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Reuven Frank
Reuven Frank
Out of Thin Air:  The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News
ISBN: 0671677586
Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News
Mr. Frank was president of NBC News from 1968-1973 and 1982-1984. He is author of the book Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News. He shared his insights as an insider in the business for 40 years, and described the late 1950s to the 1970s as "the best years." He also shared his views on how decreasing budgets and competition from cable networks have contributed to the decline of network news.
Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News
Program Air Date: September 15, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Reuven Frank, author of "Out of Thin Air," with the subtitle, "The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News," why the subtitle?
Mr. REUVEN FRANK, AUTHOR, "OUT OF THIN AIR": Well, I was--what I tried to do was give my view of the history of an institution. And the institution was commercial network television news in the United States when it was a monopoly. And it was an important institution. When it was a monopoly, a word with very negative con--connotations connotations, properly. But when it was a monopoly, we did a very good job informing the American public. And I--I truly believe that Americans were better informed then than any public ever, anywhere.

And the end of the monopoly ended the institution. There's still network news, and it's still pretty good, all--a lot of it. But it--its institutional position in American society is over, I believe. And the interesting thing about it is that here was this institution that had a real importance for, at best, 40 years--one lifetime. And it was my good fortune--not a matter of skill or wit or anything--to be there for virtually that entire period, for the rise and the fall. And--and I had a wonderful time. So that's--that's the subtitle.
LAMB: When were the best years?
Mr. FRANK: The best years would be, I would guess, from the late '50s until the early or middle '70s.
LAMB: What made them the best?
Mr. FRANK: The experimental times were over; we knew what we were doing. But the economic pressures had not yet closed in. We had to earn our way, but it was not what it later became. We got to be, I think, very good. A lot of it was the really fierce competition among the networks. We were more interested in beating each other. And--and that, too, has its limitations, but it--it--it sharpens the wit and--and increases the energy level. And so we were really quite good. And the stumbling, the early steps, were over. We were still experimenting; we were still trying things that were--had not been tried before. It was still--it was still possible to do that. It was still possible to fall on your face; you wouldn't get fired for it. And--and so it was a time of--of--of great esprit de corps and yet a time of great achievement. And then it started to tail off. It--it's--it's--it's the cycle--it's--it's the normal life cycle of--of people and institutions all through history. But this one was so compressed.
LAMB: What years were you, twice, NBC News president?
Mr. FRANK: From '68 to early '73, and again from '82 to '84.
LAMB: Where did it all begin?
Mr. FRANK: You mean my being in management?
LAMB: You being in the news business.
Mr. FRANK: Oh, in the news business. Well, at least since I was in high school that's where I wanted to be.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
Mr. FRANK: I grew up in Toronto, and then I--we came here. I--I got a--I went to the Columbia Journalism School and got a job at the Newark Evening News, which was then a major newspaper, probably the most important newspaper in New Jersey. And I was doing quite well; got to be night city editor. When this classmate of mine, Jerry Green, the novelist--later the novelist--called me. He had gone into television early because he didn't like his job. I liked mine, but he'd been in INS--you remember INS; it's now the I in UPI.

And so he took the first time out, and television was really in its early halting steps. And he called me, and he said, `Would you like to come up here?'

And I said, `Gee thanks, but no.'

And Jerry's a--he says he's no longer, but I don't believe him--he's a short-tempered man. And my answer was insulting. And he said, `You work nights. You've got a new baby at home, so you can't sleep days. The least you can do is come up and look at it.'

So I did. And it was a fascinating experience. He took me into--NBC News was then far from Rockefeller Center--60 blocks--at 106th Street in an old--old film laboratory building. It was totally separate from radio news. And I went into a room--he took me into a room with 150, 200, theater seats, empty. I thought it was a movie house; they told me it was a screening room. In the back, behind a counter, were two men. And on the screen, in negative--full screen, full size, in negative--were scenes of the previous day's activities--it was 1950--in Berlin. And even in negative, you could tell which were the American uniforms and which were the British uniforms and which were the German police and which were the crowds. And one of the men was saying to the other man, `I think we need about 10 seconds to set the scene, and I would like to use this and I would like to use that.' And just listening to them, I decided that was the most fascinating way to earn a living I had ever come across. So I stayed.
LAMB: So it was 1950.
Mr. FRANK: 1950.
LAMB: When was the actual, in your opinion, the beginning of network news?
Mr. FRANK: Well, the networks themselves--you can establish the beginning of commercial television networks in the United States because on May 1st, '48, AT&T went from experimental transmission of signals from city to city to a published rate card. The FCC approved the rate card to begin May 1st, so that's the beginning of networks. And none of them--there were then four networks--none of them had a news staff assigned to television. But the conventions were coming, and it had already been decided, because of television, that the conventions would be in Philadelphia. So each of the networks had to run and scratch to cover the conventions. And they covered them--the term began then--gavel-to-gavel. Radio had never done that. And they went gavel-to-gavel because they had nothing else to show; there were no commercial programs to displace.

