THE VIDEO VETERAN
THE VIDEO VETERAN
continuing series spotlighting those individuals who prospered despite
overwhelming odds against them. They were the "Men Of
UHF." Some in front of the camera, such as Bob
whose enormously successful Polish variety hour made people notice
Chicago's first UHF station, WCIU-channel 26-
and some behind the scenes, like John
owner of the new station that was the original home of Soul Train, the
final home for Mulqueen's Kiddie-A-Go-Go, and the only place to watch
real bullfights from Spain; Men like Jerry
who made Pastor Owen Carr's vision of an all-Christian television
station a reality, and today is a national cable network, with WCFC-channel
38; Through some creative shuffling of a couple of Indiana licenses,
Eychaner found a new home, and top ratings when he
moved his WPWR channel 60 to channel 50,
proving over and again that UHF was no longer a marketing and broadcast
wasteland. Men like Red
Quinlan who made his mark early on with WBKB-
channel 4 and channel 7 and then launched Chicago's first commercially
successful UHF station WFLD.
The Video Veteran recently spoke with Ed Morris, Chairman Emeritus of the Columbia College television department. Ed was vice-president and general manager of WSNS-channel 44 from 1972 to 1983, the period from the darkest days of the station's history to it's surprising turn around as the broadcast home of Northern Indiana basketball, Chicago Bulls basketball, and Chicago White Sox baseball.. But while the days at channel 44 were looking brighter than they had ever been, the station's owners couldn't resist an offer from National Subscription Television to purchase 49% of the station and use it to air their ON-TV subscription programming. Since ON-TV would cover 23 hours of the day, the offer was irresistible. Unfortunately the station didn't bargain on being involved in a license challenge lawsuit that charged that the station was airing obscene and pornographic programming, no public affairs shows, or news programming. The suit lingered in the courts for years after the ON-TV service had shut-down and the station switched to Spanish language programming. At one point during the litigation, the station's license was revoked but that decision was later turned around.
But back in 1972, WSNS had only been on the air two years. Edwin Silverman of Essaness TV Associates had acquired the construction permit for the never built WOPT in 1963. He later partnered with Don Nathanson, president of North Advertising, and Irving Harris who ran Harriscope Inc. The partnership was known as Video 44 Inc. and April 5, 1970, WSNS finally hit the airwaves.
But here was a station unlike any before it. In an attempt to carve its own niche in the viewing public's eye and in typical Chicago UHF boldness, the station offered no announcers, performers, or programming...instead a alpha-numeric news ticker (similar to teletext reports you see on your local government cable channel today) appeared on the viewer's screen continuously throughout the day. And while it may have been a novel move, the idea didn't sell and the station struggled to stay on the air, run by a staff, many with no broadcasting experience, and no idea what they were doing. Not since TV's earliest days had viewers been subject to such on the air snafus as dead air for minutes at a time, commercials running upside down or backwards. The station was a mess.
By the end of the first year, it was clear that the alpha numeric display could not continue and the station slowly began to air additional programming, beginning with a bizarre program titled "Heart of The News." Viewers were shocked to find their local news reported by Linda Fuoco, dressed in a revealing negligee laying across a red satin sheet covered heart shaped bed. Desperate for programming, the station owners jumped at the chance to air the show. The program even became a subject of a TV Guide article in 1971.
When Ed Morris arrived, "Heart" was gone and the station was trying to re-invent itself as an all-talk station. Ed recalls those early days at WSNS...
Channel 44 was on the air in 1970 doing what you'd call alpha-numeric news, like a ticker... I think the idea the people who owned it had was to keep it going so they couldn't be accused of trafficking and eventually sell it. And somewhere along the line, the guy who was running the place, a fellow by the name of Yale Roe, persuaded them that they should do programming instead of just alpha numeric.
By the time of his arrival at WSNS in January of 1972, the station was airing no less than seventeen talk shows...
The only really good talk show they had on the air was Marty Faye who was doing interviews and doing jazz. And his producer was Kenny Ehrlich. And of course Kenny is famous for "Soundstage" and has also been producing the Grammy shows...
