Effective May 24, 1973, Carl Rochelle (who would later find national prominence as an anchor and reporter for CNN) resigned as anchor of KMSP-TV Channel 9's Eyewitness News program after two and a half years on the job. The reason?
“I am tired of being number three in the market,” he bluntly told the Minneapolis Star . “I just don't want to continue in that manner. I want opportunity for advancement.”
Rochelle's frank and brutal comments weren't unfounded. In the ten p.m. news competition in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul , Channels 4 and 5, the CBS and NBC affiliates respectively, averaged 250-275,000 households per night. ABC affiliated Channel 9 was lucky to draw 70,000 households to its ten o'clock news. Often the numbers were closer to 50,000 households. ABC was historically the third-place network but they were growing; and they were relying more and more on the success of their local stations to build on their own success as a respected, competitive network. Channel 9 did frequently beat out the newscasts on the other channels at six p.m., but that was because they were running Truth or Consequences instead of news at that time.
Over the years, a lot of big names and big ideas came and went at Channel 9. Its very first newscaster in 1955 was none other than Harry Reasoner, later of 60 Minutes and ABC News fame, when the station was a Du Mont network affiliate known as KEYD-TV. Later on, Channel 9 anchors included KSTP veteran Bill Ingram, newspaper man George Grim, radio talk host Bob Allard, Bill Fahan and Jim Steer among others. In 1969, struggling KMSP was the first Twin Cities station to hire TV news consultant Al Primo to reformat its news programs from a strict reading of news, weather and sports by three anchormen to a more colorful, entertainment-orientated program with features, light stories and banter between the anchors and reporters. Thus began Channel 9's Eyewitness News. Primo's formula, used by virtually every television newscast in the country to this day was revolutionary; but not revolutionary enough to entice Twin Cities viewers away from their old habits.
KMSP personality Al Tighe served as interim anchor for Eyewitness News until a replacement could be found. Behind the scenes, the station took the opportunity to try and solve the problems they had in attracting viewers to its newscasts. After months of extensive research on what attracts viewers to one particular program over another, it was found that great personalities are the key. First place WCCO-TV Channel 4 had long-time favorite Dave Moore at the helm. KSTP-TV Channel 5 had in recent years installed a team of youthful, good-looking anchors and reporters. Channel 9 screened over 200 audition tapes from around the country in search of one great personality and wound up settling on two: Ben Boyett and Phil Bremen.
The station invested in new equipment, designed and built a new set and in October of 1973, Newsnine with Boyett and Bremen , billed as “the Bright New News Guys on Nine,” was launched. With it came the biggest promotional blitz in the station's history.
The Bright New
News Guys on Nine
“This is KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul, your Newsnine station,” a staff announcer would intone before the start of every program, entertainment as well as news. The word “newsnine” in lower-case letters appeared with every station identification. The youthful, good-looking Boyett and Bremen appeared in promotional spots on the station, newspaper ads, radio commercials and on billboards. Humor was used to show what great personalities these bright new news guys were, including one memorable spot parodying the opening sequence of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a comedy that happened to be about a (fictional) low-rated television news operation in Minneapolis . Boyett and Bremen “just might make it after all,” singer Mary Macgregor belted out in the parody tune as the guys tossed up their hats in the middle of Nicollet Mall just like the sitcom star.
In addition to Boyett and Bremen reading the news, sportscaster Tony Parker, who had been with the station since it went on the air in the fifties, remained as the one holdover from the old news show, and former KSTP Radio disc jockey Ernie Martz was hired to forecast the weather.
and David Letterman with the Weather
Interestingly, David Letterman almost became the bright new weather guy on Newsnine. Letterman, who worked as a weatherman in Indianapolis in the mid-seventies, has mentioned in interviews with local media that he came close to moving to the Twin Cities. He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1997 that he was offered the job with Channel 9 and almost took it, even though the pay was no better than what he was getting in Indianapolis . But on his way back to the airport, "I saw these big fences down the median of the highway. I asked the driver what they were, and he said it was for the snow. I decided then that I'm not doing that. It just wasn't worth it to be that uncomfortable for the same amount of money."
