No Respect : For Channel 39, UHF Exile Has Meant Long, Hard Battle for Hearts and Minds of Viewers
It has always been an ignominious existence for KCST-TV (Channel 39), which begins life anew on Friday as KNSD, “Bringing it straight to you.”
This is a station that has never been able to get any respect.
In the ‘60s, the ABC television network shunned Channel 39 and its weak UHF signal, preferring to hook up with the Mexican-based XETV (Channel 6). It took a long, bitter court battle to force ABC to dump Channel 6 and latch on with with the best available American station, KCST.
When ABC became the hot network in the ‘70s, it quickly dumped KCST for KGTV (Channel 10), leaving the third-place network of the time, NBC, for KCST.
Third place, as in third of three, is a familiar position for Channel 39. It is the perennial loser of the local news sweepstakes, a key competition for local television stations.
“I remember my first day at the station,” said Tom Mitchell, who joined the Channel 39 news department in 1976, eventually becoming the station’s news director. “I went to a fire in Southeast San Diego, and a little kid came up to me. He wanted to know why the educational channel was covering a fire.”
Station General Manager Neil Derrough calls the changes an “identity project.” It’s an attempt to put an end to the station’s image problems. Not
only will there be new call letters for the station, there will be a new look for the news shows, new theme music and a new roster of locally produced shows. Derrough estimates more than $1 million has been spent to give the station a completely new look.
Of course, in typical Channel 39 fashion, there is a cloud hanging over these changes. Gillett Communications is negotiating to sell the station, and it could happen at any time. Such is life for staffers at 39.
But, from the perspective of the employees, at least there are positive things happening.
“This is the first time in my recollection that this TV station has made anywhere near the investment to make programs,” said Broadcast Services Director Doug Dougherty, who joined the station in 1977.
A live half-hour show at 7:30 p.m., Friday, will kick off the station’s new package.
The package includes a new monthly show featuring irreverent comedian Larry Himmel, wooed away from Channel 8, where he had hosted a nightly show until its cancellation a few months ago. The closest thing to a local television celebrity in San Diego, Himmel is the type of guy people talk about, even if it is not always to say nice things.
“The station didn’t have any edges,” said Derrough, who took over as general manager in January, when Gillett Communications purchased the station. “It was a very safe, conservative TV station. They didn’t make a lot of mistakes, but they didn’t do much that was memorable either.”
Recent surveys said 40% of San Diegans had no opinion of the station, Derrough said. Not exactly inspiring news, but at least Channel 39 can start its new life as KNSD with a relatively clean slate.
Derrough would like people to completely forget Channel 39. Part of the new campaign is designed to get people to call the station “Cable 7.” After years of attempting to get the cable companies to agree, almost every cable system in the county now carries the station as channel 7 on its dial.
Ever since it came on the air as KAAR in 1965, the UHF signal and the channel 39 designation have been giant albatrosses hanging around the station’s neck. At first, it was a real problem, as many viewers could not easily find the UHF signal, due to inadequate television sets and antennae. Even as televisions improved, it was always an uphill battle to convince advertisers and audiences that it was a “real” station.
“It was said that 27,000 homes in the area can’t get our signal, but a lot of people can’t get channels 8 and 10 either,” Bass Broadcasting President Mel Wheeler argued in a brochure in the early ‘70s. In 1967, Bass Broadcasting purchased KAAR, destroyed by a fire in 1966, restarting it as KCST in 1968.
When KCST first came on the air, it attempted to establish itself as the sports station, airing San Diego Rockets (basketball), San Diego Gulls (hockey) and minor league San Diego Padres (baseball) games, among others. They would cover any sport, from Little League to Chargers preseason football games.
The telecasts were rarely top quality, but they were definitely original and wild. Mike Smith, who worked for KCST sports from 1967-1981 when he was dumped during another station shake-up, remembers covering a San Diego State men’s volleyball game when the opponents’ bus broke down and the team was late. But they had to go on the air anyway.
“We kept it live and we had a half hour of interviews with volleyball players,” Smith said with a groan.
The sports programming never attracted great ratings. There was always the problem of the UHF signal. “Everyone thought UHF was educational TV,” Smith said.
In recent years, though, with remote control televisions almost standard living room fare and nearly all San Diego households wired for cable television, the UHF designation became more of an image problem than a practical obstacle. Sure, Channel 39 is a little harder to find than 8 or 10, but certainly San Diegans find it when they want to watch NBC’s prime-time programming.
“When we have something they want to watch, they watch,” said Dougherty. “If we had the exact same programming on all three (network affiliated) stations, they would probably watch 8 or 10. But, when we have something better, they’ll find it.”
