Les Brown, Pioneer in Television Journalism, Dies at 84
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published: November 13, 2013
Les Brown, who was one of the first journalists to cover television comprehensively from its early days, reporting on it for The New York Times, founding and editing a groundbreaking magazine about the industry and producing an authoritative TV encyclopedia, died on Nov. 4 at his home in Larchmont, N.Y. He was 84.
The cause was lung cancer, his daughter Jessica Brown said.
When Mr. Brown became an entertainment reporter for Variety in 1953, his television duties were subordinate to covering radio. That quickly changed as TV became dominant. Over the next three decades, with Variety and later The Times, he followed the industry as it grew from a handful of networks into the cable juggernaut of the 1980s. He reported on boardroom dramas at the big three networks as well as the social impact of America’s viewing habits.
“He was a pioneering scholar of television, its history and all the forces that impact it,” Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media, said in an interview. “He brought a narrative sweep and life to network thinking in the executive office, but then after that he took a step back and looked from a longer perspective.”
Mr. Brown took that approach when, in 1981, he founded Channels of Communications, one of the first magazines to cover the industry analytically. As its editor in chief as well, Mr. Brown recruited up-and-coming journalists like Michael Pollan, Walter Karp and James Traub.
He also wrote seven books, beginning with “Televi$ion: The Business Behind the Box” in 1971. Focusing on the 1970 television season, it provided an insider’s look at the industry’s economics.
His most ambitious project was his TV encyclopedia, the first edition of which was published in 1978 under the auspices of The Times. (Two more followed.) The books provided deeply researched profiles of the networks, entries on major and minor stars and industry figures, and definitions of insider argot like “cume” (for cumulative audience) and “pocketpiece” (“the definitive weekly network rating report” that “was designed to fit in the inside coat pocket of the network salesmen”).
“Unlike some of the pop reference books coming out these days, Mr. Brown’s conveys the sense of a mind behind it — rather than a phalanx of researchers serving up entertaining facts like bowls of potato chips,” Richard R. Lingeman said in a Times review of the first encyclopedia in 1978. “It is a mine of useful, thought-provoking information.”
Lester Louis Brown was born to the former Helen Feigenbaum and Irving Brown, shop owners, on Dec. 20, 1928, in East Chicago, Ind. He grew up in Chicago and became an avid reader after a childhood illness.
After graduating from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English, Mr. Brown served in the Army during the Korean War. In 1959 he married Jean Slaymaker, who survives him.
Besides his daughter Jessica, he is also survived by another daughter, Rebecca Brown Adelman; a son, Joshua; two sisters, Marion Raisman and Anita Duxler; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Brown was an assistant managing editor of Variety before joining The Times in 1972. He left in 1980. In starting Channels of Communications — later renamed Channels — he obtained support from the John and Mary Markle Foundation. A company headed by the television producer Norman Lear bought it in the mid-1980s, and Mr. Brown left the magazine in 1987. Channels ceased publication in 1990.
For a time, Mr. Brown and Albert Grossman, the future manager of Bob Dylan and others, owned the Chicago folk music nightclub the Gate of Horn.
Mr. Brown taught at Yale and Columbia and became a lecturer at Fordham University in the 1990s. He was editor in chief of a trade magazine, Television Business International, from 1990 until 1991 and continued writing a column for it until 2004.
Mr. Brown anticipated the proliferation of cable channels but worried that it could give too much power to cable companies.
“They’re like tines of a rake,” he wrote of the channels 1982. “They all meet at the handle. And the handle is the guy who owns the cable system.”