By Jon Lafayette
When Walter Cronkite died, the nation mourned one of the most trusted and influential figures in the history of television news.
But when Frank N. Magid died in February, few TV viewers knew who he was, despite the impact he had on the local newscasts that they see.
“His influence has really affected my whole professional life in terms of his impact on television,” said Stacey Woelfel, news director of KOMU-TV, Columbia, Mo., and chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association. “It’s probably apples and oranges to compare Cronkite and Magid, but at the same time here’s a person that most television viewers never heard of and they don’t realize what sort of impact he had on what they were able to watch on television news over the last couple of generations.”
That’s probably the way Magid, known as a modest man, would have wanted it.
Magid, after earning Master’s degrees in social psychology and statistics in 1956, became one of the first television station consultants.
By introducing viewer studies to television news, creating the lively and much copied “Action News” format that is still dominant today, popularizing morning newscasts, and advising stations in nearly every market, Magid and his company put their stamp on the industry. He also recommended Walter Cronkite as the solo anchor of CBS’ “Evening News” and helped start “Good Morning America.”
“The guy was an absolute genius. He would see things that no one else saw,” said Stanley S. Hubbard, chairman and CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, who worked with Magid for 40 years.
According to Hubbard, Magid believed that “people want to know the news, they want to know what’s going on, but they wanted it presented in a fashion that’s interesting.”
Hubbard recalled the way Magid reviewed the work of one news anchor. “You see how that person’s lip curls? People are going to notice that, and they’re not going to watch that person because they’re going to take the focus off the news where it should be,” Magid concluded, according to Hubbard. “Details, details. He was really into details.”
Beginning at KYW-TV in Philadelphia, “Action News” was a ratings winner, but Magid’s work was also criticized for creating local newscasts that were indistinguishable from market to market and which pandered to the audience with stories about crime and happy talk from anchors.
“Thanks to him, local newscasts throughout America are like airports or fast food joints; they lack all traces of indigenousness,” wrote Tom Shales of The Washington Post in 1982.
“I think a lot of it is sour grapes,” said Brent Magid, now president of his father’s company, Frank N. Magid Associates. “I think you’ve got a lot of ‘capital J’ journalists who didn’t really make the cut as the business became more competitive.”
“I remember Peter Jennings hated Frank Magid,” recalled Hubbard.
Magid’s research provided an objective look at the way journalists’ work was being received by the public.
“No one likes to know they’re not as good as they think they are,” Hubbard said. “Frank Magid put up with a lot of abuse.”
And after being told what viewers said they wanted to see, some stations responded with more crime and less in-depth reporting.
That’s not necessarily what Magid was recommending.
“They labeled it ‘Happy News.’ ‘Here’s this Magid guy coming in and creating all this flash and dash with no substance.’ That’s pure malarkey,” said Brent Magid.
Woelfel, the RTDNA chairman, said that “there are plenty of people that would say that research and the consultation has taken stations down paths where trying to turn ratings for the quarter hour that you’re in is more important than some of the big important stories, the policy stories, the significant stories in the community.”
But he added that his station was at times a Magid client and “I didn’t feel like I was advised to do anything that rubbed me the wrong way or sent me down a path that I didn’t want to go down, so I was a happy customer,” he said.
Brent Magid said that in recent conversations his father was sad about the current depressed state of local TV, with its focus on cost-cutting and a reluctance to invest in innovation, as technology changes viewers’ lives.
“As my father used to say: ‘Nobody takes your business away. You give it away.’” Brent Magid said. “Anytime in any business in which you fail to innovate beyond just superficial items — changing the set, changing the lighting, ‘Oh, we went to HD’ — and unless you get to the real meatiness of understanding what business you’re really in and how you’re doing it better than anybody else, you’re going to find yourself in trouble.”