Monday, June 13, 2005

The Rise and Fall of the Independent Televison Station

Those Americans who are older than me or at most fifteen years younger than me may well remember independent television stations. For those of you who are not Americans or are not old enough to remember them, an independent station was one that was not affiliated with any network (such as NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, the WB, or UPN). Independent stations went back to the very beginnings of regular television broadcasts in the late Forties. WOR (now WWOR), Channel 9, was the first indpendent station to open in New York City. It started broadcasting all the way back in 1949. The superstation WGN in Chicago began as an affiliate of both CBS and DuMont in 1949, although it became an independent by the mid-Fifties. There was a time in the early days of broadcasting when every television station in Los Angeles was an independent. All network broadcasts originated from the East Coast in the late Forties, and network feeds to the West Coast would not be established until 1951. Until that time, then, every TV station in Los Angeles was an independent. Here in Missouri we had two important independent stations. The oldest was KPLR in St. Louis, Channel 11, founded all the way back in 1959. The younger of the two was KMBA (renamed KSHB in 1977), Channel 41, founded in 1970.

The programming of independent stations tended to be diverse. A large bulk of their schedules would be occupied by network reruns, such as I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. I remember reruns of old network sitcoms filled the daytme schedules of both KPLR and KMBA. Between the two of them, they showed The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, The Monkees, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, and Newhart. On Sunday mornings for much of the Eighties, KMBA (by then renamed KSHB) was the station to watch. They showed reruns of The Wild Wild West, Maverick, and Star Trek. In the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, independent stations were generally the biggest buyers of reruns, often airing old series that the network affiliates would not. In fact, Star Trek, which had bombed in its first run on NBC, largely owes it success to airing on independent stations.

Not only were independent stations generally the biggest buyers of network reruns in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, but they were also the biggest buyers of shows in first run syndication. Without a network to provide independent stations with new series, they often turned to first run syndication to fill their schedules. Such first run syndicated series as Highway Patrol, The Adventures of Superman, Sea Hunt, Space: 1999, Star Trek: the Next Generation, and Hercules: the Legendary Journeys would be aired primarily on independent television stations throughout the United States. For most of its history, first run syndication tended to be a very odd mix and so too were the schedules of the independent stations that picked up these shows. Before the advent of UPN, independent stations were also most often the home of professional wrestling. Music shows in first run syndication such as Soul Train, Solid Gold, and Night Music were often aired on the independents. Animal documentary series, such as Wild Kingdom and The Wild, Wild World of Animals were often popular with the independent stations. In the days before Pokemon, anime (Japanese animation) largely aired on the independent stations around the nation. From the early days of Astro Boy and Gigantor in the Sixties to Robotech in the Eighties, it was the independent stations around the country that aired the bulk of anime on American television. Other sorts of animation would also find a home on American independent stations. The majority of Gerry Anderson's Marionation series (such as Thunderbirds) were often aired on the independents, as were such first run cartoon series as Hanna-Barbera's Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.

As hard as it may be to believe now, there were also times when independent stations would air shows from the networks. In the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, affiliates would sometimes elect not to show one of their network series for whatever reason. For instance, some NBC affiliates refused to show The Monkees becuase they objected to a show about long haired rock musicians. When a network affiliate refused to show a particular network series, that series would sometimes be picked up by an indpendent station. When Kansas City ABC affiliate KMBC failed to air The Brady Bunch in its first season (they showed movies on Friday evenings from 7:00 to 9:00, knocking out part of the network schedule), it was short lived indendent KCIT that picked up the show. They had earlier aired The Name of the Game when NBC affiliate WDAF refused to air that show.

Independent stations also filled their schedules with older movies. In the days before Turner Classic Movies, independent stations were often the place to see such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Bringing Up Baby. In fact, the independent stations may well be credited with the phenomenal popularity of the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life. When a clerical error resulted in that classic going into the public domain, many independent stations began airing it repeatedly over the holiday season, as they had to pay virtually nothing to do so! As a result, more and more people saw It's a Wonderful Life and it soon earned its reputation as one of the greatest films of all time. For many stations, movies often provided the bulk of their programming. I remember that KPLR showed a movie every week night at one time. For a long time they showed a Western every Saturday night. For many years in the Seventies, Sunday afternoon would see Tarzan movies and Abbot and Costello movies airing on Sunday afternoon.

This is not to say that independent stations did not have their share of original programming. Often they would produce their own children's shows, with a host who would show cartoons, interview people, perform skits, so on and forth. In its earlier days KMBA (now KSHB) aired 41 Treehouse Lane, hosted by "Uncle Ed (nee Ed Muscare)." Ed was also the host of KMBA's Creature Feature on which they showed old horror movies. There he went by the name "the Creeper." Alongside his cat Caffeine, Ed Muscare would also be a host of another of KMBA's (then KSHB) original shows, a late night show called All Night Live on weeknights during which they would show reruns of old sitcoms. Unfortunately, while many have fond memories of Ed Muscare as the host of various shows on Channel 41, he turned out to be a less than savoury character. Indeed, he turned out to be a monster worse than any from the Creature Feature. He would eventually be convicted in California of child molestation.

As stated earlier, independent stations existed from nearly the beginning of regular television broadcasts in the United States in the late Forties. This having been said, they would not become common until the Sixties and Seventies. One hurdle to the development of independent stations was the limited number of channels on VHF (channels 2 to 13). In 1952 the FCC developed a solution by permitting stations to broadcast on UHF (channels 14 to 83), greatly expanding the number of channels available. Unfortunately, it was not until 1962 that Congress passed legislation requiring all television sets to have tuners for both VHF and UHF. Regardless, numerous UHF stations opened in the Sixties and especially in the Seventies. Many of those stations would be independents.

