DEATH OF A NEWSCAST

Thanks to Rupert Murdoch and cutthroat competition, now nobody can watch the 7 p.m. news.

The first full week of May at independent ’station KDAF Channel 33 started out as a good one. It had been two months since publishing czar Rupert Murdoch took over the Metromedia chain of television stations, which included Channel 33. Suddenly, things were starting to happen.

Fox Television Stations, Inc., the new name for the old Metromedia group, was about to launch a fourth network. Joan Rivers had been hired to do battle with her mentor, Johnny Carson. For Channel 33, it was a sign that the Big Time, or at least a good run at the Big Time, was just around the corner. No more scratched prints of “Starsky and Hutch” to fill prime time.

Best of all, from my point of view, the news department had just gotten a state-of-the-art microwave live truck- probably the best in town. The news budget called for adding a much-needed Fort Worth bureau, with reporter, photographer, and a live link to the studios in Dallas. Sure, we had all heard the stories that Murdoch was ruthless. But hadn’t he made his fortune in news, and hadn’t he promised to expand the news in Dallas? Murdoch might change the look of the news. But at least he’d do news.

Well, not only were we wrong, we missed one of the biggest media stories in Dallas in 1986- that we were all about to be axed.

It was 5:30 that Friday afternoon, May 9. The crunch had set in-the pressure to get the broadcast on in one piece before heading out for the weekend. News director Ruth Allen-Ollison walked from desk to desk, announcing quietly but firmly that there would be a meeting in the newsroom the next morning, Saturday, at ten. And she made it clear that everyone had to be there. Someone asked what it was all about, but Ruth said she didn’t know. It sounded like the worst, but none of us really believed it.

I went on the air feeling sad-and not sure why. The atmosphere was heavy. On the air that night I slipped. Instead of saying, as I usually did, that it was time to conclude tonight’s broadcast, I signed off by saying, “That wraps up the 7PM News.”

On Saturday morning the newsroom was somber and silent. Everyone was seated as the station’s general manager, Ray Schon-bak, walked in with the Twentieth Century Fox personnel director, flown in from the West Coast. There was no good way to announce it, Schonbak said. The 7PM News was history. The numbers just didn’t add up. It was not a corporate decision, it was his decision. According to Schonbak.

Suddenly, we all got a quick education on something we had been reporting on a lot: layoffs.

One by one, we were summoned to the business office. We were shown the severance pay we’d get. And the woman from Fox pointed out how convenient it would be for us to file for unemployment benefits. The Texas Employment Commission office was just across the freeway.

We were told to clean out our desks and turn in our keys and beepers. Then we were followed to our cars. The day before, we were entrusted with bringing viewers the truth. All of a sudden we were visitors, strangers in the newsroom, people to be watched.

That evening, WFAA Channel 8 led its newscast with a report on a former competitor. “Friday’s seven o’clock news on Channel 33 was KDAF’s final show.” Anchor Gloria Campos (coin-cidentally, the wife of 33’s backup sportscaster Lance Brown) read, “There is no more news department. And all the news people are out of work.”

The videotape showed the opening segment of the Channel 33 news. We joked that it was probably the biggest audience our newscast ever had.



In June 1984, Channel 33 was operating out of a warehouse that had not even been disguised effectively as a television station. 3333 Harry Hines was a dump. Most of the building had been left unfinished. In that cavernous warehouse space Ray Schonbak parked his Jaguar near a tiny trailer. The trailer was the news department.

I stepped inside. There was a desk for news director Tony deHaro and a stack of 500 videotapes he’d gotten from people wanting jobs. With that kind of competition, hanging on to my job as the 5 p.m. news anchor at KDFW Channel 4 was starting to look better and better. But Ruth Allen-Ollison, then Tony’s assistant news director, had called me, wanting me to be the news anchor. She wanted to convince me that this was going to be a first-class news effort.

Tony was a real pro from the old school who often didn’t get the respect he deserved. He grew up in Dallas but left in the Fifties, ran NBC’s local radio news in New York, and worked around the country before coming home as news director for Metromedia’s KRLD AM and president of the Press Club of Dallas.

Now, Tony had the chance to build a television news operation from scratch. Metromedia assured him he’d get the money to do the job and that the company was going to be in there for the long haul. Trying to convince me to come on board, he pulled some blueprints off the wall of the trailer. It was the plan for the newsroom.

“Four reporters, here. My office. Ruth’s office. Edit bays here, here, and here. Assignments here. The set’s in the newsroom. No typewriters. We’ll all be using computer terminals.”

It sounded awfully good. But I wasn’t sure.

