A historic figure in local TV news passed away recently, although few would recognize his name. Mel Kampmann coined the term “Action News” and had great success as a news director and as a consultant before chucking the media rat race to open a Dairy Queen on the Delaware shore.
He’d have liked the way I boiled down his 85 years into a sentence that takes 11 seconds to read aloud. Brevity has always been part the Action News philosophy. Stories must conform to strict time limits. Affluent suburbs are covered rigorously. Anchor talent tends to be younger than the competition’s.
Mr. Kampmann introduced the format at Channel 6 in Philadelphia in 1970 and quickly took the ABC affiliate from the basement of the local news ratings to a fight for #1 and eventually to domination. Stations in markets large and small began branding themselves as Action News, although that has largely faded. The truest major market disciples are in Atlanta, where Channel 2 remains #1 by a wide margin, largely adhering to the original principles.
It’s hard to report on Action News without mentioning its older sibling, Eyewitness News, popularized at Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in New York, in the late 1960s. News Director Al Primo brought the format with him from Philly. He emphasized on-set visits from “eyewitnesses” (field reporters who actually witnessed nothing, of course), matching blazers with the station logo and anchor banter between stories and segments, which a media critic called “happy talk,” a term that stuck.
Mr. Primo pioneered including minorities on newscasts; one of his young finds was Geraldo Rivera. Another was Rose Ann Scamardella, who seemed to be everywhere and was satirized on “Saturday Night Live” by Gilda Radner as “Roseanne Roseannadanna.”
Supposedly Westinghouse Broadcasting copyrighted the term “Eyewitness News,” but there is no evidence it ever sought royalties from the dozens of stations that branded their newscasts that way back in the day. Many still do, including Channel 5 in Atlanta.
And Mr. Primo? He’s still around, north of 80. After his success at the local level, he became the youngest corporate VP ever at the ABC network.