Barry ZeVan the "peek-a-boo weatherman" would have been his competition over at Channel 5. Letterman had a somewhat different story when ZeVan interviewed him years later." David said, "You know, you're really responsible for where I am. I came up to audition to do the weather on Channel 9, on KMSP…I watched you the first night and I didn''t want to compete with you,'" ZeVan related to the Star Tribune in 1993.
However, Ben Boyett himself recalls the Letterman connection a bit differently. In an email, he tells us, "There is one bit of correction I would like to convey, merely because it makes a better story concerning the possibility of David Letterman becoming the newsnine weather personality.
"What actually happened was this: Phil Bremen knew Letterman from their working together on weekends in Indianapolis. After we tried and failed to land a suitable weatherman, Phil called Dave and convinced him to fly up to the Twin Cities on a Saturday afternoon to try-out for the job. Dave flew in, auditioned (he was great!), interviewed with Don Swartz and flew out all within a matter of about three hours. Therefore, there was no overnight stay when he could have watched Barry Zevan. Even so, I doubt that would have been too foreboding for Dave.
"But, the part that makes the story even better is a conversation Phil, Dave and I had. Dave apparently came to town with his mind made up not to take the job, just to placate Phil. Dave told us that he had saved-up the princely sum of $5000 and planned to drive out to Los Angeles to see if he could make it in the stand-up comedy business. I told him that if he did that, not only would it be a waste of time, but a waste of a great opportunity. I predicted, 'you might never do weather on television again.' And, sure enough, I was right. He has not done television weather since."
‘I saw you on TV for VD'
Like other struggling ABC affiliates at the time, Channel 9 relied on sensationalistic features to attract viewers to its news shows, including a week-long series on the Devil for the February sweeps in 1974 as “The Exorcist” was raking in millions at the box office, and in time for the May sweeps, a week-long series on that dreaded sexually-transmitted plague everyone talked about in the 1970s, venereal disease--VD. The VD report was hyped a week in advance and ended up landing the station in some hot water.
A promotional ad that ran on the station during the week of the series featured footage young people out and about in Minneapolis on a nice spring day in 1974 as a voice-over warned, “Someone you love may have VD.” The commercial seemed to imply that the young people shown had VD themselves and two women who involuntarily appeared in the spot ended up suing the station separately for hurting their reputations by associating them with venereal disease.
One woman in her early twenties who was shown in the ad innocently riding her bike sued for $200,000, claiming the camera zoomed in and showed a “clearly recognizable” and “blatant” closeup of her face, according to news reports from the time of the suit. The suit alleged it conveyed the “clear, explicit, yet totally false implication” that she had venereal disease or was associated with it in some way. The suit further contended that the broadcast caused her to suffer “extreme humiliation and embarrassment,” and asked for $100,000 for that “physical and emotional anguish” and another $100,000 in punitive damages.
A second woman, who was a teenager walking with her boyfriend when she was filmed by the Channel 9 crew, happened to be introducing the boyfriend to her father when the footage of her and her boyfriend and the VD message came on the TV. Moments later, an acquaintance from school called and said “Ha, ha. I saw you on TV for VD.” In a complaint filed in district court, the woman claimed that due to the station's “wanton misconduct,” she was harassed in school to the point of having to change schools and was forced to live in a foster home because her outraged and rather unforgiving father threw her out of the house and refused to talk to her for two years. The complaint alleged that she was “deprived of her father's love and affection” in addition to having to hide from her friends. Her suit topped the previous one, asking for $250,000.
Mickey Mouse News
In spite of “bright new news guys,” intense promotion and titillating special reports, Channel 9 still found it difficult to be an aggressive competitor in the nightly news race. While they hired first-rate on-air talent, the actual news staff and budget was far below what was maintained by Channels 4 and 5. The ownership was notorious for its reluctance to spend money on the operation, with the seeming contention that winning the race was simply a matter of style over substance. Minnesotans as television viewers tended to be hard-wired to not break from old habits to be sure, but the station also could not shake its reputation for having a cheap product. Of those who did watch Channel 9, some were there just to see the unintentionally entertaining flubs that were more frequent than they should have been for a major market network affiliate.