And so that was the beginning of news. They--they improvised to set up an organization; the executives, by and large--and I hope I'm not being unfair; I know I'm not being unfair to anybody living--but by and large, the executives were radio executives who had gotten a little long in the tooth or didn't quite make it, and rather than fire them, they were sent into this new thing where nothing really mattered, but at least they would get paid. And--and everybody scratched and improvised, and somehow or other the conventions were covered by four networks--the existing three and--I've forgotten one--DuMont.
LAMB: When was the first evening anchored newscast?
Mr. FRANK: The first one was CBS in late 1949; NBC started it in early 1950. I think my dates are right. CBS started with Douglas Edwards, who had anchored their convention coverage; NBC started with John Cameron Swayze, who had anchored its convention coverage. And there was a very bitter fight to get the big account--Camel cigarettes. The advertising agent for Camel cigarettes advised the R.J. Reynolds Company that men who smoked cigarettes--that was the accepted dogma--also watched news. And if we get a good network news program, that's what we ought to do in television. So the "Camel News Caravan" was born.
LAMB: Is it true that you couldn't show a no-smoking sign?
Mr. FRANK: Oh, yeah. Camel was a sponsor. This is a term that's--that's fallen out of--it's no longer used. A sponsor is a a full advertiser. And it was established, I--I suppose--I'm going by what I heard--in the days of network radio, that a sponsor had influence on the program. And Camel had influence on its program. It was a full sponsor; paid all the bills--not only for the program, but for all of NBC News. That's why they were so anxious to have it.

But they didn't interfere with news coverage. They had their vested interests in their minds, so I could not show a news--no-smoking sign, which was not too serious. You can edit around that. I could not show a live camel--the animal. A Camel is a cigarette, which soothes you and is recommended by doctors and the T-zone--you know about all that stuff, whereas a live camel is a large, ungainly and smelly beast, and they didn't like the association. But neither of those was important. I was not about to show T.E. Lawrence on a camel.

But what was serious, I was not allowed to show anyone smoking a cigar. And I joined the program after it was about a year old, in 1951, early 1951, St. Patrick's Day, I seem to remember. And at that time, the most famous face in the entire world was that of the then-former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the man who led the Allies to victory, the great orator. And you could not show Churchill's face without a cigar in the middle of it. And so I went to the people who hired me, and I said, `Look, we can't do this. I mean, it's very hard to do news without Churchill, and Churchill's always smoking a cigar.' And they were terrified of approaching the advertiser because, as I say, winning the account was a great achievement, and they didn't want to jeopardize it.

So I said, `Well, let me go.' And very reluctantly, they gave me permission to go. And I trotted myself down to 42nd Street where the William Estey Company--that was the agency--had its office. And I saw the man in charge, and told him, I said, `It's very hard to do news. If you want a news program, I've got to be able to use Churchill smoking a cigar.' And he said, `All right.' No argument whatever. And I said, `Thank you,' and headed to the door. And as I reached the door, I said--he said, `But only Churchill.' And I said, `How about Groucho Marx?' He said, `No.'
LAMB: When was the first 30-minute newscast?
Mr. FRANK: September '63.
LAMB: Who anchored that?
Mr. FRANK: That was Walter Cronkite for CBS and Huntley and Brinkley for NBC.
LAMB: When did ABC start its news?
Mr. FRANK: ABC always had news, went on and off. Remember, those early days--it's hard to--hard to appreciate it now with--with the strength and the--and the--and--and the achievements of that organization. But for--for the first decade or more of network television, there was two and a half networks. ABC really didn't measure up. They had a kind of a limping news organization, some good professionals in it, but no resources. John Daly would anchor. At first they had what amounted to a newsreel with somebody named Dorian St. George with one of those resonant voices. And--but John Daly was good, except he did--they didn't have a film organization, they didn't have backup. It wasn't until Arledge came that--you know, Goldenson took over ABC, put Arledge in charge of news--that it really became a grown-up organization. And I--I'm not too sure of the year. But it was in the '70s.
LAMB: First color newscast.
Mr. FRANK: First color newscast was right after I got sucked into management, which was in '65. So I guess that was in '66. That was--everybody knew we were going to get color sooner or later, but Shad Northshield, who was then the executive producer, met an Eastman Kodak salesman at some party who told him that they had gotten color film to the point where it could be processed fast enough so that it was reliable for news. And Shad came to me, and we--we pressured the--the management into--because we had to set our own processing up then; we could no longer send it out to professional labs and--and get it back in time. And--and I was--the--the--the logistics of that got complicated, and the decision had to be made to go. And he astounded everybody by doing it, because he was way ahead of schedule.
LAMB: What were the things along the way that changed news? You mentioned film. I'm thinking of things like videotapes, satellites and all that. But what--what...
Mr. FRANK: Well, videotape and satellite-- the technology pulled the news, changed the news entirely from about the middle '70s on. Tape was earlier than that. The first tape, of course, was--was Ampex, the big two-inch tape, which was almost impossible to edit. You had to edit it physically. You had to take a single-edge razor--I think that was the fir--the last legal use of the single-edge razor blade--where you had to cut it and join your cuts with--with a metallic tape that 3M put out. And I remember it was a fascinating process to watch. They'd-- take this kind of--they'd take a liquid which had a metal suspended in it and finally divide--and they'd put it along and have little striations, and those were the pulses. You know, -I'm a technological ignoramus, and I was just fascinated to see this. You'd have to cut on this line and not on this line. But all we did it for, for example, in those days, was to take a speech and be able to excerpt two or three cuts to total no more than a minute or a minute and a half. You never edited tape as you do now for--the way you edit film for the interaction and for the more than one camera taking a picture. So that changed things drastically.

