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Gralnick Observes 50 Years in News

Jan 27, 2008  •  Post A Comment

There was no party this month to mark Jeff Gralnick’s 50th anniversary in the television news business. Instead, TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi treated Mr. Gralnick to lunch and took notes as they talked about how he got into the business he knew right away was his kind of career. It’s a business he would leave only once, for a year, to serve as George McGovern’s press secretary in 1971 when Sen. McGovern ran for president.
It’s the business that introduced him to his wife, Beth (she was a producer for Walter Cronkite).
It’s the business he has seen up close from a wide spectrum of positions throughout five decades of dramatic cultural, technological and economic change. He covered the news as a field reporter in Vietnam for CBS News, where his broadcast career began. He was one of the first producers on “60 Minutes.” He would go on to be executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” and later “NBC Nightly News”—which moved into first place under his and anchor Tom Brokaw’s watch. He would executive produce special events, including political convention coverage for ABC News in the fabled Roone Arledge era.
He covered manned space flight. The country’s 200th birthday. The Persian Gulf War.
His excellent adventure took him to cable as executive VP of financial news at CNN and into the digital era as the executive in charge of developing and rolling out ABCNews.com.
He’s now a special consultant to NBC News on Internet and new technology development and integration. He’s on the board of the Integrated Media Systems Center at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering and a widely published writer on Internet matters.
Mr. Gralnick has never been a man to stand still or sit back.
In late 2004, at the age of 65, Mr. Gralnick, who had survived lung cancer, tackled Mount Kilimanjaro. He very nearly beat it.
His experience and attitude and way with words have long made him as well-regarded by the press covering electronic journalism as by his colleagues.
TelevisionWeek: What was the first career you thought you were going to have?
Jeff Gralnick: After cowboy? I always knew I was going to be in journalism of some kind or other. Sports editor of the high school newspaper. Sports editor of the NYU newspaper, which came out three days a week and we were a real newspaper. That was almost a paying job.
I wound up working for International News Service. I was a copy boy at INS, I guess, in ’58. I was going to be a reporter. I was supposed to go to Philadelphia—I’d been kind of promoted for the summer—as a starting writer. I came to work one day and the Pinkertons were all over the place. I was escorted to my locker, as everybody else was, because INS had been bought by UP and was going out of business. That was in May of whatever year that was.
So lo and behold, I had no job. I was going to school full-time, working full-time and needed the money. Those of us who were outplaced in kind of the first downsizing precursor were put at the Daily Mirror for three weeks as we worked off our severance—the second of the precursors of what would happen to the business we’re in. Then I had no job. I temporarily was going to be a riflery counselor at some summer camp. The camp folded. I had no job. None.
We had a neighbor who lived down the street, John Horn, who was a television critic for the Herald Tribune. Who knew the Herald Tribune had a television critic? Who knew? He said to my father, “I hear your son’s looking for a summer job. I hear there’s something called CBS Television News. Would he be interested in it?” So I apply for this job. I get this job as a copy boy, which is now called desk assistant, at CBS Television News in the old headquarters building in a ratty series of offices over the old Post Office on 45th Street, hard by Grand Central Station.
The studios were in the Graybar Building on Lexington Avenue. To get to the studios, you walked the catwalk over Grand Central Station. It was like “Phantom of the Opera.” At any rate, I get to CBS and I discover that if you get to be a writer at CBS, the salary’s going to be $135 a week with something called commercial fees and something called overtime and I said, “A writer in television news gets $135 a week-plus and a writer for a wire service gets $65 a week, I know which part of the business I want to be in.” That was 1959 and that was it.
TVWeek: What was the commercial fee? For writing a commercial?
Mr. Gralnick: If you wrote a program that had a sponsor on radio you got a commercial fee. “Go write Douglas Edwards reviews on radio.” It was brought to you by someone. You’d get an extra $25.
TVWeek: What was the overtime rate?
Mr. Gralnick: It was time and a half. Then if you worked a certain number of hours that ran into a certain number of other hours or it was overnight, it was double time. Boy, this television thing was a gold mine. I continued to work for CBS right ’til I graduated. Went to school days, worked nights. Then they promoted me to writer. In those days, you could not advance unless you could write, prove you could write. I wrote the Sunday night network news for Harry Reasoner. I wrote the morning network news for Richard C. Hottelet. I wrote for a daily morning program. It was called “Calendar.” [Harry Reasoner] was the male host and the female host was Mary Fickett. It was a half-hour, kind of way, way precursor for “The View,” kind of way, way precursor for the 9 o’clock hour and 10 o’clock hours of the ‘Today’ show.” I proved I could write and then got promoted to being on the assignment desk.
