Monday, July 30, 2007

Tom Snyder, R.I.P.

Tom Snyder, 1936-2007

From San Francisco comes the sad news that former TV talk show host (and local news legend) Tom Snyder has died at the age of 71. Snyder, who retired from CBS's "The Late, Late Show" in 1999, had been battling leukemia for the past two years.

Snyder will be best remembered for The Tomorrow Show, which aired on NBC from 1973 until 1982. It was NBC's first serious attempt to "program" the slot after Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and Snyder's talk show was an immediate sensation. Patterned loosely on Edward R. Murrow's Person-to-Person broadcasts from the late 1950s, Tomorrow featured Snyder chatting with another person or a small group of guests, his face framed by a wreath of cigarette smoke against a black backdrop.

The show's interview subjects ranged from memorable (John Lennon taped his final TV interview with Snyder in 1975; it was replayed after his murder in 1980); to informative (a 1979 chat with Ayn Rand comes to mind), and even bizarre. During an early appearance on the show, Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl brought along a tank of helium, allowing him to answer Snyder's questions in a strange, squeaky voice, a result of the gas's effect on his vocal cords. Eventually, the host decided to have a snort himself, and the rest of the interview was conducted under the influence of helium.

But the real highlight of Tomorrow was Snyder's opening monologue, a brief recap of how the host spent his day, or an observation on something that caught his attention. Snyder did it without notes or cue cards; night after night, he simply looked into that camera and told a story or an anecdote, with frequent asides to members of the studio crew, punctuated by his trademark, booming laugh. I remember a journalism professor of mine citing Snyder as an example of an extraordinarily effective communicator--which, of course, he was. Watching the monologue on Tomorrow was like listening to an old friend, a personal experience shared by millions of viewers.

Indeed, one of the "knocks" against Snyder was that he made it look easy--too easy, in the minds of some NBC executives. While Snyder filled in on various network programs (and even anchored NBC's Sunday night news in the mid-1970s), his ease at chatting with celebrities made him, in their view, unsuitable for the top reporting job, anchoring the weeknight edition of Nightly News. That position, of course, eventually went to Tom Brokaw, who worked with Snyder at KNBC, the network-owned station in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Brokaw anchored KNBC's 6 p.m. newscast (until he became the network's White House correspondent); Snyder helmed the more successful 11 p.m. broadcast.

While some at NBC doubted Snyder's ability as a network newsman, no one questioned his skills as a local anchor. He catapulted KNBC to the top of the local rantings, which prompted the network to offer him the Tomorrow show. In 1976, NBC moved Mr. Snyder and his program to New York, ostensibly to take advantage of guests and events available in that city.

In reality, the network sent Mr. Snyder to the Big Apple to resurrect the moribund newscasts on its flagship station, WNBC. When Snyder assumed the local anchor chair, the station had "hash marks" in the ratings book--no measurable audience. Within a year WNBC had eclipsed WABC as #1 in New York, during the heyday of the Eyewitness News format on the ABC station.

Snyder eventually left the local news and continued with Tomorrow until 1982, when the show was cancelled. Toward the end, ratings for the program slipped, and NBC forced changes in the format, including the addition of a co-host (gossip columnist Rona Barrett) and a studio audience. Snyder resented the changes, and let his frustrations be known. When Tomorrow ended, NBC sent him packing; years of battles between the host and executives left him with no options at the network, or in its news division.

Over the final decades of his career, Mr. Snyder worked as a local news anchor in New York (at WABC), a Los Angeles TV talk show host (at KABC), and as a syndicated host for ABC radio. When the radio program ended in 1992, Roger Ailes brought Snyder back to TV, hosting an evening talk show on CNBC, the cable channel that Mr. Alies then headed. The success of that program--nicknamed the Colorcast--led to Mr. Snyder's return to late-night, network TV, this time on CBS, in the time slot following David Letterman.

There was an irony in that pairing, because NBC had cancelled Tomorrow to make way for Letterman's first late night talk program. Despite that, Letterman was a fan of Snyder's, and with approval authority for who would occupy the 12:30 time slot, he selected the former Tomorrow host. Unlike the CNBC program, Snyder's CBS show never attracted a substantial audience, and he left the program after only three years.

I haven't checked, but YouTube probably has clips from the Tomorrow program, showcasing Tom Snyder at his best. Not just the offbeat stuff (like an infamous encounter with the rock group KISS), but moments that were absolutely riveting, namely a jail house interview with mass murderer Charles Manson. Mr. Snyder's effortless ability to mix the serious (and not-so-serious) made him a broadcast icon, proving that there was life after midnight (at least on the television dial), as those pictures went flying through the air.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

SF trifecta is in play...

Tony Snyder and Bill Walsh...

If only Ingvar had a SF tie in...