Everybody said tape would be a lot cheaper, because the tape itself is reusable, whereas film is--it gets used up. And it turned out to be a lot more expensive. It is part of the enormous capitalization -that news has had--has gone through since, as I say, from the late '70s to the present, where an editing setup has the electronic sophistication of an entire television station in each one of those rooms. And we have editing set up so that people carrying suitcases with--with handles can set up in hotel rooms, and so do you. Everybody has that now. But the cost of those things, to set up in the news business today, to cover, as--as we took for granted, all over the world in some form or other with this kind of equipment, is an enormous commitment. And that--that's part of the problem today. It's--it's more than they can stand.
LAMB: You said earlier that during monopoly time, you feel the American people were the best informed ever by anybody anywhere.
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. FRANK: Why? Because-- -there are several reasons. A big one was that the coincidence of television, and therefore television news, with the post World War II period. During World War II--What?--10 million, 15 million young Americans went to strange places in uniform. Names we had never heard became -reasonably familiar, not only to them but to their families back home. The war that was fought was fought around the globe. So that in the 1950s and even into the 1960s, a national election in France was a story in all the American media, not only television. But television was good at it, so that the face of the president of France or the prime minister of Italy or the silly changes with them going up and down the steps--remember?--they'd go up and they'd come down and--were familiar in every American home. And as we got better at it, we covered stories that stimulated people's interest.

And they were--they liked television because--primarily because of the novelty, I would guess, and the new experience of seeing things. And-- my own view, that seeing things is a different dimension of information. It gives you a sense of participation that even the best-written and most carefully detailed written report does not give you. So until people were saturated with that, they were fascinated. And--and the things that we did were always kind of serious news things. By and large, we showed them what Africa was like, we showed them what Asia was like. We showed them people they had never met before and problems they had never seen before. And they were interested.

It's interesting however, to me, that we were never successful in interesting the public in what was going on in Latin America, except for the usual things--wars and disasters. And we tried very hard. One time--the first time I was in charge of the NBC News Division, we actually set up two Latin American bureaus, which was unusual for our business. One in the Northeast and one in the Southwest--I think one in Chile--I forget. But--and one in Rio. And they tried very hard. And the stories didn't resonate. We gave it up as a bad job.

But the rest of the world, all kinds of interesting things were going on. Admiral Dufek led his two expeditions to the Antarctic; pictures were there when they reached the South Pole. We didn't show them the next day, as we would today, but can you imagine what seeing the first pictures of the South Pole were? In color? And-- so this of opening horizons opened the people--I'm just guessing; I'm not an expert in this--opened people to this kind of information, and they liked it. They didn't get turned off, as they had been, say, between the two World Wars. And as I think they are today, or they may be--or too many of them seem to be.
LAMB: Did network news ever make money while you were running the show?
Mr. FRANK: I can't answer that seriously, because it's internal--they used to say it did not make money. The news divisions, NBC specifically--I was given a budget and told that sales were none of my business. And I think that's a good way to run things. I'd argue for the budget and always complain that it was too low. Internal accounting is something-- --it's a mysterious art. What they charged for office space is arbitrary. And if you are, as NBC News was, in Rockefeller Center, you have to charge a lot of money for office space. And I used to say, `Well, look, rather than spend all this money for,' as I would argue in my annual budget, I'd say, `I'm going to move over to Ninth Avenue in a garage. I'm going to take a big garage and put these people in it. This space is really designed for dentists. I can't afford it.' So, you know, I think they made money.