Of course, while many independent stations opened during this era, their survival was not guaranteed. Most independent stations were at a severe disadvantage when it came to competing with the network affiliates. While network affiliates can depend on the networks to fill the majority of time slots on their schedules, independents would have to buy shows to accomplish the same thing. Independent stations would usually spend much more on programming than what network affiliates would. This situation was often complicated by the fact that the wealthier network affiliates could often get the more desirable programmes that the independent stations would undoubtably like to have. Competition from network affiliates also presented problems with regards to the independents getting advertising revenue. Advertisers tended to prefer the network affiliates with their large audiences as opposed to buying spots on independent stations with smaller audiences. Of course, attracting an audience could be a problem for independent stations in and of itself, particularly newer stations on UHF.

Independent stations broadcasting on UHF were at an even greater disadvantge than thier counterparts on VHF. When compared to VHF stations, UHF stations require more transmitter power to cover the same amount of area. As a result, television sets often got poor reception from UHF stations (I remember trying to tune in our ABC affiliate, KMIZ, channel 17, in the Seventies...). Naturally, problems with reception also created problems in getting advertisers, who naturally did not want to advertise on TV stations which viewers might not be able to pick up. In the Seventies and Eighties, many UHF stations simply closed their doors after a few years of struggling to make it. Eventually, such advancements as the MSDC klystron would solve the transmission problems of UHF stations, but for many years they were at a severe disadvange.

Of course, many of the problems experienced by independent stations on both VHF and UHF would be solved by the growth of cable in the Seventies. The variety of programming offered by the independents (the mixture of movies and reruns) often appealed to cable systems, especially those in rural markets. As a result many indpendents found their audience greatly increased by being added to varoius cable systems. Here in Randolph County, the cable system carried both KPLR out of St. Louis and KSHB out of Kansas City. Eventually, the addition of independent stations to cable systems would result in the rise of the superstation. Quite simply a superstation is a broadcast station that is widely shown on cable systems nationwide. The term originated with Ted Turner's WTBS. Throughout the Seventies, Ted Turner campaigned to get the station added to cable systems. By the end of the Seventies, he started using the word "superstation" to describe WTBS, not long after it was first picked up by satellite. The word soon became applied to such similar statoins as WWOR in New York, KTLA in Los Angeles,a nd WGN in Chicago.

One would think that with cable and the rise of superstations, there would be more independent stations than ever before. Sadly, that is not the case. Of the 385 members of the Association of Indpendent Television Stations (founded in 1972), only 84 stations could be described as truly independent as of March 1995. What happened to America's independent stations? Quite simply, the rise of new networks. In 1986 Rupert Murdoch bought Metromedia (the remains of the old DuMont network) and founded the Fox Network. Many indpendent stations then became Fox affiliates. In the Nineties, Warner Brothers and the Tribune Company would become partners in launching the WB Television Network, often called "The WB" for short. The new network took to the air on January 11, 1995. In 1994 Chris Craft and Paramount Pictures joined forces to create a new network using their stations. The new network was named the United Paramount Network (UPN) . UPN started broadcasting within days of The WB, first hitting the air on January 16, 1995. As might be expected, many indpendent stations then became either affiliates of the WB or UPN.

Indeed, the list of indepedent stations which are now network affiliates is impressive. WWOR, the first independent station in New York City, would become the flagship station of UPN. WGN in Chicago would become affilited with the WB. Here in Missouri, KSHB in Kansas City became a Fox affiliate in 1986. By 1994 KSHB would become an NBC affiliate, the old NBC affiliate (WDAF) switching to Fox. As a side note, I think this cost KSHB dearly. As first an independent and then a Fox station, they could be found on cable systems throughotu Missouri. Once they became an NBC affiliate, cable systems starting dropping the station like a hot rock. Even KPLR in St. Louis, an independent since 1959, would become a network affilate. They joined the WB with that network's launch in 1995.

I have to say that I do miss the old independent stations of old. They often showed a greater variety of shows than most network affiliates do. I could watch old Tarzan movies on KPLR, The Wild Wild West on KSHB, and countless classic movies on both. Even with the advent of cable, it seems to me that in losing the independents we have seen a decrease in the diversity of programming that once existed on American television. Where are the locally produced children's shows? Horror movies hosted by humourously macabre characters? It seems to me that with the demise of the indpendent station, we have lost something that was very special.


Anonymous said...

Ah, Wait til your father gets home, I can still hear the theme song. I loved that show, and the neighbor who was so paranoid about the Commie invasion.

I'm afraid you're right, and that television was the beginning. With the demise of UPI as a news source, we're down to AP and Reuters, for the most part. ANd look at radio. They're all syndicated. We'll never have another Wolfman Jack who gains a wider audience by being at a station with a larger signal. And don't even get me started on the demise of the independent bookstores. If one more person tries to cram The Davinci Code down my throat, I swear I'll . . . see, you got me going.

Wonderful post.

Terence Towles Canote said...

It is sad. It seems that which each year the conglomerates devour more and more media outlets. Indpendent radio and TV stations are a rarity. It's not often one sees a mom and pop bookstore any more. And it's not just the media. I did an article on candy a while back and I was shocked to learn how many major players in that industry have been gobbled up by massive corporations... Really sad.