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No Respect : For Channel 39, UHF Exile Has Meant Long, Hard Battle for Hearts and Minds of Viewers

September 16, 1988|KEVIN BRASS

SAN DIEGO — It has always been an ignominious existence for KCST-TV (Channel 39), which begins life anew on Friday as KNSD, "Bringing it straight to you."

This is a station that has never been able to get any respect.

In the '60s, the ABC television network shunned Channel 39 and its weak UHF signal, preferring to hook up with the Mexican-based XETV (Channel 6). It took a long, bitter court battle to force ABC to dump Channel 6 and latch on with with the best available American station, KCST.

When ABC became the hot network in the '70s, it quickly dumped KCST for KGTV (Channel 10), leaving the third-place network of the time, NBC, for KCST.

Third place, as in third of three, is a familiar position for Channel 39. It is the perennial loser of the local news sweepstakes, a key competition for local television stations.

"I remember my first day at the station," said Tom Mitchell, who joined the Channel 39 news department in 1976, eventually becoming the station's news director. "I went to a fire in Southeast San Diego, and a little kid came up to me. He wanted to know why the educational channel was covering a fire."

Station General Manager Neil Derrough calls the changes an "identity project." It's an attempt to put an end to the station's image problems. Not

only will there be new call letters for the station, there will be a new look for the news shows, new theme music and a new roster of locally produced shows. Derrough estimates more than $1 million has been spent to give the station a completely new look.

Of course, in typical Channel 39 fashion, there is a cloud hanging over these changes. Gillett Communications is negotiating to sell the station, and it could happen at any time. Such is life for staffers at 39.

But, from the perspective of the employees, at least there are positive things happening.

"This is the first time in my recollection that this TV station has made anywhere near the investment to make programs," said Broadcast Services Director Doug Dougherty, who joined the station in 1977.

A live half-hour show at 7:30 p.m., Friday, will kick off the station's new package.

The package includes a new monthly show featuring irreverent comedian Larry Himmel, wooed away from Channel 8, where he had hosted a nightly show until its cancellation a few months ago. The closest thing to a local television celebrity in San Diego, Himmel is the type of guy people talk about, even if it is not always to say nice things.

"The station didn't have any edges," said Derrough, who took over as general manager in January, when Gillett Communications purchased the station. "It was a very safe, conservative TV station. They didn't make a lot of mistakes, but they didn't do much that was memorable either."

Recent surveys said 40% of San Diegans had no opinion of the station, Derrough said. Not exactly inspiring news, but at least Channel 39 can start its new life as KNSD with a relatively clean slate.

Derrough would like people to completely forget Channel 39. Part of the new campaign is designed to get people to call the station "Cable 7." After years of attempting to get the cable companies to agree, almost every cable system in the county now carries the station as channel 7 on its dial.

Ever since it came on the air as KAAR in 1965, the UHF signal and the channel 39 designation have been giant albatrosses hanging around the station's neck. At first, it was a real problem, as many viewers could not easily find the UHF signal, due to inadequate television sets and antennae. Even as televisions improved, it was always an uphill battle to convince advertisers and audiences that it was a "real" station.

"It was said that 27,000 homes in the area can't get our signal, but a lot of people can't get channels 8 and 10 either," Bass Broadcasting President Mel Wheeler argued in a brochure in the early '70s. In 1967, Bass Broadcasting purchased KAAR, destroyed by a fire in 1966, restarting it as KCST in 1968.

When KCST first came on the air, it attempted to establish itself as the sports station, airing San Diego Rockets (basketball), San Diego Gulls (hockey) and minor league San Diego Padres (baseball) games, among others. They would cover any sport, from Little League to Chargers preseason football games.

The telecasts were rarely top quality, but they were definitely original and wild. Mike Smith, who worked for KCST sports from 1967-1981 when he was dumped during another station shake-up, remembers covering a San Diego State men's volleyball game when the opponents' bus broke down and the team was late. But they had to go on the air anyway.

"We kept it live and we had a half hour of interviews with volleyball players," Smith said with a groan.

The sports programming never attracted great ratings. There was always the problem of the UHF signal. "Everyone thought UHF was educational TV," Smith said.

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