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Bob Shanks, Influential TV Executive, Dies at 88



Bob Shanks, a television producer and executive who helped define the talk show and newsmagazine formats, working with Jack Paar and Merv Griffin and bringing “Good Morning America,” “20/20” and other programs to the air, died on Monday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 88.

His son John said the cause was a stroke. Mr. Shanks had been living in a retirement center in Lenox, Mass.

Mr. Shanks began his television career in the 1950s, working as a talent booker and producer for “The Tonight Show With Jack Paar” and then as the longtime producer of “The Merv Griffin Show.” When Mr. Shanks left that show in 1970, Mr. Griffin paid tribute to him and his impact.

“Bob discovered, from the beginning, the Smothers Brothers, when he was the associate producer for Paar, and convinced Jack to put them on,” Mr. Griffin said on the air, according to “The Merv Griffin Show: The Inside Story,” a 2018 book by Steve Randisi. “When he became my producer in 1962, the first one he put on the show was Woody Allen, and then people like Tiny Tim, Bob Newhart, José Feliciano and Dick Cavett.”

But Mr. Shanks was particularly prominent in the 1970s, when he was a vice president at ABC. In 1975, he and another ABC vice president, Ed Vane, were given a tall assignment by Fred Silverman, the newly named president of the network’s entertainment division: Come up with something to challenge the decades-long dominance of NBC’s “Today.”

The result was “Good Morning America,” which had its premiere that November. The show sought to distinguish itself from “Today” with pep and new faces. It was Mr. Shanks who took the leap of faith and recruited David Hartman and Nancy Dussault, at the time best known as actors, to be the hosts. He also tapped the humorist Erma Bombeck, the journalist Geraldo Rivera and others. By the 1980s the show was rivaling “Today” in the ratings.

ImageWhen the first episode of “Good Morning America” was broadcast on Nov. 3, 1975, its anchors were David Hartman and Nancy Dussault, both better known as actors. 
Credit…ABC Photo Archives

In 1978, Mr. Shanks brought “20/20” to the air, but the initial offering bore only a passing resemblance to the program that became the venerable ABC newsmagazine. “You either had to be ‘60 Minutes’ or not be it,” Mr. Shanks said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1993 for the program’s 15th anniversary.

What he offered to the viewing public in June 1978 leaned heavily in the “not” direction. There was a segment on how to pronounce and use difficult words — “a kind of ‘Sesame Street’ for post-pubescents,” John J. O’Connor wrote in his review in The New York Times. There was an animated segment featuring a Jimmy Carter doll singing “Georgia.” And there were two hosts, Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes, whom few seemed to like.

Tom Shales, reviewing the premiere in The Washington Post, said that watching it “was like being trapped for an hour at the supermarket checkout counter and having to read the front pages of blabby tabloids over and over again.”

Some blamed late meddling by Roone Arledge, president of the network’s news division, for the fiasco. “Everyone was behind Bob Shanks,” one anonymous staff member told Newsweek. “Then King Kong came down from the trees, mashing bananas in people’s faces and exercising his male dominance.”

By Week 2 Hugh Downs was in the host’s chair, and the program began to find its footing. It remains on the air, more than four decades later.

Robert Horton Shanks was born on Oct. 8, 1932, in Sullivan, Ill. His father, W. Glenn Shanks, worked for an oil company, and his mother, Deveta (Benoit) Shanks, was a homemaker.

Mr. Shanks grew up in Lebanon, Ind., and attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where he sometimes called basketball games on the campus radio station, WFIU. He graduated in 1954 with a degree in radio and television, then spent two years in the Army, where he produced training films and a weekly TV show.

John Shanks said his father went to New York thinking he might become an actor, but soon found himself working in television. In 1957 he secured “a coffee pour job,” as he later described it, on “America After Dark,” a short-lived NBC experiment in late-night programming. One of the people he met there, John Carsey, went on to work on Mr. Paar’s show and asked him to come aboard as talent coordinator.

Anne Edwards, in her biography “Streisand” (1996), told the story of Mr. Shanks’s role in booking Barbra Streisand on the Paar show in 1961 for her first national television appearance. She had been lobbying for a slot, the book said, but Mr. Paar wasn’t interested because he thought she looked and sounded too Jewish.

“Paar didn’t think she was right for his show,” Mr. Shanks was quoted in the book as saying. “I said ‘No’ to Barbra Streisand,” he added — until a day in April when Orson Bean, a Streisand fan, sat in as guest host. Mr. Shanks booked the young singer, who was a hit.

Mr. Shanks was later a producer of “Candid Camera” before joining Mr. Griffin’s show and, later, ABC in 1972.

After leaving ABC in 1978, Mr. Shanks wrote several TV movies and produced them with his wife, Ann Zane (Kushner) Shanks. In 1986 CBS News hired him to create “The Morning Program,” a short-lived news and entertainment show.

In addition to his son John, Mr. Shanks is survived by another son, Anthony; a daughter, Jennifer Kingsley; and four grandchildren. His wife died in 2015.

Mr. Shanks’s side projects included writing “S.J. Perelman in Person,” a one-man show drawn from Perelman’s writings, which played at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan in 1989, with his wife directing and Lewis J. Stadlen starring.


He also wrote a number of books, including two novels and, in 1976, “The Cool Fire: How to Make It in Television,” which offered an unusually blunt insider’s perspective on the industry. In that book, he acknowledged that commercial TV was deliberately bland, thriving on “shows that will attract mass audiences without unduly offending these audiences or too deeply moving them emotionally.”

“Television,” he wrote, “is used mostly as a stroking distraction from the truth of an indifferent, silent universe, and the harsh realities just out of sight and sound.”


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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