Anderson and the Ayatollah

This week ABC announced that “Nightline” and “Late Night With Jimmy Kimmel” will flip time slots, and it strikes me that the implications for this change reach far beyond the realm of “TV Guide.”

I don’t know much about Jimmy Kimmel because John Boy Walton and I usually say “Good night, Mary Ellen,” long before JK takes the stage. But I do know that at 11:35 each night 3 comedians, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jimmy, will go head to head to head in comedic competition, while “Nightline” gets pushed back to the unenviable “tomorrow” time slot of 12:30 am.

Forgive me if I go Baby Boomer on you, but it’s worth remembering that Ted Koppel started “Nightline” back in March of 1980. (I remember this because I was in my final year of college, and I have the transcript to prove I watched a lot of television!) The program morphed out of daily news show that was originally created to provide daily updates on what was going on in Tehran. (Remember that hostages had been taken from the American embassy during the start of the Iranian Revolution.)

I think the show was called, “America Held Hostage,” and Roone Arledge, a producer who had originally cut his teeth in sports programming, kept his audience engaged each night by including the days since the hostages were taken in the program’s title. So a month into its run, we were watching something called, “America Held Hostage: Day 30.” I can still hear the opening trumpets.

In hindsight, you could make the case that Jimmy Carter lost his presidency to Ted Koppel as much as he did to Ronald Regan because America was not, in fact, held hostage. Four hundred diplomats were, and they were all eventually released the day of Ronald Regan’s inauguration. The title was a grab, though, and the show’s success taught network executives that there was an appetite for news, and perhaps for over the top musical scores. (I challenge you to listen to the opening of “The Situation Room” without experiencing a major change in blood pressure!)

Remember that when Ted Koppel launched “Nightline,” CNN did not yet exist; James Earl Jones wouldn’t start bellowing, “This is CNN” in his distinctive baritone until June of that year. But Ted Turner and company saw that there was a news audience — even at the midnight hour.

Had Ayatollah Khomeini – even in his wildest dreams – ever thought that part of his legacy would include “Anderson Cooper 360” and “Pierce Morgan Tonight,” he might have opted to stay in Paris.


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