I drove to the new station, still being built out on Carpenter Freeway next to KRLD radio. I put on a hard hat and wandered past the construction workers. They had gutted a warehouse-literally taken the roof off. They added a second story and were building what looked like one of the finest television facilities in the country. When I saw that the dream newsroom was indeed going to be reality, it seemed clear that Metromedia was going to go the distance.

Metromedia was really one man-John Kluge (pronounced KLOO-ghee). A wealthy man as he entered his seventies, Kluge astounded people by continuing to pull off billion-dollar deals that kept his personal wealth multiplying. By 1983, Kluge had put together the biggest group of independent TV stations in the country. He sold off stations in smaller markets and was buying others in Houston, Chicago, and Dallas. With his new holdings, he would have stations in seven of the top ten markets, a feat not even the networks could match.

Kluge, or Metromedia, agreed to buy Channel 33 for a mere $15 million. KNBN, its call letters at the time, had gone on the air as a low-budget business news station, then switched to Spanish language programming. It was simply marking time, going nowhere. Under FCC cross-ownership rules, Kluge had to get rid of KRLD AM, so he agreed to sell the all-news radio station to CBS. It was good news for the radio staff and good news for listeners. Dallas would have a network-owned news outlet.

But the Reagan Revolution was changing the world of broadcasting. The Federal Communications Commission was changing. Under the leadership of Reagan’s FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, the commission was loosening its regulation of broadcasters. Metromedia decided to try to convince the FCC to let it keep KRLD radio and back out of the deal with CBS. When Metromedia proposed doing news on Channel 33 in Dallas, the FCC bent its rules and approved the deal.

The new Metromedia management team, fresh into town, arrived at 3333 Harry Hines to take over Channel 33 in mid-December 1983. KNBN’s part owner, Sheldon Turner, stopped them at the front door and told them the check hadn’t cleared the bank. They could, he said, come in and have a cup of coffee-a cup. But under no circumstances were they to talk to any station employees. Later in the day the check cleared, and the Metromedia team had to start figuring out how to make a dent in the lucrative Dallas/Fort Worth market.

It was a great time to own a TV station in Dallas. The Metroplex (an appropriate term here, because it was coined by an ad agency) had become the nation’s ninth largest television market. It would soon become the eighth, edging out Washington, D.C. In pure dollar profits, Dallas and Fort Worth television stations ranked third, just behind New York and Los Angeles and well ahead of Chicago. It was no secret that local network affiliates were making killings. There just had to be big advertising money out there for the independents. About this time, John Kluge took Metromedia private. He swallowed enormous debts to do it, but it became his.

And that move may have sealed the fate of Channel 33 news.



Tony deHaro and Ray Schonbak had convinced John Kluge to go first class in building a news department. There would be an expensive and elaborate computer system instead of typewriters and wire service machines, and Sony Betacams, the most advanced minicams on the market, instead of the cumbersome cameras and recorders used by the other stations. We would have Italian designer office furniture instead of the standard-issue metal desks you find in most newsrooms.

Above all, we would have good people. Tony and Ruth sought out people who not only had a lot of experience, but knew the area. Many, like me, had grown up in Dallas. Newscast producer Michael McGee had worked in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley. But before that, he grew up in Fort Worth. Reporter Debra Martine was hired away from The Dallas Morning News. Ruth Allen-Ollison had run the KXAS Channel 5 Dallas newsroom.

Most of the news people showed up all at once, on July 16, 1984, two weeks before the broadcast was to hit the air. The new building wasn’t open yet, so everyone worked out of the coffee shop at the Harry Hines building. Toward the end of the week, we began doing daily practice run-throughs of newscasts.

Finally the night of July 30 came. The station was still unfinished. You had to wear a hard hat to get to the newsroom. But amid the dust and dangling wires, we were about to launch a newscast. John Kluge was in the control room with his pal, singer Tony Bennett, at his side, his finger on the switch when 6:59 p.m. hit. In Spanish, the station announced that KNBN was leaving the air, and Kluge pushed the button that would bring our new station to life. KRLD-TV was now on the air.

The next thing up was the news open: “This is the KRLD 7PM News.. .” For me, sitting at the anchor desk, there was a sudden rush of excitement. I was nervous. I knew that as long as I was in broadcasting, I’d probably never sign a new station on the air again. Sportscaster Carl White said, “I don’t know about you guys, but for me, this is Christmas.”

We thought we’d shaken up the world. Then, the next day, we saw the overnight ratings. We got a .7-less than seven-tenths of 1 percent of the households in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were tuned in. But the promotion blitz was about to start. Within a few months, my face was popping out of TV sets on more than 300 billboards around town. There was no way anybody could not know about the 7PM News, we thought.

