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REWRITING THE RULES: AN ESSAY

So Now What's on Los Angeles TV?

A lack of creative programming has always plagued local media. And that probably won't change soon.

June 01, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

My hometown growing up in the 1960s was Boss Angeles. At least, that was what the babbling Boss jocks I listened to on the radio told me on Boss weekends listening to their Boss 30 lineup of songs.

Local televised entertainment meant Chuck Jones the Magic Man pouring milk from a seemingly empty pitcher, dance show sensation Lloyd Thaxton lip-syncing, acerbic talk show host Joe Pyne advising people to "go gargle with razor blades" and announcer Dick Lane shouting "Whoa Nellie!" when wrestler Bobo Brazil knocked an opponent out cold at the Olympic Auditorium with his signature "coco butt."

In a city as vast as Los Angeles, these passed for shared cultural experiences. You were loyal to a radio station like a favorite sports team -- KHJ, KRLA or KFWB for top-40 radio -- except when tuning in KFI to hear Vin Sculley from Dodger Stadium. Later you might align with one of the rebellious FM stations such as KPPC.

The noise came through black-and-white Zeniths or car speakers from Earl "Madman" Muntz. The toughest challenge was trying to escape Ralph Williams pitching unbeatable offers from his Ventura Boulevard Ford dealership. You might not have known who painted "Starry Night," but you sure knew that Earl Scheib would paint any car, any color, for $29.95.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Car dealer -- The first name of late Los Angeles car dealer and broadcaster Earle C. Anthony was misspelled as Earl in an article in Sunday's Business section.

These thoughts come to mind with the Federal Communications Commission set this week to loosen rules that would let big media conglomerates become even bigger. Cassandras warn that this will mean fewer TV and radio choices for consumers in cities such as Los Angeles, because big companies will be allowed to swallow even more little ones.

Yet as someone who has lived here for most of his 48 years, I don't believe that choice is the relevant issue. There are plenty of choices on the dial -- by many measures, more than ever, despite all the corporate consolidation.

The West San Fernando Valley neighborhood of my youth had seven VHF channels over the air, where I'd tune into everything from "Bonanza" to "Twilight Zone." Now, in the same area, you can get seven NASCAR channels alone, each showing a different driver's view in a Winston Cup race.

In all, cable subscribers in my old neighborhood are offered 98 stations today as a basic package and can spring for nearly 400 more TV, video, music and radio channels, many of them pay-per-view. If you spent just two minutes on each channel, it would take almost 17 hours to make it all the way through.

But who can watch it all? And even more to the point: Who would want to?

The real issue isn't too little choice, but too little innovation. And on this score, federal regulators are in no position to help. Los Angeles has never had broadcast and cable outlets as creative and alive as the city they've served.

Except for an occasional oasis -- some early 1970s FM radio, local TV news in the pre-happy-talk days and what is arguably a vibrant talk-show circuit on radio today -- L.A. always has been a surprisingly desolate media landscape considering that Southern California is to American entertainment culture what Olduvai Gorge is to early man.

What was the last great innovation on local TV? Los Angeles pioneered news helicopters. They are great for brush fires and earthquakes but, regrettably, also give us tonight's live car chase.

The less-choice-for-consumers argument nostalgically suggests that there was a time in Los Angeles when TV and radio was a mom-and-pop business. It wasn't.

Stations were owned by rich individuals -- actor Gene Autry, car dealer Earl C. Anthony and broadcasting tycoon John Kluge -- or major corporations, many already in the media industry. This newspaper helped start Channel 11 with CBS, and owned the station outright for 13 years. That explains its KTTV call letters, which stood for Times TV. KCOP's call letters are similarly rooted in past ownership by the Copley newspaper family. (As part of its vote this week, the FCC is expected to allow newspapers and TV stations to be owned by the same company again, a matter pushed aggressively by The Times' owner, Chicago-based Tribune Co.)

Meanwhile, the former KHJ Channel 9 (now KCAL), owned during the 1960s by a unit of General Tire & Rubber, for years fended off efforts to have its broadcast license pulled. Critics complained that it offered little more than reruns and commercials. You could watch the 1951 film "Jim Thorpe All American" every night and twice on Sundays on "Million Dollar Movie."

Innovative efforts in Los Angeles were often killed by special interests. A 1964 launch of a primitive form of pay television by former NBC chief Sylvester "Pat" Weaver ran head-on into a sham ballot initiative to "save free TV" backed by threatened theater owners. A lot of what the service offered was high-brow programming, but it also included Dodger games. (On regular TV in those days, the only regular-season games broadcast were the ones played against the San Francisco Giants in Candlestick Park.)

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