Meanwhile over at KSTP-TV Channel 5, they were making some of their own changes, not so much in response to Channel 9, but to catch up with first-place Channel 4. They snatched up the name recently discarded by Channel 9, Eyewitness News, and hired their own bright new news guy, Ron Magers. KSTP and WCCO duked it out for viewers, with KSTP eventually overtaking WCCO in the ratings battle. KMSP, in the meantime, barely budged.
The Newsnine program was fine-tuned with the addition of new features and better presentation. Boyish-looking Phil Bremen grew a mustache for a more mature appearance and the station continued to wave its arms, jump up and down and let people know, hey, we're here. Ads for the news shows tried to claim that “lots of people” are watching Newsnine, without any solid numbers, in an attempt to convince the masses inclined to go with the crowd. Tell them it's so, and they'll think its so and soon lots of people really will be watching, the theory went.
Finally, in the summer of 1975, after the May sweeps still found Channel 9 in the also-ran position at ten p.m., Ben Boyett was let go of. Phil Bremen remained as the sole anchor until a replacement for him could be found. Upon dismissal, Boyett told all and didn't hold back to Minneapolis Tribune reporter Irv Letofsky. He charged that the station's low news budget and serious deficiency in equipment made it impossible to compete. He claimed that the station used cheap radio scanners “like the kind you can buy at the Radio Shack for a hobby” and that competing with WCCO and KSTP was “like putting Ron Lyle in the ring with Muhammed Ali.”
“They started us with a comedy ad campaign as the best comedians in town,” Boyett told the Tribune . “They never said anything about news.”
The indignant newsman pointed to a promotion that consisted of a line drawing of him and Bremen for children to color with crayons and send to the station for prizes of record albums, books and games. Some of the best were posted in the newsroom. He pointed out that reruns of the Mickey Mouse Club on independent station WTCN-TV Channel 11 were drawing better ratings than the five p.m. edition of Newsnine and that the attitude of people in the newsroom was such that they'd run the audio of Mickey Mouse along with the video of Channel 9 news on the newsroom monitor as a joke. General manager Donald Swartz had no comment on Boyett's charges.
After Bremen was dismissed in August, reporter and weekend anchor Steve Doyle filled in as the interim anchor until a new anchor could be found, with Doyle splitting the weekend anchor duties with fellow reporter Julie Eckhert. Ben Boyett, after doing news in other cities and starting his own music and video production company, eventually landed at KNBN-TV in Rapid City , SD as an anchor and executive producer for news. Phil Bremen went on to become an NBC News correspondent for eight years, worked as the press secretary for Governor Frank O'Bannon of Indiana , and today is a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Muncie , Indiana .
Keep On Watchin'…please?
Hoping that new faces and an overall facelift would be the ticket to success for Channel 9, Don Harrison was introduced to Newsnine viewers in September of 1975 bringing a warmer and more mature presence to the program. He was joined a few months later by a woman co-anchor, the perky Cathie Mann. Rounding out the anchor team, sportscaster George McKenzie and Dave McLaughlin, who was not just a weatherman, but a meteorologist. A jazzed-up rendition of “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams was used as the opening theme.
The early-evening newscast was moved from five to six p.m., taking it out of competition with the Mickey Mouse Club but putting it up against the well-established news programs on Channels 4 and 5. The station continued to push the Newsnine brand in almost every promotion and introduced a new slogan, “Keep On Watchin',” playing on the popular seventies catch phrase “keep on truckin'.”
Former sportscaster and personality Tony Parker, who literally signed the station on the air in 1955 and worked with its original anchor Harry Reasoner, resigned after 20 years of service, while announcer-weatherman Ernie Martz stayed on as a staff announcer.
But with all the changes and supposed improvements, “the ingredients remain the same, which means that the local news reporting is still abysmal,” said Bob Lundegaard of the Minneapolis Tribune.
The flubs didn't go away either. In reference to the March 31, 1976 Newsnine broadcast, Lundegaard reported, “Thursday's show was one of those nights that every newsman dreads. The wrong film was shown in one segment, juxtaposing a legislative committee meeting with a story about racial problems at a suburban school. Then Ms. Mann fluffed two straight stories. Finally, Harrison 's teaser lines before a commercial were drowned out by music.”
