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John Kiesewetter on the world of local and national TV

Senior Entertainment Reporter John Kiesewetter has been covering TV and media issues for 20 years. After joining the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1975 as a summer intern, he worked as a county government and suburban reporter; assistant city editor and suburban editor; and features editor supervising the Life section. He has a B.S. in journalism from Ohio University.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Beverly Hills Fire Changed TV History

I didn't want the 30th anniversary of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire this weekend to pass without a reminder how the fire coverage changed TV history here. At the time of the fire in 1977, Ch 9 news with anchor Al Schottelkotte had been No. 1 in the market for 17 years. 17 years!

But that night helped change viewers habits to Channel 12.

When Channel 9 sent its live truck to the fire that Saturday night, Schottelkotte wanted to get as close to the fire as possible. Channel 12, instead, opted for a position a little farther away from the fire -- but on a hill with a direct shot to the station and tower. The result was the Ch 12 had a superior picture that night... and many viewers, like myself (then a local news reporter at The Enquirer) watched Ch 12 because the picture wasn't fuzzy and breaking up. Thousands of viewers like myself, who habitually tuned to Ch 9 for the Big Story, disocvered that Ch 12 could do a decent job covering a Big Story too.

Five years later, Nick Clooney's newscast on Ch 12 finally knocked legendary Schottelkotte out of first place. The Beverly Hills coverage helped a lot. So did strong ABC programming and Winter Olympics in the late 1970s and early '80s. (Ch 12 was ABC until an affiliate swap with Ch 9 in 1996.)

As I recall, Ch 12 and 9 each had the new mobile live "instant cams" capability back then, while Ch 5 had little mobile equipment. At the time, Ch 5 still invested heavily in huge studio cameras used for the weekday live Bob Braun variety/talk show.

It's interesting to compare 1977 to the TV news landscape today: Ch 12 has been the runaway No. 1 at 11 p.m. for about a decade (or longer?). Ch 9 continues to be a solid operation, and No. 1 at 5-6:30 p.m. And Ch 5 is way behind the race, as 30 years ago.... with fewer viewers at 11 p.m. than Ch. 19 has for new at 10 p.m., and fewer viewers than Ch 19 has for "The Simpsons" at 11 p.m.

Were you here in 1977? Did you watch the tragic fire on TV that night? What do you remember about it?


at 5/26/2007 3:55 PM Blogger SophiaZ123 said...


On that night, I had been hanging out with some older friends at a party at somebodys house. Then, as we went to another friends house, we stopped at Chester's pizza for an order we had placed.

As several of us waited in the car, the guy who went in to get the pizza came out to tell us there was a fire at the Beverly Hills club...but it did not dawn on us how bad it was...

Then we got to my friends Condo at Today's Home in Fairfield and turned on the TV. We were horrified and though we had been drinking earlier, we sobered up INSTANTLY as we saw the bodies covered up on the ground.

Only later, we learned a friend of my brother from high school was there and temporarily separated from his wife. They got out okay but as one can only imagine, the smoke, the panic and horror was terrible.

I remember hearing how CROWDED the room was but can not find specifics online. The room had 900 people in it to see John Davidson but apparently was only made to hold about 450? They shoved folks together like sardines to keep the shows affordable or to make higher profit.

It was very sad the mess that came out of that but good there were stricter laws about public places. The locked doors trapped many.

However yet today, to make things "fire proof" the toxic fumes STILL can kill people before a fire will and that should be addressed, but sadly is not.

After that everybody always noticed where the fire doors were at indoor events and studied hotel plans when traveling.

But I am glad you brought it up John as I remember the news coverage "live" was like something I had never seen. Also how exactly the fire STARTED alleges to be in mystery...though I think blamed on bad wiring...

I heard some survivors of the fire on Cunningham's show earlier this week and know they are having a memorial. They mentioned old mob ties still in the place at the time of the fire but who really knows.

Thank God for Walter Bailey, the young busboy who went on stage to make the announcement to get the people leaving. Since a comedy team was on stage, a few thought it was 'part of the act' and did not react. That was a fatal mistake.

at 5/26/2007 5:18 PM Blogger Todd O said...


That's the biggest story about the fire. None of the stations had EDGE or Flash units.

Or at least 9 and 12 didn't know each other had it. 12 basically debuted it that weekend. 9 supposedly ripped open the boxes and quickly assembled it. 9's helicopter would occasionally wipe out 12's signal.

Yes, it was 9 jumping the shark. Joanne Moore, Howard Ain and Bill Crafton made the coverage.

I just remember watching 12 for about 72 straight hours. An odd memory 30 years later.

I also think it took a major hit on the talent availability of the Bob Braun Show.

at 5/26/2007 9:02 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very tragic. I didn't find out until the next day that seven members of my family perished in the fire. It hightened my awareness of fire exits, alarms, sprinklers, etc. in public buildings. I have walked out of many restaurants over the years because of their lack of safety equipment. God bless all those souls who were lost and for the survivors who have been forever affected by this event.

at 5/28/2007 11:45 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual channel 5 was behind in the coverage, but for a different reason this time. Channel 5 was on strike and had a limited amount of non union employees that could operate the equipment right at that time.

at 5/28/2007 11:42 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Things that I remember from watching the events of 30 years ago:
Channel 5 was relying on a motorcycle relay to get thier film on the air. They did have video cameras but no remote trucks.

Channel 12 stopping their broadcast because the fire dept. needed the lights from their unit.
A young, Howard Ain, doing excellent live broadcasting. The studio reporter wasn't bad, either. Nick Clooney was almost non-existant that night. He did make a short appearance. But it was a night for the news professionals.

Channel 9 could not keep their signal up. They were still learning about aiming the antenna.

at 5/29/2007 11:21 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the time, my husband and I were living in Alamogordo, NM. The local news there came on at 10PM (midnight in Cincinnati). As soon as I heard the promo for the top story (Huge supper club fire, showplace of the nation) I knew it was in Cincinnati (N KY).
I sat transfixed as the pictures appeared on the screen. I flipped between the Albuquerque and El Paso stations to listen and see the horror.
I had been there only a few years before. So sad.

at 6/02/2007 8:12 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife and I had dinner there the night before the fire.You can not believe my horror the next few days when I saw the fire and found out I had lost twelve friends in it.

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