Av Westin, Newsman Behind ABC’s ‘20/20,’ Dies at 92

Av Westin, an influential television producer who rose from copy boy at CBS News for Edward R. Murrow in the 1940s to help make ABC’s “20/20” newsmagazine a perennial winner of Emmy Awards, died on March 12 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 92.

His wife, Ellen Rossen, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Westin had spent a year as the executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” when he took over at “20/20” in 1979. Over the next seven years, the program won more than 30 news and documentary Emmy Awards, including 11 in 1981.

Looking to differentiate “20/20” from the entertainment shows it competed with in prime-time, as well as from CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mr. Westin mixed ambitious investigative reports with celebrity profiles, lifestyle features and “process pieces” about artistic endeavors like the making of a new album of standards by Linda Ronstadt.

A documentarian at heart, Mr. Westin also ordered a series of features called “Moment of Crisis,” which looked back at news events like the disastrous explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the efforts to save President Ronald Reagan’s life after he was wounded in an assassination attempt.

“20/20,” which was hosted by Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs in the 1980s, had an A-list group of correspondents that included Sylvia Chase, Lynn Sherr, Geraldo Rivera, Tom Jarriel, Bob Brown and Sander Vanocur.

Mr. Brown recalled that Mr. Westin gave correspondents and producers considerable leeway to cover a story as they chose.

“But when the piece was screened, Av took over and was at his best,” Mr. Brown said in a phone interview. “He could break apart a story and make you see everything you’d done wrong and let you know what you had to do to fix it. He had a genius for going straight to a problem.”

Mr. Westin’s time at “20/20” came to an end in February 1987, when he circulated an 18-page memo within ABC News and to its top executives at its parent company, Capital Cities/ABC, criticizing news-gathering procedures and calling the division inefficient and in need of a new focus.

He said that he had been quietly asked by a Capital Cities executive to critique ABC News, whose president was Roone Arledge.

“Cap Cities had essentially decided that Roone was not their guy anymore,” Mr. Westin said in an interview with the Television Academy in 2011. The executive told him that “Roone’s tenure was going to end, and I was likely to be the preferred candidate of management.”

“What I wrote was accurate,” Mr. Westin added, “but obviously it was inflammatory.”

The memo led Mr. Arledge to suspend him and take him off “20/20.” But the suspension did not last long, and Mr. Westin went on to work on projects like “The Blessings of Liberty,” about the U.S. Constitution at its centennial, until he left the network in 1989.

It was not the first time the two men clashed. In 1985, Mr. Arledge killed a “20/20” segment about the death of Marilyn Monroe and her ties to the Kennedys, calling it “gossip-column stuff.” Mr. Westin objected, and Mr. Rivera angrily told the gossip columnist Liz Smith that he and others at “20/20” were appalled that Mr. Arledge “would overturn a respected, honorable, great newsman like Av.”

Mr. Westin with the “20/20” host Hugh Downs in 1981. He recruited an A-list group of correspondents for the program.Credit…Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Avram Robert Westin was born on July 29, 1929, in Manhattan. His father, Elliot, was a vice president of a commercial baking company. His mother, Harriet (Radin) Westin, was a homemaker. Av Westin graduated from New York University in 1949. He had begun his studies as a pre-med student, but an experience during a summer job as a copy boy at CBS in 1947 altered his direction, to English and history.

“A bulletin moved that a ship was sinking off Newfoundland,” he told the Television Academy, and he promptly carried the teletype copy to an editor. “I was the only person at CBS News headquarters who knew that information,” he said. “I was the ultimate insider. That’s the epiphany.”

Mr. Westin was a writer, director, reporter and producer for 18 years at CBS, during which he earned a master’s degree in Russian and East European studies at Columbia University in 1958. He won an Emmy in 1960 as a writer for the documentary “The Population Explosion,” and in 1963 created and produced “CBS Morning News” with Mike Wallace.

He left CBS in 1967, spent two years as executive director of the noncommercial Public Broadcasting Laboratory and joined ABC News in 1969 as the executive producer of its evening newscast, then anchored by Frank Reynolds. It was an era when “ABC Evening News” trailed CBS and NBC’s nightly news operations in prestige, ratings and financial resources.

“My target is ‘H and B,’” Mr. Westin told The Indianapolis News in 1969, referring to NBC’s co-anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. “I think people are getting tired of them, and if they’re shopping around, I want them to look at us before they automatically turn to Walter” Cronkite.

The broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, who was a correspondent on the evening news program, said of Mr. Westin in a phone interview, “He probably elevated the ‘ABC Evening News’ as much as anyone until Roone Arledge,” adding, “Av was a very ambitious man, who thought he should have been ABC News president.”

While at ABC News, Mr. Westin ran its “Close-Up” documentary unit, for which he won a Peabody Award in 1973. He won another Peabody the next year, for producing and directing the documentary “Sadat: Action Biography,” about the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

He left ABC News in 1976 in a dispute with Bill Sheehan, the president of the division, but returned two years later at Mr. Arledge’s request “to get rid of” the incompatible, feuding “Evening News” anchor team of Ms. Walters and Harry Reasoner.

“The day I arrived back at ABC, one of the producers who was in the Reasoner camp came up to me and said, ‘You know, she owes us 5 minutes and 25 seconds,’” Mr. Westin told the Television Academy, referring to how much more Ms. Walters had been on the air than Mr. Reasoner over the past year.

After returning as the executive producer of “Evening News,” Mr. Westin collaborated with Mr. Arledge on an overhaul in 1978 that transformed the show into the faster-paced, graphics-oriented “World News Tonight,” with three anchors: Mr. Reynolds in Washington, Max Robinson in Chicago and Peter Jennings in London.

A year later, Mr. Arledge moved Mr. Westin to “20/20.”

After leaving ABC News, Mr. Westin was an executive at King World Productions, Time Warner and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’s foundation.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Mark. His previous marriages to Sandra Glick and Kathleen Lingo ended in divorce. He lived in Manhattan.

To Mr. Westin, evening news programs, which cannot provide much depth in 22 minutes of airtime, have a clear mandate.

“I believe the audience at dinner time wants to know the answers to three very important questions,” he said, explaining a rule he had at ABC News. “Is the world safe? Is my hometown and my home safe? If my wife and children are safe, what has happened in the past 24 hours to make them better off or to amuse them?”

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