Or was there? The ratings rose, but not enough. The station was guaranteeing advertisers the news would get a 4.0 rating (4 percent of households). It rarely got above a 2.0.

Still, the quality of the news matured. When the Republican National Convention came to town, we didn’t have a live truck. The only way to go live was by satellite, so we did. The signal had to travel halfway around the world to go across town, but we got the story. Metromedia had a full-time Washington bureau, so we got daily reports from the capital, sometimes live. And on election night 1984, we went live to the Reagan, Mondale, and Bush headquarters.

We gave thorough, thoughtful coverage to issues and events that really mattered; crime in the East Dallas Asian neighborhoods and the lack of running water in a southern Dallas County community. The night of the Challenger explosion we anchored the broadcast live from Houston. We did documentaries on the rights of the mentally retarded, on the local alcoholism problem, and on a mostly black town accused of racial prejudice. Our coverage of the Mesquite tornado won us the Best Spot News award in the statewide UPI competition. UPI also cited Channel 33 as best newscast in the state. I don’t believe contests actually decide who’s best. But the UPI awards meant that, comparing newscast to newscast, Channel 33 was on a par with the big boys.

The Metromedia station in Houston was also doing a 7 p.m. news broadcast, a second-rate effort that still managed to pull viewers. And it sometimes beat Houston’s CBS affiliate, owned by A.H. Belo Corporation, in the ratings. The message was clear. We had to get numbers.

At first Channel 33 bought advertising space to promote the newscast. But often the promotion was-well, rather weird.

Metromedia paid a Minneapolis advertising agency to concoct TV spots for the 7PM News in Dallas and Houston. Problem: the spots showed people in what was clearly a northern, urban setting trying to make it home in time to see the news. One was shot out of a cannon. One drove a tank. And one jumped off a building in a failed attempt to fly, a bad choice in light of the local teenage suicide problem widely reported on.

There were also the “Good News For People Who Have Jobs” billboards. (I saw one still up the week after the layoff.) And there were the “Hey, Clarice” (or Tracy, or Harold, or Dale). “Now you too can watch the news/weather/sports” billboards. No, those signs were not paid for by Channels 4, 5, and 8.

After we had been on the air a few months, the station paid a pricey Philadelphia research firm to study the impact of the newscast on the market. The results were taken very seriously, even though the firm reported that Channel 33’s best-liked features were restaurant and cooking reviews! That was nice, but we never did restaurant and cooking reviews. It became clear to many of us that our programming was a disaster-and it was not really the station’s fault. At least not at first.

When I hear about the new Joan Rivers show, I can’t help but remember some of the great Metromedia clinkers. Remember “The Jerry Lewis Show”? It lasted a week. Then there was “Thicke of the Night.” And “Rituals,” the soap opera that sometimes starred Patti Davis. While we’re at it, let’s not forget the “Dallas”/”Dynasty” debacle. Some broadcasters say 33 paid up to $38,000 per episode for those reruns. They both flopped.

Unfortunately, when Metromedia took over Channel 33, most of the decent programs had been gobbled up by other stations. The shows 33 did have changed time slots constantly. Debra Martine, now with Belo’s KHOU in Houston, says Channel 33 didn’t know what its identity was. It didn’t know whether it wanted to be a movie station, a children’s station, or a rerun station. “They threw everything in a pot, stirred it up, made goulash, and expected people to eat it. And people threw it out the window.”



Then Rupert Murdoch entered the picture last summer. The man dubbed “The Alien” by Chicago columnist Mike Royko was buying the Metromedia TV stations, and that included Channel 33. Murdoch would pay $1.5 billion. He’d then spin off Metromedia’s Boston station (the only network affiliate in the bunch) for $450 million. And John Kluge would be a very rich man.

In the world of professional journalists, it is embarrassing to work for a Murdoch paper. Most journalists who do will tell you, “Well sure, I work for Murdoch, but the paper I work for isn’t as bad as most of the things he puts out.” The Australian-born Murdoch made his fortune buying up losing operations and turning them into profitable publications. But respectable? Hardly.

Example: during the radiation leak at Chernobyl, Murdoch’s New York Post covered page one with this headline: “MASS GRAVES.” Another edition’s headline screamed “15,000 DEAD.” The Murdoch imprint was everywhere. If you were walking the streets of San Antonio when comedian Freddie Prinze killed himself in the Seventies, you would have seen the Murdoch style. His afternoon paper ran this glaring headline: “CHICO SHOOTS SELF IN HEAD.” But in 1985, Murdoch wanted to get in on the real action in American media-television.

