Lawrence K. Grossman, who as president of PBS doubled the length of “the MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” its signature news program, then headed NBC News, where he dealt unhappily with budget austerity after it came under General Electric’s ownership, died Friday at his home in Westport, Connecticut. He was 86.
His granddaughter Rebecca Grossman-Cohen said he had Parkinson’s disease and oral cancer.
Grossman, a former advertising executive, transformed PBS over eight years. Despite his initial reluctance to spend the required money, PBS became the first broadcast network to deliver its programming by satellite.
He expanded the influence of the MacNeil/Lehrer program by lengthening it to an hour, from a half-hour, and started the “Frontline” documentary series as well as the 13-part series “Vietnam: A Television History” (1981).
“I have never been more optimistic,” Grossman told The Christian Science Monitor in October 1983, shortly before he was hired by NBC. “PBS, despite reduced funding, is coming into a golden age of programming with probably its best season starting this month.”
Grossman joined NBC News a few months later and was faced with multiple challenges: Ratings for the “Today” show were slipping, “NBC Nightly News” was ranked far behind “CBS Evening News,” and the network was struggling to create a strong prime-time newsmagazine.
His lack of a journalism background did not bother Grant Tinker, the chairman of NBC, who hired him.
“We have an awful lot of people who have a lot of experience in news,” said Tinker. “We are hiring a man in whom we have great faith.”
Soon after taking over, Grossman told The New York Times that his mandate was “not to make NBC News first in the ratings” but to build an organization “of which we can all be proud.”
“And there was no talk of any time frame in which it had to be done,” he said.
He hired Tim Russert, then a political aide to Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, as a vice president (before Russert became one of NBC News’ top on-air personalities as the moderator of “Meet the Press”). And he had some successes, including “Today’s” return as ratings leader among morning news programs and an increased regard for “NBC Nightly News,” which had risen briefly to No. 1 in the ratings in 1987 before falling to third place.
But after GE's acquisition of RCA, NBC’s parent company, in 1986, Grossman fell out of favor with his new bosses — Jack Welch, GE's chairman, and Robert C. Wright, NBC’s president, as well as with Tom Brokaw, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News.”
To Grossman, corporate ownership of news divisions (Loews controlled CBS and Capital Cities had bought ABC) had increased the pressure to make a profit.
“It was quickly apparent that the most costly thing in putting on nightly news programs is covering the hard news,” he said in 2001 in an interview with Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
In his book “Three Blind Mice” (1991), Ken Auletta described awkward encounters between Welch and Grossman, like one in which Grossman pushed for a 4 percent budget increase for the news division, not the 5 percent cut he had been told to make.
“How dare you come in at 4 percent above 1986 when the word is out that you have to keep below the current budget?” Welch shouted.
After Grossman told him, “That’s what we need,” Welch reproved him, saying, as quoted by Auletta: “You guys spend more money! My kids could do better!”
The next day, Welch, still angry, ordered Grossman to make the budget cut. But Grossman stayed for nearly two more years and supervised layoffs. He was forced out in 1988, replaced by Michael Gartner.
In an email on Friday, Brokaw wrote that NBC News had needed “an aggressive seasoned hand” with experience in journalism and production to “go against Roone Arledge,” the president of ABC News, “and the CBS veteran team.”
He added that Grossman had “failed to appreciate the change represented by the arrival of Jack Welch and GE. Jack knew the department needed fresh ideas, but Larry failed to provide them.”
Lawrence Kugelmass Grossman was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 21, 1931. His father, Nathaniel H. Kugelmass, was a lawyer; his mother, the former Rose Goldstein, was a high school administrator. His father died when Lawrence was 3, and his mother later married Nathan Grossman, also a lawyer, who adopted him.
After attending Midwood High School — where a journalism teacher opened his mind to the world of communication — he graduated from Columbia University, where he studied English and political science. He went on to Harvard Law School, where he met his future wife, Alberta Nevler, who was attending Radcliffe.
But he left Harvard after a year and joined Look magazine in the promotions department. Hoping to be a journalist, he sent story ideas to editors there but found no takers.
Hired in the mid-1950s by CBS to do advertising and promotion for the news division during the era of Edward R. Murrow, he continued to hope for a journalism job but did not succeed.
Then, at NBC, where he was a vice president of advertising from 1962 to 1966, he met Tinker, who was then in programming; their friendship would lead Tinker to consider only Grossman for the presidency of NBC News.
But that was still nearly two decades away. After leaving NBC for the first time, he opened an advertising, marketing and communications firm. PBS, one of his clients, hired him as its president in 1976.
In 1980, he refused to bow to pressure that PBS not show “Death of a Princess,” a film based on a true story about a Saudi princess who had been publicly beheaded for adultery a few years earlier. Mobil Oil, a major PBS underwriter, protested. Some members of Congress spoke out. And Warren M. Christopher, the secretary of state, relayed a letter of concern from the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Grossman’s stance “was the single most important thing he did at PBS,” Richard Wald, a professor emeritus at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former NBC News president, said in a telephone interview. “He created a sense in PBS that they were doing important work, and it caused PBS to stand up straighter. It was enormously important to how PBS conducted itself thereafter.”
In addition to his granddaughter, Grossman-Cohen, a marketing executive at The New York Times, Grossman is survived by his wife, who is known as Boots; three daughters, Susan Grossman, Caroline Grossman and Jennifer Grossman Peltz; a brother, Daniel; five other grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
After leaving NBC, he wrote “The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age” (1995), about how interactive telecommunications of that era — faxed petitions, email lobbying and 900-number telephone polls — were providing citizens with more direct participation in politics and making them the “new fourth estate.”
In her review in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Grossman expresses his ideas in “strong, clear language, eschewing both the naïve optimism about technology that has colored so much American thinking in the past and the doomsaying of many contemporary critics.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.Lawrence K. Grossman, who as president of PBS doubled the length of “the MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” its signature news program, then headed NBC News, where he dealt unhappily with budget austerity after it came under General Electric’s ownership, died Friday at his home in Westport, Connecticut. He was 86. Read Full Story