Phyllis McGrady: ABC News veteran tackles new role

8:08 pm Profiles

By Dawn Shurmaitis

When Phyllis McGrady was growing up, policemen carrying arrest warrants often knocked on her family’s door in the middle of the night. For the daughter of a Virginia justice of the peace, late-night callers were part of life, an interesting life. The justice of the peace – who needed to sign those warrants – was her mother.

“My mother had a very unconventional job. Sometimes I’d go to the jailhouse with her. I really knew my way around the courthouse,” says McGrady, whose worldwide travels started in a small Southern town. “That’s why I always loved documentaries. They took me to places I didn’t think I’d ever get to go.”

McGrady, promoted last month to VP and Executive Producer of Special Programming for ABC News, is still going places. She’s received numerous awards, including three duPont-Columbia Awards for her work at “Turning Point” and “PrimeTime Live,” numerous Emmy Awards and three George Foster Peabody Awards. In April, McGrady received a 1998 Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications, a prestigious honor shared this year by the likes of Bette Midler and The New York Times President and GM Janet Robinson. The award honors women who, according to the organization, “have been pioneers in their field and have opened doors for all who followed.”

For McGrady, that first door was opened by her mother, back on their Virginia farm. “She was a real working mom. She said I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Today, McGrady is “the queen of the lion tamers,” according to “PrimeTime Live” anchor Diane Sawyer. “Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters and I all have trusted her with our TV lives and come away singing her praises,” says Sawyer, who recalls the first story she ever worked on with McGrady, named “PrimeTime” executive producer in 1994. “In the middle of the night, I decided we had pieces of the puzzle in the wrong order. Only Phyllis would take the call and at 4 a.m. rush into an editing room and perform magic, way out-thinking me and making it all work.

“If Edward R. Murrow had a modern, creative, brave daughter, it would have been Phyllis.”

Such praise is likely to embarrass McGrady, a no-nonsense workaholic who is a whirlwind of activity from her first 8 a.m. conference call to her last evening editing session. Around ABC, she’s known for having the biggest rolodex – thanks to numerous contacts in Washington, New York, Hollywood and overseas. “I love to write and I love storytelling,” she says. “I love being very hands-on, producing. I always want to be in a place where I’m challenged.”

The only time she slows down is on weekends, when she retreats to a Pennsylvania farm she shares with her long-time partner. Their work – he’s a former ABC News producer and bureau chief – took them to London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Moscow. “I like to get away from the crazy, hectic world of New York City and television,” McGrady says, crediting her love of the land to her late father, who split his time between farming and an auto dealership.

Always interested in writing, McGrady wrote for her high school newspaper before entering Northwestern University, where she also worked at WGN-TV. Her first job, in her early 20s, was in Washington, D.C. as producer of “Panorama,” a live, two-hour political talk show. The show broke a lot of news, which caught the attention of ABC and led her to “Good Morning America.”

“It was a phenomenally interesting time for me,” she says of those early days in the late 1970s. “We were working to develop and launch the show and we were battling ‘The Today Show.’ We’d call for interviews and say ‘I’m from Good Morning America’ and they’d say ‘What’s that?’ ”

In 10 years, she was promoted four times, becoming executive producer before moving on in 1986 to produce the Barbara Walters specials. “She was fantastic to work with,” McGrady says. “We went to Hollywood and did these incredible interviews. I still think the one-on-one format with an interesting complex person is the best TV can offer.”

In 1988, Roone Arledge called. He wanted McGrady’s thoughts on a new primetime news show that would feature Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer, who was leaving “60 Minutes.” McGrady jumped at the chance, and was working hard developing the show, hiring the staff and getting ready for the debut when her mother suffered a heart attack. McGrady, the only daughter, knew her priorities. She took a leave of absence. She returned to ABC to take over what was essentially the documentary department. There, she produced such notable programs as “Death of a Dictator” (which earned Peabody and Edward R. Murrow awards), “The Killing Fields” and “Pearl Harbor: Two Hours That Changed the World,” a Peabody winner produced in conjunction with Japanese TV.

At the same time, she began writing a proposal for what would become “Turning Point.” To hook younger audiences, she proposed using the documentary format in a slightly different way – to tell unfolding stories packed with plenty of dramatic twists and turns.
Under McGrady, “Turning Point” won Emmys as well as the prestigious duPont-Columbia Award.

In her new position, McGrady will develop special hour-long programming and supervise a unit that will contribute coverage of major breaking news events and other special segments to the new ABC News magazine, “20/20.”

– Dawn Shurmaitis

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