WFLD aimed for ‘something more worthwhile’ 50 years ago

Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1966

Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1966

Fifty years ago today — on January 4, 1966 — Chicagoans got their first look at WFLD-Channel 32, a brand-new television station that promised to do things differently.

The call letters stood for Field Enterprises, publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News, and the original owner of the channel. Early news programs originated from the city rooms of the two newspapers.

Sterling C. "Red" Quinlan

Sterling C. “Red” Quinlan

“Between 6:30 and 8 p.m. we are going to give viewers a different choice than that scheduled by networks locked into a struggle for numbers,” Sterling C. “Red” Quinlan, the station’s first general manager, told the Chicago Tribune on the eve of the launch. “We shall offer repertory theater for intelligent adults when so many network shows are aimed at teen-agers. We want to give children something more worthwhile than cartoons.”

Added Quinlan: “We plan to be a station of selectivity. We’ll be big in sports. We intend to show Chicagoans how the city works, how it is actually governed, what goes on behind the scenes. We mean to keep an eye on the town and jump into civic issues. We are not locked into anything and we’ll give all sorts of things a try.”

Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet hosted the opening ceremonies, followed by broadcasts of “satire, ballet, prize-winning photography, an expedition to Mount Everest, and the first of a series of studies of the great movie makers,” according to the Tribune account.

TV Guide, May 14-20, 1966 (via Amy Merrick)

TV Guide, May 14-20, 1966 (via Amy Merrick)

Ultra High Frequency (UHF) television was still in its infancy, with only 30 percent of Chicago area households equipped to receive it. (Chicago’s first UHF station, Weigel Broadcasting’s WCIU-Channel 26, had signed on just two years earlier.) WFLD ran newspaper ads instructing viewers on how to tune their converters to the higher tier.

As the station’s assistant general manager for news, veteran newspaperman Herman Kogan (father of Tribune columnist Rick Kogan) enlisted reporters and editors at the Sun-Times and Daily News to appear on camera — and often in shirt sleeves — from their respective newsrooms to read stories and offer analysis on a program called “Newscope.”

Early locally produced hits for the station included Bill Jackson’s “Cartoon Town” and Jerry G. Bishop’s “Svengoolie,” which still flourishes today under successor Rich Koz at Weigel Broadcasting.

Field Communications, a division of Field Enterprises, first partnered with Kaiser Broadcasting in 1972 and then sold the station to Metromedia in 1983. Three years later, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. acquired all six Metromedia stations, forming the nucleus of Fox Television Stations and the Fox network.

From the penthouse of the Kemper Insurance Building (now known as the Civic Opera Building) at 20 North Wacker Drive, WFLD moved to studios at Marina City, 300 North State Street, and then to its current headquarters at 205 North Michigan Avenue in 1987 — the same year it launched another nightly news operation.

Quinlan, who also had served as general manager of WBKB-TV, (forerunner of ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7), died in 2007 at 90. He was hailed as a broadcasting pioneer and visionary.