The legendary newscaster Hugh Downs died this past week at 99 years old…and it was the fullest 99 years of anyone I have ever known.
And while I only met him 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 about his stories about the early days of TV news…and his wonder with life.
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) for a decade.
- 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.
But Hugh was far from finished…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 as well.
…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 Sea World.
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 particular 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 wrong. And I am not being defensive.
There will always be questions when a trusted news anchor or famous figure begins peddling products…but I was in the negotiations with Hugh and his attorney before he agreed to do five blockbuster informercials for Boardroom…so I have a different view than The New York Times.
Throughout those negotiations, he was a stickler on not endorsing anything that he didn’t believe in himself–and we had to make sure the shows were 100% value all the time.
In addition, his “co-host” on three shows was 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 for that matter), 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 were in synch despite some (not many) people questioning the value (e.g. The New York Times “survey”).
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 he 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.
But today I want to focus on the genius of using Hugh as the host (with Arthur Johnson).
When I realized that we could do a successful infomercial selling a single book after my insomnia, I assembled a dream team inside Boardroom (I already had the best direct marketers anywhere in the industry)… and outside of Boardroom as well.
The first and critical domino was Director Steve Dworman, a genius in the world of informercials.
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.
But 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 wrote the winning magalog control (in direct mail) for The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets (TWGTHS).
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.
However, 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.
Needless to say we were pleasantly surprised. And 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. And we were already 1 for 1.
(Note: Something that I wrote about in my book and in my previous blog post 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 know what a “copywriter” is. We did that because he was a true expert in writing health information because 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 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 insistent that he played the curious and inquisitive newsman in the show (i.e. no selling) and Arthur had to prove all of his points and answer all of his questions about the information in the book…and to make sure that The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets lived up to its name.
The result: This franchise was responsible for close to $300 million in revenue if you take in all the media we ran, offline and online.
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 bestselling book.
And the advertising we did online with paid search and display advertising with “Hugh Downs Reports” also contributed a lot to the profit.
The power of spokespeople was 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
- And the dozens of doctors who appeared in the shows from Harvard Medical School, The Cleveland Clinic, Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research…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 gestaltof 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 sing perfectly.
But for 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.
Stay in touch.
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 stick 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 listen to today.
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 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 actually 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.
You can see a clip from it on my website, www.freesamplebook.com
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. Hugh and Barbara.