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Lester Crystal, PBS NewsHour producer and former NBC News chief, dies at 85

WASHINGTON — Lester M. Crystal, a past president of NBC News who left for PBS and became executive producer of the first hour-long daily news program on any US television network, ‘‘The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,’’ died June 24 at a hospital in New York City. He was 85.

The cause was brain cancer, said his son, Bradley.

Mr. Crystal spent 20 years behind-the-scenes at NBC and was executive producer of the half-hour ‘‘NBC Nightly News’’ in the 1970s before becoming president of the network’s news division in 1977.

Two years later, in a TV Guide cover story, Mr. Crystal said, ‘‘I’m hoping that someday someone will come up with a formula that will allow us to have an hour of network news.’’

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It took four years — and his ouster from the NBC News presidency in a corporate shake-up — before he found that formula at PBS.

He joined the publicly supported network early in 1983 as executive producer of what was then called ‘‘The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,’’ a leisurely paced half-hour nightly news program, hosted by Robert MacNeil in New York and Jim Lehrer in Washington, that focused on one in-depth story per day.

By September 1983, Mr. Crystal had led a transition to a full one-hour newscast — renamed ‘‘The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour’’ — that was a first for American television. The program typically included three extensive looks at major stories in the news, along with coverage of arts and science seldom seen on commercial networks.

‘‘If we were going to ask the public for money,’’ MacNeil told The Washington Post Thursday in an interview, ‘‘we had to be better than commercial television, or different from. We needed to think afresh about how to do it and who could lead it.’’

For Mr. Crystal, the hour-long newscast was a culture change from the fast-paced, short-form journalism he had known at NBC, where the evening news report had to be condensed into 22 minutes of airtime to allow for commercials.

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‘‘Within the time constraints of network news, they can give the public what’s happened but very little of the hows and whys - and they are most important,’’ Mr. Crystal told the Christian Science Monitor in 1984.

‘‘ ‘NewsHour’ always manages to find time for the hows and the whys. Network news must do more of that sooner or later.’’

Mr. Crystal, who was the equivalent of an executive editor at a newspaper or magazine, doubled the size of the staff to 70 from 35. He followed the lead of MacNeil and Lehrer by emphasizing a deliberate, well-considered approach to news coverage, even when some critics called it boring. For many viewers, ‘‘NewsHour’’ was an oasis of sanity in an increasingly manic TV landscape.

‘‘We have tried to keep from in any way diluting the seriousness of what we do and not to dumb it down in an effort to make it more popular,’’ Mr. Crystal told the New York Times.

After MacNeil retired from the broadcast in 1995, Mr. Crystal moved to Washington and supervised production of the newly renamed ‘‘The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer’’ at the WETA-TV studios in Arlington, Va. (When Lehrer retired in 2011, the name was changed again to ‘‘PBS NewsHour.”)

Mr. Crystal was instrumental in shaping the program’s coverage and hiring its staff. The ‘‘NewsHour’’ had many women in prominent roles, including deputy executive producer Linda Winslow — who succeeded Mr. Crystal as executive producer — and correspondents Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Elizabeth Farnsworth, and Margaret Warner. Mr. Crystal also hired Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, who later became co-anchors of ‘‘NewsHour.’’ (Woodruff has been the sole anchor since Ifill’s death in 2016.)

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After 22 years as executive producer of the ‘‘NewsHour,’’ Mr. Crystal stepped down in 2005 to become president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produced special reports for the NewsHour and other PBS programs. He also helped raise millions of dollars in donor support for the program.

When Mr. Crystal retired from that role in 2010, MacNeil and Lehrer said in a statement, ‘‘The NewsHour would never have been launched and sustained as successfully as it has been, and become the institution in the nation’s journalism that it has, without Les.’’

Lester Martin Crystal was born Sept. 13, 1934, in Duluth, Minn. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, had a food distribution business. His mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Crystal studied journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and a master’s degree in 1957.

He was a TV news writer and producer in smaller markets before joining NBC’s affiliate in Chicago in 1963. He later was a producer on ‘‘The Huntley-Brinkley Report,’’ NBC’s nightly newscast, and, after a stint in London, served as executive producer of ‘‘NBC Nightly News,’’ then anchored by John Chancellor, from 1973 to 1977.

After his ouster as NBC News president, he spent several years at the network as a producer of political programming.

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Mr. Crystal settled in Scarsdale, N.Y., and continued as an adviser to PBS after leaving ‘‘NewsHour.’’ At Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., he also organized panel discussions featuring such figures as President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

He leaves his wife of 62 years, the former Toby Wilson, of Scarsdale; three children, Bradley Crystal of Santa Monica, Calif., Alan Crystal of Palo Alto, Calif., and Elizabeth Crystal of New York; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Crystal thought producing ‘‘NewsHour’’ was ‘‘the most stimulating and satisfying job ever,’’ he said in the 1984 Monitor interview. ‘‘I go home every night pleased that our show has covered stories well and that we have all made a contribution to understanding. People who watch are actually saying, ‘I never really knew that before.’ And that makes me feel good.’’