KINTNER, ROBERT

E. U.S. Media Executive

Robert E. Kintner was a television executive who, as network president, influenced the development of two major networks (ABC and NBC) during the tumultuous decade of the 1950s. This former journalist fused his passion for journalistic excellence and his zeal for high entertainment ratings into a highly successful formula which shaped network programming trends for several decades. Kintner was lauded within the industry and the press for applying the "doctrine of common sense to many a ticklish problem" and for his refreshing "cold realism." He defended the embattled television industry during the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s, and spearheaded the move to make television a respectable journalistic medium by dedicating unprecedented network resources and air time to news and documentary programming.

Beginning his career as a reporter, Kintner established a national reputation in the late 1930s with a syndicated political column co-written with Joseph Wright Alsop, with whom he also collaborated on a number of best-selling books on American politics. Kintner's entry into broadcasting came when he was hired by ABC owner and chair Edward J. Noble in 1944 as a vice-president of public relations and radio news. Six years later, Kintner was named president of the ABC network, which was just beginning to provide television service and was the clear underdog in competition with NBC and CBS.

With a keen understanding of television's potential as a journalistic medium, Kintner's major coup at ABC was the network's full coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which brought Sen. Joseph McCarthy's tactics to public light and established ABC as a major source for public affairs coverage. On the entertainment front, under Kintner's leadership the production-weak ABC struck groundbreaking deals with Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studios for the production of weekly television series. The success of such filmed television programming as Disneyland (and its offshoots) and the hit western Cheyenne influenced the programming trends at all three networks; by the late 1950s, Hollywood studio-produced westerns dominated the Nielsen ratings.

Kintner left the ABC presidency in 1956, in a period of great network growth, joined NBC in early 1957, and was named president in July 1958. As the first journalist to head a network, Kintner took pride in the informational potential of broadcasting, and believed that TV could fulfill its mission to society through news programming. Known affectionately as the "managing editor" of the NBC news division because of his hands-on approach, President Kintner was directly responsible for the development of a strong news component at NBC. By increasing budget allocations and air time for the news division, and hiring top news executives and journalists (often from CBS, with whom NBC was in ferocious competition), Kintner had by the end of the decade built a high-prestige, unequaled news division at NBC which reigned throughout the early 1960s.

The major components of Kintner's three-pronged public affairs initiative were the nightly network newscasts, the development of strong prime-time documentary series, and the pre-emption of regular programs to provide live coverage of breaking news events. The anchor team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley dominated news programming during this period, and in late 1963 both NBC and CBS lengthened their evening newscasts from fifteen to thirty minutes, a move which many critics credited as making television a serious information medium comparable to newspapers.

Kintner's vision of the medium as a way to educate and inform citizens about social issues was enabled by public and government pressures--especially in the wake of the quiz show scandals--to increase the prestige of the industry by increasing prime-time public affairs programming by the networks. Kintner revitalized NBC's network documentary units, which had focused mainly on cultural programming, to begin to take on serious social and political issues in series such as NBC White Paper. By 1962 Kintner claimed that the networks were "proving what's right with television"--bringing space flights, civil rights riots, election coverage and swiftly breaking events into America's living rooms. Although often gently criticized for micro-managing the NBC news division, Kintner hosted the transformation of news/informational programming from a peripheral aspect of television programming to the prestige end of broadcasting.

This "golden age" of television journalism was directly related to the historical moment--especially the years of President John Kennedy's "New Frontier" initiative, marked by the charismatic charm of a made-for-media president, the dramatic struggles of the civil rights movement, the patriotic Cold War-era fervor of America's race into space, and the coming of age of American news broadcasting with the live coverage of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy's image-oriented New Frontier forged an alliance with television, an alliance described by Mary Ann Watson in The Expanding Vista as a "symbiotic bond" between JFK and the television medium which would forever alter the relationship between the public and the president. Similarly, the centrality of television in the political process increased dramatically under Kintner's reign at NBC, with the coverage of the 1960 campaigns, the "Great Debates" between Kennedy and Nixon, paid political advertisements, and especially the election coverage (Watson reports that over 90% of American homes were tuned in).

Kintner was an active player in the public controversies surrounding the quiz show scandals of 1959, and he used this opportunity to redefine the mission and the structure of commercial television. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight in 1959, Kintner claimed that the networks, as well as the public, were victims of deception by those who rigged quiz shows. Although the networks were criticized by the subcommittee for "lack of diligence" in taking action, Kintner strongly defended his network, claiming that NBC was taking active steps to "investigate and safeguard the integrity of the shows" and had taken direct production control over the quiz shows away from the sponsors.


Robert Kintner
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

Under intense public criticism about the entertainment programming standards, as well as mounting pressure from the FCC and from civic and religious groups in the wake of the quiz scandals, Kintner recognized this period as a crossroads for the TV industry, and advocated that the industry take actions to recover public confidence. In the face of concerns about sex and violence in television shows, Kintner also defended the network in 1961 before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (the Dodd Committee), which charged the TV industry with violating moral codes, lacking imagination and shirking its responsibilities in the drive for higher ratings.

Believed to watch more television than any of his contemporaries in the industry, Kintner's addiction to "the box" was frequently noted. He was perceived as a paradox by some critics, such as Jack Gould of The New York Times, who wrote about him in 1965: "He can rationalize the pap of the medium with a relaxed opportunism that stands in strange contrast to his initiative in news and public affairs. . . . He embodies [both] the promise and problem of mass communication--how to keep up the quarterly dividend while offering both folk rock and the oratorio."

In early 1966 Kintner left NBC and was appointed as a special assistant and Cabinet secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a parting interview upon leaving NBC, Kintner advocated greater experimentation in TV programming, calling for programs dealing with more controversial social, economic and political subjects in both news and entertainment programming.

-Pamela Wilson

ROBERT E(DMONDS) KINTER. Born in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 12 September 1909. Swarthmore College, B.A., 1931. Married: Jean Rodney, 1940; children: Susan and Michael. Served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Financial news reporter, Herald Tribune, 1933-37; columnist, Herald Tribune and North American Newspaper Alliance, 1937-41; vice president of public relations, ABC, 1944-50; president, ABC, 1950-56; president, NBC, 1956-66; cabinet liaison for Lyndon Johnson administration, 1966-67. Recipient: Legion of Merit, WWII. Died in Washington, D.C., 3 December 1980.

PUBLICATIONS

Men Around the President, with Joseph Alsop. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1939.

American White Paper: The Story of American Diplomacy and the Second World War, with Joseph Alsop. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940.

Broadcasting and the News. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

FURTHER READING

Barnouw, Eric. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975; revised edition, 1990.

Baughman, James L. The Republic of Mass Culture. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Blair, William. "Kintner Testifies. . . " The New York Times 6 November 1959.

Boddy, William. Fifties Television. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

"Excerpts from the Testimony by President of NBC at Quiz-Show Hearing." The New York Times, 6 November 1959.

Gould, Jack. "Robert Edmonds Kintner: The Man From NBC." The New York Times, 24 October 1965.

Watson, Mary Ann. The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

 

See also American Broadcasting Company; Army-McCarthy Hearings; National Broadcasting Company; NBC White Paper; Warner Brothers Presents