TV's champion communicator
Here's a clue: His name is Hugh Downs. Now, name the category. Television personality Hugh Downs, host of ABC's "20/20" (Thursdays, 10-11 p.m., checl local listings), was at one time announcer for the "Jack Parr Show," host of the "Today" show and the game show "Concentration." He has been narrator for many documentaries, author of six books on various topics, consultant to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, and now is also president of the National Space Institute. He has been called a television communicator, America's No. 1 generalist, and it is acknowledged that he has probably logged more hours on TV than any other performer.
So, what is his category?
Responds Hugh Downs, in New York to do "20/20" live before flying back to San Francisco t otape mor segments of "Over Easy": "I don't know how to categorize what I do. I face that every time I fill out a customs form that asks for occupation. I haven't know for the past 25 years what to put down. I'm really tempted to put down -- professional human being."
One of the surprises of the 1979-80 season has been the strength of ABC's newsmagazine show, "20/20," which started out as a poor imitation of CBS's "60 Minutes" and, with the addition of Mr. Downs as host, rapidly developed a character of its own.
"I do about one feature every four or five shows," he says just a bit sadly. "I'd like to do more, but I don't think it's right for me as an anchor person to be in the field much more than that. The value of an anchor is to give some sort of cohesive identification that makes it a program, gives it a focal point. And that's about what it comes to, barring occasional commentary and the normal personality vibrations exuded unavoidably by a person in an anchor position unless he's extremely cold and machinelike. . . ."
Hugh Downs is definitely a warm personality even though he does exude a kind of brisk, no-nonsense air of get-down-to-the- business-at-hand. Generalist he may be, but his wide-ranging knowledge and sensitivity to the need of others for information make him a master purveyor of entertainment-information.
According to Mr. Downs, the highest rating the show ever got was a 48 percent share of the audience with its segment on Elvis Presley a few months ago. "It proved how many Elvis fans are still out there. He's one of those performers who will never die -- like Isadora Duncan, James Dean, and the Beatles. The fanatical loyalty to Elvis caused a tremendous reaction to Geraldo Rivera's report which alleged that it was drugs which really killed him. At first it was hostile but then it changed because Geraldo'r report was compassionate. . . ."
What topics seem most to interest "20/20" viewers?
"Consumerism, medical reports, and, oddly, safety. . . ."
Is that also true of "Over Easy," the daily public TV program concerned with the problems and rewards of aging?
Mr. Downs smiles and shrugs. He has a boyish grin which lights up his whole face and sets his eyes asparkle -- especially when he is imparting worthwhile information.
"It really is consumerism, too. They want to know the latest on social security, inflation, things economic. So many people on fixed incomes can't go out and get a job -- just on the borderline of making ends meet -- are now beginning to tear apart because they're having to choose between paying for their heating oil or eating. Something has to be done for those people. Their apprehension is real and justified.
"Consumerism is what everybody is interested in. It would be nice if their predominant concern was 'citizenism,' concern for justice for their fellow man, the security of the country, our moral force in the world. But with young and old, the main concern now is 'How can I get mine?' and 'How can I avoid getting ground up in this economy?' We have become a nation of consumers instead of a nation of citizens. And that bodes ill for long-term democracy."
Who was the most effective guest ever to appear on "Over Easy," which is a kind of intelligent variety-talk show for mature people of any age?
Without hesitation: "Garson Kanin. Boy, he had it down. He wrote a book, the title of which he took from Picasso: 'It takes a long time to become young.' According to Garson, who is against forced retirement, there are only two reasons why a person should discontinue working: If he's not able to work any more or if he doesn't want to work any more. And he said that either or both of those things could happen at age 19 or 46 or 93 and should have nothing to do with age. The viewers loved that."
Mr. Downs, an airplane pilot, approves of the Federal Aviation Administration's license procedure, which he feels is unprejudiced and un-aegist: "If you get a license you keep it forever unless you flunk a periodic physical exam. Age has little to do with it. Some people flunk at 22 and others pass at 85."
Flying reminds Hugh Downs of another story."It was before I was on the board of the National Space Institute -- I'm president now. I was the first civilian-type person to apply to go on a space shuttle. I knew there would be a seat on it for a journalist, and it would make sense to have a guy who is electronic as well as print, not associated with one network. (I wasn't then).
