Eric Shapiro: 2013 Lifetime Achievement in News Direction Award

DGA Awards 2013

December 21, 2012

Director Eric Shapiro will become the seventh recipient of the Lifetime Achievement in News Direction Award, which will be presented at the DGA Awards ceremony on February 2, 2013.

“When we honor lifetime achievement and outstanding dedication and contribution to the Guild, we pay homage to the qualities upon which our Guild was founded – distinguished craftsmanship and service,” said DGA President Taylor Hackford in announcing the award. “Eric Shapiro’s lifetime of excellence in news direction began when he joined the DGA as a young production associate in 1965, and nearly 50 years later, it is our pleasure to recognize the man who has directed the coverage of every major news event of our generation.”

Shapiro found himself drawn to the idea of a life in broadcasting after receiving a radio as a gift when he was a teenager. “I would listen to late night radio programs from all over the country,” recalls Shapiro. “I was fascinated by the concept of being able to sit in a studio somewhere and broadcast live into peoples’ homes all over the world and somehow touch their lives.”

Although he initially dreamt of an on-air position, Shapiro’s interests changed after he landed an entry-level job in the mailroom at CBS in New York and drew the studio complex as his assignment. “On my first day the previous mail boy was showing me the ropes of the studio run and invited me into the control room to watch how they put the CBS Evening News on the air. There was a buzz of activity in the room. It was dark and mysterious, and I could see people sitting at flickering monitors making adjustments and speaking into their headphones. I was fascinated, but it seemed a little chaotic. Then five minutes before the broadcast was to start, the control room door flew open and a man entered, issuing commands and taking control. He sat down, put on a headset and began giving cues. Suddenly all the chaos was transformed into order, and the broadcast went on the air perfectly smoothly. I asked the mail boy, ‘Who is that guy and what is his job?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s Don Hewitt. He’s the director.’ The minute I heard that I instantly knew that’s what I wanted to do. So that’s what I set my sights on.”

After joining the Guild in 1965 as a production associate, Shapiro’s first shot at directing came one night in the middle of an emergency. “I was working late one night as a PA at the CBS local station in New York, WCBS TV. News came across the wire that there had been a horrendous subway accident with multiple deaths. Most of our staff had already gone home and the news director decided we had to break into regular programming to do a special report. I was the only Guild member who was still there so he told me I would have to do it. It was my very first time sitting in the director’s chair, going on the air live, rolling in the video that had come in, cueing the talent and doing a ten minute special report. For me it was life-changing, and as nervous as I was, when it was over I was absolutely on a high.”

From his first directing assignment in 1969, Shapiro directed virtually all of the regularly-scheduled news, sports and public affairs broadcasts, and countless political specials, debates and election broadcasts for WCBS TV. He rose to become one of the top directors in network television news, directing coverage of every major news event of the past half century and overseeing and adapting to innovations in the way television presented the news – especially live, breaking stories – that transformed the news business. He has been instrumental in the evolution and modernization of CBS News production and newsgathering techniques, including the transition from black and white to color, film to video and most recently from standard to high definition.

In 1978, CBS News recruited Shapiro to develop and direct an innovative new national Monday - Friday morning news program in tandem with the launch and sharing elements of Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt.  In the decades that followed, Shapiro directed and oversaw the design and redesign of most of the programs on the CBS News schedule, including The Early Show, Face the Nation, 48 Hours, America Tonight and CBS Evening News.

Through that time, Shapiro directed coverage of the election of six U.S. presidents, three popes, the democracy showdown in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall and two Gulf Wars. He has attended every political convention since 1972 and directed all of CBS News’ political coverage since 1992. Although he has held a front row seat to history for nearly four decades, for Shapiro, each broadcast is an opportunity to rekindle the fire that first drew him into the business. “I cannot think of a more rewarding career professionally and personally and I appreciate every single day that I have doing this job. So every morning when I walk into that control room, I try to maintain the attitude that the broadcast I’m working on is the most important thing there is.”

Although he holds dear every broadcast he’s ever worked on, Shapiro reserves a special place in his heart for the work he and his team did in the hours and days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. “I’m very proud of the way my team performed from the moment that story broke. We went on the air and had to build and ramp up our coverage as the true nature of that story became known. The challenges were both personal and professional because every one of us had someone who might be involved and there were our own personal worries about our loved ones in addition to having to be professional and keep this broadcast on the air. Everyone did their job but just the stamina that was involved was staggering. I myself was on the air for 16 hours straight from the time I first sat down and went on the air until the time that we went off. We did the same thing for about three days in a row before we started dialing it back a little.”

In the pursuit of passing on what he’s learned to future generations, Shapiro heads up a director’s mentoring program at CBS where he holds classes in the control room with ADs who show promise. “We give them the opportunity to direct news broadcasts using material from the previous day, then hold a question and answer session. I tell them, ‘If you really want to be a director, find someone whose work you admire and watch them. Find a way to stand in a corner of their control room and watch them work and go to school on them, and if you can, ask questions.”

In as much as he’s dedicated to passing on what he’s learned in the past, Shapiro is also intrigued by the trends of the future and keeping abreast of the latest updates in both his section of the industry and beyond. To that end, he’s pleased with the fact that the Guild seeks to both honor and educate its membership with presentations such as the DGA 75th Anniversary event, Game-Changers: Making the News, in which he participated in several panel discussions. “In addition to the protections that the DGA fights for like creative rights and the battle against Internet theft, I like the screenings, programs, seminars and events that the Guild puts on, where directors and other Guild members can sit together, compare notes and techniques and  talk about their work.”

Shapiro has been honored with Emmy Awards for his work on the first Gulf War and for his innovative use of virtual set technology on the CBS News People of the Century Millennium series. Of all these accolades, it’s the recognition of the men and women who work in the same trenches that means the most. Asked how he feels to be the recipient of the DGA’s 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award in News Direction, the ever succinct Shapiro sums it up in a single word: “Overwhelmed. When you consider the previous people who have gotten this honor, they’re some of the most talented news directors of my generation, all of whom I admire greatly. Just to be included in that group is a tremendous honor.” 

Past recipients of the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award in News Direction

  • Roger Goodman (2010)
  • George Paul (2007)
  • Richard B. Armstrong (1999)
  • Robert E. Vitarelli (1997)
  • Max A. Schindler (1996)
  • Arthur Bloom (1995)