Steve Bell, an innovative television executive who in 1991 brought a brash new kind of local morning news to television viewers in Los Angeles with “KTLA Morning News,” died Tuesday. He was 66.
Bell died of a heart attack at his Pacific Palisades home, his family said.
After becoming senior vice president and general manager of KTLA-TV Channel 5 in 1981, Bell helped keep KTLA high in the ratings with new approaches to programming, such as simultaneous Spanish-language audio on KTLA’s news programs and movie classics on TV with the films’ stars as hosts.
In “Fridays With Art: Insiders’ Accounts of the Early Days of the TV Biz by Some of the Guys Who Made It Work,” published in 2003, he said KTLA “wrote the book on ‘alternative programming.’ ”
“We ran hour action-adventure shows at 6 p.m. when the indie competition ran sitcoms. The affiliates ran their nightly news at 11 p.m., so we ran ours at 10 p.m.,” he said.
Putting it more colorfully to the Hollywood Reporter in 1992, he said: “When the others zig, we zag.”
But Bell was best-known for launching KTLA’s local news programming in the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. hours that had until then mostly featured programs for children.
In doing so, KTLA was the first to go head-to-head in the same time slot against the network morning shows. Although KNBC-TV Channel 4 in 1986 had launched a 6 a.m. local news program, the show did not air against high-powered network offerings.
“He had the vision that there was an appetite at that hour of the day for local television news,” said Jeff Wald, the current KTLA news director whom Bell hired at the station in 1981.
Bell built the morning news team, most of which is still on the air, including co-anchor Carlos Amezcua, entertainment reporter Sam Rubin and weatherman Mark Kriski. (The show’s other original anchor, Barbara Beck, left in 2001 and was replaced by Giselle Fernandez.)
“KTLA Morning News,” which now begins at 5 a.m., also “was the first one with the crazy anchors,” Bell quipped in “Fridays With Art.”
Although it began on a more serious note, the show’s news team members soon began joking around with each other, and viewers loved it. Other shows across the country imitated them.
“The first few months, things were falling apart so bad here and we all thought we were going to get canned, and so we just started having a good time,” Beck told the Los Angeles Times on the fifth anniversary of the show, when KTLA was riding high on the show’s strong ratings. “Everyone was saying, ‘It’s a terrible show. You can’t compete with the networks. It’s a loser. It’s folly.’ And what could we do? We just started laughing about it on the air.”
But the show was serious about covering the news, from floods to the O.J. Simpson trial and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Bell said one of his proudest moments at KTLA was winning the Peabody Award for the station’s news coverage of the Rodney King videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers, whose acquittals in the case triggered the riots.
KTLA, which was owned by Gene Autry when Bell came aboard, was sold to Tribune Co. in 1985. Fifteen years later, Tribune bought The Times.
When Bell left KTLA in 1992 after more than 11 years, the station was the most successful independent in the Los Angeles market in most time slots.
After leaving the station, Bell joined 20th Century Fox, where he ran Network Television Production and founded Foxstar Productions, which produces shows for television. He later worked for cable provider Tele-Communications Inc., where he ran 12 channels for the Starz/Encore Media Group. In 1997, he became director of the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills.
Bell was born in Boston and earned his bachelor’s at Harvard and a master’s at UC Berkeley, both in English literature.
Bell’s brother, Alan Bell, who is chief executive of Freedom Communications -- publisher of the Orange County Register -- said his brother became interested in broadcasting when both were living in New York City. Before his time at KTLA, Bell had been general manager of WLVI-TV in Cambridge, Mass.
After retiring in 2000 from the museum, Steve Bell taught courses at UCLA Extension and lectured on the history of opera for the L. A. Opera, the Los Angeles Opera League and the Wagner Society of Southern California.
“He was able to reach back into his background and do all kinds of things he couldn’t do when he was climbing the greasy pole,” Alan Bell said. “He became the teacher he had always intended to be.”
Alan Bell described his brother as “a really bright guy with an intuitive talent for audiences.”
“He understood how to nurture people, and he had a rip-roaring sense of humor,” he said.
Besides his brother, Bell is survived by his wife of 35 years, Bernice, and two children, David and Elizabeth.
Services will be held Friday at 3 p.m. at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.