The television news program Nightline developed out of the widespread need to see in-depth news coverage of the Iranian Hostage Crisis on a nightly basis. In a strange twist, the event that caused so much frustration and anger on the part of Americans created a television show that routinely gave guests, sitting in different parts of the globe, the opportunity to talk to one another. Often, these were discussions among people who otherwise would never have met. In addition to exploiting new satellite technologies, the show expanded network news coverage into the late night time slot. This allowed the show to dispense with conventional news techniques, like edited interviews and prepared questions. In retrospect, the appearance of Nightline was improbable. The show that emerged from the 1979 hostage crisis began with future-anchor Ted Koppel thinking: "This story's gonna die." Needless to say, neither the story nor Nightline died.
Roone Arledge, the man in charge of the lowest-rated network newscast, wanted to expand news coverage past the dinner hour, something the more prestigious news divisions were having trouble effecting. Arledge suggested the unthinkable: he wanted to follow the local eleven o'clock newscasts with a news program, competing directly against Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Carson's talk show held an unbreakable monopoly on the late-night slot, and people tuned in to his opening monologues with unfailing regularity. Undaunted, Arledge produced sporadic, one-time news specials for late-night viewers, on subjects like the death of Elvis Presley and the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty.
Arledge initially covered the hostage crisis like the other topics—a news item that people might be interested in seeing more of than what the evening news had presented. Originally hosted by anchor Frank Reynolds, the November 8, 1979 show, called "America Held Hostage," heard from correspondents stationed from every possible angle of the story: Tehran, the White House, Capitol Hill, and the State Department. Like Koppel, many Americans did not perceive the hostage crisis to have the marks of a long-lasting conflict. By contrast, the images coming in from Iran became increasingly hostile, showing blindfolded American embassy workers, and anti-American demonstrations in Tehran.
Americans soon became united in searching for ways to respond to the Iranians, and Arledge, sensing this, wanted to air a follow-up special. When the show's second installment was finally granted, the words "Day 11" were attached to the title of "America Held Hostage." The marking of time in the title was at once a symbol of the national vigil that lasted until the crisis was resolved. Arledge got his late-night time slot, but "Journalism was only part of it," write Koppel and Kyle Gibson: "This was the seizing of 11:30." With a resolution to the crisis nowhere in sight, Reynolds returned to his evening news duties, and the search was on for a replacement. After top news anchors declined the opportunity, Ted Koppel, a diplomatic correspondent who covered the American civil rights movement, Latin America, and the Vietnam War, became the show's final integral piece.
Nightline represents the geopolitical version of Edward R. Murrow's broadcast of the split-screen view of the Brooklyn and Golden Gate Bridges. The ability to bring together people from halfway around the world, who might not otherwise speak to each other, was used to the show's advantage. In a ploy that Koppel would later describe as "a little bit shameless," Nightline ambushed the Iranian charge d'affaires, Ali Agah, by neglecting to inform him that he would be appearing with Dorothea Morefield, the wife of one of the American captives. The Iranian diplomat soon found himself backtracking in response to Morefield's questions asking why Iran was impeding communications between the hostages and their families. For many viewers it was a satisfying episode, but the length of the crisis made their satisfaction brief.
Koppel's no-nonsense attitude created the effect that he is an advocate for the viewer who challenges evasive politicians to answer the questions posed to them. Some viewers watched Nightline to see Koppel make someone squirm as much as they did from any desire to be informed. He once told then-governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham, "I tell you what … let's play by my rules for a moment, let's play go back to the question that I asked you initially." To Soviet commentator Vitali Kobesh, he admonished: "When I come on your program I'll answer your questions; now you're on my program…. You answer mine, all right?" When baseball executive Al Campanis suggested that blacks had inferior management skills, Koppel replied, "that really sounds like garbage, if you'll forgive me for saying so."
As much as Nightline was Koppel's show, the program was not immune to being used as a public relations vehicle by prominent figures. Public figures who were in trouble often used Nightline's live format because they knew the live broadcast would afford them the chance to present their side of the story. Failed Clinton nominee Lani Guinier, who once appeared in a desperate attempt to save her nomination, remarked that Nightline had "a moment of emotional intensity" that no newspaper was capable of delivering. This quality led Nightline to score major journalistic coups throughout the 1980s: Senator Gary Hart after his extramarital affair; televangelist Jim Bakker following the PTL (Praise the Lord or People that Love) scandal; and United Nations Secretary Kurt Waldheim hopelessly trying to minimize his Nazi past.
Through its willingness to exert the journalistic clout that it had begun to acquire, Nightline continued to demonstrate an ability to produce groundbreaking television into the late 1990s. Producing the first face-to-face debate between Israeli and Palestinian leaders was the most improbable result of the show which began improbably. After wrangling with both sides just to get them to appear on the same stage together, the show had to ensure that result by building a three-foot high wall in between the two panels. The image of Ted Koppel in a Jerusalem theater, straddling the wall because of Middle Eastern differences, became one of those immediate and succinct metaphors that television effectively communicates.
Dorfman, Herbert. "The Seizing of 11:30 P.M." New Leader. June 3,1996, 18-19.
Koppel, Ted, and Kyle Gibson. Nightline: History in the Making and the Making of Television. New York, Times Books, 1996.
Kurtz, Howard. "The Night Stalker." Columbia Journalism Review. May/June 1996, 65-68.