ABC News Now Executive Producer Michael Clemente faces a formidable challenge. He is charged with transforming ABC News Now from a 24/7 news channel delivered to broadband and wireless devices to one ready for broadcast, cable and satellite distribution later this year. The channel recently ended a six-month run, during which it was available to more then 70 ABC digital affiliates.
David Westin, president of ABC News, attributes Clemente’s ascension to his being one of the most creative producers in the news business. “His efforts to create interesting programming have been remarkable,” says Westin.
Clemente’s attraction to news may rest, in part, with his nomadic childhood. Every few years, his family relocated to a new city. New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington were just some of the places that shaped his life. The one constant: news.
“[My dad] made us watch space shots a lot. It was the 1960s.” In addition, a job as a delivery boy for the Washington Star cemented his early interest in journalism. He spent his formative years reading its front page.
While his dad, a NASA engineer, favored math and science, Clemente’s strength was in English. At American University, he got involved with the school newspaper and radio station and even dabbled in the university’s television program. Upon graduation, he got the break of his career.
“I applied for work at ABC News in Washington, just as World News Tonight was starting,” he says. “They were looking for writers, and I could string a few sentences together. So I was hired to write news briefs.”
At that time, 1979, Peter Jennings was in London, and Frank Reynolds manned the desk. ABC was a clear No. 3 among the Big Three networks, but it was scrappy and growing.
“We were so far behind CBS and NBC, it was all about taking others on, doing a better job, and ultimately, getting ahead of them,” Clemente says. “We would watch the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite and think, 'Some day, we’ll beat them.’”
Sure enough, when ABC started to grow, World News Tonight was No. 1 for many years, Nightline was king of late night, and 20/20 was right up there with 60 Minutes.”
Clemente rose through the ranks, becoming senior producer of World News Tonight With Peter Jennings in 1983. He and Jennings worked closely over the next two years. (Jennings is the godfather of Clemente’s 16-year-old daughter.) But in 1988, Clemente joined the weekend side of ABC News, handling This Week With David Brinkley and ABC Weekend News.
Brinkley turned out to be an importance influence. “We’d carve out a minute or two for his opening look at the news, and sometimes he’d just write 25 seconds. The first couple of times, I asked if he needed to add more, and he said, 'Nope, that’s all they need to know.’ Brinkley could do stories in one sentence. He was a great writer,” he recalls.
In 1994, Clemente took his first break from ABC News, helping the American Trucking Association develop a private corporate TV network. It was a tough assignment, but one Clemente calls as meaningful as anything he is doing at ABC News Now.
“They wanted to be on the air in six months. Within that time frame, we put up satellite dishes at all their offices around the country and hooked up with the 4,500 trucking companies in the U.S.,” he says. “It was a left turn but a great opportunity to do something different and start something from scratch.”
About 18 months later, he landed a job he says has been helpful in his current duties: executive producer for several CNN live programs, including Crossfire, Capital Gang and Inside Politics. CNN wasn’t happy about going outside the company for the hire, but CNN EVP Ed Turner decided Clemente was the right fit. “This was when MSNBC and Fox News Channel were launching,” he remembers. “CNN took me to Atlanta to come up with a report to overhaul their programming in anticipation of the competition. That was a huge four-month project.”
Clemente will be applying some of those lessons to ABC News Now. But he’s looking to do more than just compete; he wants to tap into new media. His goal is to ensure that ABC News Now doesn’t just reflect the changing nature of TV news but truthfully reflects the country and the world. He will get an able assist from ABC affiliates, which he’ll use as de facto news bureaus.
“We want to give news and information to the audience in bits and pieces they can digest,” Clemente says. “You don’t have to make a half-hour commitment to a story. You can make a six-minute or 15-minute commitment and come away with something.”
Or as David Brinkley would say, give viewers “all they need to know.”