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Giving Witness to Eyewitness News

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The last interview I had before ABC-TV hired me as news director of Channel 7 in New York was with Leonard Goldenson. As we rode the elevator to the 40th floor, General Manager Dick Beesemeyer warned me to put away the pipe I was comforting in my hands. The GM of WABC-TV was “on notice,” nervous as a cat. He whispered last-minute instructions in his infamously raspy voice.
The diminutive Goldenson strode quickly across the huge office, resplendent in his designer pinstripe suit, manicured hand outstretched before him. He had a wide grin; a powerful presence and a perpetual tan. He moved us to a sofa set in front of a Jackson Pollock painting and said, “So you’re going to fix the local news.” I beamed with relief, and then he turned deadly serious, “I just want to walk down Sixth Avenue without being embarrassed anymore. Can you take care of that?” I said, “ I think we can do better than that.”
It was the summer of 1968. The police action at the Democratic Convention in Chicago shocked the nation; Vietnam War protesters and women from NOW were marching in the streets. ABC’s network news was lacking. WABC-TV had Roger Grimsby and the Noisemakers.
The “suits” brought Roger to New York from San Francisco to read the news. A guy in a smock, Tex Antoine, was drawing the weather with “Uncle Wethby” in a rain hat for bad weather and sunglasses on good days. Howard Cosell filmed a sports commentary for the 11 p.m. newscast. Roger had to read the scores because Howard would not work late. Rona Barrett dished the dirt from Hollywood, and Martin Bookspan and Allan Jeffries provided reviews.
I killed the Noisemakers ad campaign on my first day. It was a test to see whether ABC was indeed going to let me start a legitimate news operation. Only the promotion people, who’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on it, complained.
The first newsroom meeting with AFTRA and Writers Guild people was tense. “Local” was the last stop on the way out the door at ABC. Most had failed jobs at the network. Now they weren’t taking any more chances.
I let them know they were needed to be the heart of the operation, that I had developed a new way of presenting news on television called Eyewitness News and they were going to be a big part of it. They just smiled nervously.
It was the first of many steps to inspire them to greatness.
I fashioned the first ABC7 Eyewitness News, Weather and Sports logo on a napkin at Chips, the bar across the street, where Grimsby and most of the newsies went to relieve their pain.
The studio was a full block away from the newsroom on West 66th Street in the old St. Nicholas Arena, which ABC converted to a television complex. It was dark and small. I was able to convince set design to paint the sides of the studio inverted to give it a longer look. We placed the anchor desk in front with reporters’ desks behind it. To give it a sense of drama, I had the cameras start the shot out in the hall, rolling through the doors at the opening and closing of the news. It was a first to use show-biz techniques for news.
Next was the music. ABC’s music librarian pulled some theme music, and after listening for hours we settled on a short passage from the score of the movie Cool Hand Luke. It was the signature theme that has lasted, in one version or another, until this day.
Just as I had done at KYW-TV, Philadelphia, I set out to hire reporters who could appear on camera. Only this time, there was money and I could afford more experienced people. Walking the streets of New York, I was struck by the diversity. Yet television was filled mostly with white Anglo-Saxon men and no women.
It came upon me to find reporters who looked like the community. We needed Italians, Jews, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and women. From the Young Lords street gang I hired their brash lawyer, Geraldo Rivera, and sent him to the Columbia University Minority News Training Program. I rescued Roger Sharp from ABC Radio, hired John Johnson, Doug Johnson, Melba Tolliver, Bob Lape and Roseanne Scamardella, whom SNL’s Gilda Radner memorialized as Roseanne Roseannadanna. I put them all in blue blazers and coached them into the Eyewitness News Team.
When we went on the air for the first time in November 1968 we looked New York. CBS and NBC News put us down. NBC drafted top network correspondents as local anchors and CBS just opened more bureaus in Long Island and New Jersey. By the time they realized we were the future of news, we had captured the imagination of the New York audience. When CBS and NBC started doing their own versions of Eyewitness News, they validated the format.
I was made VP of news at ABC and put the Eyewitness News format into each of the five owned-and-operated stations, which still dominate their markets. It became the blueprint for every local news station.
Years later, Leonard Goldensen asked me, “Were you ever afraid you would fail?” I answered, “I never even thought about it until you just asked.”
Albert T. Primo created the Eyewitness News concept in 1965. He is currently writing a book and starting production of his latest innovation, Eyewitness Kids News, which will be syndicated to 150 TV stations in September.