IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Reuven Frank made sure viewers got picture

NBC pioneering executive sharpened TV news’ vision
Reuven Frank, former NBC News president and a pioneer of TV journalism at 85 of complications from pneumonia. AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Reuven Frank died young, at the age of 85. Those who knew and worked for him—and those who went into broadcast news because they had been inspired by him—also knew by instinct or experience that he stayed remarkably young at heart, mind and spirit until the very end.

He disliked being called pioneer or founding father because he didn’t want to be thought of as a historical figure. Now, though, he is one.

As Reuven Frank might have asked himself rhetorically: What kind of newsman would he have been if he didn’t keep up with the news? News about the world and news about the news—about the changes, improvements and steps backward in how television brings news to its viewers.

He hadn’t seen much lately to impress him, and he considered the great age of television news to be over. But happily for him, that era coincided precisely with the age in which he thrived, when he taught the novices and tyros and the transplants from print the fine points—the finest points—about how to tell pictures with stories.

“Reuven Frank invented most of what we now call television news, and we are all deeply in his debt,” said the late David Brinkley (whose boss Frank once was) in a blurb for “Out of Thin Air,” Frank’s compellingly thoughtful 1991 memoir. It was Frank who had the brainstorm of teaming Brinkley with fellow newscaster Chet Huntley for “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” the program that made something out of nothing, the first truly serious nightly network newscast. The show, begun in October 1956, was dominant for years.

Frank has left us just as the era he started is also dying. The three network evening newscasts still command sizable audiences and make their networks generous profits, but they appeal mainly to viewers 50 and older—and in just the past two years, their profiles have been altered radically. Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” died of cancer. Dan Rather, that most surreal of anchors, left his chair at “The CBS Evening News” a year early because of a scandal. And NBC’s anchor Tom Brokaw, another of Frank’s pupils, retired gracefully to be replaced—also gracefully—by Brian Williams.

Brokaw was among those attending a memorial service Wednesday near Frank’s home town of Tenafly, N.J.

Created new rules for visual news
Although Williams runs a sharp, tight newscast, it isn’t the same ballgame. And the rules Reuven Frank laid down about how to tell a story visually are largely ignored by the new generation of news-givers, most of whom think that their words, not the camera’s pictures, are what bring eyeballs to newscasts.

“I owe him my career,” says Linda Ellerbee, another alum of the Frank School of TV Newscasting. “And he taught me the most important lesson: that the audience is as smart as we are, and not to forget that. He told me: ‘Never be ashamed of working in television news. It’s as good as you want to make it.’ “

He made it as good as anyone ever did. Twice president of NBC News, he won Emmys, Peabodys, the George Polk Award, the duPont-Columbia Award for broadcast journalism, Ohio State awards—more prizes than you can shake a stick at, which is pretty much what Frank, in his modesty and irreverence, was inclined to do with awards. Unpretentious, unassuming and unimpressed with himself, he took pleasure from finding the best, swiftest and smartest way to deliver news on TV, and the brightest people to do it.

“Everybody uses the phrase ‘in the beginning was the word,’ “ says Sander Vanocur, an NBC News correspondent when Frank ran the division—and a friend from that point on. “What Reuven inspired in all of us was ‘in the beginning was the picture.’ He impressed in us the idea that the picture was paramount; it’s what made television different. He believed the word should enhance the picture and not conflict with it. Working with him on a story was like getting a PhD in film.”

It’s perhaps not easy for laymen to understand the important innovations Frank brought to the art and science of it all.

“He taught us to think out of the box, because he thought out of the ballpark,” says Janet Janjigian, a young producer who worked with Frank on conventions and documentaries. “He would write the script to the pictures, instead of writing the script first and then trying to make the pictures fit it,” she says, referring to a key component of his philosophy.

Like many who knew Frank—a man who quietly commanded ferocious loyalties—Janjigian was bereft at the news of his death, as if the torch had gone out on the Statue of Liberty. No one today is equipped to light it up again and carry it.

Among the documentaries Janjigian worked on was a trilogy about the approaching crisis in America’s pension plans. It was an “approaching” crisis because when Frank did the reports, in the 1980s and ‘90s, hardly anybody else was worrying about the subject. Now the shaky futures of company pensions are featured regularly on newspaper front pages. One of Frank’s documentaries so stirred Congress that a law was passed to help protect workers whose companies bellied-up.

“He was a television creature. He really invented the evening news,” says Steve Friedman, a legend himself in TV news circles and the producer chiefly responsible for getting the “Today” show back on its feet after years in the gutter. Friedman, among other things, brought “Today” back to a street-level studio so people could watch it being performed through giant picture windows.

Friedman had lunch as often as possible with Frank and another of Frank’s friends, albeit an unlikely one: Chuck Barris, producer-creator of such TV romps as “The Newlywed Game,” “The Dating Game” and “The Gong Show”—and, according to an autobiography later made into a film, a part-time CIA agent. Frank didn’t care that Barris wasn’t considered part of the hoity-toity journalism set; he just found him a provocative thinker. They met when Barris was an NBC intern and Frank was president of news.

