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Television: Al Primo changed the way TV news is broadcast

Al Primo was not a household name.

Not even in Philadelphia, where he presided over a sweeping change that revolutionized the way television presented news.

Primo is remembered in the television industry for his success in bringing television news into a new era. His wide-ranging transformations upgraded journalistic, technical, and format standards that led to sharper, more authoritative news coverage, a wider, more diverse array of talent throughout the newsroom, and a livelier newscast that continues to set the tone for news programming today.

The year of Primo’s innovations was 1965. The place they occurred was KYW-TV, a Group W station affiliated with NBC and broadcasting on Channel 3.

I was a faithful television watcher age 14 at the time.

I was not happy with what Primo was doing. My daily routine involved watching “The Lloyd Thaxton Show,” the host of which was a Los Angeles deejay, each day at 5 p.m. Thaxton played current records and introduced a lot of upcoming talent. It was by watching his show I was introduced and fell in love with Cher.

When Primo inaugurated his new concept at Channel 3, “The Lloyd Thaxton Show” was among the first cancelled to make room for a dramatically expanded newscast at the station.

To catch up readers who might not, or cannot, remember 1965, here’s a layout of local news at the time.

It consisted of two programs a day, one at 6:30 p.m., the other at 11 p.m. on Channels 3, 6, and 10. The format of those programs was initiated at Channel 10, which provided the first model for newscasts around the United States.

Channel 10 saw the value of news after a local radio personality, John Facenda, brought 15 minutes of time at 11 p.m. each evening on the then-CBS television station owned by a newspaper, The Evening Bulletin.

Facenda had a sponsor his program, the company that made Phillies Cigars. He would come of the air each night, read a digest of headline stories and sign off with his famous, “Have a good night tonight and a good day tomorrow.

Facenda’s concept took off. It attracted an audience and made news a staple of local TV. Channel 10 was so impressed with Facenda’s ratings, it decided to produce his show, make Facenda its employee, add an edition at 6:30 p.m., just before the 7 p.m. national newscasts, and augment what Facenda was doing by airing weather and sports reports.

The early evening show was usually a solid half-hour. The 11 p.m. format was usually a 15-minute newscast with stories being read at the desk with occasional still pictures and an eventual reporting staff giving some variation to the anchor reading. Bill Baldini was one of the first reporters hired for that purpose.

At 11:15, a five-minute weather report would air, followed at 11:20 by 10 minutes of sports.

Al Primo’s arrival at Channel 3 changed all of that.

The station was ready to do something new. Westinghouse Broadcasting, parent of Group W, had just won a major court battle to have Channel 3 restored to it, its original licensee, after seven years of the station being co-opted by NBC.

New call letters, beginning with a “K,” rare on the East Coast, heralded the transition from WRRC-TV to KYW-TV. (In the initial phase of Westinghouse ownership, before 1958, the station was called WPTZ.)

Those unusual call letters were nothing next to what Al Primo had in mind. He decided a half-hour of news in the evening was not enough. He was going to make Channel 3’s new news effort, labeled “Eyewitness News,” an hourlong show to start, then expand it to 90 minutes.

Yes, he believed there was enough local news to warrant it.

Besides, local news was more immediate and more interested than the syndicated fare, like “The Lloyd Thaxton Show,” on Channel 3, the children’s programming (“Sally Starr Theater”) on Channel 6 and a feature-film (“The Early Show”) on Channel 10.

It could also be cheaper because the local station would control most of the advertising. Boosted ratings would mean boosted rates. It was win-win-win all around.

Primo’s vision did not stop at increasing local news’s on-air footprint. He was out of improve the quality of the news.

Instead of still pictures in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, he’d have news photographers who would shoot film and use television in the way the media is meant to be used.

More than that, he’d have reporters on the scene where stories occurred. Those reporters and news producers would also be asked to show some enterprise in finding stories instead of relying on local newspapers, wire transmissions, and public relations pitches to find stories.

Popular Vince Leonard was retained as an anchor, but he was augments by the harder-hitting, more urgent, more far-reaching Tom Snyder, who would also change the way morning talk shows were to be done.

Primo was not content with the monolithic look of newscasts, particularly when it was clear they were presided over entirely by men with an occasional woman brought in to do the five-minute weather show or do live advertisements during commercial breaks.

