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June 9, 2024

The legendary newscaster, journalist, and Renaissance Man, Hugh Downs, passed away four years ago at 99 years old…and it was the fullest 99 years of life of anyone I have ever known.

As you know I am committed to remembering those who have contributed to my life and career on a regular basis…with special attention to those who are no longer with us…with the goal of no one who has touched me in a significant way will ever experience a “final death” under my watch.

To get the explanation of what it means to experience a “final death,” which I hope you never experience you’ll need to watch the movie Coco (the ultimate kid’s movie not really for kids)…or read “A fourth life (of nine)”, for a deeper dive into the concept.

It’s not morbid. Promise.

And yes, I talk about this concept often because never forgetting is part of life.

This post is a further reminder for you to continuously remember those who have contributed to your life and career–especially if they are not around in the flesh to remind you personally–so you can pay them forward in writing, speech and/or deed.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

Feel free to share a story with me about someone who touched you significantly who you’ve lost along the way…in the spirit of keeping them alive in an email. 🙂



Hugh Downs is among a group of people who will have a much harder time experiencing a “final death”—he is more well known than many I’ve written about in this context–but he still deserves a shout out for the contributions he made to millions of people through his 10 decades on earth…which I will shout here.

While I only met Hugh for the first time when he was a sprightly 84, I felt like I knew him forever, because he was so generous with his time, always sharing freely his stories about the early days of TV news…and his wonder with the world around him.

I will tell you the story of how he entered my life in 2005, when he was the key participant in the most successful project of my career.

But first, let me share his career highlights:

  • He was cast as Jack Paar’s “Ed McMahon” on The Tonight Show (Mr. Paar referred to him as “My Sancho Panza”); and that’s where he was briefly thrust into the spotlight when Paar left him to fend for himself and host the show for 25 days when Paar walked off the stage one night in a huff. The best was yet to come for Hugh on the small screen.
  • During those years and shortly after, he was also host of the popular daytime game show Concentration, a job he held from 1958 until 1969.
  • In 1962 he became the host of The Today Show (yes, that Today Show, still running today) for a decade. See the P.P.S. for proof.
  • He is credited with launching the career of megastar Barbara Walters when he brought her on to co-host The Today Show.
  • In 1978 he became the sole host of the newsmagazine 20/20 until 1984…and then in 1984, he teamed up with Barbara Walters once again and they co-hosted 20/20 until he “retired” in 1999. See the P.P.S. again for proof of that too.

But Hugh was far from finished…anything but retired…and he spent the next 20+ years “keeping busy”…

  • As a composer (he wrote a prelude that was performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra)
  • As an amateur guitarist (he played for Andrés Segovia and said he was pleased that Segovia did not leave the room) and painter (when he had the time)
  • As an author of numerous books including being an advocate for the elderly (he wrote books and articles about the aging process and was the host of a PBS series on aging called Over Easy)
  • As a science buff (he was once NBC’s resident expert on science programming) and a visiting professor at Arizona State University. While he came close to becoming a career scientist, as you will read in the P.S., I’m kinda glad he pursued journalism as his vocation.
  • As an audiophile (he built his own stereo equipment from scratch)
  • As an environmentalist and unabashed adventurer who piloted a 65-foot ketch across the Pacific, went to the South Pole, and rode a killer whale at SeaWorld.

And, in 2005, he became the star of one of the most successful franchises in infomercial history.

That’s when our paths crossed.

In his obituary, there is a paragraph about this adventure…but frankly, The New York Times got it wrong:

Mr. Downs, who often said he thought viewers regarded him as bland, assiduously avoided the appearance of controversy.

He could not escape it late in life, however, when he was widely criticized for appearing in infomercials for a book called “The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets” and other products whose value many people questioned.

I know for a fact that this is wholly inaccurate.

And I am not being defensive.

Lesson regarding being a spokesperson for anything, especially when you’ve achieved notoriety or fame:

There will always be questions when a famous figure (especially a trusted newscaster) begins peddling products…but I was in the middle of the negotiations with Hugh and his attorney before he agreed to do five blockbuster infomercials (28.5-minute TV shows/advertisements) for my company Boardroom…so I have a different (inside) view than The New York Times had.

Throughout those negotiations, he was a stickler for not endorsing anything that he didn’t believe in himself–and we had to make sure the shows were 100% value and the books sold were best-in-class.

In addition, his “co-host” on three shows was A-List copywriter (and health expert) Arthur Johnson.