The Tribune reporter went on to quote KMSP general manager Donald Swartz saying, “I'm not looking for miracles…We want to be respectable. The demand to be number one ruins the news business. If you're looking to make money, you can do it with a good number three. At this stage, number one isn't that important. Audience acceptance is.”
Still The One!
By the 1976-77 television season, traditionally third-place ABC was red hot. It was the home of the Fonz on Happy Days, who had toppled Archie Bunker as America 's favorite sitcom character. It was also the home of Kotter, Charlie's Angels, Donny and Marie Osmond, Starsky and Hutch, Barney Miller, Monday Night Football and the Fonz's favorite chicks, Laverne and Shirley.
Their news operation was plagued with the same kinds of problems and public perception as KMSP's was locally but ABC was changing that with the hiring of ABC Sports genius Roone Arledge to head up the news division and the luring of Barbara Walters away from NBC with a multi-million dollar contract.
In 1977, as the new number one network in prime time, ABC introduced a new theme, Still The One, with a well-remembered commercial that featured clips from old ABC shows, followed by energetic Americans of all stripes making the “number 1” gesture with their index finger while a catchy rendition of the classic Orleans hit played.
We're Still the One
You can turn to with cheer
Still the One
And we'll always be here
You're still having fun
Cause we're Still the One!
With the newfound prestige, ABC began to strengthen its affiliate lineup by successfully getting CBS and NBC affiliates to switch to ABC in markets where the network only had a low-power UHF station or no affiliate at all. They also began to take a long, hard look at stations that remained in last place in the market in spite of the network's success – like the one in Minneapolis .
While local news shows usually benefit tremendously from a strong prime-time lead-in, the numbers were showing that while KMSP was enjoying its strongest ratings in its history thanks to ABC's programming, a stunning two-thirds to three-quarters of its audience disappeared as ten o'clock rolled around, with much of the audience going to KSTP-TV. Channel 5's Eyewitness News was number one at ten, in spite of poor prime-time ratings from third-place NBC. Channel 9's news, meanwhile, was often coming in fourth, behind Mary Tyler Moore reruns on WTCN-TV Channel 11. ABC was getting impatient with its situation in the Twin Cities and so were Stanley E. and Stanley S. Hubbard of the KSTP empire.
In December 1977 it was reported that an ABC official warned Donald Swartz that the network was shopping his competitors for a new affiliate, and that he'd better do something about his situation. Independent WTCN, which had been the ABC affiliate until KMSP snatched it away from them in 1961, was considered a possible contender but it seemed highly unlikely that WCCO or KSTP would drop networks they had been wedded to since the Golden Age of Radio. And even WTCN was one of the most successful independent operations in the country, as part of the Metromedia chain of mostly non-network stations.
Still, Swartz took the warning serious enough to agree to budget a little more money into the news operation. In the spring of 1978, the programs got a makeover with a new look and a new name, Newswatch. Don Harrison remained as the lead anchor, and the station introduced a new sports guy, Dave Sheehan, an entertainingly cocky, smart aleck sports commentator familiar to Twin Citians as host of the infamous Jock Talk on WWTC Radio in the early seventies. He was nicknamed “the Mouth,” and he would refer to sports fans as “athletic supporters” among other things. Channel 9 continued to ride the coattails of the first-place network by incorporating the ABC logo into its own logo and having announcers and news reporters use the tag “ABC-9.”
The new look was to debut on the night of ABC's telecast of the Academy Awards with the hopes of bringing in a large lead-in audience. But the awards ceremony ended up going way overtime and the premiere of Newswatch with Don Harrison and introducing Dave Sheehan didn't happen until well after midnight. Most of the potential audience had long since gone to bed.
Meanwhile, problems continued to mount in the newsroom with abrupt resignations and complaints of a shoestring budget and stifling edicts from management. News director Miles Resnick, who tried to bring enthusiasm and a new optimism to the operation only to be hampered in his efforts, resigned after a little over a year. He was replaced by George Noory, who stayed less than a year.