Kenny was sort of doubling. He was producing "The Marty Faye Show" and also working in the development department, at that point, at WTTW because I remember vividly when he asked me 'Should I take a job as director of development at WTTW or should I be a producer?' And I said 'Kenny nobody can tell you that but yourself. It's where your heart wants you to be.' So he elected to become producer and the rest is history.
Roe certainly must have had high hopes to program the station but unfortunately kept on hitting a brick wall as the station's owners (who with the passing of Edwin Silverman now included his two sons and one daughter) didn't want to spend any money. The station found itself the home of psychics ("Of Stars, Seers, & The Supernatural" later to be titled "News Of The Psychic World" to correspond with the station management's desire of being an "all news" station, with host Paul Miller, today known as Paula Miller); a program featuring psychic Irene Hughes; endless talk shows including two hosted at one time by Chicago legends Jim Conway and Sig Sakowicz; a program hosted by the late Clifford Royse (arguably one of the largest hosts, tipping the scales at 450 pounds!) on Sunday nights; "Racing News" with Bob Philbin; and religious programming. For "serious" news reports, viewers tuned into Linda Marshall (later to be involved with WCIU's Stock Market Observer), Mary Jane Odell, and Nancy Becker. Ed remembers channel 44's approach to news programming...
Bill Warrick from NBC was doing "Northern Indiana News." He'd go out and shoot stories in Gary and Hammond everyday, come back in, do reverse process film, and put together a fifteen-minute news show. The biggest effort for the least money I could ever think of....but that's the stuff that was on the air at the time.
The host of channel 44's "other" news program was Chuck Collins of "Underground News" who Morris remembers as being barely 21. Collins convinced Rich Melmon and Jerry Orsoff, who were opening their first restaurant, to sponsor the show...
I remember Rich and Jerry calling me up and saying can we have lunch and I went to lunch with them and they were worried about the program, about Chuck getting too far off the reservation. And I said 'Don't worry, Chuck's a nice guy and I'll talk to him and everything would be fine.' And they sponsored him for a long time.
Channel 44's early foray into sports programming was "Bob Luce Wrestling" hosted by producer and promoter Bob Luce, who with "Dick the Bruiser" were the underpinnings of the World Wrestling Federation that has in recent years grown to astronomical proportions and popularity. Sports would play an even bigger role in the station's programming over the next few years. One of it's first sportscasters was Al Lerner, who had originally been hired by the station as technical help. Eventually Tim Weigel would sit in the anchor's chair and toward the end of the show's run, hosted by Tribune sportswriter Rick Tally.
The station finally struck pay dirt when John Allen, then owner of The Chicago White Sox approached his friend Don Nathanson and asked if he'd like to do the White Sox...
We started out with [collegiate basketball] the year that Kent Bensen was the center on the Indiana basketball team and Indiana and Perdue were fighting it out for the championship...a guy down in Indianapolis called my program director whose name was Pete Strand and said how would you like to televise Indiana-Perdue basketball? And Pete came to me and I said 'for cris'sakes, take it!' So we put that one on and we started making some money
And then there was a crazy guy who was promotion director for Olympic Savings And Loan out in Berwyn named Fred Hubner. Hubner's idea is that he wanted to be a big entrepreneur so he had this bizarre conference with Arthur Wirtz and made a deal to broadcast Chicago Bulls basketball. So then we got professional but at the same time, the same year, we also made the deal for the White Sox. So all these things started happening at once but it helped us pick up our business.
Another way WSNS made money was by brokering air time to religious broadcasters such as Jimmy Swaggert, Rex Humbard, and Pat Robertson, hungry for airtime anywhere they could get it.
Before channel 38 went on the air, Pat Robertson and I did a lot of business together. We made a lot of money off "The 700 Club" and we even programmed around White Sox baseball. Once we got the White Sox, I went down to Virginia Beach and said to Robertson 'I can't give you the time I'm giving you anymore' and he said 'Well I want to stay on your station. Can you give me time after baseball?' And we were programming this guy at 11:30 at night. And he was paying us a lot of money for doing it. He continued to do it with us after 38 went on the air.
The White Sox remained at WSNS until the start of the ON-TV experiment in 1982. By this time they were being wooed by Fred Eychaner's Sportsvision subscription service starting up on channel 60.
