How Energy, Chaos, and a Flair for Entertainment Created Nightly News
Lisa Napoli on Ted Kavanau
To enter the majestic art deco building at 220 East 42nd Street in New York City was to instantly become imbued with a sense of urgency and importance. There in the center of one of city’s finest lobbies spun a gleaming, twelve-foot facsimile of the earth, rotating faster than the actual one, symbolizing the expansive action that transpired thirty-six floors above. Dramatically lit like a Hollywood movie star, the globe was framed overhead by a golden sun. News was collected here and pumped out to the world, in a variety of formats. Here on these premises, the New York Daily News, the paper for which the building had been erected in the 1930s, was created and printed each day. Radio and television and wire reporters worked frenetically in their respective media. So dramatic was the structure that Hollywood had chosen it as the backdrop for one of the world’s most famous fictional broadsheets, The Daily Planet. This dazzling building was worthy of Clark Kent and Superman.
What Reese Schonfeld was himself trying to accomplish in these hallowed halls required a superpower. Each day, he arrived and rode the elevator up to a modest office that housed an organization known only to a few—the Independent Television News Association, his tiny bid to upend the news establishment.
Nine independent television stations around the country had signed on to the service, including WPIX, housed here in this building. Reese had launched it just two days after Coors’s TVN had shut its doors in the fall of 1975. His grand plan to pump out news on the satellite had never reached fruition. Stations simply didn’t want those massive dishes eating up spots in their parking lots and saw no reason for the nuisance simply to receive a daily news feed. And then Joseph Coors had decided to ditch the news business.
Just as a wire service spat out text and photos to subscribing news entities, this collective Reese had cobbled together would provide filmed stories and footage from around the nation to its member stations. Late each afternoon, the ITNA fed out a half hour’s worth of material for subscribers to use in their newscasts as they wished. In those first weeks, KTVU in San Francisco contributed coverage of the latest in the saga of kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, while KTXL in Sacramento sent updates on the trial of accused presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme. “The invisible newscast,” Reese called this offering—not a show but, rather, elements for producers around the country to use in building their newscasts.
This was his best salvo in combatting what he called “the golden age of network arrogance.” In order to bolster their ratings and preserve their domain, networks didn’t want to share their abundant footage with their affiliates before they had the chance to air it. What Reese had created might not have been much, but it was a start—and it was a paycheck. For the service to work long-term, he’d need twice as many stations to subscribe.
The holdout independent that drove him craziest continued to be channel 17. At the annual convention of the Association of Independent Television Stations, Reese would grab Ted and state his case about news. Invariably, Ted, flanked by a couple of convention babes, pontificated for the amusement of all who could hear. Ted had not budged on his declaration that “No news is good news.” News was depressing, an endless parade of gloom and doom, depicting the worst of humanity, dragging down anyone who tuned in.
“I hate the news,” he’d say. “I’ll never do news. I don’t believe in news. I’ve got entertainment programs stacked up in my basement that I could run until 2000.” Those programs he ran—I Love Lucy, Georgia Championship Wrestling, endless hours of old movies—were the ultimate in escapist fun. Benign as a pussycat! Invariably, he’d sum up his rebuff of Reese’s advances by railing against the networks and their unfair domination of the American mind.
While they disagreed on news, the two men did agree on that.
He longed for the day when news was front and center, when technology allowed it to flow freely around the giant, spinning globe, educating the audience and inspiring change. For now, he toiled away in these hallowed halls of journalism, a pipsqueak among giants, the overlord of a tiny service he’d concocted out of need and despair, dreaming of the news revolution.
Eventually, Reese was able to hire a few young staff people to help him on his mission. During long days, they’d sit with telephone receivers stuck to each ear, brokering and bartering for stories, all in the service of preparing their invisible newscast. He also attracted a small crew of other news veterans, exiles from greener pastures who’d left indelible marks on the industry of broadcast journalism.
One of them was a television producer from the Bronx, a legendary New York newsman named Ted Kavanau. Some believed Kavanau to be a genius, others a madman. Then there were those who thought him a combination of both. “Mad Dog,” they called him. He possessed, in the eyes of at least one old boss, the perfect blend of showmanship and journalistic judgment. This approach had shaken up news in his hometown.
With the handsome looks and impeccable attire of a New York City police detective—replete with a pistol strapped to his shin—Kavanau buzzed with the frenetic energy of a bookie. It had taken him a while to find his way to the profession. Though he felt himself to be a poor student at DeWitt Clinton, the prestigious, public all-boys high school he’d attended, he’d managed to pass the challenging entrance exam for City College, a tuition-free oasis of higher learning considered to be New York’s “Jewish Harvard.” Kavanau’s contrarian attitude was already evident. Asked to explain logarithms on a crucial math test, he sketched out a cartoon of a dancing log.