"Soon after that I was in the office of the head of NASA and he told me that Lowell Thomas Sr. had asked if he was too old to go on the shuttle and had been told there was no age limit. . . . There was, but they canceled it. Well, Lowell Thomas is the only person I would yield to. I'll step aside for him because it would be marvelous for him to cap a life of adventure with an appropriate experience. So, if he can pass the physical, which is really very simple, Lowell Thomas will be the first journalist to go on a space shuttle. He'll be 88 next birthday and I'll be satisfied to be second if he is No. 1."
Does not-so-generalist Hugh Downs, wh o has been interested in space since he was five years old, feel that the public has kept up with space developments?
"I have been deeply interested for most of my life in astronomy, cosmology, rocket engineering. I got to know Werner Von braun and when he asked me to take over the presidency, I told him he ought to get a space expert. He told me that I'd be sandwiched between space experts and what we need is a communications expert. So, I accepted.
"Now there is such a woeful misunderstanding about our space needs. People complain about all those billions spent. But the money isn't spent in space -- it's all spent here on earth, providing jobs and filtering back into the economy. And what great marginal scientific advances -- microminiaturized computers, etc. -- that investment yielded. . . ."
What has Hugh Downs learned about aging from working with older people?
"I have really to come to believe that age doesn't matter. I used to believe and I'm afraid an awful lot of people believe that age carries with it a lopping off of your pleasure and a beginning of increasing annoyances and discomfort. But most of those discomforts are not age related. I got a letter recently in which a woman told me that she finally understands that it isn't just being the finally understands that it isn't just being old that does you in, it is the way society regards old people and what it does to them."
What has Hugh Downs discovered about happiness and contentment through his dealings with so many people, young and old?
"There's something I call selective mental myopia. Throught the Victorian age there was such emphasis put on the perfection of the male. I was sexist. Women weren't supposed to be perfect because they were emotional creatures. And the Victorian concept of the rational, totally reasonable man created more mischief because it meant that men were supposed to be perfect, bottle up, deny any emotional or intuitive component in their lives. I think that helped to create Sigmund Freud and his magic couch. It gave rise to a lot of injustice. Because of the emphasis on rational behavior, a man is supposed to be a superior person who just never forgets anything, who sees everything as the crystal truth , who makes no compromises with the eternal world as it is. But I've come to believe that there is no external world as it is -- the truth is something you make, not something you find.
"I don't think the guidelines are all that dependable. There are some religious precepts like 'love thy neighbor' that are sound. But outside of a few of those, I don't think anybody can say what the external world is and that goes down even to advanced theoretical physics.
"I've come to believe that perhaps the universe is a gigantic thought and there is no external truth. So, my selective mental myopia allows me to get through life with less trauma than if I insist upon the rigor of facing up to supposed truth. I look at certain things and if they're unpleasant enough, they become fuzzy to me. I feel sorry for people with 'good memory' who recall all the hurts and grudges and then expend energy trying to get even."
So, Hugh Downs is a contented man?
"I'm content in that I don't feel frustrated or unable to move toward what I want to do. But I don't ever foresee a time when I will feel I've done it all.
"I consider myself very lucky. My kids [a son and a daughter] came through that rough period for kids. They are both good friends of mine now. My boy -- Hugh R. Downs -- is something of an expert on Sherpa life, an artist, writer, and photographer. He has done a marvelous book: 'Rhythms of a Himalayan Village.'
"And my daughter is happily married, living in Beverly Hills. I have so much a good relationship with both of them. My daughter was on 'Over Easy' with me recently, and it was one of the best half hours we've ever done. She asked better questions than Barbara Walters. Before we began she said: 'Are you going to play it cool or are you going to give truthful answers?' That shook me up a little -- but it certainly eliminated any cool answers. . . ."
So, have we found a category for Hugh Downs? Will he accept electronic generalist or does he prefer TV communication or, perhaps, professional human being?
Mr. Downs grins, shrugs his shoulders, and looks the interviewer straight in the eye: "Honestly," he says, but there is no question of his honesty, "I would be very happy to be known as the father of Hugh R. and Deirdre."