Hate ‘Happy Talk’ News? Me Too! Blame William Fyffe!
William C. Fyffe, was the television news executive who pioneered the medium’s controversial “happy news” trend more than three decades ago.
From the Los Angeles Times: “The longtime president and general manager of WABC-TV in New York City, Fyffe developed his happy-talk format in the Midwest, particularly as station manager at WLS-TV in Chicago.
” ‘Happy news’ is a misnomer,” Fyffe told The Times in 1972 when he was news director at KABC and facing nationwide criticism. “It implies that TV news is all fun and games and goofing off. That’s not what we’re doing. We don’t mess with the news; the happy talk is between people, and that doesn’t occur on serious news.”
“The anchorman,” he said, “has become a rather computerized sort of guy. I, for one, haven’t been too sure anything was happening between his eye and his mouth. The way we do it, a real person has to be there. He has to be a solid journalist, not just a pretty face.”
He said the formula was meant to combine a “friendly, humanizing” attitude toward news, “more candor and directness” and features about good works, as well as reports on crime and disasters.
“Here we make an effort to find good news, yes,” he said in 1972, when the concept was still new. “Not to the exclusion of conflict and tragedy. But if we can’t also find the joy, the celebration of life that goes on every day, we’re liars. I like to leave the audience feeling that we’ve made intelligent choices, given them the stories they need information about, but also sure that the world is still going to be here tomorrow.”
Other networks and local newscasts quickly copied Fyffe’s formula, but often distorted and abused it to the scorn of critics and sophisticated viewers.
Not so with Fyffe’s work. Maury Green, a Times television columnist and television veteran himself, said in 1972 that anchors elsewhere seemed to be laughing it up far more than Fyffe’s crew.
As general manager, Fyffe was constantly under ratings pressure in the highly competitive New York market. In 1972, he hired Tom Snyder, then coming off eight years of NBC’s “Tomorrow” show, as WABC-TV anchor. But Fyffe had a prickly relationship with Snyder, and suspended him for a week without pay in 1983 for making an obscene gesture to a stagehand. Snyder left when his contract expired and returned to Los Angeles.
Fyffe also made unpopular decisions, irking other on-air talent. When he moved colorful New York columnist Jimmy Breslin’s “People” to 1 a.m. Fridays and 1:30 a.m. Mondays–too late, Breslin complained, for even late-night New Yorkers to be awake and watching–Breslin lashed back in his New York Daily News column.
“Bill Fyffe,” Breslin suggested, should “do the honorable thing and jump in front of a bus.”
Fyffe that year also dropped the Los Angeles-based show “Entertainment Tonight” in favor of a revived “Hollywood Squares” to get higher ratings. And, again in a quest for better ratings in New York, he advanced the time slot of ABC network news to pit the popular game show “Jeopardy” against Tom Brokaw at NBC and Dan Rather at CBS.