Illness will unfortunately keep me away from a tribute to three giants of broadcast journalism, and to a still-great news organization, today (Fri., Nov. 3) in Studio 8-H at NBC in New York: A celebration of the 50th anniversary of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” and a memorial tribute to the self-effacing genius who invented and ran it, Reuven Frank, who would later serve twice as president of NBC News.
Frank’s death was a demoralizing blow to a nationwide network of friends, many of them former colleagues, who kept in touch with Reuven for years by mail and phone and then, once Reuven learned how to weather the Web, via e-mail. Disentangled entirely from NBC News, which he found less friendly once NBC’s ownership changed from RCA to General Electric—from an electronics company to a toaster-making defense contractor—Reuven began writing about TV news in various venues, eventually including TelevisionWeek and the op-ed pages of both The Washington Post and The New York Times.
He was as temperate a writer as he was a human being; he refused to view with outrage or even much alarm the discouraging trends running rampant in the business he had helped invent. He would lay out a case cleanly and neatly, without appeals to emotion or sentiment, and leave it to readers to do some thinking on their own. I often wished he’d been more of an advocate or even a scold in his writing; he had the authority to deliver harangues and tirades with real clout behind them. But he didn’t want to be a grouchy old man.
Reuven viewed change with tolerance, with bemusement, stepping back to admire the fact that home-video gadgetry on display in a drug store window was, he said, far more sophisticated than the professional equipment used by the networks only a few years before.
He was one of the most context-conscious professionals who ever worked in the business, always capable of seeing the larger picture and refusing to become mired in transitory details.
“The Huntley-Brinkley Report” was a model of efficiency, cutting-edge technology and, thanks largely to Brinkley, wit. As executive producer, Reuven was the man who had to come up with a sign-off with which the team ended the 15-minute (!) newscast each night. After the kind of arduous deliberations that such minor matters always get in TV, he settled for what became a national mantra:
David: “Good night, Chet.”
Chet: “Good night, David.” (into camera) “And good night for NBC News.”
Cue Beethoven. That’s right; Ludwig Van wrote the closing theme.
“NBC News” was an institution to be particularly proud of in those days, the industry leader whose convention coverage, co-anchored by the Huntley-Brinkley team, crushed the competition—Walter Cronkite—over on CBS, where correspondents still wore pin-stripe suits and pin-stripe faces. The NBC upstarts loved making the pompous CBS boys look like monkeys. Indeed, the rivalry continues to this day.
Brinkley, with Reuven’s encouragement, brought a healthy disbelief to news of the power elite, with politicians getting a special, sly, subtle mockery—so subtle that the politicians themselves might not have even realized it was there. Brinkley loved his job, though Reuven used to call him “lazy” for his reluctance to travel to remote locations. Brinkley just didn’t see the point in it; send a camera crew, send a correspondent, but why in the world send an anchor? Anchors aren’t sent places; they remain stable, holding things down.
Television was still an exciting business to cover in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before cable came, and a 500-channel universe loomed, and it all got too big and loud—and before an arrogant ignoramus who served as FCC Chairman likened TV sets to toasters (perhaps a brotherly salute to GE). The first generation of broadcast newsmen and women had come out of newspapers and the print tradition, and they loved the sound of a good lead. But Reuven also knew that TV was a visual medium and that the picture, not the word, had to be king. He knew how to make the words serve the picture and he was brilliant at putting them together to tell a story—something he did with particular impact in “The Tunnel,” a 90-minute documentary about an escape passage under the Berlin Wall from East to West.
It won the Emmy as not just the best newscast but the best telecast of any kind the year it aired. Fred Silverman later got it out of mothballs and aired it again during his troubled tenure as NBC chief.
Sorry, I have blogged on too long. May I, however, inject a personal note—as Cronkite used to say? Covering TV in what were for me happier times had many major and many minor pleasures. Among the former was the occasional postcard or note from Reuven—especially one that, once his illegible handwriting had been translated, turned out to contain a compliment over something he’d read and liked. He’d put the sentence or phrase in quotes and add encouraging words. It was like getting money from God.
I could see why those who’d worked for him over the years cared so much about pleasing him—how earning his respect and approval could be the great goal of a career, something worth a hundred Emmys and a thousand cheers. Good night, Chet; good night, David; good night, Reuven; and good night, NBC News.