In those days, CBS Television News and WCBS were one organization. So if you were on the assignment desk four days a week or three and a half days a week you ran the desk and directed coverage for WCBS and for CBS, and one day a week you went out and you were a street reporter, and you were on television on WCBS and occasionally on the big show.
TVWeek: By “big show” you mean the evening news?
Mr. Gralnick: Right. Once I got into it, I knew this was the business I was going to be in. No doubt. I began to work with a lot of really good people who became serious mentors going forward. I was desk assistant on the old “CBS Evening News With Douglas Edwards.” Executive producer? Don Hewitt. I was desk assistant with a guy named Bob Wussler.
When I was on the assignment desk, Charles Kuralt was on that assignment desk. Phil Scheffler was on that assignment desk. Nelson Benton. A lot of really good people. Everybody was kind of learning what this new business was all about.
And then I got really—your luck is where you are, and I was running the assignment desk on the day Jack Kennedy was shot. I basically ran CBS News coverage for 24 straight hours. At the end of that I went home and went to sleep about three hours and the phone rang and it was Ralph Paskman saying, “What are you doing? Why are you asleep? Go to Dallas.” I went to Dallas and basically created the CBS News bureau in Dallas to cover those four days. That’s the first time I met Dan Rather.
So I went to Dallas. I was there when Jack Ruby was shot. One of my great—Av Westin will kill me for this—but a great story about timing. Actually, two people could kill me for this. Paul Greenberg can also kill me for this story. Paul Greenberg was at ABC. There was room for only two remote trucks inside the jail where Ruby was going to be moved. Our station KRLD was late, and their truck couldn’t get in. For reasons known only to Paul Greenberg, about an hour before Ruby was to be moved, he decided to pull his remote truck and take it to Parkland Hospital. Don’t know why. Never asked him about it. But his truck pulled out, our truck pulled in, so we were in a position to cover this thing live.
So I’m on two phones in the middle of this newsroom, my bureau, one phone to the remote truck and one phone to the control room [and] Av Westin, who was kind of the executive producer of all of the long-form programming. Some kind of mega-music piece was on the air. I said, “They’re getting ready to move him.” He said, “Don’t worry, got about 20 bars left of this music piece.” I said, “Av, I can see movement. He’s coming.” “Don’t worry. Sixteen bars.” I said, “Av, you see him now? He’s almost in full view.” He said, “Don’t worry. Eight bars.” I said, “Av, he’s really coming.” Av said, “Four bars.” And … NBC News covered it live. We were in the final four bars of a music piece.”
TVWeek: Was that your first experience with, what, an “Oh, f***” moment?
Mr. Gralnick: Yeah, that was the first really serious “f*** me,” but after that there are legions of them. But it’s a story about how when you’re producing, if you’re so in love with what you have on the air at the moment, it could be your worst enemy. It kind of was my fault because I couldn’t be forceful enough with him. He was the executive producer. I was just some kid.
There are things you never forget. Like the great bidding war that happened in various newsrooms over the Zapruder film. CBS got out of the bidding at $25,000. Too much money. But it was addictive. You were doing something that happened right then, and once it happened it was over and you were doing something else that was happening right then.
TVWeek: Who taught you the most, or where and when did you learn the most?
Mr. Gralnick: Everybody who taught me taught me something that was for the moment the most I could learn. Ten years or so at CBS basically learning the business and being taught by really good people. If you wrote for Charles Kuralt or you wrote for Harry Reasoner, by God, you had to write.
There was a guy named Bill Crawford, who should have become president of CBS News but he was too young. He mentored the hell out of me and taught me how to write. I still have scripts I wrote for him. He was a senior executive. He taught me. Paskman taught me.
Working for Walter Cronkite was an education in itself. You’ve never been yelled at until you’ve been yelled at by Walter Cronkite. But Walter taught me something else. Walter knew when he was wrong, how to admit it publicly. He chewed me out publicly one day before a space shot over some really arcane piece of space crap. It kind of came down to “Well, goddammit, Walter, you’re wrong.” He said, “No, no, no, you’re wrong.” We got off the air and he stood up in this little trailer that was our studio and he said, “I want to make an announcement. I was wrong. He was right.” That a Walter Cronkite could say that told you something that you had to remember, that you could never be so important that you couldn’t say you were wrong.
Mike Wallace taught me a lot about how to chase a story. The list goes on. The best single teacher overall for two decades has to be Roone Arledge. I’m better for having worked with Tom Brokaw. He added a phrase to my personal lexicon that became a sub-rule, and it is: “Take a deep breath.” I worked at the beginnings of television news, when everybody could do everything, nothing was structured. Everybody just kind of did stuff. The business was inventing itself. From ’59 to ’69, that was when the business really invented itself. Videotape happened. Color happened.