But they had another role. News, after all, is the only thing that networks do; everything else they buy. News defines--for the entire history, news has defined the networks. The anchorman is the face of the network, of the entire network, not only of its news division. And that's why they become so important--and perhaps unbearably important. And there was a time, until quite recently, when every station had to go through a complicated and painful process to get its license renewed--its license to broadcast renewed by the Federal Communications Commission. And it used to-- prepare--I remember seeing a preparation of the New York station, and it was a stack of documents this high off the floor, three and four feet. And one of the things they did was brag about the wonderful things they were doing for the community. And among the wonderful things they did was give news. So we were part of the license to do business. So even if we didn't make money, we made it possible to make money. So we never felt we weren't justified--we had to justify ourselves. We justified our--we were justified from the beginning.
LAMB: Did you have power?
Mr. FRANK: No. No, we --within the organization? We had...
LAMB: Power within the country.
Mr. FRANK: Within the country? Power is a difficult word. Power is power only if you use it. I think it is possible to imagine someone on--using television news for personal ends, either--either for--to make money or to achieve power. It, to my mind, has never happened. We had great influence, and we had to be careful not to exercise it. And I've always resisted knowing the effect of what we--the--what--the effect what we did would have on the people watching. Because if you know that, it will govern how you--or if you think you know that, because I don't think any one of us is really sure--it will govern how you do it. And I think news has enough tradition--it's a tradition-ridden business for four, five--hundreds--years. You do the news, if you're a professional, as well as you can and hope that people will be interested enough to pay attention. If you try to figure out you mustn't do this--now, there are exceptions; there are exceptions--exceptions of taste. And there are certain things--I remember we used to be careful about--you don't cover civil disturbance live; but you do cover civil disturbance as news. Those things. But other than that, you shouldn't know too much about your power. Because otherwise, the temptation to use it may be irresistible.
LAMB: How about anchors? You write a lot about anchors in here. You write about famous people and the money that they're paid. And it sounds like you didn't really care for a lot of them.
Mr. FRANK: Well, no. That--that's not true. Huntley and Brinkley were friends of mine; Brinkley still is a friend of mine. Chancellor is a friend of mine--and I mean a friend. The anchor is a necessary part of the system. The anchor is the vehicle--the audience relates to the anchor, not to the program as a--as an entity. And the anchor must be a professional, but he must also be acceptable. You cannot use a man who has a speech defect, for example. He may be brilliant--you and I have both known newspaper reporters who had speech defects and who were good reporters and hard-working reporters and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, for that matter, but you couldn't use them to broadcast. So, because they are the connection to the audience, the audience must be prepared to accept them. It's not all a matter of hairdressers.

The role of the anchor in the early days was that he was a part of the team, first among equals, if you like. Then the sea change, I believe, came with the first million-dollar salary. It is part of the American and received wisdom that anybody who makes a million dollars is smarter than anybody who doesn't. And since the activity itself is a group activity, it distorted the relationships within the group. I don't care about the money they make; I don't--I don't see that it's necessarily wrong, immoral or any one of those things for anchors to make that kind of money if they attract the people. Why should anchors make less money than NBA basketball stars, who are also paid because they bring people into the arena? That's why anchors are paid. Their--their salary for journalism is a good living wage; the rest of the money they are paid for being--for attracting a lot of people, making large audiences; they manufacture audiences.
LAMB: Who was the first million-dollar anchor?
Mr. FRANK: The first million-dollar salary went to Barbara Walters, although it was not for anchoring. It was split between ABC when--when she was recruited by ABC from NBC, where she had been on "Today" for many years. It was split between the Entertainment Department, which paid for those special interview programs of hers, and the News Department. So actually she got a half-million dollars for news. But that, in itself, changed things. And from then on, anchors--and particularly their representatives, who say mean things on their behalf because they don't want to be heard saying them, insisted on that kind of money. And--and it became competitive.

And another factor, of course, was that ABC, coming late and catching up, did it by spending a lot of money. And I don't know--they had to make up for at least 10 years. And--and Arledge was given money to do it with, and he did it with money. And I think he did it brilliantly. I think when you look at what ABC News was and what it became, in really quite a short time, that's a tremendous achievement. And although no achievement in television is one person's, he deserved a lot of that credit. I--he--you know. He drove us crazy. And that's not bad.
LAMB: What do you think it'll be like 10 years from now? With the anchors and with the salaries and...
Mr. FRANK: Well, I don't think that's going to change much. And here's why. What is happening now, with the--the now--the explosion of competition. You can get news so many other places than the networks. But the networks still exist. And they will still present news. They are cutting their expenditures. It's become--it's in the news every day. But they are cutting their expenditures on getting the news, on gathering the news, and very little cuts in presenting the news. No anchor, for example, has taken a pay cut. They're going to keep presenting the news so long as it's efficient for them to do so. But they will get their news, and particularly their news pictures, from central organizations--kind of international newsreels, or that kind of thing. Newsreel is a nasty word, but that's really what they are. That means that they'll all have the same pictures. They already all have--too often all have virtually the same news, which is all right when there's a major news story, but that's one day out of five these days--ingenuity plays too little part.

