RKO General has tried to sell local independent station KHJ-TV Channel 9 twice in the last two years, but both deals have been blocked by the Federal Communications Commission.
Embroiled for more than two decades in messy litigation over its fitness to hold a broadcast license, RKO is still unable to rid itself of what is routinely described in newspaper accounts of these transactions as "the lowest-rated VHF station in the L.A. market."
But just as a Beirut storekeeper trapped in the middle of an endless war might open his doors for business each day, KHJ trudges ahead--unaffected, its general manager insists, by RKO's licensing woes. And Monday at 8 p.m., trumpeting its ambition in the face of an uncertain future, Channel 9 added a new half-hour of nightly news to its prime-time schedule.
"The 22 years of legal battles haven't stopped the commitment of RKO to this station, especially in the news area," says Charles Valona, general manager of KHJ-TV for the past eight years. "We have spent more money in the last five years here than we ever did. And if anything, this station has risen to new heights despite the intense pressure of litigation."
RKO's legal battles date back to the 1960s, when its suitability to hold broadcast licenses was first questioned on programming grounds. In 1965, Fidelity Television, a local investment group, challenged RKO for the KHJ-TV license. But before that matter could be settled, the FCC brought action against GenCorp, RKO General's parent company, for alleged bribes of public officials. In 1982, RKO was stripped by the regulatory agency of its license to operate the CBS affiliate in Boston, and last year an administrative law judge at the commission deemed the company unfit to run any of its 14 television and radio stations across the country.
Westinghouse Electric backed out of a $313-million deal to buy the station last January--a deal that would have paid $95 million to Fidelity's 52 investors--because, with RKO's licensing status still unresolved, the FCC would not approve the sale. Walt Disney Co. subsequently agreed to buy the station for $320 million, but that deal remains in administrative limbo at the FCC.
Despite these distractions, the employees at Channel 9 have kept the station on the air each day, and four years ago KHJ severed itself from the 10 o'clock independent news glut--currently the other three independent stations all broadcast news at 10 p.m.--and offered local residents their first newscast at 9 p.m. Since then, ratings for Channel 9's nightly hour of news have quadrupled.
Though conventional wisdom in this market contends that a television station must compete head to head with its rivals in order to be taken seriously. Channel 9's management decided to divide the hourlong newscast at 9 into half-hour programs at 8 and 9.
By breaking up its 60 minutes of news, the station hopes to avoid the audience dropoff during the last half hour that plagues all hourlong newscasts. It was also enticed by the fact that KTTV-TV Channel 11's pioneering 8 p.m. newscast was seen in an average of 232,000 homes each night before it was taken off the air last year.
"There are people out there who want to watch news at different hours of the evening, " Valona says. "Why should we remain in the herd mentality? I don't see any reason to compete with three other stations at 10. I want our news to stand out from the pack."
"You're better serving the public when you give them alternatives," says Stephanie Rank Brady, news director at KHJ for the last 14 years and the only female TV newsroom boss in this market. "You have to remember the commuter: Not everyone is home and in place by 6 or 7 o'clock."
KHJ management hopes that bridging the 8 and 9 p.m. newscasts with Dick Clark and his "$100,000 Pyramid" at 8:30 p.m. will further stimulate the station's news ratings. "Pyramid" has always earned high ratings in prime time, and its audience, Brady says, tends to be rather cerebral and therefore inclined to stick around for the news.
Brady says RKO has been "pouring money" into KHJ-TV--just how much she wouldn't say--in an effort to keep it profitable and that the station has used that money to upgrade its news equipment and to hire at least five additional people to produce the new newscast.
Former KABC-TV Channel 7 reporter Lonnie Lardner is anchoring the new newscast with veteran Channel 9 newsman Tom Lawrence. Lawrence continues with co-anchor Wendy Gordon at 9 p.m.
"You build your public image," Valona says, "with news and public-affairs programming: Do you care about the homeless, mental illness, gangs? We're willing to address those types of issues, and that's how you serve the community."
Both Valona and Brady are proud of KHJ's commitment to news and public-affairs programming, though they know that some of that programming holds down the overall size of the station's audience. Currently, KHJ broadcasts 17 hours a week of public-affairs programming, including several "Camera 9" documentaries each year, special series such as "The Changing Family" that explore contemporary issues, early morning public-affairs shows on the elderly, the deaf and teen-agers that have miniscule audiences, a weekday 90-minute talk show called "Midmorning L.A." and numerous charity telethons. Valona also plans to introduce weekend newscasts by next fall.
But Valona contends he is not programming the station simply to win good Samaritan awards nor to ease some of the pressure surrounding RKO and questions about its suitability to hold broadcast licenses. His goal is to earn high ratings and make money. He concedes that from sign on to sign off, KHJ is the lowest-rated VHF station in this market. But in several lucrative afternoon and evening time periods, Valona says, KHJ outperforms many of its competitors. Despite its low ratings overall, the station is still profitable, he says.
"We're not doing this to be unsuccessful from a profit standpoint," Valona says. "You have to take chances to win in this market. If you stay stagnant, you'll get crushed. And I think we have our competition's attention."