Unsure at graduation what to do with his future, he settled on the practical idea of becoming a teacher in the New York City schools—until he discovered what it would take to obtain the credential. His fates tilted in a completely different direction when he learned about a master’s at Syracuse University that seemed a far easier course of study—in the relatively new medium of television. Once he graduated, he became an instructor at Ithaca College, where he produced public service shows for one of the nation’s earliest cable television providers. When a local professor named Martin Abend agreed to appear on a panel discussion program there, the two men struck up what would turn out to be a lifelong friendship.
After producing documentaries and public affairs programs in Boston, Kavanau made his way back to the city he loved and where he belonged. As the producer of New York’s first ten p.m. newscast—for independent station WNEW Channel 5—he was well aware how challenging it would be to convince viewers to switch over from prime-time network entertainment. And yet, he also believed the degrading spectacle of the New York streets could be as exciting and outlandish as any drama—and certainly more relevant.
Each night, a menacing announcer opened the show in the same foreboding tone—“It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”—leaving even those who’d just tucked their kids in with a grave sense of unease. In the moments leading up to airtime, Kavanau would announce to his startled staff that he was tossing out the show’s rundown. He’d rush into the field with the night crew, scrounging around for the freshest morsel of news. Inevitably, they discovered something—a fire likely had just flickered to life or a dead body was sure to be lingering somewhere. After filming the scene, they’d spirit back to the station, rush the footage into the on-site lab for processing, and interrupt the newscast with a this-just-in breaking missive.
While WNEW was financially better off than most independents around the nation, it was still a scrappy operation compared to the local network owned-and-operated stations, propelled by buckets of money and four times the number of crews. Kavanau’s intrepid news teams (who proudly described themselves as “The Jew Crew,” “The Fascist Crew,” “The Hippie Crew”) scrambled each day from story to story, with help in the field from a motorcycle courier who’d meet them to replenish their film stock and other supplies, then ferry the film they’d shot back to headquarters. The urgency they felt as they navigated the streets, rancid with decay, was what he wished to convey to the audience at home. He reveled in conveying to New Yorkers images of their beloved city in all its raw ingloriousness, as if it were not just his job but his moral obligation.
“We’d chase people down the street,” he said with pride. “We’d do anything to get a story.”
As he’d hoped, the viewers lapped it up like a soap opera or a Knicks game. This was no humdrum newscast. The newscast became a nightly event, and every second of airtime had to pay off.
The mob! Methodone! Mayhem! The police blotter, animated by Mad Dog Kavanau. Television news had never moved with such alacrity. His obsession with the crime rampant in Gotham reflected the harsh reality of the time. The undercurrent of fear that was the hallmark of 1970s New York had compelled Kavanau and several others on his staff to pack heat. You could never be too cautious or too prepared. “Ted’s idea of continuity was to put a rape next to a murder next to a robbery—an entire violence section,” observed Bill Jorgensen, the station’s star anchor, with whom “Mad Man” Kavanau was forever at odds.
Technological limitations aided and abetted Kavanau’s creative flair. Since reporting live from the field was still, without planning and vast resources, but a dream, he resorted to skits filmed on location, “like-live,” that illustrated in technicolor what newspapers could only convey in humdrum text and black and white. When ruffians unleashed a spate of robberies of shtreimel, large, expensive fur hats worn by Hasidic men, Kavanau rented the garb from Eve’s Costumers, suited up reporter Steve Bauman, wired him with a hidden microphone, and sent him into Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn populated predominantly by Orthodox Jews. The crew hid nearby in the unmarked news van and filmed Bauman as he glided down the street to the joyful strains of Fiddler on the Roof, waiting for a would-be thief to appear.
Suddenly, a young Puerto Rican kid—a would-be shtreimel-snatcher?—approached and implored, “Rabbi, Rabbi, I’ve got to talk with you.”
“Yes, my son.”
“I fell in love with this Jewish girl, but her parents don’t approve.”
Relieved not to have been the victim of a mugging for his sacred chapeau, the rabbi shared paternal wisdom.
“You must persist, son. Love will conquer all.”
When sightings of the hulking, mythical ape-like creature Bigfoot dominated headlines, Kavanau returned to Eve’s, this time renting a gorilla costume and donning it himself. Standing in Central Park, Bauman explained to the camera that the creature had been spotted there. On cue, the camera panned thirty yards in the distance, revealing a large, hairy figure sneaking for cover from tree to tree. The intrepid newsman approached the beast without a shred of fear and, pointing his microphone into his face, posed the question, “Bigfoot, what brings you to New York?”
The faux giant replied sweetly, addressing the believers in the audience, “There’s one person in New York who believes in me.” This A-number-one menace, as imagined by Ted Kavanau, could speak!
From Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News, by Lisa Napoli © Abrams Press, 2020