So the competitive factor--and they still--they still compete with each other for audience, and therefore for revenue, since they are the same thing--the competitive factor becomes the anchor; and not the anchor's ability as a journalist, although they all have it, but his attractiveness--or her if it ever comes to that. It hasn't yet. So that now we truly are getting the battle of the hairdressers. And I'm not sure--I'm not sure that's--that's great. I--I kind of--I doubt whether that's going to improve things.
LAMB: Were you there when Gerald Ford was hired to be a commentator...
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
LAMB: ...and Henry Kissinger was hired to be a commentator?
Mr. FRANK: Yeah. I was there as a producer. I was not a part of the management. I had gotten out.
LAMB: What did you think of that idea?
Mr. FRANK: I was not surprised it didn't work.
LAMB: Why didn't it work?
Mr. FRANK: Well, they were taken for their name value more than anything else. None of those things has ever worked. Every time--well, for example, CBS had this big contract with Lyndon Johnson to do his memoirs. The memoirs were successful books and kind of wasted time as--as television programming. Kissinger was going to comment on international affairs. He is competent to do so, God knows, but--but he's also inhibited from doing so because--it's a case of where a man knows too much. He can't do the other things that journalists on television do, like go out with a film crew or do an interview or argue with somebody. There are--I think there are reasons of personality he couldn't, but there are also reasons of his position. I'm not sure it would be appro--appropriate for him to do those things. To--to--Henry Kissinger to interview the present secretary of State, say. I'm not--I'm not sure that would be a g--good idea at all.

So it couldn't work because they couldn't be--they couldn't function in television. They couldn't be television professionals. They could be visiting stars. And their function was too limited. And--and when they tried to do those programs--and--and some of them were tricked up beyond all belief. They took one where Kissinger did a one-hour program in five or six locations; he had to hop around the world, standing there and saying things that he could have said just as well here on the Mall. So it didn't work. And it was greeted by universal inattention. Nobody turned it on. Nobody cared. Nobody quoted it the next day. It didn't make publicity; it didn't make audience; it didn't make prestige; it didn't make anything. The most they got out of the Kissinger relationship was the pre--press release announcement of the contract.

And television executives tend to be as star-struck as the rest of the populace. And in their case, since they are used to the big--I'm talk--not talking about news executives; I'm talking about the people who run the place. They know all the stars in Hollywood, but secretary of State is a very big deal to those people. And--and--and I think their judgment was bedazzled.
LAMB: You write about Marvin Kalb coming from CBS to NBC and requiring in the contract a certain number of appearances on the news shows? What did you think of that?
Mr. FRANK: I thought that was outrageous. I cannot blame Marvin; he was not the first. The representatives got it for them. The executives who allowed that were acting unprofessionally. In the case of the "NBC Nightly News," when I came back into the management in 1982, the producer of that program, the key program of the NBC News function--seven nights a week of news that we presented to a large audience, our biggest responsibility--four or five people had the right to claim time on the air. And time on the air is the most important--by far the most important thing in broadcasting. And you--if your budget is low and you're of a mind to, you can go and rob a bank. But if you don't get time on the air, you don't exist. And time on the air for a half-hour news program is 22 minutes and some seconds of news. And a producer coming in in the morning, knowing that perhaps six of those minutes are spoken for and he has no control of the content, is, to me, unconscionable. And it is not the producer's fault, and it is not really the fault of those people who have that right. It is the fault of the executive of the News Division who gave it to them. And that, as I say, is a--is a violation of all professional standards.
LAMB: What do you think of the Edward R. Murrow legend?
Mr. FRANK: Murrow was a very important man in many ways. He--it's interesting that his time in television journalism was really quite short. He--he came out of the war with this tremendous reputation that he had made in radio. I can remember listening to him as an undergraduate up in Toronto. And he did--he did innovative things. He and Friendly did innovative things in terms of form. "See It Now" was a new kind of idea; they--they went after different kind of pictures. And he did courageous things in terms of content. Courage is a word that's tossed around now. People--it--there are very few occasions where you have to be courageous today. You can say practically anything, and you'll get people who disagree with you, but very few people will still deny you the right to say it. There were times when the right to say it was in dispute, when you could get into trouble for saying things, you could get in trouble for belonging to organizations. And they may have been nasty organizations, but it's your right to belong to them.

And Murrow tackled that better--earlier and better and stronger--Murrow and Friendly--you got to give Freddie the credit--than anybody else, and set a pattern that became possible. It is also true, however, that Murrow's--the--the down-curve of Murrow's presence at CBS began then, with the McCarthy program particularly. And when he became, quote, "trouble."

So the legend--the legend, I would support. I think the iconography is overdone. He is not a holy figure; he is a wonderful professional example.
LAMB: You mentioned John Chancellor, who is your friend...
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
LAMB: ...who at one point became a head--head of the Voice of America.
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
LAMB: Edward R. Murrow at one time--no--ran the United States Information Agency.
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
LAMB: Robert Kintner, who was one of your bosses, used to work for Lyndon Johnson in the White House.
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
LAMB: John Scali is--with ABC, used to be the UN ambassador, and go on on--there are lots of examples like this. What do you think of that?
Mr. FRANK: Well, in the case of Chancellor, I didn't think it was a good idea. As a matter of fact, I insisted that, had I been in the country--I was out …I would have talked him out of it. Probably--I'm probably flattering myself.

