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Al Vecchione, first executive producer of ‘The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,’ dies at 86

Al Vecchione, a longtime bastion of public broadcasting programming and the first executive producer of “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” died Wednesday morning at his Bethesda, Maryland, home. He had a short bout with lung cancer, his family confirmed. He was 86.

For seven years, Vecchione helmed the “Report,” and then, in 1983, he helped oversee the show’s transition as it doubled its length from a half hour to a full 60 minutes. Renamed “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” the extra time allowed the show to spend more time on a single story.

Jim Lehrer, longtime anchor of the program, called Vecchione “the make-it-work guy,” a bedrock of support “in psychic terms, as well as physical terms, that were critical to future success” of the NewsHour.

Vecchione, who dedicated his first 20 years in broadcasting to NBC, was driven by his desire for more substantive news coverage, Lehrer said.

An hourlong nightly newscast was unheard of in television when Lehrer and Robin MacNeil opted to stretch the program’s running time. And Vecchione was key to making it happen.

“It was a quantum leap,” Vecchione said in a 1990 interview. He likened that previous incarnation of the NewsHour to a “small, tin lizzie operation” that was suddenly becoming a full service news program. The NewsHour was now tasked with reporting more stories each night, and expanding its coverage to news across the globe.

Nor was it an easy task to convince people that more air time was a good idea, longtime friend and colleague Annette Miller said.

“He was a terrific proselytizer for the program who convinced many a corporate executive that the NewsHour was a worthy investment,” Miller, vice president of NewsHour Productions, said in an email.

It was Vecchione’s ardent advocacy of the NewsHour that helped the show “become the thinking man’s program,” she added, a tradition that’s long built into the NewsHour’s DNA.

Miller said she first met Vecchione in 1975. Then, he was the executive director for public affairs programming at WETA in Washington, after it had merged with the National Public Affairs Center for Television, a public affairs service that had provided continuous coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings years before.

The hundreds of hours of coverage, with Lehrer and MacNeil reporting, drew national attention to public broadcasting programming as three commercial networks decided to discontinue their pool coverage of the proceedings when the number of star witnesses dried up.

“Al was a warm friend, a trusted and indispensable colleague, and as devoted a believer in public television as PBS will ever have,” MacNeil said in an email. “He was also an inspiring father, husband, and family man,” he added.

Les Crystal, the Newshour’s second executive producer, said he remembered his first meeting with Vecchione where they discussed the program’s evolution. He noted Vecchione’s enthusiasm and commitment to high-quality, in-depth journalism.

From those initial conversations, “I knew the NewsHour was going to be on very firm ground with its commitment to standards,” Crystal said.

Crystal took over the executive producer role when Vecchione became president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in 1983, shortly after the program expanded. The production company has been responsible for many critically acclaimed series for PBS, NBC and Disney.

Alfred Thomas Vecchione was born on Jan. 27, 1931, in Queens, New York. Vecchione got his start at NBC by working in its mailroom. By the 1960s, he contributed to NBC’s global coverage, reporting on the Vietnam War, the international tours of various U.S. presidents, and major political campaigns during election years.

Allan, Vecchione’s son, said that no matter the interest — his family, journalism, opera, sushi — he always dove in “head first.” He was driven by passion, a recurring theme in his life, Allan said, adding that his father also took an interest in the people he connected with.

“He instilled in you a drive to do your absolute best,” Allan said. “Anything less, and you’re not challenging yourself.”

Lehrer said, beyond Vecchione’s acumen for the program, the public media figurehead was a “nice man in the full sense of the word.” In newsrooms full of pressing deadlines and budget worries, it’s a welcome trait.

“He believed very strongly that if you treat people well, they will work well for you,” Lehrer added.

After MacNeil and Lehrer retired from the program, the NewsHour was co-anchored by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. Ifill died late last year.

Long after he stopped being executive producer of the program, Vecchione remained passionate about the program.

“He frequently called or emailed, or otherwise commented on segments,” Woodruff said in an email. “He took personal ‘grandfatherly pride in how the program grew and became what it is today.”

Woodruff said Vecchione called her earlier this spring with a story idea.

When he retired in 1996, many friends noted how Vecchione returned to the clarinet, which he had played in high school. He practiced rigorously and eventually started doing small chamber music concerts that Lehrer and other friends would attend.

“He would tell me of how he’s taken up the clarinet, hoping (with a laugh) that he might one day be profiled on the NewsHour,” chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown said in an email. “He took great pleasure in life and enormous pride in the NewsHour and the work we all do, work he was a big part of creating,” he added.

Vecchione is survived by Liz, his wife of 61 years and their four children: Julie DeSimone, Linda Mason, Allan Vecchione and Tom Vecchione, including two brothers, one sister, eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter and a second great-grandchild on the way.