After more than 40 years of daily broadcast journalism, which touts a three-minute segment as “in depth,” former “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel preems his cable gig at Discovery Channel with a three-hour special airing Sept. 10. It’s the first of an intended series on complex issues with no easy answers.
“Koppel on Discovery” bows on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the most deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. with an examination of the tensions between increased security and decreased civil liberties.
“We tend to focus on the crisis of the moment,” Koppel says. “Maybe it’s an invasion of Lebanon, or a plot to blow up airliners. But it’s time somebody took a look back at the last five years and made an appraisal of what’s happened in this country since 9/11.
“We want to establish the issues and then debate the questions,” he says.
Establishing the issues is the focus of “The Price of Security,” Koppel’s 90-minute doc based on interviews with current and former administration officials as well as experts on military affairs and national security.
Debating the questions happens immediately afterward, when Discovery airs a 90-minute live townhall meeting that Koppel will host at the National War College in D.C. Producers are seeking members of Congress as well as the administration to participate along with former 9/11 Commission members, victims’ families and civil libertarians.
Tom Bettag, Koppel’s exec producer on “Nightline” who’s now exec producer of “Koppel on Discovery,” says he and his longtime colleague want the show “to do things that need to be done that aren’t being done.
“Ted thinks that if we don’t figure out where the line is, once there’s another attack — and all the experts say there will be — the country will be so undone that it won’t be able to have a rational discussion on the subject,” Bettag says. “That’s why we wanted to make this our first outing.”
Future outings — Koppel and Bettag hope to do six a year — will be similar, at least one hour long and possibly two. Already in the works is an examination of Iran’s enduring hostility toward the U.S. Questions to be addressed include why many Iranians distrust America and support their government’s nuclear program as well as its ties to Hezbollah.
Also planned is a look at what the Pentagon has been calling America’s “long war” — fighting against nonstate entities like Al Qaeda — and how U.S. military officers believe this will be the future of warfare. Another involves the meaning of fundamentalism in contempo America.
Given its focus on complicated “gray areas,” as Bettag calls them, “Koppel on Discovery” will be largely an extended version of Koppel on ABC. As he did at “Nightline,” Koppel intends to step back from the rush of daily news to get perspective on current events — only now with more airtime.
“Anyone expecting a whole new revised and retooled Ted Koppel will be disappointed,” Bettag says.
The longer form has appeal for potential guests and interviewees, since they’ll get more than a sound bite in which to present their views.
“It’s been fairly easy to get people,” Koppel notes.
Discovery Networks prexy Bill Campbell says the company never discloses budgets “for competitive reasons,” but both Bettag and Koppel say Discovery has been “very supportive” of the venture.
“We talked about budget before agreeing to come here to be sure they meant it. They did, they have and they still do,” Koppel adds.
As he’s done with other Discovery projects, Campbell has accompanied Koppel and his crew on some reporting trips already.
“It allows me to appreciate the way they tell stories, but no one here ever dictates to them how to tell a story,” Campbell says.
Koppel confirms as much. “We’re still too new that people here are still treating us nicely,” he says. “No pressure yet. Ask me again in six months.”