Kintner joined the--became secretary of the Cabinet after he left broadcasting. Murrow became director of the USIA after he left broadcasting. Nothing wrong with that. But Scali and Chancellor, it was in between. I could not point to an example where it influenced them to do things differently, and their professionalism was never in doubt--is--has never been in doubt. But it still makes me uncomfortable.
LAMB: Robert Kintner, who was he? And you refer a lot in your book to the fact that he had a terrible drinking problem.
Mr. FRANK: Well, I--I don't think that's in dispute. It was generally known.
LAMB: What impact did it have on your relationship?
Mr. FRANK: Well, who was he, first. Robert Kintner started off as a newspaper reporter somewhere back home in Pennsylvania. When I was first aware of him, still as an undergraduate, he was a highly respected columnist for the New York Herald Tribune here in Washington. He was partnered with Joseph Alsop; and they alternated that column with Walter Lippmann which, you know, that's a serious position in American journalism. After his military service where, I understand, he suffered deafness--I think, concussion deafness or something; he was injured. He joined ABC, which had come about towards the end of World War II, when the Department of Justice told NBC it could--could not have two networks. They used to be the Red and Blue networks. And the Blue Network became the American Broadcasting Company; and Kintner became, I seem to remember, the number two executive, and eventually the man in charge. And when Leonard Goldenson took over ABC, he and Kintner did not see eye-to-eye, and Kintner had to leave. And David Sarnoff hired him for NBC. And af--mostly as a foil against the legendary Pat Weaver, whom Sarnoff didn't like. And when Sarnoff got ready to--when Sarnoff got rid of Pat Weaver, he replaced him with Kintner, who was already an employee.
LAMB: Pat Weaver started the "Today" show, and...
Mr. FRANK: Oh, yeah. He was in charge--he was in charge of television programming at NBC in all the early days, and he was a great innovator, particularly of forms of programs. "Today," what is now the--the--"The Johnny Carson Show," which was "Tonight" for many years, some that didn't work--a midday one called "Home," which is a title back in use, but--"Your Show of Shows," all these things. Comedy--he--he came out of advertising; he was a brilliant, innovative man. He and I did not get along when it came to news, but he's a man impossible to dislike and wonderful to spend any time with.
LAMB: Sigourney Weaver's father.
Mr. FRANK: Yes.
Mr. FRANK: And--but he and--he and the general didn't get along. And finally it got too much, and Bob Kintner came in. And Bob Kintner, with his news background, took over a--remember, ABC really wasn't a factor. And CBS was so far ahead that NBC--I'm talking about the entertainment schedule now--did not have one program in the top 10 when Kintner took over. His strategy for bringing NBC out of this was to use news as the engine.

And he drove us nuts. There's just no other way to put it. He would--he insisted--we used to complain until he took charge that we couldn't get stuff on the air. As I say, time on the air is all that matters in broadcasting. After he took charge, we were complaining we couldn't keep up with his demands. He was putting programs on all the time--special programs, regular programs. Bill McAndrew, who was head of news and Julian Goodman, who was his number two at the time, were out looking for producers to do these things. People were hired at NBC faster than they could be absorbed. And he used news as the engine. His aim was, as he expressed it, when you heard that something had happened--out in the street or at work or something--your first reaction would be to turn to NBC. And not only was that his aim; he achieved it. And I'm not sure I appreciated how great a force he was for us until after he left. Because while he was there, I was one of the working fellows, and I worked myself to a frazzle. And--and--and he did that to us. But he kept pushing.

His drinking problem would make him unreasonable sometimes. He was some--often unreasonable with people. He also had serious cataract problems. This is the man in charge of television. And--and he kept insisting that we'd use the identification signs oftener than made any sense, because that's what he could read. But he also had tremendous ideas and tremendous guts, and he pushed us into a position where--we kept saying that we were entitled to it, but we didn't really mean it. He pushed us up front. And--and he was the--the--the factor without which it wouldn't have happened. Everybody else was in place, but he made it happen.
LAMB: When was your lowest point at the network? When were you the least happy?
Mr. FRANK: Well, my second time in management, I would say.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. FRANK: I was asked to come back into management in '82, as I said earlier because I thought--I was still there as a producer. I--you know, I had all these wonderful jobs without--different jobs without changing employers. And I didn't want to come back, but I thought I was obligated to come back because I thought it was--I thought the organization needed reprofessionalizing. I knew the place was demoralized. It was--I mean, it was pointless to make value judgments about whose fault it was. And then I came back, and what I got into instead--instead of doing what I thought--and certainly I didn't have to explain to people what I wanted to do, because they knew who I was. I was a known quantity. The man who asked me to be president of NBC News used to work for me. So they knew me, and I was going to do this.