The two of them became synonymous at the time with providing information from doctors and medical experts from the top institutions in the country (including two Nobel Prize winners) …who were all in the shows (and the book).

Questioning Hugh Downs on the selling of the encyclopedic book, The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets, came from those who would have questioned anything Hugh Downs would have sold after 60 years being one of the most trusted men on TV.

Maybe there were dozens (or even hundreds) who felt that way…there will always be haters…but the proof is in the pudding.

We sold millions of books on TV from these shows…and millions more in direct mail that featured the infomercial in the copy (with the headline, “The Greatest Medical Team Ever Assembled!”).

And get this–with a return rate of less than 10% (and in some cases under 5%).

Those of you who know TV (or online selling), know that a 20% or 30% return rate is not uncommon, and anything in single digits is something to be very proud of–which we were.

It signifies that the promotion and the product are in sync despite some (not many) people questioning the value.

The book was obviously not in question nor was Hugh’s light endorsement of it (i.e., he was an “objective questioner” in the shows since he did not want to “sell”– and we had Arthur to do all the selling).

I wonder where The New York Times got their information.

Not from the facts, I guess.

I’ve talked before about how this project came to be and discussed it in detail in my book, Overdeliver (pages 41-46)…and in my blog post, “How my insomnia led to $200 million in sales.”

But today I want to focus on the genius of using Hugh as the host.

When I realized that we could do a successful infomercial selling a single book after my bout with insomnia, I assembled a dream team (pun intended) inside Boardroom (I already had the best direct marketers anywhere in the industry)… and outside of Boardroom as well.

Lesson: Direct response is direct response regardless of the medium.

And when you have experienced, trained personnel who “get it,” they can pivot quickly.

Which the staff at Boardroom certainly did…from buying media, to creative development to analyzing results. It was seamless.

Every aspect of marketing on TV had its parallel in direct mail (where we were experts)…and we became TV infomercial experts very quickly.

The next critical domino was hiring the director, Steve Dworman, a genius in the world of infomercials.

I don’t think he realized what he was getting into when I hired him to direct the entire creative process…but he was excited to get involved.

We were on the verge of creating the most successful shows in his career (as well as ours).

Our first show in 2004 was with radio talk show star Barry Farber, an amazing voice and a man of high integrity…who we paired with Arthur Johnson, the A-List copywriter who had the winning magalog promotion at the time (a long-form direct mail format) for The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets.

Making a radio talk show host and a direct mail copywriter the on-screen talent for a TV infomercial weren’t obvious choices…but Steve had a bigger vision that he was just testing.

With Barry’s melodious voice and Arthur’s enthusiasm for the material (remember, A-List copywriters become A-Listers because they are one with the content they write about), this “concept test” worked to the tune of more than $30 million in revenue.

It could have ended there—after all, the infomercial experts told us that 1 in 15 or even 1 in 20 shows produced are successful.

We could have been content by going 1 for 1.

(Note: Something that I wrote about in my book was that we labelled Arthur Johnson as a “medical writer and expert”—not because he was a doctor and not because most viewers wouldn’t understand why a “copywriter” was doing the interviewing…despite both of those things being true. We did that because he was a true expert in writing health information–he read everything on the topic–and read the book itself cover to cover numerous times—which became a huge plus when he teamed up with Hugh Downs.)

The question was, what could we do for an encore?

Barry was unavailable and we also thought we could step up the credibility of the next show with someone recognizable from TV.

Steve did some lengthy research on former news anchors and people Americans trust to be impartial…and Hugh Downs fit the bill perfectly.

But as I said previously, Hugh was initially hesitant…he put us through a gauntlet to prove we were worthy…which was as beneficial for us as it was for him.

His top priority, in addition to the book being the highest quality, is that he would play the curious and inquisitive newsman in the show (i.e., no selling) and Arthur had to prove all his points and answer all his questions about the information in the book…to make sure that The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets lived up to its name.

The result: This franchise was responsible for over $200 million in revenue and if you take in all the additional media we ran, offline and online, using the infomercial as the centerpiece, it was probably closer to $300 million.

Including:

  • The direct mail we did after the show aired—using the infomercial’s visuals and a headline of “As Seen on TV”—made it a bigger bestseller than ever before.
  • The advertising we did online with paid search and display advertising under the heading of “Hugh Downs Reports” also contributed a lot of profit.
  • The power of spokespeople and credibility/proof elements were never more evident:

– Hugh Downs, one of the most trusted news anchors in America

– Arthur Johnson, a copywriter who knew the material better than most of the doctors in the book—and a man who could write a script with integrity and compliance (with a co-writing credit to Steve Dworman, who is no slouch with the pen).

