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Koppel signs off 'Nightline,' ending an era

WASHINGTON -- Ted Koppel will work for cookies.

Not ordinary cookies, of course. Apricot-granola biscuits, from Starbucks. ''Nightline" staffers slip him a couple late in the afternoon, as he waits for the muse to appear and they begin to sweat.

''Ted puts off writing his copy until the very last second," says executive producer Tom Bettag. ''He has the slowest muse we've ever seen. If we put a cookie in front of him, it seems to help."

The sugar-fueled Koppel, 65, anchors his final ''Nightline" tonight, bringing to a close a stellar run of 25 years with the late-night newsmagazine he helped launch, as well as his 42-year career at ABC.

It may also signal the end of serious, long-form journalism in late-night broadcast television.

With NBC's Jay Leno and CBS's David Letterman drawing younger, advertiser-friendly viewers, ABC's news division must prove to network owner Disney that it deserves to continue at 11:35 weeknights.

It won't be easy. Had Disney had its way, Letterman would have taken over that real estate in 2002. But he turned down their secret offer, saying he didn't want to be known as the guy who replaced Ted Koppel.

In an effort to keep the entertainment barbarians outside the gate, ABC News will launch a younger, faster, all-live ''Nightline" on Nov. 28.

Based in New York, it will feature multiple topics and anchors -- Cynthia McFadden, 49; Terry Moran, 45; and Martin Bashir, 42, best known for his BBC interview with Michael Jackson in 2003.

''I can fully understand why [ABC News president] David Westin might be salivating a little at the notion of putting younger, cheaper, more ambitious anchors into that job," Koppel says. ''They're going to work five days a week, and do it for a lot less money than I cost."

Koppel makes an estimated $10 million a year. As part of his last contract, in 2000, he cut his workload to three nights a week. He stopped going live every night in 1993.

''I'm still just as eager to cover a good story as I ever was," he says. ''I'm just not as eager to work 14-hour days, five to six days a week, as I was when I was 40."

Bettag, 61, Koppel's best buddy and tennis partner, will leave with him. Industry buzz says they'll produce documentaries for HBO.

With NBC's Tom Brokaw, ABC's Peter Jennings, and CBS's Dan Rather all gone from their anchor desks after more than 20 years, many are trumpeting Koppel's exit as the end of an era. He doesn't see it that way.

''All this hair-pulling and chest-thumping is silly. I remember when Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather started, people said young pretty boys were taking over from serious, old newsmen.

''That's what happens. Serious, old newsmen give way. I fully expect some really powerful personalities will emerge. It's just the end of one era and the beginning of another one."

Koppel says he has faith in Disney's commitment to ''Nightline." If the broadcast maintains its editorial standards, he says, it will survive.

Still, some critics argue that ''Nightline" no longer commands the respect it once did, that it has lost its relevance in a world of 24/7 cable news and the Internet. Nielsen figures support that argument. ''Nightline" averages 3.5 million viewers, down 900,000 from 2000-01 and 3 million from 1992-93.

Koppel has no objection, philosophically, to change. But as anyone close to him knows, he is not one to be rushed. About anything.

''You can set your watch by Ted," says Bettag. ''You just have to set it 25 minutes late."

Whatever the situation, Koppel will talk his way out of it. A former diplomatic correspondent, he understands the language of diplomacy.

Koppel could just as easily have been a lawyer. He loves to parse, to engage, to manipulate. Every conversation is a verbal chess match, with Koppel thinking three moves ahead.

He negotiates his own contracts, unheard of at his level. His love of haggling is not without its drawbacks, though, as Barbara Walters discovered while traveling with him in India in the '70s.

''I wanted to buy a memento," she recalls. ''Ted says, 'Let me handle it.' He considered himself the great negotiator. He bargained so long, the guy refused to sell it."

''Nightline" began on Nov. 4, 1979, as ''America Held Hostage," a 20-minute special report about the hostage crisis in Iran. It became a nightly feature, with Frank Reynolds as anchor.

Koppel was named anchor when ''Nightline" premiered on March 24, 1980. The concept was revolutionary -- a live, late-night news program with several people interviewed at the same time, via satellite, from around the world.

In 1979, Koppel says, ''nobody would have predicted there would be a successful late-night news program anchored by this funny-looking, jug-eared diplomatic correspondent who had been pretty much discounted as anchor material."

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