No, I wasn't. What I ran into was the beginning of the decline that is now so obvious, the pressure from cable--from CNN--from the growth of independent stations, from the atomization of news sources. And the need to keep the affiliates happy and affiliated, which had been badly damaged by a previous regime, meaning Fred Silverman, who had been put in charge at NBC and--and wasted a lot of NBC's accumulated good will that had started in the very early days of broadcasting. So that affiliates were surly--a lot of them had left, had gone mostly to ABC. And news was the way to keep them happy. So I had to expand service rather than improve service; I had to worry about things that I'm sure were important, but were of no interest to me--they were not what I came back for. And it got to be very frustrating. The people I worked for really didn't care about the things that were important to me, and finally I asked to be relieved. I said, you know, `My contract's coming up. I just want to tell you I--I'd just as soon not renew it. I want to go back to producing, which is really my trade.' Being president is not a trade.
LAMB: You named some names in here of people that you're not real fond of. It's here for people to read. You say some strong things about some of the people that either were your bosses or that worked for you or replaced you. Was that a hard decision when you sat down at that typewriter?
Mr. FRANK: No. And--and I also named some--you have to admit I named some people I'm very fond of. But, you know, I--it's not a get-even book. There's certain things that happened that I think--that I thought needed recording. And the judgments that I made, I believe I was entitled to make. I--I--I had the advantage of doing--of working there, not only for so long a period, but in such a variety of roles. I think no one else has done as many things as I did. I ha--was president of NBC News; I was the shop steward. I was a writer; I was a producer. I have produced programs that went on the air live, which meant that you--you saw them as they took place; I produced programs that took six months before you could get them done. I've done things daily; I've done things that ran five minutes; I've done things that ran three days.

So I was in all of it. I sat in the executive suite. I've sat in editing rooms around the clock. So I had--and as I say, this was luck on my part--I mean, I wouldn't have given any of it up for anything. But I have the unique advantage of a multiplicity of perspectives, if that isn't too stuffy. And--and so I tried to record how television news grew as it was seen from NBC--although I mention the others--and how it acted upon events and the events acted upon it, because there was the interaction. You cannot pretend that the presence of television leaves events--you know, as Somerset Maugham said, `diving into a pool, you don't change the pool.' That's not true. Television has changed the news itself. I don't believe, for example, Tiananmen Square would have happened if there weren't cameras there. Matter of fact, I think that's obvious.

And, of course, how events developed affected how we reacted to them. Brown vs. Board of Education changed how we covered news. Vietnam changed how we covered news. It meant that we went and we said, `We don't have enough people; you've got to give us more money. We--we have to do this. We have to get it back.' The pressure to get better technology--we provided a market for better technology--for satellite technology, for tape technology--because we had to get stuff out of--out of Vietnam, out of Saigon. You know, it used to go from somewhere in the field to Saigon to Hong Kong or Tokyo. By then we had satellites, but a day hadn't really gone before you got to where you could get to the satellite. You couldn't get a satellite from Saigon. So all these things--interaction.

So part of it is how people reacted, how they looked at news. But people I talk about are not just people; they're people who run organizations or people who are--represent organizations. And--and what they did was sometimes disagreeable to me, and I said so. It was not ad hominem, really.
LAMB: Anybody call you up after this and say, `You were a little rough on me'?
Mr. FRANK: No, but Marvin Kalb reviewed the book in the Boston Globe, and, by and large, he liked it, but in his Aesopian way, he said I was very unkind to some CBS people.
LAMB: Some former CBS people.
Mr. FRANK: He didn't say that, but I took it to mean that.
LAMB: There's a review that was published in The Washington Post--Tom Shales wrote it, their television critic--and he gives you pretty rave reviews. He says, `The war is over; the bad guys won. But the good guys put up a hell of a fight, a fight hauntingly recalled in "Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News," a highly entertaining book by producer and former NBC News president Reuven Frank.' But then, later on, he says, `It's also discouraging to find Frank, who has always been treated well by print journalists covering television, a tradition that continues with this review, taking pains throughout the book to trash them, even to the point of quoting favorable reviews from Jack Gould, long time ago television critic on The New York Times, only to hold Gould up to ridicule.' What did you think of that?
Mr. FRANK: Well, I--I--certainly I enjoyed Shales' review. I don't think he read that correctly. What I was talking about, in those early days Jack Gould was a decent man, was a very important factor in television. The people who ran the networks, specifically NBC and CBS, were terrified of him--of The Times reviewer, not of any other. I don't think Gould was particularly well-equipped to review television, but he did his best. He was an honest man. But what I was trying to illustrate at the time was the power that The Times reviewer had. It could have been Sam Smith; that it was Jack Gould is accidental.

The people who--you know, I was largely, though not solely, responsible for putting Huntley and Brinkley together for the 1956 convention. That's where that started, and you could begin NBC's climb out of the--out of the--out of the pits from that--that moment. The people who ran the place, who agreed to that decision, had so little confidence in it they did not announce it for two months, after it was made and firm--I mean, it was not--too late to change. Then, when it worked at the conventions, and the conventions themselves, you will remember, were pretty much coronations. There was Eisenhower being renominated, and Stevenson got the second nomination. And nothing surprising happened except Huntley and Brinkley. And they still didn't react until Gould said--had this review that said, `All of a sudden, here's NBC in the news business,' after he'd been praising CBS for all these years.

Gould had to tell the people I worked for that my work was good. Now I could get angry about that, but that's pointless. But it is an interesting fact; it tells you something about television in the '50s, where people did not have the co--enough self-confidence to support decisions of their own employees. And Gould was the quintessential example of--of that strange situation--which does not exist today. Shales, who was a much more intelligent and better-equipped reviewer than Gould ever was, cannot have that kind of influence--does not and cannot. Those things don't exist anymore.

