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Subject: Ernest S. Leiser, Producer Who Helped CBS News Move to TV

New York
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Date Posted: December 04, 2002 2:52:30 EDT
In reply to: Amy 's message, "Catching up on recent passings, since the board was mysteriously unavailable for 2 days" on December 04, 2002 2:50:10 EDT

Ernest S. Leiser, a television news reporter and producer for CBS who won acclaim for his coverage of Eastern Europe during the cold war and helped direct the network's transition to television from radio, died on Tuesday at his home in South Nyack, N.Y. He was 81.

The cause was congestive heart failure, a daughter, Nancy Leiser Foster, said.

Mr. Leiser was already a veteran war reporter when he joined CBS in 1953, having served as a reporter for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes in World War II. He soon distinguished himself as a foreign correspondent, becoming the only reporter to obtain film coverage of the 1956 uprising in Hungary.

In the early 1960's, Mr. Leiser was a central figure in the network's transition to television, and he proposed expanding the evening newscast to 30 minutes from 15, a change that was quickly followed by the other networks. He also helped select Walter Cronkite as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," which became TV's most popular evening news program during Mr. Cronkite's long tenure.

"Ernie almost single-handedly brought CBS News from radio into television," said Dan Rather, the current anchor of the "CBS Evening News," who was hired by Mr. Leiser in 1961.

Mr. Leiser also helped to direct the network's documentaries, and starting in the late 1960's he won Emmy awards for three consecutive years for producing features on subjects including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and life in Charlie Company, an infantry unit in Vietnam.

Mr. Leiser was born in Philadelphia in 1921, the son of a salesman and a teacher. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1941, and worked briefly as a reporter in that city before serving in the Army as a translator and correspondent.

After the war he reported from Europe for Collier's magazine and the Overseas News Agency. But it was at CBS, where he spent more than three decades, that he made his mark. Returning to New York as a producer in 1960, Mr. Leiser was already a proponent of shifting the network's emphasis to television from radio, and was soon put in charge of that effort by the president of the news division, Richard S. Salant. Mr. Leiser eventually became the director of television news at CBS, a post in which he helped shape coverage of pivotal events like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Leiser urged Mr. Cronkite to travel to Vietnam during the Tet offensive in 1968 and accompanied him a trip that led to Mr. Cronkite's influential assessment of the war as a "stalemate."

In the early 1970's, Mr. Leiser left to spend three years at ABC News as an executive producer before returning to CBS. After retiring in 1985, he wrote articles warning that the quality of network news was in decline. In 1987 and 1988, he served as a senior fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University. Mr. Leiser is survived by his wife, Caroline Camp Leiser; two daughters, Nancy Leiser Foster and Shelley Ann Leiser; and two grandchildren. A son, Nicholas S. Leiser, died in 1992.

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