Creator of ‘Eyewitness News’ format dies

The creator of the iconic “Eyewitness News” format for local news has died.

Al Primo, 87, was a former television news executive.

He originally started as a mailroom clerk at what was then WDTV in Pittsburgh before it changed call signs to KDKA. He worked his way up and eventually worked as a writer, videographer, reporter and anchor before becoming assistant news director in 1963.

He left in 1964 to join the Cleveland, Ohio, station that was using the KYW call signs at the time as its news director, where he served a short stint until then-owner Westinghouse swapped the Cleveland station for WRCV in Philadelphia

Primo moved to Philadelphia, which is where he would launch the “Eyewitness News” format.

The format, at least in original form, was characterized by a faster pace and on-scene reports and video footage made possible by emerging technology advances instead of just having an anchor read headlines. The idea was that reporters were “eyewitnesses” to the story and would report what they saw.

As an extension, Eyewitness News also used a more narrative approach to storytelling.

The format was widely credited with helping the Philadelphia KYW station becoming dominant in the ratings at the time. 

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It also spurred rival news exec Mel Kampmann, working at Philadelphia’s WFIL (now WPVI), to create the “Action News” format. 

In 1968, Primo jumped to WABC in New York and brought the format there as well. It was here that the format became more refined and added 
“happy talk” — brief exchanges informal between anchors when transitioning from one story or segment to another.

“Happy talk” was met with mixed reactions from critics and others in the industry, though it was largely successful with viewers because it gave anchors a chance to showcase their personalities and create connections with their audience.

Primo is also credited with starting the practice of using film music as news themes — including “007” from the James Bond film “From Russia with Love” at KYW and the “Tar Sequence” from “Cool Hand Luke” at WABC.

He was also an early advocate of using graphics to supplement what reporters and anchors were saying, a practice that since exploded throughout the industry. 

The “Eyewitness News” name had been in use at a handful of stations prior to Primo creating the format and remains widely used today, although not all stations follow all of Primo’s original concepts (with some essentially just using it as a brand name). The novelty of the “eyewitness” format has largely become outdated with the rise of microwave, satellite and bonded cellular technology to transmit video from the field.

There was also a separate format under the name created by Buffalo, New York, but Primo’s version is largely considered canon in the TV news industry. 

After WABC Primo would become president of news for the network’s owned and operated stations before leaving in 1975 to become a media consultant, a job title that essentially hadn’t existed before then.

In this role, Primo worked with stations to help implement the “Eyewitness News” format on their broadcasts, sometimes with slight changes from market to market. Eventually, over 100 outlets from across the globe would use the format.

He went on to create “Teen Kids News” in 2002 as well as early entries into streaming in 1999.

Primo died at his home in Connecticut from cancer Sept 29, 2022. His wife of 55 years, Rosina, died in 2018. The couple had three children, one of whom predeceased him. 

Photo courtesy KDKA.

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