Robert Kotlowitz, WNET’s First VP of Programming, Dies at 87

Channel 13 is making preparations for a huge celebration next month, marking the 50th anniversary of the New York City public television station. But today the station pauses to remember Robert Kotlowitz, an early executive at WNET.

Kotlowitz died over the weekend at his Manhattan home, a WNET spokeswoman confirms to FishbowlNY. He was 87.

As WNET was beginning its second decade as an educational force, Kotlowitz was exiting his role as managing editor at Harper’s Magazine. In 1971, he was named the station’s first vice president of programming and broadcasting.

Kotlowitz was instrumental in launching several PBS shows, among them the MacNeil-Lehrer Report, which he got the idea for after they hosted the Watergate hearings on PBS. They debuted nationally in 1975. More recently, the broadcast has been retitled PBS Newshour.

In 1981, while WNET struggled financially,  it was Kotlowitz’s idea to invest $500,000 in a British series. Brideshead Revisted would become one of television’s most successful shows in history, The New York Times writes. In 2000, the serial placed 10th on a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programs. In 2000, Time magazine recognized Brideshead as one of the 100 Best TV Shows of All Time.

Kotlowitz, interviewed in April for WNET’s 50th anniversary, was still unsure why he joined WNET.

“I ask myself [that] over and over again, even at this late point in my life,” Kotlowitz said.

The changes at Harper prompted his move from publishing to television. Kotlowitz got help from a former Harper and Row editor, Jay Iselin, who had become WNET president, persistently pushing Kotlowitz to consider working for Channel 13.

“As what?” Kotlowitz recalled. “I have never been in a television studio.”

“You’re going to be editorial director.” Iselin told him.

“Of what?”

“We will see, and you will see,” Iselin replied.

Throughout the next 20 years we certainly did see, as Kotlowitz oversaw countless productions during his tenure including An American Family, Bill Moyers Journal, and The Great American Dream Machine.

Kotlowitz is survived by two sons, a sister, and four grandchildren. His wife, Billie Leibowitz Kotlowitz, died in 1994.