John Carman of the Minneapolis Star cited several examples of the station's “embarrassing news failures” and “penny-pinching attitude toward news.” It was the only local network affiliate that didn't send a news crew to Cuba with a Minnesota trade delegation, or to Washington when the late Senator Hubert Humphrey's body was lying in state, or to Florida when Mrs. Muriel Humphrey accepted appointment to her husband's Senate seat. It did send a reporter to California to cover a tour by Minnesota power-line protesters, but only because the developers of the controversial power line picked up the tab, raising major ethical questions.
The station neglected to cover the arrival of state troopers to an earlier power-line protest in Pope County , Minnesota , relying instead on an ABC crew there to cover it. The ABC crew ended up taking their film to Chicago , however, because a KMSP film processor was malfunctioning.
Meteorologist Dave McLaughlin left for WNHC-TV in New Haven , Connecticut in June 1978. Echoing what Carl Rochelle had said five years earlier, he told the Minneapolis Star , “Quite frankly, I'm looking to get with a station that's in the news-ratings battle,” New Haven was a smaller market but the station there offered him a fifty percent pay increase over Channel 9 and a profit-sharing plan.
The station saw a potential advantage in the departure of McLaughlin. Barry ZeVan, the popular weatherman at Channel 5 who had left a few years back for greener pastures elsewhere, wanted to return to the Twin Cities. He was negotiating with Channel 9, which was about to offer him more money than they were paying anchorman Don Harrison. But then the other shoe fell.
Operation Big Switch
On August 29, 1978, just before the start of the new fall season, it was announced that KSTP-TV Channel 5 would become an ABC affiliate the following March, ending the network's eighteen-year relationship with KMSP as well as KSTP's 50-year association in radio and television with the National Broadcasting Company.
“We want to go into the 1980s in a leadership position with a network which we think has the management, team and depth to be the best. That's ABC. We're just absolutely thrilled,” Stanley S. Hubbard of KSTP said at the time.
It was ABC's biggest coup and the announcement was big news in the industry, written about in Newsweek, TV Guide, Business Week, even the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, along with the trade publications. KMSP manager Donald Swartz, for his part, claimed to be blindsided.
“I had no idea it was coming,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “The network told me about eight months ago it was interested in getting other stations, but that's all I knew about it.” As it turned out, the network made an offer to KSTP as early as the spring of 1977 and had also been in contact with WTCN and WCCO.
KMSP held out hope they would get NBC and with it the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to follow the ten o'clock news, if not the best prime time lineup. But NBC, eager to show the industry that they didn't need a mere ABC reject, struck a deal to affiliate with WTCN-TV Channel 11. Dumped by ABC and snubbed by NBC, Channel 9 would become the new independent station in town. As an independent, there would no longer be the need to invest so much money in a competitive news operation. No more nagging from the network. Consequently, the deal to bring Barry ZeVan back to the Twin Cities was off.
While the switch wouldn't take place for another six months, the station wasted no time in severing ties. The ABC logo was blotted out in at least one on-air promo, leaving an obvious blank circle next to the number nine. Announcers and reporters stopped saying “ABC-9” and beginning in January 1979, ABC's Wednesday night family show Eight Is Enough was dropped (only to be promptly picked up by the still NBC-affiliated Channel 5) as well as ABC's late-night programming of movies and prime time reruns (which Channel 5 wasn't willing to drop Johnny Carson in favor of any sooner than it had to). Adding to viewer confusion, Channel 9 filled the post-ten p.m. void with the CBS Late Movie, which wasn't being carried by WCCO. The station also started blacking out the network's prime time news briefs for local news updates. Essentially, it was Channel 9's way of “giving the finger” to the network it wasn't good enough for.
With KMSP's pending status as an independent station and the downsizing of the news operation, staffers began turning in their resignations. Anchorman Don Harrison, who stayed with the station through thick and thin, departed for Florida . A few years later he turned up on the fledgling CNN Headline News as one of the more popular and recognizable anchors, even reappearing on Channel 9 when they carried Headline News in the morning. Sadly, after a long bout with cancer, Don Harrison died in 1998 at the age of 61.
