Robert Kotlowitz, father of pubTV icon series, dies at 87

By Dru Sefton

Robert Kotlowitz, a pioneering public broadcaster at New York’s WNET who developed several public television series that became signature PBS programs — including a half-hour evening news show featuring Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil in 1973 — died Aug. 25 at his home in New York City after battling prostate cancer. He was 87.

Robert Kotlowitz

The New York Times described Kotlowitz as “a novelist and editor who reluctantly became a public television executive in 1971 and went on to help shape a lineup of homegrown and imported shows — including The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, Live at the Met, Dance in America and Brideshead Revisited — that represent a high-water mark in American television.”

Kotlowitz had just resigned from Harper’s Magazine in 1971 when John Jay Iselin, then the new president of WNET, offered him a job. Kotlowitz had never been inside a television studio. Regardless, he became senior vice president for programming and broadcasting, and remained at the station until his retirement in 1990.

“He had innately good taste, and a deep familiarity with literature and art in every form,” MacNeil told the New York Times for Kotlowitz’s obituary. Before cable, when public TV was practically the only alternative to network programming in small towns, “Bob was the one who brought people opera, ballet, the New York Philharmonic.”

He was born Nov. 21, 1924, in Madison, N.J., to Max and Debra Kotlowitz, and grew up Baltimore. He served in World War II and later graduated from Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, where he studied piano. He published four novels: Somewhere Else, 1972; The Boardwalk, 1977; Sea Changes, 1986; and His Master’s Voice, 1992.

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

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Kotlowitz was instrumental in bringing the hit British drama Brideshead Revisited to PBS in 1982.

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