In recent years, the UHF signal has been more an excuse than a real hindrance to the station’s success.
“There has been a lot of preoccupation with UHF, and a lot of people talk like, ‘Well, we’d be in third place anyway because we’re UHF,’ ” Derrough said.
Third place is usually where the the KCST news operation has finished in the ratings race, even though it is generally respected. It consistently wins awards, often as many as its competitors. But only once, until recently, for a brief period, was Channel 39’s news operation able to break out of last place. In 1979, for two ratings periods, Channel 39, with Paul Bloom as anchor, moved into second place at 11 p.m.
“It was a very fun, very aggressive time,” said Mitchell, news director at the time. “It was the highlight of my life in TV news.”
But even this golden era in the Channel 39 newsroom was tainted, in the minds of some people, since the station was not competing with channels 8 and 10’s early evening newscasts. Instead of competing directly with the other stations at 5 p.m., Channel 39’s early broadcast was at 6:30 p.m.
It wasn’t until 1981, after Channel 8 had started a 6:30 broadcast of its own, that Channel 39 made a move to compete at 5 p.m. with a short-lived “Live at 5" format. It did little to dent the other stations’ audiences.
“There was a period of time when (Channel 39) wasn’t considered one of the big guys,” Mitchell said. “It takes money to do that.”
From 1974 to 1986, the station was owned by Storer Broadcasting, a relatively small family-owned company with broadcasting interests primarily located in the Midwest. It paid $12 million in cash for the station in 1974. It brought first-rate equipment to the station for the first time.
“We were doing a one-hour newscast with one Bell and Howell camera” until Storer purchased the station in 1974, said Smith.
Under Storer, KCST quickly moved away from the sports broadcasts, finally cranking up a full-fledged news department, with Harold Greene, now a Sunday anchor for L.A.'s KABC-TV, as the first news director and anchor.
Storer made Channel 39 into a “real” station. It bought a helicopter, cameras and most of the other modern toys of the trade. But staffers always complained that Storer never gave the station much financial support.
“People get despondent when they try and try and they don’t see things happening,” said broadcast services director Dougherty. After he left in 1980 to briefly work for KNBC in Los Angeles and “Entertainment Tonight,” Dougherty returned in 1985. “There had been almost no changes, that was the amazing thing.”
Storer was the target of a hostile takeover bid in 1986, which resulted in a holding company, Kholberg, Kravitz and Roberts becoming Storer’s partner.
“It was just the style of the organization at the time,” Dougherty said. “The station was making good dollars and there was not a lot of pressure for change.”
Morale was a constant problem at the station, which became accustomed to last-place finishes. Frustration was a constant enemy.
“You have personal pride in the product,” said Mitchell, who was fired as news director in 1982, but returned for a four-year stint as chief assignment editor in 1983. “Your peers know it is a good product. But the people at home don’t know it.”
The current roster of changes is the work of Gillett Communications, which has spent the last six months completely revamping the station, placing new people in every key station position. News Director Ron Miller, the latest in an uncountable line of news directors, was fired in June.
The news shows will benefit from the basic changes in the station, Derrough said. Reworking the daytime line-up, for example, was a major step for the station, especially switching the massively popular soap opera “Days of Our Lives” to 2 p.m. to serve as a lead-in to “Donahue” at 3 p.m., the recently acquired “Geraldo!” at 4 p.m., and then the 5 p.m. news. Most of the advertising for the new daytime line-up has touted the “Days of Our Lives” switch more than any other change at the station.
“This station was run much like an independent station,” said Derrough, president of the CBS-owned affiliate stations before taking the Channel 39 post. “Look at 3-5 p.m. It was a hodgepodge of nickel-and-dime shows, all going in a different direction. It boggles the mind. The key word is flow. Once you get viewers with you they stay with you.”
(Former Channel 39 General Manager Bill Fox, who ran the station from 1971 to 1987, declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Channel 39 has always done some original programming. During the early ‘70s, there was had Ernie Meyer’s “Dialing for Dollars.” But the station has focused more on syndicated shows and movies in recent years. If nothing else, it was simply cheaper to buy outside programming.
Derrough hopes new programming, such as “3rd Thursday” and “San Diego Headliners,” community affairs shows, will get people more involved in the station, while giving the station more of an identity in the community.
“There has to be a direction for the station,” Derrough said.
Of course, San Diegans are well accustomed to such talk, accompanied by new sets for the news shows and new theme music. A new set is not going to turn people into rabid Channel 39 fans.
“A new set is symbolic (of change), both internally and externally,” said Willis Duff, of the Dallas-based Audience Research and Development, a consulting firm which has worked with both channels 39 and 10.