Primo was out to professionalize and diversify his entire staff. Snyder was imported to provide new energy and edge to what was becoming a stale product.

Primo wanted women in expanded roles. He hired Marciarose to be the first news anchor on a local newscast anywhere.

That was just the beginning. In assembling his reporting staff, he wanted more women and, just as importantly, people of color. Malcolm Poindexter was recruited from the Philadelphia Daily News to be a constant on-air presence. As if Marciarose wasn’t sending glass crashing down from Channel 3’s ceiling, Mr. Primo hired another woman anchor, Trudy Haynes, from a Detroit station where already broke ground by being the weather anchor.

Both Marciarose and Trudy Haynes made history, Trudy’s story being one that is told to this day. Al Primo made her the Jackie Robinson of local newscasts. She was the first woman of color to anchor and report news for major news outlet. Michelle Clark, Harvey Clark’s sister, was reporting on CBS, but that was national, and she was not anchoring.

The modernization of Channel 3 took its competitors unaware. It took Channel 6 until 1972 to catch up with what Primo initiated. It took Channel 10 longer, perhaps until 1979 when Larry Kane joined its fold, partly because it didn’t believe any show could compete with John Facenda, and partly because Ralph Penza and Joan Dinerstein didn’t catch on the way Mariarose, Tom Snyder, and Vince Leonard did.

Primo’s time was followed by the “Camelot” era at Channel 3 when Mort Crim, Jessica Savitch, and Leonard dominated local news with Bill Kuster doing weather and Al Meltzer doing sports.

The changes Al Primo made at Channel 3 were instituted throughout the U.S., faster elsewhere than in Philadelphia because Channel 6 lagged badly until it found its “Action News” formula, and Channel 10 couldn’t get a grip on the new.

The evening and 11:00 newscast were joined by a noon program that preceded “The Mike Douglas Show,” produced by Group W and emanated from Philadelphia until 1979.

Everything at Channel 3 was livelier, more modern, more sophisticated, and more authoritative than its competitors came close to mustering.In all ways imaginable, Al Primo, with Group W’s partnership and blessing, designed and built the next phase of local television.

It was a great phase. I miss it and truly worry if broadcast TV will be eroded further in NBC proceeds with rumored plans to drop its 10-11 p.m. hour from primetime and return the time back to local stations. (A look at the 7-8 p.m. hour on most stations will demonstrate why I’m apprehensive.)

Many of Al Primo’s ideas and innovations live on.

Alas, Primo passed away last week at age 87.

Marty Moss-Coane retiring

A bit of local radio history comes to an end on November 18 when Marty Moss-Coane retires after 35 years as host of WHYY (90.9 FM)’s “Radio Times,” which will not continue with a different host after Moss-Coane leaves.

Moss-Coane was a local and syndicated staple who covered an unending range of topics on “Radio Times” that introduced concepts and brought an uncountable quantity of information to light.

She says time is the reason for her departure. At age 73, she wants a life free the responsibility of prepping for and doing a daily radio program.

Playoff baseball?

Wednesday marks the end of this year’s regular season.

Playoffs begin on Friday. For a while, it looked as if the Phillies were assured a place in them. A miserable September record erodes that chance.

Nonetheless, it’s there, and if the Phils earn a spot, they will begin a three-game Wild Card series on Friday. Their likely opponent appears to be the St. Louis Cardinals, but it could, heaven forfend, be the New York Mets or Atlanta Braves. Wild Card games will air on ESPN, ABC, ESPN2, and the ESPN app.

Divisional series games, starting Tuesday, October 11. Fox will air National League games, TBS the American League. The World Series is set to open Friday, October 28 and air on Fox.

Local ‘Great Performances’

If PBS is looking for shows to feature on it “Great Performances” series, I can recommend two local productions, one alas already finished its run, for its consideration.

One is “Evita” at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse where the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice piece is set in a ramshackle Buenos Aires tango bar designed magnificently by Anna Louizos.

The take on the show is more intimate and more immediate than usual and deserves attention.

The bygone show is a modern operatic rendering of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” composed by Toshio Hosokawa, presented by Opera Philadelphia as part of its O22 Festival, and performed by lustrous mezzo Kristen Choi and evocative dancer Muyu Ruba.

Bristol Riverside Theatre’s “A Leg Up” may also be worth a look.

Neal Zoren’s television column appears every Monday.

Source: Berkshire mont

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