Co-anchor Cicely Hand, who had just started with the station a few months earlier, left Channel 9 along with the network, saying she “didn't want to be part of an independent team.” Steve Doyle stuck around for a while longer, until he was offered a job hosting the local edition of PM Magazine on WCCO-TV beginning in the fall of 1979. While anchors, reporters, producers and photographers left en masse, sportscaster Dave Sheehan stayed on board. As an independent station there would be expanded sports coverage and Sheehan looked forward to the challenge.
On its final night as an ABC affiliate, Channel 9 pre-empted the network's prime time programming after the Osmond Family Hour to showcase its new weeknight line-up, consisting of Gunsmoke reruns, the Dinah Shore Show, a new 9:30 news program called Prime Time News and reruns of Maude at ten p.m. It ran the ABC News Weekend Report with Tom Jarriel at 1 a.m. on March 5, 1979, just before sign-off. A few hours later, Good Morning America appeared on Channel 5 while Channel 9 filled the void with Jonny Quest and other cartoons.
“As of March 5, Channel 9 takes orders from nobody – except our viewers,” an ad declared. “No more edicts from New York on what programs you have to watch. No more network moguls deciding your taste. From now on, Channel 9 is your station.” KMSP became “Receptive Channel 9,” a station for the people, by the people. Viewers were encouraged to comment and make suggestions on the programming. In station identifications the number nine was topped with cartoon antennas and a little cord behind it.
As an independent, the schedule was heavy with reruns, movies and first-run syndicated programming, a formula that had proven highly successful for former independent station WTCN-TV Channel 11 and similar stations around the country. KMSP happily bowed out of the cut-throat six-and-ten news competition with a game show at six, an old sitcom at ten and Prime Time News at 9:30 with new anchorman Tony Burden, along with Ernie Martz, the weatherman from the Boyett & Bremen days resuming his old job and sportscaster Dave Sheehan as one of the few holdovers from the old news show. Burden also hosted a live daytime news-talk show with Bev Stoddard called Noon On Nine .
The station acquired broadcast rights to high school basketball, Minnesota North Stars Hockey and Minnesota Twins Baseball. While dingbats regarded as industry “experts” made dire predictions about the fate of Channel 9, suggesting that it would be sold off at a fire sale price or simply go dark, the combination of sports, movies and old favorites such as Gunsmoke helped the station rebound surprisingly well in its post-network era. While KSTP benefited immediately with ABC, it was WTCN that sank like a stone, bogged down by a poorly managed, third-place NBC.
Eventually, KMSP renewed its commitment to news. In 1981, Prime Time News was expanded to an hour, from 9-10 p.m., with national Independent Network News in the first half and local news in the second. The staff and budget was increased, and by the end of the decade, the news program gained viewers, respectability and awards. Over time, as Tony Burden and Dave Sheehan moved on, anchors included Rod Grams, who would later become a US congressman and Senator, Beth Ruyak, Gary Rebstock, Heather Harden, Lori Aoki, Robyne Robinson and Jeff Passolt.
As it turned out, ABC inadvertently did them a favor. Channel 9 became far more successful as an independent than it ever was as a network affiliate, being seen on cable systems in other states, thus expanding its audience reach in a way that it couldn't as a network affiliate, and by programming the kind of shows people want to see, many of which rivaled network programming on the other channels. It would eventually hold the distinction of being the number one independent station in the country. KMSP affiliated briefly with the fledgling Fox Television Network in 1986, but resumed status as an independent in 1988, of which it remained until 1995 when it became an affiliate of UPN, the United Paramount Network.
The affiliation switched back to Fox when the company purchased KMSP in 2002. Ironically, the previous ownership, United Television, Inc., was once a subsidiary of the old 20 th Century-Fox Film Corporation, before Rupert Murdoch built it into a media empire. With Fox's deep pockets for a top-notch news operation along with popular programming such as the Simpsons and American Idol, in the ultimate revenge, Fox 9 News at 9 with Robyne Robinson and Jeff Passolt often drew better ratings than the news programs on the still ABC affiliated KSTP-TV. Robyne Robinson has moved on, but Fox 9 News continues to be highly successful