Albert “Al” Primo, 87, who transformed television news when he created the now-ubiquitous Eyewitness News format, died Thursday, Sept. 29, at his home in Old Greenwich, Conn.
Mr. Primo launched Eyewitness News at Philadelphia’s KYW-TV, now CBS3, in 1965 as the station’s 30-year-old news director. Mr. Primo’s makeover of the TV news format ushered in an era of record viewership and profits for the medium and changed America’s relationship with local news.
Diverting from the static, newsreader format of the day, which featured a sole, middle-aged white anchor, Mr. Primo created a beat system and hired women and people of color for the first time.
He paired men and women to anchor together, creating the first “family” of local news people.
“They said ‘it was not journalism’ and ‘he’s using show-business techniques,’ ” Mr. Primo told The Inquirer earlier this year of critics who challenged his strategy. “And of course, I said, ‘Yes, that’s right. This is television, so we use lights, camera, action — that’s what we do.’ But we do the news, too.”
Integral to Mr. Primo’s vision were newsrooms that looked more like the communities they were covering. Soon after taking a top role at KYW-TV, he began meeting with civic leaders in Philadelphia.
“What it did for me was really highlight the fact that there was no minority representation on the station,” Mr. Primo said. “And so I began to look around for someone who was qualified to join the team.”
The young newsman then recruited Trudy Haynes, the first African American television reporter in the city. Haynes died in June at 95.
“It took a lot of courage to take a radio reporter from Detroit and put her in Philadelphia, the fourth biggest city in America,” Mr. Primo recently told The Inquirer of hiring Haynes.
From mailroom to mogul
With his success in Philadelphia pushing him into the national spotlight, Mr. Primo moved to New York City’s WABC-TV in 1968, and unrolled the Eyewitness News format there.
In New York, he gave big names like Geraldo Rivera their start.
Building on his successful approach to television news, Mr. Primo innovated again when he became a news consultant, inventing an entirely new media profession and spreading the Eyewitness News format to more than 100 stations across the world.
His brainchild emphasized action on video, the perception that reporters were always on the scene when news was breaking, the familial coanchor arrangement with quippy banter, music, and graphics, and a more narrative storytelling approach. These elements still define local TV news stations across the country and some national TV news programs.
Later in life, he created Teen Kids News, a children’s television program that still airs and publishes online today.
A Pittsburgh native, Mr. Primo began his journey to media mogul in the mailroom of a local television station and worked his way up to assistant news director. Frustrated by lack of promotion to news director, he left first for Cleveland before coming to Philadelphia.
Once he arrived, pioneering female broadcaster Marciarose Shestack helped Mr. Primo launch Eyewitness News.
”What I can tell you about Al is he really revolutionized the news business,” she said, noting that his death came as a “shock.” Shestack emphasized Mr. Primo’s drive to hire people of color like Haynes and prominent newspaper columnist Claude Lewis, who was Black. “He was a very dynamic personality,” she said. “He was forward looking.”
“We’re so proud of my dad and the advancements he did for women and minorities and we’re so heartbroken. I knew him as dad and he was a great one,” daughter Juliet Primo told The Inquirer.
In addition to Juliet, Mr. Primo is survived by another daughter, Valeri Primo Lack, and other relatives.
Services are tentatively planned for Saturday, Oct. 8, at First Congregational Church in Old Greenwich, Conn.