– The dozens of doctors who appeared in the shows from Harvard Medical School, The Cleveland Clinic, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center…and many more from the top medical schools and institutions in America who wanted to share their “secrets” (which were their life’s work).

Obviously, this was a perfect storm of disparate (yet meticulously planned) things coming together– something I can only call the gestalt of the promotion, the media, the hosts, the fulfillment, and the creativity of the director.

It’s certainly hard to pinpoint “one thing” that made it all come together so perfectly.

But today, in his memory, we will say that Hugh Downs was the lynchpin.

That is, we will give him top billing for taking us on one of the wildest marketing adventures of our lives.

Hugh’s patented sign-off on 20/20 was:

“We’re in touch so you be in touch”

Wise words from a true legend.

So…You be in touch too.

Please? 🙂



Warmly,



Brian



P.S. Some comments from two people who worked closely with Hugh Downs…not that you need any more proof what a legacy he leaves.

From Steve Dworman, Director of the shows with Hugh:

Today one of the icons in American TV (and in my personal life) passed, Hugh Downs.

He was a true Renaissance Man.

He’s one of those people you meet in your life that sticks with you for all your days.

Someone to admire, someone you wish to emulate, and someone who you are eternally grateful for the time you had together.

He had wanted to be a physicist and sponsored a breakthrough science conference every two years at Arizona State University. (They even named a building after him, in the School of Communications, where we filmed one of our shows for Boardroom).

He flew a glider on his 90th birthday and he made up a playlist of his favorite classical pieces I still listen to regularly.

He and his beautiful wife Ruth filled me with stories of the early days, how they met, how in love they were and what was truly important to them, which was always family.

The last time I spoke with Hugh was about 18 months ago. Even to that day his curiosity never lagged. He was curious about everything and everyone and it was contagious.

What a mind.

I will never minimize the time we spent together and the lessons he taught me.

I think the greatest compliment I’ve ever received was from him when he told me I was the best director he’d ever worked with.

And coming from Mr. Television that means more than I can ever convey.



From A-List copywriter Richard Armstrong, who filled in as co-host for Arthur Johnson on one of the infomercials:

RIP Hugh Downs, one of only a handful of celebrities I’ve broken bread with.

In fact, we even split a Caesar salad. 🙂

We worked together on an infomercial for Boardroom.

He was the television announcer, I was the … er…expert.

At any rate, I spent about 48 hours in a row with Hugh and he was a delight.

Intelligent, well-spoken, friendly, curious, and well-informed about everything.

At dinner the night before we shot the infomercial, Hugh and I sat together because the director Steve Dworman wanted us to get to know each other.

I took advantage of the situation by asking Hugh a lot of gossipy questions about his show business career, and he didn’t disappoint.

I asked him about working as Jack Paar’s sidekick, and he said Paar was a nice guy but very insecure.

He called Hugh into his office once and tried to find out how much NBC was paying him.

Since Hugh was working on both Concentration and The Tonight Show at the same time, Paar was afraid Downs might be making more money than he was–and he couldn’t allow that to happen!

I asked him about Barbara Walters, and he told me a funny story.

Hugh said that he and Barbara were in front of the ABC building one afternoon waiting for their limousine to take them to some event.

But the limo was taking forever to show up.

Finally, Hugh said:

“Oh, hell, Barbara, let’s just hop in a cab.”

To which Ms. Walters replied:

“We can’t take a cab, Hugh, we’re STARS!”

Hugh Downs really was a star.

I read once that he had logged more hours on national television than anybody in the history of the medium. (Until he was finally edged out by Regis Philbin.)

But even more importantly, he was a lovely man.

On the night we had dinner with him, my wife and I were celebrating our 30th anniversary.

Hugh whispered the secret of a long and happy marriage into Sharon’s ear.

Today, I asked her what it was, and she said, “I can’t remember.”

Maybe that’s the secret. A poor memory!

Rest in peace, Hugh Downs.



P.P.S. The unofficial Hugh Downs photo album…

Hugh on the cover of TV Guide, August 1967, with Barbara Walters:

And with his co-host many years later on the set of 20/20:

And…Hugh Downs on screen for The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets, circa 2006:

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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