Monday, February 08, 2010

Frank Magid, R.I.P.

If you've ever notice the "sameness" of local television news--the fact that a newscast in Atlanta looks a lot like its counterparts in Seattle, Denver or Baltimore, right down to the anchors, set and editorial content--you can thank (or curse) Frank Magid.

Mr. Magid, the former Iowa college professor who founded one of the world's most influential media research companies, died in California last Friday after a bout with lymphoma. He was 78.

Magid was teaching psychology, anthropology and statistics at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the late 1950s when he formed a consulting business, selling research to a local bank. He left the college a year later, as the firm added additional clients, including broadcasters.

While firms such as A.C. Nielsen and Arbitron offered audience measurement data to local stations and TV networks, they provided little analysis as to why viewers chose certain programs or personalities. Sensing a void, Magid's firm began offering "attitudinal research" to its clients, devising questions that determined audience preferences and opinions.

Armed with that information, Magid and his team of consultants offered "suggestions" to their clients, shaping how they presented the news and other programming. While Magid offered news consulting from the earliest days of the company, that service didn't really take off until the the 1970s, when local stations--and their network counterparts--discovered that broadcast news could be extremely profitable.

During that decade, Magid helped a struggling Philadelphia TV station, WPVI, refine something called Action News. It was a response to the popular Eyewitness News format that also began in Philadelphia (on KYW-TV), then quickly spread to other outlets, most notably the local stations owned by ABC.

Actions News was designed to be even faster-paced (and more visually appealing) than the Eyewitness format, with no story longer than 90 seconds. By 1977, WPVI was the #1 station in Philly and has remained dominant for the past 30 years. The stunning success of WPVI generated even more clients for Magid and many adopted variations of the Action News approach.

At about the same time, Magid was also consulting for the ABC network, recently purchased by Capital Cities Communications, which also owned WPVI. ABC's initial entry in the TV morning news wars (A.M. America) had been a major flop, despite a talent roster that included Bill Beutel, Stephanie Edwards and a newsreader named Peter Jennings. Anxious to avoid another debacle, ABC asked Magid to help create a new morning show.

The result was Good Morning America, and at the time, it represented a radical departure for news programming. To anchor the program, ABC hired actors David Hartman and Nancy Dassault who presided over low-key segments on everything from health to entertainment. Among the show's many on-air contributors were meteorologist John Coleman; humorist Erma Bombeck and radio personality Paul Harvey. GMA originated from a studio that looked like a suburban living room, a sharp contrast to the "news set" utilized by NBC's Today show.

Ratings grew steadily and by the early 1980s, GMA had achieved the impossible--it was regularly beating Today in the ratings. It was another feather in Magid's cap, though critics noted that the network's successful format was largely borrowed from Morning Exchange, a local show that aired on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, an ABC affiliate--and a Magid client.

The firm's attempts to transplant these successes to other markets led to inevitable claims that Magid was producing "cookie cutter" or "homogenized" news. And, there was an element of truth in that; advice offered to a station in Dallas wasn't much different from guidance provided to a client in Louisville or Cleveland. Coverage philosophy, graphics packages, set design and story length varied little from market to market.

Magid also promoted certain newscasters and executives, offering a placement service for on-air talent and news directors. Anchors and reporters touted by the firm could advance quickly; in the mid-70s, a Magid consultant recommended that WHO-TV in Des Moines hire a Kansas City anchor named Jack Cafferty. In less than a year, Cafferty led the station into a tie with long-time market leader KCCI. After that, he departed for New York City, where he anchored the news for decades on WNBC and WPIX before joining CNN as a commentator. By comparison, talent deemed "inferior" by the consulting firm often found it difficult to remain on the air.

"Serious" journalists decried the influence of Magid and its competitors. CBS anchor Walter Cronkite once warned (famously) about the "consultantization" of televison news. But there was a touch of hypocrisy in Cronkite's critique because, interestingly enough, a Magid survey played an instrumental role in his career. During the early days of his tenure on the CBS Evening News, the network commissioned Magid to see if viewers preferred Cronkite as a solo anchor, or as part of a team, similar to NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Magid's research affirmed that Cronkite could carry the show by himself, setting the stage for his long, successful run on the Evening News.

While Magid is often criticized for recycling TV news formats (and talent), he certainly deserves credit for helping bring the medium into the 20th Century. Magid's arrival in a market meant that at least one station would modernize, and its competitors would usually follow. That meant more stories per newscast, coverage of topics previously ignored (such as consumer and health news) and more prominent roles for women. Before the advent of Action News and similar formats, TV news was a ponderous affair, especially at the local level. Newscasts usually consisted of an announcer reading wire service copy, staring directly into the camera. Magid's approach generated more coverage of local events, even if the editorial quality was sometimes lacking.

While the firm's approach was widely emulated, it wasn't always successful. Plenty of stations hired Magid and then fired the firm when ratings failed to improve. Magid and other consultants were often depicted as a sinister force in a newsroom, wielding great power over content (and careers), with less concern about the journalistic aspects of the craft.

But even that critique was a bit unfair. A former Iowa anchor who worked at a Magid-consulted station remembered the firm offered "suggestions" rather than directives. Outlets were free to ignore Magid's advice, and sometimes they did, for better or worse. Unfortunately, with thousands of dollars in consulting fees on the line--and millions more in ratings points and advertising sales for the local news--broadcast executives were often afraid to buck their advisers, even when they knew the market better than their hired guns.

And that may be the most lasting legacy of Frank Magid and the business he built. With his firm's impressive track record--and the hyper-competitive nature of broadcasting--Magid spawned two generations of TV executives who were consultant-driven, reluctant to make any major decision without assistance from outside advisers.

TV was once a business run by visionaries. Mr. Magid was a visionary, too, but in realizing his goals the medium lost some of its innovation and originality. For better or worse, that is the nature of broadcasting in the 21st Century, an approach defined (in large measure) by Frank Magid.

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