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Hugh Downs, TV pioneer dead at 99

The week has seen the passing of Television comedy legend Carl Reiner and now one of America’s best known broadcast journalists has died with the passing of Emmy Winning Broadcaster Hugh Downs in his Arizona home at age 99. As was the case with Carl Reiner, High Downs was one of those faces and voices that North Americans became familiar with from the earliest days of low-definition flickering black and white television.His smooth, affable delivery and versatility made him a favorite with television audiences in a television career that spanned six decades.

Hugh Downs came from that generation of early broadcast journalists who were broadcasters before they were journalists. Hugh had worked in radio in increasingly larger markets during the 1940’s. Towards the end of the 1940s he was working at WMAQ in Chicago and moonlighting on the new, almost experimental medium of television. He became the booth announcer for what later became a Peabody Award winning children’s puppet show Kukla, Fran and Ollie. While in Chicago, Downs became friends with Dave Garroway who went on to be the first host of the Today Show.

Hugh was the announcer for the Kukla, Fran and Ollie show in the late 1940s

In 1954 Downs followed Garroway to New York, to accept a position as announcer for Pat Weaver’s The Home Show starring Arlene Francis. Pat Weaver incidentally was the father of actress Sigourney Weaver and was the creator of the Today Show.  Hugh was the announcer for Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour for the 1956–57 season, and one of NBC Radio’s Monitor “Communicators” from 1955–1959. Downs became a bona fide television “personality” as Jack Paar’s announcer on The Tonight Show (another Pat Weaver creation)  from mid-1957, until Paar’s departure in March 1962.

Hugh(c) was the co-host of the Original Tonight Show with Jack Paar
Hugh as host of the Game Show Concentration. It was a time when it was not unusual for hosts to move freely between news shows and entertainment programs

On August 25, 1958, Downs concurrently began a more than ten-year run hosting the original version of the game show Concentration. Also, he hosted NBC’s Today Show for nine years from September 1962 to October 1971, plus co-hosting the syndicated television program Not for Women Only with Barbara Walters in 1975–76. Downs also appeared as a panelist on the television game show To Tell the Truth and played himself in an episode of NBC’s sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?

Hugh was responsible for Barbara Walters moving from behind the camera to a hosting position
Hugh and Barbara Walters on the 20/20 set.

Downs earned a postgraduate degree in gerontology from Hunter College while he was hosting Over Easy, a PBS television program about aging that aired from 1977 to 1983. He was probably best known in later years as the Emmy Award-winning co-anchor — again paired with Walters — of the ABC news TV show 20/20, a primetime news magazine program, from the show’s second episode in 1978 until his retirement in 1999. His career spanned three generations from the very beginnings of television to what was likely the high water mark for television in the last decade of the 20th century.

In this video, Hugh talks a bit about his career, but mostly about the role he played in advancing Barbara Walter’s career

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