Obituary: Kenneth Coyte

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The Independent Online
Kenneth Coyte was a leading figure in television news, but because his work was done behind the scenes, he was little known to the general public. For the past 16 years he was the Chief Executive of Worldwide Television News, one of the two great international agencies which dominate the provision of news in pictures to television stations throughout the world. The other contender in this highly competitive process is Reuter's Television - formerly Visnews. The scale of these operations is huge.

WTN sends out, 24 hours a day, a stream of news pictures which are used by more than a thousand nation-wide broadcasters, local stations and cable operators. Ted Turner's satellite station, CNN, draws much of its news from WTN.

Coyte was born in Leeds in 1932, the son of a chartered accountant. He was educated at Blundell's School in Devon, and did National Service in the Royal Engineers. He then read Law at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he edited the university newspaper, Varsity.

After graduating he took, in 1954, the bold step of freelancing in New York, where he became a contributor to Newsweek and to the Saturday Review. This contact with the America of the mid-1950s was to forge two links of great significance for his future. He met, and married, Patsy Mache. It was a marriage of enduring happiness which lasted until her death a year ago. And in New York Coyte came into contact with television news, then in its infancy. He secured a foothold in this new medium as a reporter for UPMT, the first agency set up to provide news in pictures to television stations. UPMT was a joint venture by 20th Century Fox, and United Press, the American wire service which supplied written news to newspapers and radio stations.

Coyte rose quickly to become UPMT's International Manager, based in Paris. Early in the 1960s he made his only break from television news, when he moved to London as Regional Manager for the United Press written news service.

In 1968 Kenneth Coyte was drawn back into television. UPMT had found its position in the international news market gravely weakened by the rise of a competitor, Visnews, founded mainly by the BBC, and, within the lucrative United States market, by the news services of the three main networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC.

It found an ally in ITN, who joined it to form a new company, UPITN. Coyte became its vice-president in charge of its operations outside North America. It was a formidable task. He had not only to organise the coverage of the news, but also to sell the service, and to organise its distribution at a time when the shipping of film by air freight was giving way to transmission by satellite.

For the next decade he had to do this against a background of constant strain and upheaval within UPITN. Many of the ITV programme companies who owned ITN disliked this risky venture, and begrudged it the capital necessary for its development. Attempts to secure capital from other sources brought short-term respite at the price of even greater long-term problems.

In 1971 Paramount Pictures, flush with cash after the success of The Godfather, bought a half share in UPITN. They hoped to base a new fourth television network in the United States on a nationwide UPITN nightly news show. The show was excellent, being produced by Burt Reinhardt and Reese Schonfeld, who were to go on to mount CNN for Ed Turner. But the costs of transmitting it by landline and micro-wave (satellite transmission within the US had not then been developed) proved too high. After a few months, and the loss of a million dollars, Paramount called a halt.

The man who bought Paramount's shares brought problems of another kind. John McGoff was the owner of a small chain of newspapers, and a radio station, in Michigan. Yet he produced $1.3m in cash for a half share of UPITN.

Four years later the mystery was explained. When the Vorster government fell in South Africa, a Commission of Inquiry found that its Minister of Information, Cornelius Mulder, had advanced the money to McGoff in the belief that part-ownership of an international news agency would bring propaganda advantages for South Africa. He was greatly mistaken. Not only were UPI and ITN, with their own reputations at stake, watchful for anything in the UPITN service which smacked of bias, but they were aware that any hint of bias could wreck the sale of the service.

These upheavals placed a great strain on Kenneth Coyte. Though fully aware of the precarious position of the company, he maintained a steady, cheerful, calm, recruiting and encouraging staff, travelling frequently, and for long distances, to sell the service in the face of fierce competition from the lavishly endowed Visnews competitor. His determination was rewarded when, in 1979, the truth about McGoff's finances was revealed. ITN moved swiftly to buy his shares, and remove any trace of a link, however tenuous, with the apartheid regime of South Africa. And they made Coyte chief executive, with the title of president.

He succeeded brilliantly. The 1980s saw a rapid growth in television stations throughout the world. Coyte saw to it that the newcomers became subscribers to his service. The name of the company was changed to the more easily remembered Worldwide Television News - WTN. He diversified the product. Alongside hard daily news he offered special packages dealing with sport, entertainment, the arts, travel and the environment. By 1986 the company was firmly in profit. He installed it in new, custom-built premises at Camden Lock in London. During his years in charge the turnover increased sevenfold.

Above all, Coyte kept WTN in the forefront of news gathering. It came triumphantly through the severe test of the Gulf War. It could rightly claim that it dominated that story, with a long list of stories in which it was first with its coverage.

Kenneth Coyte was very much a Yorkshireman - so much so that it was only partly in jest that he told his children that they should ensure that their children were born within the boundaries of Yorkshire, so that they could play cricket for the county without argument. A sturdy, powerfully built man, he had a quiet manner, never forcing his opinions on others, but ready, when the time came, with a well thought out view of his own. His Yorkshire character came through above all in his steely determination and in his sense of humour. Calm in crisis - and the first 10 years of UPITN were one long crisis - he could see, and relish the elements of comedy which are part of most crises. He was both a good editor and a good chief executive, skilled at selecting subordinates, and firm and yet relaxed in his dealings with them.

Though his life was spent out of the spotlight, Kenneth Coyte was one of the great pioneers of television journalism, a man of high standards, courage, and human warmth.

Kenneth Anthony Coyte, journalist and television executive: born Leeds 6 February 1932; married Patsy Mache (deceased; three sons, three daughters); died Cheltenham 6 January 1997.