When the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) meets this week in Las Vegas in conjunction with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention, one person's presence will be sorely missed: Don Fitzpatick.
What a vicious punch in the gut it was last week when I opened the e-mail relaying the news that Fitz had passed away April 15 at his home in Alexandria, La. He was just 56.
Among the news biz cognoscenti, Fitz was known for his unerring instinct for recognizing breakthrough talent. Always a techno geek—I say that affectionately—he used to tool around the country back in the 1970s, in a mobile home tricked out with three videocassette decks recording the local broadcasters. Working at Audience Research and Development (AR&D) in 1980, he created what may have been the first national library of broadcasting talent.
After leaving AR&D in 1982, Fitz formed Don Fitzpatrick Associates and, for almost two decades, was responsible for boosting the news careers of hundreds of anchors, correspondents, directors and producers.
Virtually every major TV news organization—studios such as Paramount, Buena Vista and King World, as well as sports outfits like ESPN and CBS Sports—relied on Fitz's eye to help them find the right personnel. Meredith Vieira, Jim Nantz, John Tesh and Leeza Gibbons are just some of the stars that Fitz plucked from relative obscurity. “Fitz always knew who came through the glass and who didn't,” says George Case, a veteran news executive and Fitz's best pal.
Fitz wasn't only a pioneer in the talent business; he was involved in electronic publishing more than a decade before the Internet became such an intrinsic part of the industry and culture. “Fitz was the Web site for our industry before there were Web sites,” says Scott Tallal, president of Insite Media Research, who first met Fitz at AR&D, where Tallal had to edit all the talent tape that Fitz had gathered.
You could even say Fitz was a proto­blogger. Back in 1981, using The Source, a precursor to services like AOL and MSN, Fitz, Case and the late Ron Tindiglia, another savvy news pro, would e-mail each other all the behind-closed-doors dish from news outfits across the country. Fitz dubbed it Rumorville, and the e-mail chain expanded into the thousands. (Your day didn't truly begin until Rumorville landed in your inbox.) It morphed into the must-read industry e-newsletter ShopTalk and the Web site TVSpy, one of the original online gathering spots for the news industry.
“He would always know everything first: who was going to be hired, who was going to be fired, and who was just behaving badly,” says Case. “Not too long ago, I told him we should write a book and call it The Anchor Chronicles. He said, 'But, George, we'd have to name names.' It never got written; we both needed to still work.”
I'll truly miss seeing Fitz at RTNDA in Vegas this week. I'll miss hearing his views on the latest technologies on the NAB floor and on the digital revolution under way in the station biz. I'll miss buying him a drink (or three) and getting the latest dish on back-room machinations at the networks' news divisions. I wonder what he would have to say about the recent ascension of one of his famous discoveries to the co-host's chair on the Today show.
I remember a late-night conversation in 1989, when we were in Kansas City, Mo., for the RTNDA convention. Fitz told me about seeing Vieira on TV for the first time, when she was doing local news in Providence, R.I. “You just knew she would be big,” he said. “She popped. She was simply three-dimensional. She was there in the room with you, and you wanted her to be there.”
You, too, Fitz.
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