Maurice Reese Schonfeld Death Dead – Maurice Reese Schonfeld Obituary: Cause of Death
Reese Schonfeld, who founded the Cable News Network with Ted Turner in the early 1980s before developing another major cable channel, the Food Network, a decade later, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
His daughter Juliette Schonfeld Reverand said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Schonfeld, who had years earlier run a service that sold nightly packages of news to local television stations, was skeptical when Mr. Turner asked him in 1979 to help start a 24-hour news channel. Mr. Turner, the impetuous entrepreneur and yachtsman who owned the Atlanta Braves and the TBS channel, had expressed a dislike for news, Mr. Schonfeld said.
“He’d say, ‘I hate news, I’ll never do news, I don’t believe in news,’” Mr. Schonfeld recalled in an oral history interview for the Television Academy in 2005. “‘I have entertainment programs stacked up in my basement.’”
But Mr. Turner had had a change of heart about the viability of an all-news network and was willing to put millions of dollars behind it. Mr. Schonfeld was persuaded. He became CNN’s founding president, in charge of content, personnel and scheduling.
This was in the early days of basic cable, and Mr. Turner and Mr. Schonfeld were gambling that CNN could effectively challenge the three main broadcast networks in their news coverage, which at the time consisted largely of 30-minute evening newscasts. In the hope of finding an audience, CNN would cover news around the world all day, with time slots for financial, sports, entertainment and talk programming.
Mr. Schonfeld adopted the word “randomonium,” first used by the rocker Frank Zappa in 1980, to describe CNN’s fluid mix of content. He hired on-air personalities like the former CBS News correspondent Daniel Schorr and the war reporter Peter Arnett, and brought from radio what became the long-running political debate show “Crossfire,” originally a match between the liberal columnist Tom Braden and the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
He also took programming risks. In 1980, CNN broadcast an edited presidential debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that spliced in answers from the independent candidate John Anderson, who had been excluded from the debate by the League of Women Voters because of his low national poll numbers.
But even with CNN’s influence growing and its Nielsen ratings rising, Mr. Turner fired Mr. Schonfeld two years after the launch.
“If I had been working for anyone else, given the Nielsen ratings, I would’ve expected a moment of congratulations, shared glory, but Ted Turner did not like to share glory,” Mr. Schonfeld wrote in a memoir, “Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN” (2001).
By his account the two men clashed over Mr. Schonfeld’s decision not to retain a nighttime talk show host, Sandi Freeman, a decision that Mr. Turner reversed. Mr. Turner complained that Mr. Schonfeld was too demanding of the on-air talent. Mr. Turner also disliked Mr. Schonfeld’s choice of Mr. Braden and Mr. Buchanan for “Crossfire,” according to the memoir.
Soon after leaving CNN, Mr. Schonfeld spent two years as a vice president of Cablevision on Long Island, helping to start News 12, the first all-news local cable channel in the United States. But his attempt to start a book channel with Cablevision failed.
He then worked on various projects, including producing “People Magazine on TV” and helping to plan the International Business Channel for Time Warner. In 1992 he joined an executive team that started the Food Network, which went on the air the next year. He was named its president.
“I am a newsman,” he told The New York Times in 1995. “My beat now is food.”
Maurice Wolfe Schonfeld was born on Nov. 5, 1931, in Newark to Philip and Sarah (Wolfe) Schonfeld. His father was a partner in a glass and mirror company; his mother was a homemaker, secretary and bookkeeper.
Reese, as he was known (his younger sister, Barbara, had mispronounced Maurice and the name stuck), graduated from Dartmouth College in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in government, though he said in his book that he had been more interested in gambling than grades. He nevertheless went to Harvard Law School but was expelled seven months later for his continued gambling.
Mr. Schonfeld entered Columbia Law School in 1956, fulfilling his father’s dream of having a lawyer for a son. He also started working as a copy boy at United Press Movietone News, which distributed newsreels to movie theaters and news film to TV stations. He earned his law degree in 1960 and eventually rose to managing editor of Movietone News. (He never practiced law.) In 1963, after the company ceased operations, he was named vice president of United Press International Television News.
Mr. Schonfeld left that business in 1975 to start the Independent Television News Association, which provided news footage to local news stations. Mr. Turner wrote in a memoir of his own that the association’s reputation for producing a “high volume of product at low cost” brought Mr. Schonfeld to his attention.
Unlike CNN, which appealed to his fascination with the news, the Food Network did not personally interest Mr. Schonfeld. He and his wife, Patricia O’Gorman, never cooked in their Manhattan apartment, he said.
But Allen Salkin, the author of “From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network” (2013), said Mr. Schonfeld’s leadership had been critical to the network’s start.
“Some of his show ideas, like ‘How to Boil Water,’ directed at newly divorced dads, were cockamamie,” Mr. Salkin said in an email. “But the testament to his achievement is that the network he ran from the word go is now part of the global entertainment firmament.”
Mr. Schonfeld left the Food Network in 1995, though he remained on its board. He sold his stake in the company in 1999 for $10 million to $20 million, according to Mr. Salkin, who added that Mr. Schonfeld later regretted that decision, feeling he had sold too soon.
“Turned out to be perhaps the most foolish move I ever made,” he told Mr. Salkin.
Mr. Schonfeld was later involved in various business ventures and investments but none involving television.
In addition to his daughter Juliette, he is survived by his wife; two other daughters, Ellen Schonfeld and Ida Schonfeld; three sons, Alex, Orrin and William; a brother, Norman; 12 grandchildren; and one great-grandson. His previous marriage to Karen Lamberti ended in divorce.
Mr. Schonfeld became a critic of CNN after leaving it. He told the TV Academy that in his view the network had fallen short of its early revolutionary promise and had become too personality-driven — “half the Wolf Blitzer network and half the Anderson Cooper network,” as he put it.
He also wrote a blog for the HuffPost in which he commented, often negatively, on CNN’s ratings, errors and leadership. In 2010, for example, he excoriated the network’s plan to pair Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former Democratic governor of New York, with the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker in “Parker Spitzer,” a debate and discussion show.
“To be blunt, I can’t think of a worse idea,” he wrote, calling the program a wan imitation of the early “Crossfire.” The program would not last a year, even as the renamed “In the Arena” without Ms. Parker.
The Spitzer-Parker hiring reminded him of his experience with “Crossfire” 30 years earlier, when Mr. Turner initially refused to schedule it.
“But I, as CEO of CNN, had signed a contact with Braden and Buchanan,” Mr. Schonfeld wrote. “They threatened a lawsuit. I was to be a witness, and Ted was advised to settle the lawsuit. He agreed, and put ‘Crossfire’ on the air for a half an hour at 11:30 p.m., and within six months, Ted moved it to 7:30 p.m. It quickly became the highest rated show on CNN.”
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