With the take-over of ON-TV, Ed no longer had anything to do with programming the station even though he still held the title of vice-president and general manager. Those duties now went to Dave Gordon, who was now responsible for programming the subscription network's day. As part of the agreement, the Silverman family and Harriscope retained control of the station but ON-TV controlled the programming.
This arrangement would haunt the owners when the station's license was challenged. Still responsible for the station but without control of what airs, the owners found themselves in an awkward position. At the time there were no laws specifically addressing over the air subscription television. Lawyers for ON-TV argued that their programming was not available to the general public and therefore should not be governed by the same laws. Monroe Communications, a group of twelve businessmen, saw it differently, pointing out the red letter of the law, without regard as to how the shows were being transmitted. Since the FCC had approved the ON-TV experiment, Monroe challenged the station's justification for having a license stating it did not air any programming of its own. There was an hour public affairs program called "Dimensions" which continued to be produced during the only hour of the day that channel 44 did not put out a scrambled signal. The FCC said that it wasn't enough.
It was all terribly unfair to the men who owned the station.
Ed Morris began his Chicago television career as the head of development and public relations for WTTW-channel 11 in 1958. Six weeks after being hired he was a producer. Three months after he took on the additional responsibilities as director of programming when the last person who held the position moved to the NAB in Washington. From 1965 to the time he left for Time-Life in 1970, he was essentially station manager...
One of the reasons I left was because I couldn't get the executive director of the Chicago Educational Television Association to give me the title. I was running the place but I wasn't allowed to get the title and I got annoyed so I left.
In 1965, Ed was also primarily responsible for raising most of the money to build the core building of the station's broadcast center at 5400 S. St. Louis avenue known today as The Edward L. Ryerson Center.
I went to Bob Lemon and said 'Bob, we're trying to build a new station here and if I'm going to get any money, I'm going to have to get a good lift from the commercial broadcasters in this town.' And he said 'Let me see what I can do,' and he went to corporate NBC and NBC corporate gave him $500,000. Then CBS kicked in with $250,000, and WGN gave us $250,000 and we were well on our way. They were very supportive.
Though Morris did not actually design the new complex, he was involved right from the beginning and once the complex was ready to move into, hired all the staff and most of the department heads.
Also in 1965, the Chicago Educational Television Association signed on a second station, UHF WXXW, acquired from Westinghouse for a construction permit for their never built WIND-TV. The station premiered in late '65 programmed with strictly educational programming.
Somebody asked Mr. Ryerson if WTTW wanted it so we acquired it because we were doing an awful lot of educational programming and needed it. But as it turned out, that was not the way it went. Most educational programming in those days was just a talking head and a blackboard. It was terrible, really dreadful. I didn't have anything to do with 'XXW at all.
Ed would get another chance at running channel 20 ten years later when Oscar Shabbat, who had purchased the long dark station from WTTW, approached him and offered the station manager job at the new WYCC. Knowing he would be nothing more than a figurehead, Morris declined the offer and stayed at WSNS for eleven years. In 1972, there was much work to be done..
In the first place I knew I had to get rid of all those talk shows. I knew they weren't going to make any money with that. And I was trying to get the owners to give us money and we had to scramble for programming. The first big deal we made was a trade off deal with a company whose name I don't even remember any more but we made a trade out and we got "I Spy." And "I Spy" was our first really good series that we put on the air. And then we got into the sports business big time. The sports business is what enabled us to turn the station around. It took us about three years to turn the place around.
But turn around it did. In 1972 Ed Morris walked into a station barely able to stay on the air and making no money. And within a few years turned the station into a money-making home of Chicago sports fans. One wonders had the decision been made not to go with ON-TV, would WSNS have become another powerhouse independent? We'll never know. But given Morris's track record, it's very likely that channel 44 would have enjoyed a long and prosperous life.
Edward L. Morris, Professor Emeritus, Management and Television, Columbia College; B.A., University of Louisville; Television Department Chairman 1984-1998; former president, Chicago chapter, National Academy of Television Arts And Sciences; creator and producer of "Book Beat" (with host Robert Cromie); winner, George Foster Peabody Award for "Book Beat" and "Search For The Nile" and most certainly, one of the Men Of UHF
All content copyright 2000 Steve Jajkowski