as topical “town hall meetings” similar to those that used to air on “Nightline.”
Deal came after an intense month of wooing by Discovery execs, including a promise from board member and cable entrepreneur John Malone that Koppel would be able to produce controversial programming — with the proviso that he “get it right.”
Koppel said he and Bettag had been laying the groundwork for their post-ABC careers for several years but began to pursue opportunities in earnest soon after Koppel announced he would step down as anchor of “Nightline” in October.
Koppel and Bettag had been deep in negotiations with HBO exec VP Richard Plepler, but talks stuck on how many primetime hours HBO was willing to provide. HBO execs wanted Koppel, but not so much as to change the character of the network.
Discovery execs approached the duo in December, and president Billy Campbell enthusiastically promised to give Koppel multihour blocks in primetime to air longform specials that could be followed by the kind of town hall meetings Koppel made famous on “Nightline.”
In the end, Koppel said that due to its focus on news and information rather than entertainment, Discovery was a better fit for his operation than HBO.
“In the final analysis, we would have been a unit within an entertainment company,” Koppel said of HBO. “We would have been an appendage there, whereas here, we were a part of the mainstream of what the organization is about.”
Another factor: With 90 million households, Discovery Channel has a much wider viewership than HBO’s 28 million subscribers.
As part of the deal, Koppel becomes managing editor of Discovery Channel and Bettag becomes exec producer; both will report directly to Discovery U.S. president Campbell.
Koppel and Bettag will produce a minimum of six specials a year as well as a number of town hall-type programs starting next fall. But both Campbell and Koppel stressed that news events will warrant how frequently the specials occur and how long they air.
Since they won’t be regularly scheduled, Campbell said Discovery would heavily promote the specials to make viewers aware of them.
Using the West Virginia coal mine tragedy as an example, Koppel said, “I could easily see how we might pick up the phone and say, ‘In a week to 10 days we could put together an extraordinary program on mine safety.'”
Campbell said Koppel’s team will have the prerogative to react overnight to stories and to do stories that take six months to a year to research.
While HBO and Discovery were most aggressive in bidding for Koppel’s services, several other networks showed interest. Absent from the mix were the 24-hour cable news nets such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
Koppel said he doesn’t believe the cable news outlets have much interest in the kind of news he wants to produce.
“I think the tendency on the cable news nets is to be in a desperate race to be first with the obvious,” he said. “They tend to pay much greater attention to what is recent rather than what is important.”
The signing of Koppel and staff signals a change in course for Discovery Channel, which has fed heartily at the trough of reality TV in recent years.
Asked if he thought his type of sober analysis could co-exist with “American Chopper,” “Shark Attack!” and “Dirty Jobs,” Koppel responded, ” ‘Nightline’ didn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do with ‘Desperate Housewives’ either, but we co-existed on the same network.”