Now, people may slaver after a favorable review, and certainly I like this one. But that kind of influence was unique in history. Shales was a little kid at the time, so he doesn't remember. And he thinks I'm picking on the press. I'm not picking on the press; I'm trying to explain something. Things were strange.

Gould would say, `Why aren't they covering the UN?' And the next day, they'd be covering the UN. Now I'm not saying he was wrong to suggest that, but they should have thought of that without Gould. Or they should not have done it. Gould was not a factor. Gould wasn't running NBC. CBS finally hired Gould; he lasted a month. He couldn't stand it. I'm not sure what the job was, but--as a matter of fact, I think that may have been the problem. But I do not remember a similar situation in any medium. No drama critic--George E. Nathan in his greatest day did not have the influence on the Broadway stage that Jack Gould had on network television in its first 10 years. And--and that is a phenomenon, and I recorded it, I hope, reasonably, responsibly and accurately.
LAMB: What's your guess as to--is the country better off with the 200-channel environment or with a three-channel environment?
Mr. FRANK: Oh, that's so hard to speculate, because it's not as if you could roll it back. I--there's an argument--it's an interesting question--whether the country's better off with television than without it. And I could probably con--be convinced that we'd be better off without it. But I'm not sure that's a useful argument. There's nothing we can do about it; it's there. The 200-channel environment is a historical, evolutionary development; you cannot roll it back. And I regret that the great days I enjoyed are no longer there. But you can't get angry about it. And you can't say, `I wish we went back.' Because, you know, it becomes H.G. Wells' `I wish the world would stop.'
LAMB: Is television at all intimidated today by government?
Mr. FRANK: Always to a degree; I believe to a lesser degree than ever before. It would--nobody ever said no when the White House asked for time, so there's a beginning. Incumbency has such power. And somewhere in the back of everybody's mind, in--over the era of broadcasting, is the awareness that they make money by virtue of a federally granted license, which could be a federally withheld license. But beyond that, you see very few signs of it. They're not afraid the way they used to be. They used to be a little bit terrified.
LAMB: Why do you think President--this is really off the subject, but you were there when presidents wanted that 8:00 and 9:00 prime-time time.
Mr. FRANK: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Why has President Bush avoided almost--I don't know that he's ever had a prime-time news conference, maybe one in this term...
Mr. FRANK: One--one, I think. Yeah.
LAMB: And is--has it served him better not to?
Mr. FRANK: Well, I'm--I'm convinced that he thinks so. And it might--I think it's a kind of lack of confidence in--in that theater. He thinks he can control it better popping into the briefing room with very little advance notice at 4:05 and being taped for 11 minutes and disappearing. He--I think any president following John Kennedy was intimidated by how he handled the press conference. I mean, that was the highest form of theater, and he was both the star and the manager. Nobody ever came up to that.

Then George Bush had to face Sam Donaldson screaming at Ronald Reagan at--over the noise of the rotors because Reagan wouldn't meet the press otherwise at all. And he found that--we know he found that distasteful. So he's found this as kind of a compromise. I don't think he likes the kind of give and take that--in front of 150, 200 accredited reporters the way Kennedy used to in the State Department auditorium.
LAMB: We're about out of time, and I want to ask you what kind of an experience writing this book has been.
Mr. FRANK: Well, writing it was a lot of fun. I found out that I could not rely on my memory and most of the things I had to double-check, and apparently some of the things I didn't double-check sufficiently--Shales pointed out a couple. But it was--it was a good experience. When I submitted the manuscript and my editor sent it back, saying, `Well, now you've had your fun. Why don't you cut it in half?' The year it took to cut it down--not quite in half, but by about 40 percent--was not as good an experience. That was tough. But writing it was a lot of fun.
LAMB: If you could have 50 more pages, what kind of things would have gone in this book?
Mr. FRANK: Oh, no, I--I really squeezed it. I edited the way I used to edit--a word out here, a paragraph out there, a sentence out there. No sequence was dropped; I just squeezed it. Which gives it a kind of a minimalist feel. That's why several people have referred to it as dense. There's too much copy. Huntley used to warn me, `You can't give people too many ideas in too few words; they can't take it.' And I think it--I may have done that trying to get it down to its current size.
LAMB: What's next?
Mr. FRANK: Oh, I wish I knew. This was a good way of getting out of NBC, where I really had been too long. And where they may have been afraid to fire me and I didn't want to quit, so I took a fellowship at the--Columbia and wrote the book. It's not another book because I am a typical one-book-per-lifetime writer. I wrote about what I saw, and since I don't expect to see that much again, there won't be another book. I'd like to do a little production, but I'm not up to doing it in the old days--around the clock and that kind of stuff. So I'm just an old fellow looking for work.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's former NBC News President Reuven Frank. "Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News." Thank you for joining us.
Mr. FRANK: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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