NEW YORK -- Ted Koppel knows that persuading television viewers to tune into a four-part documentary about China’s economic growth could be a difficult sell.
So in the days leading to the broadcast of his latest Discovery Channel program, the veteran newsman took a drastic step to gin up interest: He brought his daughter’s dog onto “The Daily Show” and suggested that the network might send Pepper to “Bideawee Farm” if the series doesn’t get good ratings.
All kidding aside, Koppel feels a particular sense of urgency about “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” which premieres Wednesday.
“I wish that people who think they have no interest in or concern about China would just give it a try,” said Koppel, who has been producing long-form programs for Discovery since retiring from ABC in 2005. “Our future is so tied together with China’s future, and [the Chinese] get it. . . . The greatest tragedy of all would be if they keep plowing away at this and we become so relaxed about the permanence of America’s place in the world that we fail to see that there are people breathing down our necks.”
The upcoming Beijing Olympics and the devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan province in May have pushed China into the news in recent months and spawned a slew of documentaries by programs such as PBS’ “Frontline.” But even with the spotlight focused on the Communist power, Koppel said he doesn’t expect to see much hard-hitting coverage about the country’s politics and policies on television newscasts.
“Do I think that NBC, for example, is going to kick the Chinese in the knee?” he said. “No, I don’t. I think they’re much more concerned about the Olympics being a huge success. I think the kind of reports that we will see will be interesting reports and not terribly courageous.”
Koppel’s series looks at the effects of capitalism on China, painting a portrait of a country in the throes of a modern-day Industrial Revolution. On one side is a burgeoning upper class with an appetite for luxury goods; on the other, a massive number of rural peasants getting left further behind.
The program is set in Chongqing, a teeming metropolis of 13.5 million people in southwest China whose rapid economic expansion serves as a model for the rest of the country. Real-estate tycoons rule the city, with ambitious plans for new developments. Cheap labor abounds, drawing U.S companies like Briggs & Stratton, an engine manufacturer.
Koppel and his team spent eight months on the series, whose first part follows a structure inspired by the film “Babel.” The program jumps among seemingly unrelated groups of people -- laid-off Briggs & Stratton workers in Missouri, Mexican migrant cotton pickers in North Carolina, young Chinese assembling boom-boxes in a Chongqing factory -- then shows how they are linked through globalism.
The point, Koppel said: “The United States and China are so intertwined economically that you can’t undo it.”
Maoism is now mostly a cultural artifact in urban areas, he found, the subject of nostalgic theater productions. Instead, the youth subscribe to a different mantra: “I want to get rich.”
It’s a far cry from the China that Koppel visited more than three decades ago when he spent 10 weeks there for ABC News reporting on the effect of the Cultural Revolution.
“You cannot imagine a more brainwashed population,” he recalled. “Ask people what they want to do: ‘Whatever serves the state.’ ”
Koppel’s 1973 trip came about through an odd exchange: ABC Entertainment gave the Chinese some of its programming and movies, and in return the network got to send a news correspondent to the country. Koppel personally brought over and screened for Chinese officials the most valuable property that ABC sent: the made-for-TV movie “Brian’s Song.”
“Talk about a cultural disconnect,” he said with a laugh.
Koppel’s latest China report was the idea of associate producer John Alexander, who went to live in Chongqing for the duration of the project. The 26-year-old died there in December of heart failure, likely caused by a virus. The series is dedicated to him.
Alexander conceived of the multipart project as a way to “sort of fit the Discovery brand and fit with what we do,” Koppel recalled.
“We’re hard-news folks,” he added, noting that the rest of Discovery’s lineup is “a little softer.”
The management of the network’s parent company changed in 2006, when former NBC executive David Zaslav was named chief executive of Discovery Communications. Billy Campbell, the Discovery Channels U.S. president who brought Koppel to the network, left several months later.
Koppel said network executives “are very pleasant to us and leave us alone,” but he suggested that the current leadership is not as enthusiastic about his role at Discovery as Campbell was: “They’re different folks, and they were brought in to do different things.”
That means it’s likely that he will leave Discovery when his deal is up in 2009.
“I don’t know it for a fact, but I would think so,” Koppel said.
As for what the 68-year-old newsman will do after that, he has been mentioned as a replacement for the late Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” but he waved off that idea.
“I would have been disappointed if [my name] hadn’t been floated, but that’s about all that’s going to happen,” he said. “They need to go to someone even younger than Tim.”
For now, Koppel plans to keep trying to persuade viewers to tune into programs they don’t think will interest them.
“I may be one of the last television journalists left, together with [executive producer] Tom Bettag and our team, who believe that our responsibility is not just to cater to the lowest common denominator of what people think they want to watch,” he said, “but every once in a while, to try to give them, in as entertaining a fashion as we can, something we think they ought to watch.”