Remembering Bill Greeley

By Steve Knoll

Back in the days when Variety’s TV-radio section was the principal source of news for the broadcasting industry (which was most of the 20th century), one of the essential ingredients that made Variety so successful (and unique) as a writer’s newspaper were the writers/reporters themselves. Among the members of that iconic breed from the Fifties through the mid-Seventies was Bill Greeley.

His actual name was Horace William Greeley, and, yes, he was a descendant of the legendary editor of the New York Tribune who uttered the immortal words. “Go West, young man, go West.”

Long before the general press was covering broadcasting as a serious beat, Bill was digging up scoop after scoop. It was Bill’s report on how New York station WPIX had doctored file footage from Eastern Europe (by adding the super “via satellite”) that led to the station’s license being challenged.

Bill was always willing, if not eager, to bite the hand that fed Variety (the advertisers). And since this was Variety, he was able to operate with a free hand. Over his many years on the paper, he built up a network of sources and tipsters throughout the industry. One lesson I learned was that those sources were non-transferable. Once, in a spirit of generosity, he gave me the name of a contact on the ABC Evening News (as it was then known). When I called the man, he was cordial enough, but he wouldn’t give me the time of day.

When it came to the networks, Bill was a cynic, appalled by their slavish devotion to the bottom line at the expense of quality documentary and cultural programming. In those days, Nielsen did not issue ratings reports for every week of the year. Once or twice a year, there were “black weeks”, weeks for which no rating book was issued. The networks would cram their documentary and cultural offerings into those weeks, since they didn’t have to worry about low ratings depressing their Nielsen averages

Bill was not amused.  He would tally all the quality shows that were saved for the Nielsen holiday, and write about “TV’s Black Week Festival.”

On a personal level, it could be said of Bill (in the famous words of Will Rogers) that he never met a man he didn’t like. Unless, that is, that man was President of CBS News or President of NBC News. Richard Salant was President of CBS News. He is now regarded by broadcast historians as the patron saint of broadcast journalism, who preserved the independence of CBS News in the face of government and corporate pressure. His opposite number at NBC was Reuven Frank, an industry pioneer with an equally impressive legacy.

Both of these men couldn’t stand Bill, and the feeling was mutual. This was the time that the Vietnam War was splitting America apart, and Bill repeatedly accused the networks of timidity and buckling under pressure. One of his page-one banner stories was headlined, “Era of No-Guts Journalism.”

Variety reporters, of course, were expected to pound the beat, and Bill’s beat was NBC. Bill once told me that Reuven Frank would not enter the NBC elevator when he saw Bill there. He sounded hurt. I was amused that this hard-nosed investigative reporter had a sensitive side.

At the 1970 NBC affiliates convention, the assembled stations by a vote of 60 to 40 declared that NBC News was biased. This was an extraordinary moment in broadcast journalism history, and the world would never have known about it if Bill had not broken the story in Variety.

As a Variety TV reviewer (his signature was Bill.), Bill was at his perceptive and often hilarious best. Often, reviewing the insipid sitcoms of that era, he would remark on how the laughtrack greeted the most unfunny lines with side-splitting guffaws.

He also made his contributions to Variety’s “slanguage.” The hard-driving rock-and-roll stations that dominated the radio ratings were “boomchuckers.”

Bill’s disdain for the industry establishment extended to the National Association of Broadcasters. One year, Bill and I were in Chicago covering the annual NAB convention. At the convention, the NAB was scheduled to issue its annual report on the public’s preferences among the news media (since 1963, television had surpassed newspapers). Seeking an advance on the latest report for that week’s issue of Variety, I spoke to an NAB official by the name of Roy Danish. Little did I realize that he, like Salant and Frank, was among those who had been burned by Bill. The first glimmer came when Mr. Danish refused to give me the report. His reason: “Your newspaper is always making fun of our organization.”

When I returned to the Variety suite at the Conrad Hilton and told Bill what Mr. Danish had said, Bill’s response was, “You should have told him, ‘I don’t know why you think we’re making fun of you, Mr. Doughnut.’”

Bill’s anti-establishment fervor and mischievous sense of humor meant that editors had to carefully scrutinize his copy. England, for example, has stricter libel laws than the U.S., and Variety once was sued for libel because of a word a legit reviewer in London had employed. I don’t remember what the word was, but I do remember that, shortly after this happened, Bill deliberately used the same word in one of his reviews. Even he later admitted he had gone too far.

Bill smoked from early in the morning till late at night. He paid the price: In 1977, while covering the NBC affiliates convention in Los Angeles, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 56.

The following Wednesday, these words appeared on Variety’s obituary page encased in a black border:

“So long Bill, we miss you, A great reporter, a delightful man to know and work with, an absolute one-of-a-kind human being. Your friends on Variety.”