AP/Wideworld Photos

Ted Koppel announced last week that he would be leaving the evening news program
Nightline after 25 years with the program. “It's something that [Ted’s]
been thinking about for a long time. After 25 years of doing Nightline, he came
to this decision personally. It’s going to leave a void,” said Leroy Sievers,
who months earlier had left Nightline after working with Koppel first as
senior field producer and then as executive producer for a total of 14 years.
With Sievers at the helm, Nightline was one of the last vestiges of hard
news on television. At 6' 4″, Sievers was a huge presence, literally and
figuratively, in television news. From the genocide in Rwanda to the Iraq war
he often risked his life in the interest of bringing tough stories to the public.

Sievers started his career in news after dropping out of Princeton and getting a job at a TV station in Oakland. In a few years, he was plucked away by CBS. While working for CBS he covered Desert Storm and was one of the first people to enter Kuwait City. In 1991, Nightline hired him, and there he consistently volunteered to cover stories that others shied away from, most notably the genocide in Rwanda. In 2003, Sievers and Koppel were embedded with the Third Infantry Division, which fought its way from Kuwait to Baghdad. Sievers was an instrumental force behind the controversial Nightline episode “The Fallen,” during which Koppel read the names and showed the pictures of American men and women who had been killed in combat in Iraq, a number of whom Sievers and Koppel had gotten to know during their tour.

Sievers stayed with Nightline until late last year. With his departure, and yesterday’s announcement that Koppel will leave when his contact expires this year, Nightline as we know it, is no longer. So what now is the future of televised journalism?

Help, I'm shrinking! Leroy Sievers
holds all that's left of TV news
in the palm of his hand.

L.A. Weekly: What is going on with televised news?
Leroy Sievers: It’s gone to hell.

When did it start going to hell?

I think it was gradual. I think CNN came in and really dumbed it down. It’s funny, because when CNN first started, everybody felt really sorry for them. We’d give them tape, we’d give them equipment and stuff; we basically subsidized them, and had we known, we would have done none of that. They used to steal stuff too, anything on satellite they used to take off and air. And they were sort of funny, but they sort of came in with this attitude — “Well, if we didn’t get it right this time, we’ll get it right the next time. Or if we don’t get it right the next time, we’ll get it right the next hour, and we’ll throw up whatever pictures we’ve got, it doesn’t really matter” — and they started making money. And about the same time — this is mid- to late-’80s — all the networks were sort of taken over by businessmen, who didn’t care either. And we would say, “But look, we worry about every word, we craft every shot, you know we put such care into it.”

There was news on TV, and it was respected and well thought of and people
paid attention to it. We were the good guys. You could do good. Now we’re
scum. I got in trouble one time at a forum because I said: “People sort of get
the news they deserve.” If they weren’t watching it. all this crap would go away.

Who was running the networks before?

I think at least people who cared about it. News was thought to be . . . it was an annoyance to some extent, but it wasn’t a moneymaker, it was a responsibility, both legally and morally. Legally, to keep your license, you had to have news. Well, gradually that went away. Well, then you have to make money. And we were like, “What? We don’t make money. We’re above all that. We spend money in huge amounts.” And some of that was our fault — I remember if you were going into a city that you hadn’t been to before, you’d get a hotel guide, you’d open it up and pick the most expensive hotel in town and that’s where you would want to stay. But all of a sudden it was like you have to make money, and the only way to make money was to start slashing costs. So you ended up in this spiral. Your resources for the news got crappier, and so fewer people watched, and then I think, you know, FOX came up, MSNBC came up, talk radio came up and the country changed. Talk came on and it was like argument . . . I mean, you got a bunch of people yelling at each other. That costs nothing.

One of the things that happened at Nightline was that we did a focus group,
first time since I’ve been there. In a bunch of different cities, and one of them
was in Dallas, and they showed a whole bunch of different pieces. One of them
was a day in the life of the John Kerry campaign. And it came back: Biased
report. Well, how can it be biased? We were unscrupulously fair. They
said, “Well, you covered John Kerry.” We said, “yeah”. They said, “So it’s biased”
Something’s happened with the public, and that’s why I go back to “You get the
media you deserve.”

So what happened at Nightline?

Nightline was great. It was just a dream job. It was great people and it was great fun, and we were doing the kind of news that I think you were asking about. It mattered. You could do anything, and Nightline was independent and they left us alone. Ted [Koppel] and the then–executive producer had come up with a plan that they would sort of begin the succession because Ted, you know, didn’t want to do it forever. So they came up with this idea that I was going to be executive producer, they would bring in another anchor and sort of gradually start doing more and more. So all of a sudden, I went from being in the field to being executive producer, which I actually liked. That was in 2000. The problem was my normal day was 9 in the morning to midnight. It killed me. I did nothing from 9 in the morning Monday until midnight Friday. I didn’t read my mail. It was all just the job for four-plus years. And at the same time it was great fun, and you could do good things but more importantly you could let good people do good work. But there’s a certain point, I think in any job, where you learn most of what you’re gonna learn and then it’s just coming and doing the job. And for me I sort of hit that point. My contract expired, we knew there were changes coming, and we knew that the network wanted changes. The statement ultimately released in my name — which really is what I said — said that the company wanted changes in Nightline. We couldn’t agree on those changes. Therefore I left, which makes a very long story very, very short. That’s essentially what happened.

