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Company Town

TV industry pioneer Robert Bennett dies at 89

Robert “Bob” Bennett, shown in Newport Beach in 2014, died Tuesday after a long illness. He helped build Metromedia Broadcasting into one of the most prominent station groups that became the backbone of the Fox Broadcasting TV network.
(Casey Bennett, via Jerry Digney / via Associated Press)
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Robert “Bob” Bennett, a television industry pioneer and 31-year resident of Newport Beach, died Tuesday at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach after a long illness, according to longtime friend and business associate Paul Rich.

Bennett, who was 89, had a career in television that spanned more than 50 years. He worked in Los Angeles and later managed stations in Washington, New York and Boston. With media magnate John Kluge, Bennett helped build Metromedia Broadcasting into one of the nation’s most prominent station groups. 

In 1985, Kluge and Bennett sold the chain for $2 billion to Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch and oil tycoon Marvin Davis. 

That small station group — which included KTTV-TV Channel 11 in Los Angeles — formed the backbone of the Fox Broadcasting television network.

“He really helped create of the fourth television network, although he doesn’t get credit for it,” said Rich, who went to work for Bennett in the early 1970s at the Boston station.

Bennett’s bid for Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5, along with some Boston-area professors, included a nearly 10-year battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Once he took over the station, he saw how a broadcast outlet could serve as an influential part of a community.

Bennett built the Boston station into a juggernaut known for strong local programming — 60 hours a week of original shows, including a magazine and public affairs program called “Chronicle,” whichremains on the air.

The station had its own daily children’s program, Rich said, and even produced movies and shows for network television, including “Summer Solstice,” starring Myrna Loy and Henry Fonda in his last film role, according to a biography provided by family spokesman Jerry Digney. There was also a syndicated situation comedy developed with Norman Lear called “The Baxters.” 

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He earned the respect of his competitors.

“Bob was an innovator,” said media executive Tony Vinciquerra. “Boston was probably the best-served market in America because you had these two TV stations banging away at each other.

“He was bigger-than-life, a John Wayne-like swashbuckling character,” said Vinciquerra, who ran rival station WBZ-TV.

Born in Altoona, Penn., in 1927, Bennett began his broadcasting career in 1948 as a page for CBS Radio in Hollywood. In 1952, he went to work as a salesman for the Los Angeles television station, KTTV, then owned by Times-Mirror Co., the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Bennett became sales director before rising through Metromedia Broadcasting.

He was a member of the Bel Air Country Club and the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame. Three years ago, he published the book, “WCVB-TV Boston: How We Built the Greatest Television Station in America.”

He is survived by his wife, Marjie, daughter, Kelly Bennett, and grandson, Brandon Bennett of Santa Monica, and a son, Casey Bennett of Marina del Rey.

meg.james@latimes.com

@MegJamesLAT

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