TV vet cre­ated ‘The Big News’

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By David Colker david.colker@la­times.com

Broad­cast jour­nal­ist Sam Zel­man has died at 100.

Lo­cal TV news­casts in the 1950s of­ten con­sisted of five min­utes of news, five min­utes of sports and an­other five min­utes of weather.

Broad­cast jour­nal­ist Sam Zel­man blew up that for­mula.

In 1961 he cre­ated “The Big News” at KNXT-TV (now KCBSTV) that pre­sented 45 min­utes of lo­cal news, sports and weather, kicked off by the re­gal-look­ing Jerry Dun­phy in­ton­ing: “From the desert to the sea to all of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, a good evening.”

Lo­cal news was never the same, and Zel­man, late in his ca­reer, went on to help cre­ate an­other break­through in TV news that naysay­ers said would never work — CNN.

Zel­man, 100, died Fri­day at his home in Tucson. The cause was re­s­pi­ra­tory fail­ure, said his wife, Sally Daven­port.

Many in broad­cast­ing thought KNXT was crazy to pro­gram a 45minute lo­cal news block. “Peo­ple said, ‘How ever are you go­ing to fill it?’” Pete Noyes, the first city edi­tor of “The Big News,” said in a 2011 Times in­ter­view.

But news­pa­pers, cov­er­ing a va­ri­ety of top­ics, were what Zel­man wanted to em­u­late. “I like the sub­ject to change of­ten,” he told a group of stu­dents in Tucson in a 2013 video-recorded class ses­sion. “With a news­pa­per, I can move from one story to an­other.”

He hired a some­what hard-bit­ten group of re­porters and ed­i­tors, many of whom came from news­pa­pers and news ser­vices. They brought with them the stereo­typ­i­cal hard-news life­style of the era.

“There were bot­tles of booze in the desks of sev­eral writ­ers and pro­duc­ers,” Noyes wrote in his “The Real Los An­ge­les Con­fi­den­tial” mem­oir. “The smell of burning trash cans re­sulted from dis­carded cig­a­rettes that were still lit.”

But Zel­man wanted to give au­di­ences what couldn’t be con­veyed in a 15-minute news­cast. “He would say, ‘You’ve got to give them sto­ries they will re­mem­ber. You’ve got to rely on the in­tel­li­gence of the au­di­ence,’ ” Noyes said in an in­ter­view last week.

To front the broad­cast, he wanted strong on-air per­son­al­i­ties. In ad­di­tion to Dun­phy, who be­came a Los An­ge­les in­sti­tu­tion in four decades of an­chor­ing, the “The Big News” had Maury Green for in­ves­tiga­tive re­ports, Ralph Story for on-air es­says, for­mer ac­tor and um­pire Gil Strat­ton for sports and fun­ny­man Bill Keene on weather. All pre­de­ceased Zel­man.

The show had a slow start in rat­ings, but even­tu­ally walloped the com­pe­ti­tion and was widely em­u­lated across the coun­try.

“He turned TV news into real jour­nal­ism,” USC jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Joe Saltz­man said.

Zel­man was born Oct. 6, 1914, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. As a boy, he had a pa­per route de­liv­er­ing the Wash­ing­ton Star, earn­ing $6 a month.

His fam­ily moved to Cal­i­for­nia to es­tab­lish res­i­dence so he could go to UC Berke­ley, which at the time charged no tu­ition to in-state res­i­dents. He grad­u­ated with a lib­eral arts de­gree.

Be­gin­ning in 1936, Zel­man worked for the San Bernardino Sun-Tele­gram as a proof­reader and then night edi­tor. His am­bi­tion in jour­nal­ism was to be­come a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, “but ac­tu­ally, when I did get a job on a news­pa­per, I moved into the man­age­ment sec­tion very early,” he told the Tucson stu­dents.

He served in the Army Air Forces dur­ing World War II, then worked a va­ri­ety of jobs in jour­nal­ism be­fore get­ting the chance to re­vamp the KNXT news­cast as news direc­tor of the sta­tion.

Although he had an affin­ity for lo­cal news, Zel­man even­tu­ally held sev­eral po­si­tions with the na­tional CBS net­work, in­clud­ing Saigon bureau chief in the mid-1960s dur­ing the Viet­nam War, Is­rael bureau chief in the late 1960s and a three­year stint as a pro­ducer on “60 Min­utes.”

He had re­tired when Ted Turner asked him to move to At­lanta in 1979 to help build Ca­ble News Net­work. One of Zel­man’s jobs was to find promis­ing young jour­nal­ists will­ing to work for low pay, and some of them went on to be­come CNN stars.

Zel­man’s ten­dency for can­did­ness never left him. When asked in a 1981 Times in­ter­view to as­sess the f ledgling net­work’s first year, he an­swered, “skimpy.” But he stayed on as CNN gained au­di­ence and stature, re­tir­ing again in 1985, though he kept tu­tor­ing stu­dents.

Af­ter all, jour­nal­ism was far from just a job for Zel­man. “News is the lifeblood of cit­i­zen­ship,” he told the Tucson class.

And he wor­ried about the fu­ture of the pro­fes­sion. “I think there is lead­er­ship in jour­nal­ism,” he said, “but the lead­er­ship has one pri­mary mo­tive, for which they are hired and for which they might be fired, which is the profit mar­gin.”

In ad­di­tion to his wife, Zel­man is sur­vived by daugh­ters Carol Nieh and Diane Zel­man; son Barn­aby Zel­man; and brother Julius Zel­man.

‘HE TURNED TV NEWS INTO REAL JOUR­NAL­ISM’ Sam Zel­man cre­ated “The Big News” in 1961 at KNXT-TV (now KCBS-TV), then worked for

the na­tional CBS net­work. He came out of re­tire­ment to help Ted Turner launch CNN.

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