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Frank N. Magid, 78

Frank N. Magid dies at 78, created news anchor 'happy talk'

Frank N. Magid's research and advice revolutionized broadcast news operations.
Frank N. Magid's research and advice revolutionized broadcast news operations. (Magid Associates)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010

Frank N. Magid, 78, the television "news doctor" whose survey research and advice to local television stations in the 1970s resulted in co-anchors who chatted between stories, fast-paced graphics, sports tickers and live shots, and a heavy reliance on both crime coverage and feel-good segments, died of lymphoma Feb. 5 at Santa Barbara [Calif.] Cottage Hospital.

"Action News," as Mr. Magid dubbed his format, revolutionized broadcast news operations from Cedar Rapids to Kuala Lumpur. At a time when most local TV news shows featured a single anchorman reading the news from a sheet of paper in front of a static background, "Action News" and its rival, "Eyewitness News," demonstrated both the untapped possibilities of the medium and the opportunity to devolve into "happy talk" between serious segments. The redone broadcasts almost always shot to the top of the ratings.

But Magid-style changes were criticized as both a uniformization and a dumbing-down of news coverage. "Thanks to him, local newscasts throughout America are like airports or fast food joints; they lack all traces of indigenousness," wrote Tom Shales of The Washington Post in 1982.

Supporters noted that Mr. Magid consistently emphasized the importance of local news, sharpened his clients' newswriting and forced them to pay better attention to the impressions of the audience. His research said viewers wanted hard news mixed with health, consumer and lifestyle stories, presented in a highly visual, fast-paced broadcast by people whom viewers liked. Shorter stories, urgent tones and better dressed and coiffed news staffers were just part of the bargain.

The "Action News" format had its first major success in 1970, when WPVI in Philadelphia rocketed from last to first place in the ratings. Station managers took notice, and it quickly became standard fare across the country and later, around the world.

Mr. Magid's research also recommended CBS News feature Walter Cronkite as the solo anchorman on its evening news program. That didn't stop the venerable broadcaster from describing the work of consultants such as Mr. Magid as "a fad" and "balderdash," in a widely reported 1976 speech, dubbing those who followed his advice "suckers for a fad" and "editing by consultancy."

The criticism irked Mr. Magid. He told Washington Post reporter John Carmody the next year that "I feel sorry for Walter because he doesn't take time to check the facts. It's interesting that TV newsmen are so gullible."

Mr. Magid also helped develop ABC's "Good Morning, America," which in 1975 defined the modern morning show format, and he developed local early morning local newscasts as well.

"We were the first to suggest to clients that there was an opportunity for news between 6 and 7 a.m. in the morning and strongly urged our clients to do that,'' Mr. Magid in 1997 told Electronic Media magazine, which called him "the godfather of local TV news research." Clients resisted his suggestion, he recalled, claiming that the time was not covered by ratings, the audience was too small and advertisers would never support the concept. A New Orleans stations, followed by Sacramento and Minneapolis, proved the naysayers wrong.

Mr. Magid (pronounced Mah-gid with a hard G), through his eponymous company based for many years in Marion, Iowa, also ran a "star school" for aspiring anchors where reporters were taught "relaxed intensity" in their presentation. Magid Associates also served as an industry recruitment agency, providing client stations who were searching for new "talent" with videotapes of up-and-coming broadcasters in other markets.

Frank Newton Magid was born in Chicago on Sept. 1, 1931, and served in the Army during the Korean War. He graduated from the University of Iowa and received a master's degree there in 1956 in the fields of social psychology and statistics. After teaching at Iowa's Coe College and the University of Iowa, Mr. Magid launched his company in 1956. His first client was a bank; his fourth was WMT-TV, now KGAN-TV, in Cedar Rapids. By creating careful surveys and polling random samples of a population, Mr. Magid and his employees were able to provide highly accurate data that gave television its first serious consumer research.

The work paid off for the Iowa station, and the station's manager recommended Mr. Magid for a job at Time-Life's newly acquired KOGO-TV in San Diego. That, too, was successful, and it led to a contract for all the Time-Life stations.

"And that really was our launching pad because they were very kind to us and began to do some considerable amount of advertising to the trades, talking about how they were listening to the public through this rather new, and at that time quite unique, kind of research,'' Mr. Magid told Electronic Media.

His firm, from which he retired in 2002, also advised AM radio stations to get into the FM field, and urged broadcasters to invested in cable TV. He helped identify viability of direct broadcast satellite television and did the first research that determined the viability of digital video recorders. Now based in Minneapolis, the privately-held company has about 200 employees and advises all kinds of media, including The Washington Post, through its MORI Research division.

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Marilyn Magid of Santa Barbara; two sons, Brent Magid, who took over the company and resides in Minneapolis, and Creighton Magid of Washington; a brother; and four grandchildren.


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