The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawrence K. Grossman, top executive at PBS and NBC News, dies at 86

Lawrence K. Grossman, right, with NBC’s Marvin Kalb, left, and Robert McFarland in 1987. (Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post)

Lawrence K. Grossman, who expanded public television programming as the top executive at PBS in the 1970s and 1980s, and who later led a resurgence of NBC’s news division before ­budget battles with the network’s corporate bosses forced his departure, died March 23 at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 86.

He had Parkinson’s disease and oral cancer, a granddaughter, Rebecca ­Grossman-Cohen, said.

As a longtime advertising executive, Mr. Grossman was an unlikely choice to lead the ad-free Public Broadcasting Service. But one of his advertising agency’s clients in the 1970s had been PBS — his company designed the network’s familiar logo featuring the letter P combined with the stylized profile of a head — and he had previously worked at CBS and NBC.

Mr. Grossman moved to Washington in 1976 to take charge of PBS, at the time little more than a loosely aligned group of hundreds of locally controlled educational TV stations around the country. During his eight-year tenure, he maintained financial stability while giving PBS more of a national presence, largely through cultural programming and news.

“Public television is, and will continue to be, indispensable in America,” he said in 1982. “We must continue to be the bulwark of quality that stands firm against the tide of mediocrity and worse which now engulfs so much of television.”

He introduced such programs as “Live From Lincoln Center” and concerts from the White House and the Kennedy Center and approved production of a 13-part series on the history of the Vietnam War. He led efforts that expanded “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” to a full hour in 1983, making it the first hour-long nightly newscast on any network. (It is now called “PBS NewsHour.”)

Mr. Grossman also received credit within PBS for standing up to federal and corporate opposition to a 1980 docudrama, “Death of a Princess,” about a Saudi princess who was beheaded after being accused of adultery. He resisted efforts by members of Congress, the State Department, the military and the oil firm Mobil — one of PBS’s largest underwriters — to block the broadcast.

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In 1984, despite having no experience in daily journalism, Mr. Grossman became the head of NBC News, personally chosen by network chief Grant Tinker. At the time, the network’s news division was slipping in ratings and respect, with its “NBC Nightly News” broadcast in third place behind CBS and ABC and the onetime morning-show juggernaut “Today” trailing ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Mr. Grossman helped engineer a turnaround at NBC within two years, as “Nightly News” occasionally outranked its competitors and “Today” became the No. 1 morning show.

He hoped to build on those gains and restore NBC’s news division to its former glory, but in 1986 the network was bought by General Electric. The new corporate leaders instituted across-the-board budget cuts, which Mr. Grossman ignored as long as he could. With his onetime patron, Tinker, out of the picture, Mr. Grossman often clashed with NBC’s new president, Robert C. Wright.

He came under growing internal attack by “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, who questioned Mr. Grossman’s journalistic ability. Others pointed out that NBC had failed in several attempts to create a successful TV news magazine.

Mr. Grossman was dismissed in 1988 and replaced by Michael Gartner.

“I count Tom Brokaw as one of my friends,” Tinker told The Washington Post. “But I read somewhere that he was among the detractors and that his reason was that Larry was not born in a newsroom. I say bull to that. Larry brought all the skills, talents, abilities and instincts to that job that are necessary.”

Lawrence Kugelmass was born June 21, 1931, in Brooklyn. After his father died, he was adopted by his mother’s second husband, Nathan Grossman.

He graduated from Columbia University in 1952 and spent one year at Harvard Law School before going to work in the promotions department of Look magazine. He joined the advertising department at CBS in 1956, then moved to NBC in 1962, becoming the network’s vice president of advertising. He ran his own advertising agency from 1966 to 1976.

After leaving NBC, Mr. Grossman taught at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and, in 1993, became president of Horizons TV, a onetime challenger to PBS and C-SPAN.

In the late 1990s, he and former PBS chairman Newton Minow launched Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization that receives federal and private funding to use digital technologies to improve education.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, the former Alberta Nevler of Westport; three daughters, Susan Grossman of Brooklyn, Caroline Grossman of Waltham, Mass., and Jennifer Grossman Peltz of Manhattan; a brother; six grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.

In 1995, Mr. Grossman published “The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age,” which contained several prescient predictions about the role of television and other media in politics and public life.

“Far too little attention has been paid to the tendency of today’s technology to fragment the electorate so that it can be reached more effectively with particular appeals crafted for audiences with specific interests,” he wrote. “Interest politics has largely replaced sectional politics. New networks and communications media are specialized, stratified, and narrow, carving up the nation and the world into a series of separate, suspicious and often hostile enclaves.”

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