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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mr. FRANK: Well, my second time in management, I would say.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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