Wednesday, November 27, 2002
Channel 9: Yawwwwn.
By ROGER M. GRACE
Up until the 1990s, L.A. had four independent stations on the VHF band: KTLA, Channel 5; KHJ-TV (previously KFI-TV), Channel 9; KTTV, Channel 11; and KCOP (originally KLAC), Channel 13.
Three of those channels have aired retrospective specials, telling of their broadcasting feats through the decades: Channels 5, 11, and 13.
Why no retrospective on Channel 9? Simple. The history of that channel is one of mediocrity and scandal.
The scandal, as you probably recall, entailed fraudulent billing practices and bribery. It culminated in RKO General, owner of KHJ-TV, losing its licenses to operate TV and radio stations. I’ll go into that saga next week.
As to mediocrity: The station has been owned by various entities, but through its 54-year history, none of those owners made a real commitment to it. It has, consistently, been the ho-hum place on the TV dial.
That’s not to say that Channel 9 was a total loss. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s do remember with fondness “Engineer Bill” Stulla, who emceed cartoons. He was so good-natured he can probably be forgiven for his “red light, green light” ruse to trick kiddies, in the guise of a game, into drinking milk.
There was the “Channel 9 Movie Theater,” subsequently dubbed “Million Dollar Movie,” which featured old flicks, mostly produced by the station’s owner, RKO—such as the original 1933 version of “King Kong”—aired five nights in succession. However, the RKO movies, in general, did not rival the quality of the MGM and Paramount movies being shown on Channel 11.
During a period from 1954-55, it aired some of the Du Mont shows, as an affiliate.
“Queen for a Day,” a radio show on Mutual since 1945, was broadcast nationally from the studio at 1313 North Vine Street in Hollywood, and heard locally on KHJ-AM. KHJ-TV, headquartered at that location, televised the show from Jan. 14, 1952 until it went on the NBC television network Jan. 3, 1956.
One distinction KHJ-TV had was its broadcasts of "Queen for a Day," heard coast-to-coast as a Mutual Broadcasting System radio show. The erstwhile Don Lee radio network, on the West Coast, had been linked since the mid-1930s to the national Mutual network, and Don Lee and Mutual came to share a Hollywood studio on Vine Street. When RKO purchased Don Lee assets from the estate of Thomas Lee in the early 1950s, and also bought Channel 9 from Earle C. Anthony, the result was KHJ-TV, Channel 9, broadcasting from the same facility as Mutual -- that is, the facility from which "Queen for a Day" was aired nationally on radio. It was natural for KHJ to provide a local TV version of the show. This was not a new idea, however. In the late 1940s, the Don Lee television station in Los Angeles, KTSL, had simulcast "Queen for a Day."
A trademark of KHJ was the mellow voice of station announcer Ted Meyers (who now and then served as a newsman). Elvira introduced horror movies; Regis Philbin was a co-host on a short-lived morning show there in the early 1970s; Jerry Dunphy spent his latter years as a news anchor on that station.
There were sports events. Network re-runs. Infomercials.
That’s about it. Not enough to warrant a retrospective.
Why did KHJ align itself in 1954 with Du Mont, a moribund network? My theory is that it was to add an air of credibility to a lackluster station. “Du Mont” was the name of a known national network. KHJ picked up but a few shows from it, yet flashed Du Mont’s logo on the screen and intoned its name in station identifications and included the logo in newspaper and TV Guide ads. It even did so for a time after it stopped airing Du Mont programs.
In June 1955, its sole Du Mont show was “Chance of a Lifetime.” As of July, it was Du Mont-less. Nonetheless, it was listed in TV Guide as a Du Mont station up until December 1955.
The need KHJ perceived to bolster its image through association is seen in the fact that it had, up until the very day it hooked up with Du Mont, prominently referred to itself as L.A.’s “Don Lee station.” However, as previously observed here, neither Don Lee—who founded KTSL, the station that is now KCBS, and amassed a network of west coast radio stations—nor his son, Thomas S. Lee, who took over when his father died in 1934, had been connected with Channel 9. General Tire and Rubber Company, through its subsidiary General Teleradio, in 1951 purchased the assets of the estate of Thomas Lee; the name “Don Lee Television” was one of the assets; General Tire later bought KHJ, and invoked the recognized name of Don Lee. It even referred to its news program as “Don Lee News.”
General Tire in 1955 purchased RKO Radio Pictures, selling the movie lot to Desilu, but retaining the film library for use on KHJ and on its New York station, WOR-TV. In 1958, it began referring to its TV stations as those of “RKO General.”
Channel 9 never set trends, never innovated, never really put forth effort. If a major news event occurred, it was not KHJ that was there to cover it.
Through the years, it provided picture and sound, and sold time to advertisers. It was just there. Other stations can recount triumphs. Channel 9 can’t.
Maybe that will change, given the purchase of Channel 9 (now KCAL) by CBS last May.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
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