Foreigners are prohibited from owning American broadcast stations. No problem; Murdoch announced he’d become an American citizen. The government was accommodating, and in no time he picked up the nickname Citizen Rupert. The FCC approved the purchase, and on March 6, 1986, Murdoch took over. It was the 150th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo. It should have told us something.

At first, all the hints from Murdoch were positive. Murdoch’s top assistants toured the Channel 33 newsroom. They talked of linking all the stations with Murdoch’s television bureaus around the world. Dallas Morning News television critic Ed Bark interviewed Murdoch at Channel 33. He recalls that Murdoch was completely unequivocal: a station wasn’t worth having if it didn’t do news: “He said, ’We’ll continue to expand on it. That’s the signature of a local station.’” But, Bark adds, “If Murdoch was as good as his word, he would have said, ’Now wait a minute. We need this at our station. This is one of our hallmarks.’”



Under Metromedia’s ownership, KRLD (by now KDAF) was legally obligated to run news. But with a new owner, and the FCC rewriting the rules of broadcasting, that promise went out the window.

Since the beginning of broadcast regulation, stations have been licensed for the public service, need, and convenience. But the current FCC believes profit, more than service, should be the guiding principle and that UHF and cable channels offer so many outlets that the hand of regulation should be lifted. In its desire to unshackle broadcasters, the commission unleashed the market forces that killed Channel 33 news.

Most broadcasters feel there are too many UHF and VHF stations in the market. Ten are on the air right now. Three more are scheduled to open, although one is in bankruptcy proceedings. And there are other channels available.

Bill Castleman, former programming director at Channel 33 and now general manager at KTXA Channel 21, says the market is “just crazy.” John McKay, general manager and part owner of KDFI Channel 27, calls the UHF TV battle the “Bataan death march. A lot of blood is being spilled. The guy who bleeds the least will survive.”

Channel 33 was bleeding a lot of money.

Ray Schonbak didn’t like the job news director Tony deHaro was doing, so he fired him. Solid news was no longer top priority; the number-one job of the news department now was to get ratings. DeHaro today owns a Florida radio station. You might think he’d have some sympathy for station owners under pressure to make money, but his heart does not bleed for Channel 33 or any other UHF independents. “Nobody said they were supposed to make any money,” deHaro says. “When you open a Dairy Queen on a comer, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to make any money. Part of doing business in broadcasting is the realization that you’re using the public airwaves, and you’re going to have to give something back to the public other than ’S.W.A.T.’ and ’Gomer Pyle.’”

Invoking its own rule-making authority, the commission has moved away from holding stations accountable for promises they made in obtaining their licenses. Promises don’t matter anymore. The commission also eliminated the requirement that a new owner hold a station for three years before selling it, a rule intended to bring stability to the industry. And, most important, the commission expanded the number of television stations an owner can hold from seven to twelve. That rule change opened the door for takeovers that have resulted in bigger companies owning more of the American broadcast pie. And paying more for it.

Did Channel 33 pull the plug on news too soon?

“Absolutely,” says Morning News critic Bark, who adds that the news was a ratings hit compared to Channel 33’s other shows. “The news never really had a good lead-in.”

News director Ruth Allen-Ollison believes the ratings would have come up had the station stuck with news for another two years. Others have suggested the station should have cut back the staff, or changed the time period, before doing away with the newscast.

Who really made the decision? Ray Schonbak continues to insist it was his alone, but it’s more likely he was pressured into eliminating the news department. Schonbak says that in March he gave Fox executives five options, including keeping the news as it was. He says that he was told those options were not acceptable. So he went back with different choices. And he says they told him, “Ray, you’re the manager. We will support whatever decision you have to make.”

In other words, “Ray, you take the heat.”

Did the decision come from Murdoch?

“I have to feel this type of decision would not be made without Mr. Murdoch’s being aware of it,” relates Schonbak. “He’s too much of a news animal. He had to.”

Rupert Murdoch would not return my calls. Finally, I told his secretary I wanted to know what role Murdoch played in cutting the news in Dallas. She said he figured that’s what I wanted to ask and directed me to Fox Television Stations chief Derk Zimmerman, who said lopping off the news was Schon-bak’s idea. “Ray made an awfully compelling case that they couldn’t afford to continue it without KRLD radio.”

But Zimmerman says Murdoch “obviously” was made aware of the decision.

I really don’t know Murdoch’s role in the death of the 7PM News. It may have been his idea. It may not. But he was aware of the decision. And more than that, he created the conditions that allowed or forced executives to cut the news. He was responsible, and he allowed it to happen. So Dallas has one less voice for news.

Tony deHaro, who built the news department, should have the last word: “When elephants fight, ants get trampled.”

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