Frank N. Magid dies at 78; audience researcher spawned less-formal, splashier local newscasts

Frank N. Magid led the development of the "Action News" format.

Frank N. Magid, an audience researcher who became known as a “news doctor” for transforming local television news using an “Action News” format that featured chatting co-anchors, more lifestyle and crime stories and splashy graphics, has died. He was 78.

Magid died Friday at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, said a spokesman for Frank N. Magid Associates, the company he founded in 1957. He had lymphoma.

During his career, Magid worked with ABC on the launch of “Good Morning America,” recommended that CBS use Walter Cronkite as its sole network news anchor and pushed stations to use the early morning hours for news.

“Frank was always challenging fundamental assumptions,” Steve Ridge, president of Magid’s media strategy group and corporate executive vice president, told the trade publication Broadcasting and Cable in 2007. “He was always one or two or three iterations ahead of everyone else in anticipating the evolution of the media landscape.”

But his biggest impact was changing the way local news was presented on television.

“He had an enormous impact; he was the first pioneering major news consultant in the country,” Howard Rosenberg, former Los Angeles Times television critic and now an adjunct professor at USC, said this week. Magid’s influence was “all form over content . . . how best to attract an audience and hold an audience.”

The “Action News” format started at WPVI-TV in Philadelphia in 1970. “I didn’t like the name, but I was wrong,” Magid recalled in a 2007 Broadcasting and Cable story.

The station’s success spawned similar formats throughout the country, not always carrying the “Action News” name. In Los Angeles, KABC-TV Channel 7, with its “Eyewitness News,” was one of the early stations Magid worked with, Ridge said.

“He developed and encouraged a style for delivering news that was much more appealing to the average viewer,” Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said this week. Local news became “highly segmented, more visually entertaining and user-friendly.”

But the innovations also resulted in “a goofier kind of presentation,” Thompson said.

Co-anchors who talked to each other during the newscast replaced a single broadcaster who delivered stories on a static set. Magid’s company even schooled potential anchors on their presentation, part of what Ridge called the company’s “full-support mechanism.”

“If you have someone who . . . is just reading copy and is for all practical purposes an automaton, people know that and they’re not going to respond very favorably,” Magid told Electronic Media magazine in 1997.

Ridge maintained that criticism of Magid’s recommendations were “really a misconception” of the company’s goal, which was “all about differentiation through content.”

Thompson said the changes brought by Magid would have happened eventually even without his influence. But before Magid, Thompson said, local television news “was pretty deadly dull.”

Frank Newton Magid (pronounced with a hard G sound) was born Sept. 1, 1931, in Chicago. He served in the Army during the Korean War, then earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in social psychology and statistics from the University of Iowa.

Magid taught social psychology, anthropology and statistics at the University of Iowa and at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His first research study was for a bank in Cedar Rapids in 1956. The next year he left teaching and founded his company.

His first television client in the late 1950s was also in Cedar Rapids, followed soon by KOGO-TV in San Diego, Ridge said. Magid and his company surveyed random samples of viewers and provided stations with recommendations on changes to increase their ratings.

The company, which has more than 300 employees, also advised stations about the potential of FM radio and cable and satellite television and conducted the first research determining the viability of digital video recorders.

Magid retired as chief executive in 2002 and was succeeded by his son Brent, but remained chairman.

In addition to Brent, he is survived by his wife, Marilyn, whom he married in 1956; another son, Creighton; four grandchildren; and a brother, Gail.