Al Primo, creator of local ‘eyewitness’ news, dies at 87
The cause was lung cancer, her daughter Juliet Primo said.
Mr. Primo grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of an Italian immigrant, and stumbled upon television shortly after high school when he landed a job as a mail clerk at a local station. Newscasts of the day resembled those on radio, with news stories read by presenters whose bearing and intonation made them known, derisively or affectionately, as the “voice of God.”
As Mr. Primo rose through the ranks at the station, he began to consider another way to deliver the news. He put his ideas into action as news director at KYW-TV, a Westinghouse station in Philadelphia, where he sent reporters from the studio and around town, giving the name to his flagship newscast: ” Eyewitness News” debuted in 1965.
“We weren’t just going to preach the news to people,” Mr. Primo said in a upcoming documentary, “News Primo: Al Primo’s Eyewitness News Revolution,” directed by University of Cincinnati journalism professor Brian Calfano. “We wanted to go out and talk to people because people can tell their stories better than we can write them.”
Back on set, a duo of male-female anchors – the first were Marciarose Shestack and Tom Snyder, later a staple of late-night television – engaged in friendly banter with the weather and sports commentators. For fans, the local news crew has become daily companions, like neighbors or even family. Mr. Primo insisting on hiring minorities to better reflect and represent the station’s audience.
He brought his format to WABC-TV in New York in 1968, reviving the struggling station in competition with other networks – WABC eventually claimed the top spot in the ratings – and proving the appeal of a format that quickly dominated local news.
“Al is one of the most important figures in the history of broadcast journalism,” said Emmy-winning TV personality Geraldo Rivera, who made his TV debut with Mr. Primo. “He invented local information as we know it.”
From the start, “Eyewitness News” invited hand wringing over the substitution of “happy talk” for hard news and the advent of what has come to be known as “infotainment.”
Harry Waters, a New York Times writer who reviewed the WABC-TV report in 1970, mocked the ribbing that ran during the show among his personalities, including the presenter Roger Grimsby and sports commentator Howard Cosell. The newscast might have been called “Eyewitness News,” Waters wrote, but “for at least this eyewitness, the show might better be called “Wiseguy News.”
The “free-swinging repartee is a new note for an information broadcast,” Waters wrote, “but whether it diminishes or improves efficiency remains open to question.”
Mr. Primo, for his part, did not apologize.
“They said ‘it wasn’t journalism’ and ‘it uses show business techniques’,” he said. told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year. “And of course I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. It’s television, so we use lights, a camera, action – that’s what we do. But we also make the news.
As the “eyewitness” format took over local news nationwide, critics objected to the increasingly sensational coverage of crime and tragedy. But the model has proven so popular that many modern viewers have never experienced local news in any other incarnation.
“It feels so natural now, but it took a visionary like Primo to codify it, first in Philadelphia and then in New York,” said Ron Simon, senior curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York.
Albert Thomas Primo was born in Pittsburgh on July 3, 1935. His homemaker mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants. His father came to the United States from Italy as a teenager and worked on the railroads, in construction, and as a gravedigger, with Mr. Primo sometimes helping him with the latter job.
Mr. Primo was hired to work in the mailroom at DuMont WDTV station in 1953 and worked there while attending the University of Pittsburgh, where he graduated in 1958. He told the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette that he “had the advantage of working in all the jobs there were in television: cameraman, editor, screenwriter, producer, on the air.
He eventually became assistant news director before moving to Cleveland, then Philadelphia and New York. Mr. Primo went on to become vice-president of ABC, as well as executive producer of “The Reasoner Report” hosted by Harry Reasoner. As a consultant, he helped popularize the “eyewitness” format on local news stations across the country.
Mr. Primo was also the creator and co-executive producer of Teen Kids News, a syndicated youth news program that debuted in 2003.
His wife of over 50 years, the former Rosina Pregano, died in 2018. Their son, Gregg Primo, died in 2007. Survivors include two daughters, Valerie Primo Lack of Geneva and Juliet Primo of Old Greenwich; two sisters; a brother; and two grandchildren.
Rivera, who became a reporter on television programs including ABC’s “20/20” and host of the daytime talk show “Geraldo,” was perhaps Mr. Primo’s most notable talent discovery.
A lawyer by training, Mr. Rivera was the spokesman for a group of Puerto Rican activists, the Young Lords, which had taken over several buildings in the Spanish neighborhood of Harlem in New York when he said that Mr. Primo had “spotted” in 1970. .
Seeking to expand the cultural representation of his newscast, Mr. Primo offered Rivera training and a job on “Eyewitness News” in New York. Rivera, who saw television as a means of effecting social change, agreed. Two years later, he received a Peabody Award for his investigative report on misery at Willowbrook, a state-run mental institution on Staten Island.
According to Mr. Primo’s account, the news crews he led did not cover the civil rights movement with enough vigor. Melba Tolliver, an African-American WABC-TV reporter, adopted a natural hairstyle shortly before covering Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding in 1971 and was told to go back to her more straightened look – or not appear on the air. Tolliver refused, the story leaked to the press, and the station relented.
But Mr. Primo has been widely credited with acknowledging to many other journalists the importance of cultivating diversity in a newsroom. He recruited Trudy Haynes, who at KYW became Philadelphia’s first black television reporter, according to the investigator, and advanced the career of Gloria Rojas, a Latina journalist he brought to WABC. New York ‘Eyewitness News’ anchor Rose Ann Scamardella inspired Gilda Radner’s character Roseanne Roseannadanna on the “Weekend Update” news segment of “Saturday Night Live”.
“He was one of the pioneers of integration into local news crews,” Rivera said. “His philosophy was that our on-air people should reflect the community we seek to serve.”