CHANNEL 2 was KNXT-TV when it first went on the air in 1947--the televised spawn of KNX radio. It was KNXT during Korea and the Eisenhower years and when both Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. were shot. KNXT covered the Watts riots, the campus uprisings, the Manson Family murders, the SLA shoot-out and the Iranian hostage crisis.
For years, the station was the home of "The Big News," where sportscaster Gil Stratton first called them as he saw them, Bill Keene punned the weather on camera instead of over the radio and former furniture salesman Jerry Dunphy coined the nonsensical but somehow comforting phrase, "From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California, a good evening."
These days, Stratton calls 'em and sees 'em over KNX radio. Keene now calls himself "Skinny" Keene and does commercials for the Nutrisystem diet plan while he delivers morning traffic reports over KNX. And years ago Dunphy moved over to KABC Channel 7.
They were the first to feel the effects of the Channel 2 metamorphosis. There would be many more.
After the 1984 Summer Olympics, by which time KNXT had changed its call letters to KCBS, most media critics consider that the news operation began to decline. Its once-proud heritage as the most-honored TV news operation in Southern California went the way of sensationalism, with such features as a leering series on sex for seniors.
At its nadir a year ago, the third-rated station (behind KABC and KNBC Channel 4) instituted its "news wheel" mix of headlines and features. This "Next Generation in Local News," as it was called, led to the departures of Frank Gardner, the general manager who sanctioned the experiment, and Neil Derrough, the CBS Televison Stations Division president who gave Gardner permission to try it. Erik Sorenson, news director under Gardner, quit.
Thus began the short tenure of Tom Van Amburg as general manager. Survivors still grouse about the seven months--from October of 1986 through April of 1987--that Van Amburg ran Channel 2.
As a major architect of rival KABC's "Eyewitness News" during the early 1980s, Van Amburg is still widely credited with raising the ratings by lowering Channel 7's standards. Under his aegis as KABC general manager, he emphasized pretty faces, titillation and as much flesh as the FCC would allow. Still, the team of Christine Lund, Jerry Dunphy, Tawny Little and Dr. George Fischbeck had already been a consistent winner in the ratings. When he came to KCBS, Van Amburg had already been dubbed a programming genius.
But not for long. Van Amburg's formula failed to stem the KCBS slide. Last April, CBS radio executive Robert Hyland III was told to go out to the Coast and turn the station around. The first thing he did was rehire Sorenson who, in turn, fired four of the station's then ranking producers.
Starting from scratch, the two of them vowed to resurrect the old Channel 2 News.
The local ratings for November, 1987, show KCBS pretty much where it was in November, 1986--third--with the exception of its 11 p.m. news, which tied NBC's for a second-place 7 rating in Arbitron. Overall, though, "we're still in third place," says KCBS spokeswoman Andi Sporkin.