How Ted Koppel Dug his own Grave
One glorious day in March 2002, Ted Koppel, the man behind ABC's "Nightline," found out that young people watch television, and that some movers and shakers in his own network care about them.
The network programmers at ABC announced their desire to dump "Nightline" if only they could get David Letterman to replace it with his talk show. The reason: "Nightline" is not reaching young audiences, and Letterman is.
Contrary to popular image, young people don't watch as much TV as their elders. So when a program comes along that actually attracts young viewers, advertisers who market their products to the young will pay top dollar to get air time on that show.
Letterman chose to stay at CBS, so Koppel is safe for the moment. But if Koppel has any brains, he may well be asking himself why his show is unattractive to young viewers. Why have so many Americans grown up and grown old watching Letterman and not watching Koppel?
I can imagine his advisers telling him, "Let's replace our theme with this 'rap music' the kids listen to. That'll bring in the young audience. Or maybe we should do more stories on the Backstreet Boys."
Ted, let me give you some real advice. Don't try rap music. Don't try piercing your nose, and don't try fluff pieces. Try showing young people the same decency you show others.
"Nightline," like most news media, has a long habit of treating young people like some different species that must be examined from afar. Koppel often talks about young people, but he never invites youth to join the conversation — as speakers or even as an audience.
When the subject is youth, "Nightline" often starts with Koppel saying something like this:
What is this strange music today's kids are listening to? Should you let your kids listen to it? Tonight to discuss this with us is the middle-aged author of What's Wrong with These Kids, and we'll also talk to a mother who says kids should listen to the music she heard growing up. Tonight on "Nightline."
For a clearer view, let's flip this around. Imagine for a moment how older viewers might respond to a show like this:
Should you let your parents chaperone your parties? We'll talk to a 9th-grader who says middle-agers are annoying and get in the way. And we'll also talk to an 8th-grader who says parents can be taught to provide beer. A well-rounded discussion tonight on "Nightline."
I cannot imagine many middle-agers tuning in for such a program. Likewise, Koppel should not be surprised by his failure to reach as many young viewers as Letterman does. The fact that "Nightline" draws any young viewers at all can be attributed to the sad fact that young people looking for news cannot find a more inviting alternative.
"Nightline," like other news programs, not only excludes youth from the conversation, but vilifies them to its aging audience. For example, when high schoolers shot up their school, "Nightline" joined the media frenzy, publicizing these crimes by youth. But more recently, when a 43-year-old student shot up his Virginia law-school, "Nightline" ignored this horror. The rest of our news media followed suit. The Washington Post (1/17/02), for example, covered the Virginia shooting with only a single article and waited until the eighth paragraph to mention that the shooter was 43. Readers who read just the first few paragraphs (and that's most of us) knew only that the shooter was a "student" and probably assumed he was younger. By contrast, when the Washington Post covered the Columbine high school shooting with multiple front page stories (4/21/99), no one could have missed reading about the perpetrators' youth. One front page article announced in the first sentence the shooters were "young," while another waited until only the third paragraph to inform us the killers were "teenagers." It is this ageist media bias that has led voters to wildly overestimate the amount of crime committed by youth. (For details on one study about this overestimation, see "Curfew Laws".)
David Letterman is older than 50, wears a tie, and does not even claim to be in touch with "kids today." But he does not work to make young viewers feel excluded, and he does not work to smear a generation. As a result, many Americans grow up watching Letterman. They grow up avoiding Koppel.
This begs the question: Why can't a "respected" journalist be as fair and objective as a late night comedian?