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William C. Fyffe; Helped Pioneer ‘Happy Talk’ on TV Newscasts

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

William C. Fyffe, a television news executive who helped pioneer the medium’s controversial “happy news” trend more than three decades ago, has died. He was 71.

Fyffe, former news director of Los Angeles’ KABC-TV Channel 7, died Oct. 12 at Bloomington Hospital in Bloomington, Ind., of injuries suffered in a fall.

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. After he switched to ABC-affiliated stations, the formula became the network’s “Eyewitness News.”

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“ ‘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.”

More important, he said, was “spontaneity” between his “Eyewitness News” anchors--then Joseph Benti and John Schubeck--the ability to discuss news stories extemporaneously with each other on the air and to ask provocative questions of field reporters.

“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.

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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.

“What’s happening, I suspect,” Green wrote, “is that news director Bill Fyffe is faking out his opposition. While pretending to go for laughs, he’s really sneaking up on the hard news. . . . It’s a sneaky game he’s playing. It’s called one-upmanship.”

Green also said Fyffe had made changes in the local television news staff that converted its “uneven quality” into a far more professional operation.

“TV is not just a newspaper column,” Fyffe told The Times. “The reporter is an eyewitness and also an audience, a link. He stands close to the action, and the audience identifies with the reporter at the scene. It’s journalism basics. We may package it differently, but what’s in the package is the most important thing.”

By the time he launched “happy news,” Fyffe had established his credentials. A graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., he earned a National Headliners Club Award in 1968 and a Peabody Award in television journalism in 1969.

He honed his reputation further during his post-Los Angeles years at the top of New York’s WABC-TV, where he made several bold moves.

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Faced with use of fabricated letters on advice programs--letters purportedly from viewers but actually written by staff members--he got rid of five station employees and reprimanded 10 others. He also pulled the programs off the air.

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.”

Instead, Fyffe was left to implement ABC’s cost-cutting policy of halting its late-hour program efforts at the end of 1986--the Breslin show and the Dick Cavett show.

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.

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Born in Great Falls, Mont., Fyffe retired to Bloomington, where he was president of his own news consulting firm, Fyffe Callaway & Associates.

He is survived by his wife, Nancy Callaway Fyffe; two daughters, Jennifer Moschin of Azalia, Ore., and Lisa Cunha of Saugus; two sons, Jonathan of Sacramento and Timothy of Cleveland; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to Evans Scholars at Northwestern or to the American Cancer Society.

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