Never a screamer
All those who worked for Frank and talked about him for this article remarked on what a “low-key” boss he was—never a screamer or shouter in the time-honored TV tradition (Friedman himself once famously threw a defective color monitor against a control-room wall during a live “Today” show, smashing the monitor to bits in a last-ditch effort to get NBC to buy him a new one). Frank was subtle with remonstrance and cautious with praise.

“I remember watching ‘Nightly News’ one night years ago and being appalled that the first four stories all used file pictures,” Friedman recalls. “I thought that was inexcusable on the flagship broadcast of the news division. So the next morning on the ‘Today’ show, I had the caption ‘Not File Pictures’ superimposed during our first four stories of the day.

“Reuven called me into his office later that morning. I told him it was my idea, that I was the one responsible. He laughed for a second and then he said softly, ‘Do me a favor: Don’t do that again.’ And that was the last I heard about it.”

“He was the least demanding perfectionist I have ever known,” says Lloyd Dobyns, who with Ellerbee anchored “Weekend” and “Overnight,” two of Frank’s wittiest series. “He made you want to please him, do your best. I would rather have shot myself in the head than disappoint him.

“He could be generous to a fault if you’d done well, but he also let you know, in his own subtle way, if he didn’t like it—usually by saying something like, ‘Do you think this is a little long?’ “

Originally, in the second half of the ‘70s, “Weekend” occupied the fourth Saturday late-night period of each month, giving “Saturday Night Live” a week off. But when greedy NBC executives determined they could make more money off “SNL” reruns, they began shoving “Weekend” all over the broadcast map, defying fans to try to find it. “Finally we ended up in prime time on Wednesday,” Ellerbee recalls. “I started the show by telling viewers: ‘Hello. It’s Wednesday. I know the name of the show is “Weekend.” Think of “weekend” as a state of mind.’ “

Although he believed in the supremacy of the picture—keeping in mind the “vision” in television—Frank was also a brilliant writer. He was not particularly proud, however, of his most conspicuous contribution to the American vernacular: “Good night, Chet. Good night, David. And good night for NBC News.” This was the once-famous way that Huntley and Brinkley (Huntley in New York, Brinkley in Washington) ended their newscast.

“Huntley and Brinkley hated that closing,” Frank wrote in his memoir. “ ‘We sound like a couple of sissies,’ they complained. I insisted a program must close somehow, that a close should be short, and that it must include both of them.” They couldn’t come up with anything better, so it stuck.

Frank also thought some sort of music should be played under the closing “crawl” of credits, a list that included not just staff names but sources of footage not shot by NBC. The music he chose: the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

It was a different time.

Frank had many great moments during his nearly three decades at NBC News. The greatest perhaps was a film called “The Tunnel,” shot at great risk in 1962 in a cramped tunnel (one of a series) being dug under the Berlin Wall so people could flee Communist East Berlin. The film didn’t just win news awards; the TV academy named it Program of the Year. Frank also enjoyed the honor of having a spineless State Department pressure NBC not to put the film on the air.

Frank worked on the script for the film, a model of minimalist narration. He’s fondly remembered at NBC, however, for a more whimsical kind of writing: the white-on-black “verbals” used as transitions into commercial breaks during the “Weekend” show. One example: “Why do people pick on paranoids?”

‘I Have Seen the Future — And It Sucks’
Dobyns recalls writing “Bureaucrats breed like rabbits” and having it improved when Frank added, “but you can shoot rabbits.” (Some angry viewers accused “Weekend” of advocating bureaucraticide.) After this critic wrote a piece complaining about the proliferation of meaningless award programs, Frank composed this verbal: “Award Shows Should Give Awards to Each Other.” And he sent it to the critic, who has kept it tucked away like a treasure for all these years.

The critic also has a copy—as does Ellerbee, as do who knows how many others—of one of Frank’s most impishly profound verbals: “I Have Seen the Future—And It Sucks.” How right he was especially when it came to the future of TV news. In his book, he lamented having to run news divisions for corporate brass who became ever less interested in quality and ever more interested in bottom lines—“high-minded dilettantes who thought news gathered itself.” Today, they aren’t even dilettantes and certainly not high-minded.

But Frank wasn’t the type to denounce, or take umbrage, or go into high dudgeon over what seemed philistinism triumphant. Low dudgeon was about as hot as he got. He is remembered by those who knew and worked for him as a gentleman of immoderate talent but moderate temperament, an uncommonly wise, decent and fair-minded savant who would be revolted by praise such as this.

“I liked him,” Dobyns says. “He was a wonderful man.” The producer of “60 Minutes”—bombastic and bellicose where Frank was reasoned and reassuring—has said the essence of his show is “Tell me a story.” Frank believed the mandate of this amazing new medium of television was “ Show me a story,” with the pictures carrying the load.

“Amazing new medium of television”? Once it actually was—new, amazing, challenging and full of promise.

Reuven Frank never lost faith in that promise, and he stayed young trying to make it come true.