One of the things that was happening was that Nightline’s ratings had been
going down every year for 25 years, for the most part. I mean, there were little
spikes . . . war is always great for ratings. But absent war, it’s a steady downward
trend. Cable came on. We knew men were going for sex and violence. It’s HBO and
Showtime at 11:30 at night, Leno and Letterman. Another thing happened: The country
changed. People used to stay up late. The hottest time slot in television now
is 5 to 7 a.m. God knows what people are doing up then. It’s people with small
kids, people at the peak of their careers. God knows why they’re getting up that
early, but they are. And it’s shifted so everyone is going to bed. So the whole
universe was changing, and increasingly I think they realized that Nightline
as it was wasn’t going to survive. The ratings were getting to a point where
economically it didn’t make sense. All those pressures sort of came together.

What is it going to become?

It’s a nasty business. They made it clear that what they want is an hour show,
much lighter in tone. Probably co-anchors, they want it live, awful subjects —
you know — much different. That’s not something that’s going to involve Ted. And
I told them, I said, “I’m not the person for that show.” At the same time ABC
and Disney are looking at all sorts of alternatives. We heard early on that they’re
looking at a home shopping show among other things. ESPN is talking about a sports
show. They’re looking at all sorts of different things. They wanted a different
show; Ted wanted to do something different.

What happens to serious news?

I don’t know. The second 60 Minutes [60 Minutes II] is going to go away. That’s virtually assured. A lot of the other news magazines, and I would question whether they’re serious news anymore, they’re going away. Or they’re in trouble. So what’s left for the type of storytelling that we’re talking about? You still have the evening newscasts, but they get pushed around. They run so early out here that no one’s home. Where do you go for serious news? NPR is booming. No one’s quite sure why. Maybe it’s because radio is coming back, maybe people are going there because it’s serious news. If people watched in great numbers, there’d be more shows like that, but they’re not. In a sense, I always felt at Nightline that we were like public television — people liked to know we were there, but they didn’t really want to watch us. It somehow made them feel better and they knew that if something big happened that they could turn to us and we were there. They got out of the habit. Did we miss what was happening? Should we have changed the show? That’s sort of what haunts me. Is there something I could have done that would have changed it? Not and been true to the broadcast.

People look at a show like Jon Stewart [The Daily Show], and they
think all we need is a comedian and we can do the same thing. Well you can’t.
Shows are — it’s like lightning striking. It’s all the things coming together,
right person, right time, right whatever. It’s really tough to come up with those.
One of the arguments we’ve used all along in defense of Nightline is —
if it goes away and then you find out, Gosh, we miss that,
it’s really tough to start it back up. Starting a new show is risky and dangerous
and expensive.

What about the Internet?

One thing about the Internet is there’s no accountability. I mean, people put stuff up, God knows where it’s coming from. They’re just making stuff up. At least with a network newscast you are accountable. People know who you are. If you are continuously wrong, you’ll be fired or something bad will happen. On the Internet, anybody can put up anything. And it gets passed around and it becomes “true.” There’s some great work on the Internet and some absurdities out there. But if that’s where it’s going — again, people go to look at it, they’re like, Alright I want to find out about Jen and Brad breaking up. But what about the things that you don’t know about? Who’s covering any number of stories? If people don’t know they’re out there, they’re not going to know to look.

Years ago I was at a conference and people were saying — a couple of people that ran other shows — “We don’t want to challenge the audience. We want to make it easy and comfortable,” and I was thinking to myself, God, I want to challenge the audience every night. That’s what I want to do. Well, it turns out maybe the audience doesn’t want to be challenged.

Maybe we’re the lone voices crying in the wilderness. I think it’s cyclical, but
if people don’t care about what’s going on now, in the world we live in now,
what will make them care? There is terrorism, there is global conflict — these
are cultural wars. not just geographical wars, huge segments of the globe being
pitted against each other, massive problems coming up that are going to affect
the next generation and the next one and the next one and the next one. If people
don’t care about this now . . . Someone said to me once that people want
to go to bed happy and the show didn’t let them. My response to that was it’s
not necessarily a happy world. Wish it
was, but it’s not. And, therefore, we need to talk about this stuff. It’s hard
to say, “Iraq war — everything’s fine!” Go to bed. Don’t worry about it.

Is there any news left?

I think the definition of things has changed. I mean, there’s more quote news than I think there’s ever been, but at the same time there’s less good reporting, there’s less story telling. Where I think it’s headed as a business is news on demand. You know, you’re going to say, ‘I’m interested in the weather, I’m interested in film, I’m interested in the beach, I’m interested in Iraq.” And so your computer will simply give you those stories. What’s being lost now, it’s just about gone, and it’s going to be lost when all that happens, is the idea that there are stories out there that you don’t know about, that you don’t know you’re interested in, but you will be interested in. 60 Minutes did that, Nightline did that. I mean, lots of people used to do that. It’s like, just give us a couple of minutes and we’re going to take you someplace you’ve never been and show you something you’ve never seen, and it’s going to be really interesting. Well now, unless you know ahead of time what exists, you don’t even know what to ask for. So all that storytelling is going to be lost, and you’re going to come down to basic facts and figures. Again, it’s just stuff you know. And it’s a huge tragedy.

LA Weekly