Longtime newsman Hugh Downs is the namesake of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, where he lectures and takes classes. Retired from television news since 1999, Downs also gives speeches and travels extensively with his wife, Ruth.
87-year-old Downs began his 60-year broadcasting career in radio, at age 18. He moved to television in 1945, eventually becoming the announcer for Sid Caesar‘s Caesar’s Hour and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, and host of the game show Concentration. Downs went on to host NBC’s Today for nine years and to anchor ABC’s 20/20 for 21 years.
1. TVNewser: More than 60 years after my first television broadcast, the state of television news today is:
Downs: Technically, light years ahead of its early days, but plagued with some forces that keep it from being what it might be. Among those forces are:
(A) Budget constraints due to the pie being sliced in thinner and thinner pieces — with all the stations, networks, cable channels, satellite feeds, movie rentals, and blog choices.
(B) Competition and the drive for flash ratings, which have pressured even respectable news programs to move toward more tabloid-flavored fare.
(C) Ownership by large conglomerates that carries the imposition of an implicit philosophy on news production often coloring the choice of news stories and the treatment of them. This has led to underreporting or non-reporting of some important events and situations.
I might give as an example of (A) the audience shares of ABC’s 20/20 at different times: In the earliest years of my anchoring it we had to have a share in the low 40′s to be respectable. By the time I left in 1999, we were respectable with a share of 22, with the competition at 17 and 11. The number of news channels today means a lot more data flow, but this hasn’t, somehow, increased public wisdom.
2. TVNewser: Compared to the Today show I anchored from 1962-71, the program these days is:
Downs: In many ways better than during my tenure. The amount of program time is less than when I was there — more commercial time and more local station input now (I haven’t measured this, but it is the impression I get.) The use of unit time is actually better — more efficient — less waste.
But it’s possible the looseness of the old Today may have helped with audience assimilation of what we talked about or demonstrated. I’m not a Good Old Dazer, but viewers in the mid-century decades didn’t have to deal with the sophistication of today’s pace, and as a result may have learned more and enjoyed more useful experiences with the TV they watched.
3. TVNewser: The networks are covering the current presidential race…
Downs: …I think quite well. So well, some viewers may have been rubbed a little raw, and fled to movie rentals or some alternative form of electronic fare, but what I thought at first was a preposterous flood of debates, I have come to think of as a good thing.
The more these [candidates] are exposed to a viewing public, the more we get to know of their feelings, intentions and personalities, and this is good in a democracy.
4. TVNewser: My favorite years on television:
Downs: The 21 years of hosting 20/20. Almost everything about that was satisfying. The opportunity, in news features to go in depth on a subject, and not be chained to a headline format appealed to me immensely. It is not because it was the last series I did in the medium, but it was the best.
The range of topics satisfied my generalist yearnings (my wife says a generalist is someone who comes to know less and less about more and more, until he knows nothing about everything. I think that is where I’m headed.)
I enjoyed the anchoring, I enjoyed the field work, and I enjoyed having Barbara Walters aboard as co-host after the first five years. I was very lucky to get connected to this program after my second retirement — I had retired after leaving the Today show, seven years before I started on 20/20.
5. TVNewser: Lecturing at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University…
Downs: …Amounts, in a way, to a whole new career. Students ask such marvelous questions. I loved broadcasting but I like this more. To be mired in Academia, talking on aspects of communication ranging from fear of public speaking to interviewing, to anchoring, to narration delivery, etc., and to audit classes (my higher education is never-ending), is of immense satisfaction. I dare not stand still for fear ivy will grow on my sides.