Peter Downey – in memory

From Ralph Schuetz – 3/30/2000

As current or former WGBH staffers I’m sure most of you will be saddened by the news that Peter Downey passed away over the weekend.

I don’t know when he began his career at WGBH, but Peter was there when I started with the station in 1968. He was my boss for my last several years with the station before I left to take a job with a PBS department called the Public Television Library, then located in Indiana but soon transferred to Washington. Peter thought I’d taken leave of my senses. But he followed me to Washington several years later and was actually my boss again for a few years down here somwhere along the road.

It was Peter who helped me through a mid-life crisis in the 80’s when I might really have lost my senses and left PBS to jump from the frying pan into the fire. I listened to his advice and I stayed, and I’ve never regretted it. Each of us had over 25 years at PBS, and 30-35 years between WGBH and PBS. The last time we talked, a few weeks ago, it was about the reunion, and how great it would be. I know Peter was looking forward to it. (I’m so sad I can’t be there because of the NAB Convention in Las Vegas.) We talked of life after PBS, a propsect not that far off for either of us.

As a fellow old-timer, Peter and I shared many of the same memories of PBS’s early years. As PBS has grown, our paths didn’t cross all that much any more, but I know that besides his obvious talents, his knowledge and sense of the history made him one of the most respected senior staffers at PBS. He was valued, and will be missed, immeasurably.


  1. Pat Mitchell on March 31, 2000 at 7:54 pm

    It is with the utmost sadness that I must tell you of the death of Peter Downey, PBS’s senior vice president of program business affairs. Peter died on Sunday at his home in Northern Virginia. He was 57. Peter leaves two daughters, Sarah and Caitlin, and the family is working on Peter’s arrangements. We will let you know of the plans as soon as we can.

    Peter was a beloved figure in public television. He was a wondrously wise and witty man who was devoted to PBS, to its stations and to our collective mission. Most of all, he was extraordinarily devoted to his daughters. At the office, he was quiet and contemplative, turning his attention and acumen to bettering so many facets of our endeavor. At home, he was a soccer dad and a true champion of his children.

    It is no overstatement to say that Peter knew just about everything about PBS and public television. And if he didn’t know the answer, he knew who did. For so many of us, both within and outside public television, Peter was the Great Explainer. He was the one to whom we turned again and again to unravel our most difficult issues. And in so doing, he was a respected colleague and marvelous teacher.

    Peter was also a skilled mediator. In his clear, concise, thoughtful manner, he would lay out the points of contention and agreement, lead us to understand the perspectives and needs of those involved, and guide an informed discussion so that we all could move together to advance our varied missions. Peter was a PBS representative, but he was ever mindful of PBS’s first duty to all of its member stations, and the stations’ first duty to the American people.

    Peter gave nearly 40 years of his life to public broadcasting, starting as a volunteer at WGBH Boston in 1963. He joined PBS in 1977 as director of operations following 13 years in production-related positions at WGBH, including operations manager for its radio station and two television stations. While at WGBH, he also played a major role in the design, funding and construction of WGBY Springfield, Massachusetts.

    As PBS director of operations, Peter supervised our transition from terrestrial to satellite program distribution. He was named senior vice president for corporate affairs and administration in 1978, a post in which he developed public and system policy initiatives for PBS and served as management liaison with the PBS Board of Directors.

    In the years that followed, Peter oversaw numerous PBS departments, including, at various times, development, program scheduling, research, advertising, video promotion, public information and computer services. Peter was named senior vice president of program business affairs in the mid-‘80s, managing a portfolio that included all contracting with program producers, underwriting guidelines, program data and analysis, and licensing and distribution.

    In 1991, Current named Peter one of “Fifteen Who Made a Difference” for his work in developing and implementing a new national programming structure and pricing system. But in so many ways and at so many times, Peter made a difference to all of us. We will miss his wisdom, integrity, commitment, support and good humor. Most of all, we will miss a loyal friend of PBS and public television.

    In 1969 the National Education Television Award named Peter public television’s outstanding director for the innovative dance program “Citymotionspacegame,” which The New York Times called “superbly realized” and a “dazzling example of television as art.” What was said of this creation may also be said of its creator.

    All of us at PBS extend our deepest sympathy to Peter’s daughters, whom we will support as best we can at this difficult moment. As they make known their wishes for any memorial for Peter, we will pass along that information to you.

  2. John Kerr on March 31, 2000 at 7:53 pm

    Oh my. Peter did many good things at WGBH, and then at PBS. I’ll never forget learning Auction Central with Pete as my tutor. Rest well, Pete, and thanks for all you did for pubtel, and for your sense of humor.

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