Then I went to ABC, which had its moribund days until Roone happened. Those of us who worked for Roone and with Roone basically took television news to what it could be. We did four solid days of coverage for the Sadat visit to Israel. [Roone] turned to me and he said, “OK, you’re producing it.” We just kind of improvised. At the drop of a hat we would say, “OK, it’s a special.” Bing Crosby died, that was an 11:30 special. John Wayne died, that was an11:30 special. Andy Young got fired, that was an 11:30 special. I’m at my birthday party that someone is giving for me at Lincoln Center Apartments. The phone rings and it’s Roone’s executive assistant. “Roone’s really sorry to bother you but we’re to do a special at 10 o’clock on rapprochement with China.” I say, “It’s quarter of 9. Koppel’s going to anchor. He’s going to go to a studio. I’ll go to a control room. We’ll figure it out.” We did an hour of live television.
I learned a hell of a lot from Barbara Walters. She is a really nice person. Here’s my favorite Barbara Walters story: I walked by her one day and I said, “What a great perfume” and I just kept walking. Three days later, delivered to our house is a package to my wife with that perfume and a note saying, “Your husband likes this perfume.” Barbara also taught me what periwinkle was. Barbara was anchoring a vice presidential debate and we’re doing it in Chroma key and she calls up and asks if there’s anything she should know about what to wear. I said, “Chroma key’s in blue, so don’t wear anything blue.” She said, “I’m wearing periwinkle. Will that be OK?” I said, “I don’t know what the hell periwinkle is.” She said, “Just wait a minute.” She sends her assistant over with half a Crayola crayon, purple. I called her up and said, “That’ll be OK.” It worked out fine. It was just off enough.
TVWeek: You say the business is in the last phase of evolution. Expand on that, please.
Mr. Gralnick: I don’t know what broadcast news can or will look like by 2011. It’s the death of a thousand cuts in one way. It’s the business of being marginalized in another. Marginalized by cable news, marginalized by the Internet and direct delivery of the news, marginalized the same way that newspapers were marginalized by television news. I wrote a piece in 2001 or 2002 that was premature. It was for the Columbia Journalism Review. It basically said evening news broadcasts are over within five years, at least one of the three will be gone. Clearly wrong or premature. But if you look at what’s happened to the audience of those programs over that period of time, how long can they sustain as business models if the audiences keep diminishing and diminishing almost geometrically? When I produced the first version of “World News Tonight,” except for the wonderful three weeks where we were first, we were generally dead last … with a 22, 23, 24 share. Cronkite was first. He had a 35, 36, 37 share. But the three evening news programs as recently as 1979 had a combined share of about 75% of sets in use.
TVWeek: This is an age of niches and fractionalization and everything being cannibalized. The evening news audience has been diminished in keeping with this era. So it isn’t as big an audience as it used to be. What is? Why is it not still viable?
Mr. Gralnick: I can’t answer that question. At what point does it become economically non-feasible to spend the amount of money [to do an evening news broadcast]? I hope the answer to that question is never—it never becomes financially impossible to do that kind of program. But I wouldn’t bet my own money on that being the outcome. It’s why NBC is making its “Nightly News” multiplatform. Stream it on the Internet. Recapture some lost audience. Recapture some lost revenue. That’s why there’s a big push to make “NBC Nightly News” a globally visible broadcast. It’s seen in 107 countries now. Television news as we know it is going to evolve into a totally new form or disappear.
I had this big fight with Dan Rather at a convention where I was first quoted as saying [political] conventions effectively were dying dinosaurs. Convention audiences were declining markedly and we were beginning to think about ways to diminish this coverage and responsibly move away from the rubric of gavel-to-gavel coverage—of course nobody had ever done gavel-to-gavel coverage anyway. Rather gave a “can’t be true. There’ll be conventions like this forever. We’ll be covering them forever,” the full nine yards at CBS News speech.
He distributed buttons around the convention site that had a dinosaur and said “I (heart) dinosaurs.” I said, “Dan, remember this about dinosaurs: They didn’t evolve ’til they died.” We were going to do an “evolve or die” button, but we figured what the hell. It’s all about evolution. And it’s all about adapting. And in the process of adapting some good things happen and some bad things happen.

One Comment

  1. You know a business is in its infancy when Walter Cronkite tosses a video tape to a teenager, whose brother works for him, and says,”Up the stairs, hurry or there’s only voice and no picture coming up next. And this is television not radio!”
    Bill Gralnick
    proud younger brother of jeff, mentor to many

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