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Former NBC News president Frank has died

TV journalism pioneer helped medium take a more visual approach
/ Source: The Associated Press

Reuven Frank, a former NBC News president and a pioneer of TV journalism, has died of complications from pneumonia. He was 85.

Frank, who joined NBC in 1950, twice held the news division’s top job during his 38 years with the network (1968-73 and 1982-84). But it was as a producer that he left his greatest mark, at NBC as well as in his profession.

In charge of 1956 political convention coverage, Frank, a longtime Tenafly, N.J., resident who died Sunday, helped adapt the infant medium’s newsgathering techniques from its radio past to a more visual approach.

He also helped create the anchor team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who debuted to great acclaim at the Democratic convention in Chicago, then covered the Republican convention in San Francisco with similar success.

In October 1956, the marriage was sealed with the debut of NBC’s weeknight “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” for which Frank, the broadcast’s executive producer, coined the soon-to-be-famous signoff: “Good night, David.” “Good night, Chet.”

With Huntley based in New York and Brinkley in Washington, D.C., the 15-minute broadcast was a technical marvel, switching back and forth between the two co-anchors. But the chemistry they shared was even more impressive, and the Huntley-Brinkley team remained top-rated through much of 1960s.

Tom Brokaw (later tapped by Frank to be sole anchor of “NBC Nightly News”) described him as “one of the architects of television news. He understood this was a new medium, and he understood how to make pictures and words complement each other instead of fight each other — which is still sometimes a problem in our business.”

Frank never relaxed his journalistic principles, yet insisted on keeping the news accessible to all, said Brokaw, recalling a bit of advice from Frank: “You must always be serious, but never afraid to report the news from the ground up. Don’t be above the news.”

In his long career, Frank produced numerous documentaries, including “The Tunnel,” which depicted the escape of 59 East Germans beneath the newly constructed Berlin Wall in 1962. It became the only documentary ever to win an Emmy as program of the year.

He was responsible for ambitious, hour-by-hour coverage of the early manned space missions, which riveted the nation.

In the late 1970s he created “Weekend,” an irreverent late-night newsmagazine, and in 1982 masterminded “NBC News Overnight,” a wee-hours newscast whose wry, literate tone was set by its anchor, Linda Ellerbee.

A Montreal native, Frank was three years out of the Columbia University when he made the risky move to television from a promising job as night city editor of the Newark Evening News.

Though understandably reluctant to make the switch, he wangled a $20 a week raise (to $110). Then he asked his new employer why no one from NBC Radio had seized this TV news writing opportunity.

As Frank recalled in his 1991 memoir, “Out of Thin Air,” the answer he got was simple: Nobody in radio “who is worth a damn thinks (television) is going to last.”

Frank is survived by his wife, Bernice Kaplow; two sons, Peter and James; and a sister, Devora Wagenberg.