Friday, September 28, 2018

KCND-TV: How it Came to Be


This excerpt is from a long article about the early years of TV along the border in our area.  There was a race who got their transmitting tower up first (Pembina won by a day...), and some called KCND a "bargain basement" station.  Maybe so, but they did the best they could with the budget they had, and for many kids growing up then - myself included - we will be forever indebted to Channel 12 Pembina for the hundreds of amazing old Hollywood films they showed on Saturday and Sunday afternoons (not to mention Saturday night's "Chiller Thriller"!!)
We got to know classic comedies starring Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, as well as the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante, and W.C. Fields.  Then there were the great dramas starring Tyrone Power, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Betty David, Kathryn Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Basil Rathbone, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Burt Lancaster, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin, William Powell, Robert Mitchum, Joseph Cotton, Orson Wells, etc.  So many names and faces, one cannot remember them all yet they were and are all unforgettable.  All thanks to one tiny TV station in Pembina...
In 1956, a group of investors associated with a Grand Forks radio station won permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to construct a new Channel 12 TV station in the tiny border town of Pembina, N.D. 
Their goal, however, wasn’t to serve Pembina and the sparsely populated surrounding area. It was to serve Winnipeg audiences, 100 kilometres to the north, and hopefully make some money satisfying Canadians’ insatiable appetite for American TV programming. 
The station was slow to get to air, though. It wasn’t until early 1959 — nearly three years after they were awarded the licence — that the serious work of building studios and erecting a tower got under way. Now with a second Winnipeg station under construction at Polo Park, it became urgent for the Pembina operation to finally get up and running. 
Thus began a mad race between the owners of Channel 7 and Channel 12 — which would become better known as CJAY-TV and KCND-TV later in the year — to beat the other station to air. 
“The idea of KCND was to come into the (Winnipeg) market as the second station, but in the interim the licence was granted to CJAY, so they were building at the same time,” former KCND-CKND employee Dorothy Lien told the Winnipeg Free Press in 1989. 
“It was a great race between the stations to see who would get their tower up [first],” she recalled. “I remember driving down to Pembina in September of 1960 to watch our antenna being mounted, and then driving back to Ste. Agathe to see that they were at the stage of getting theirs up, too.” 
The race was as close as one got to a photo finish in the broadcasting industry.
On Sunday, Nov. 6, 1960, Winnipeggers noticed a test signal coming in from Pembina on Channel 12. On Monday, Nov. 7, the half-finished station went on air at 6 p.m. with a limited program selection, owing to the fact that the station was literally not yet connected to the ABC and NBC networks from which it would obtain most of its programming. 
Given that the only other option in Winnipeg was to watch the CBC station, viewers weren’t exactly choosy. 
Five days later, at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12, 1960, CJAY-TV Channel 7 signed on from a brand-new studio next to Polo Park Shopping Centre. 
Though CJAY had lost the race to air, it still had a decided advantage over its cross-border rival. 
“We had very low power and very poor microwave [linking the station to the networks],” Lien told the Winnipeg Free Press in 1989. “We really didn’t make an impact for about six years. People didn’t have the antennas to bring in Channel 12.” 
KCND had been modeled after KVOS-TV, a small outlet in Bellingham, Wash., just across the border from Vancouver, which discovered that there was big money to be made in buying programs at low Bellingham rates and selling advertising at high Vancouver-Victoria rates. 
The practice was controversial, given that KVOS was at times selling advertising on programs for which a B.C. broadcaster had supposedly purchased “exclusive” rights; but it also made KVOS one of North America’s most profitable TV stations for a time.
But there was a critical difference between KVOS and KCND. 
KVOS’s transmitter was only 70 kilometres from central Vancouver and just 45 kilometres from Victoria, close enough to put a strong and clear “Grade-A” signal into those communities, as it still does today. 
KCND’s transmitter was 100 kilometres from central Winnipeg. Its “Grade-A” signal only went as far north as Niverville, beyond which ground clutter and weather tended to interfere with reception. 
Given that there were no cable systems in Winnipeg at the time, it was an oversight on the part of the station’s owners that threatened to bankrupt the station. 
“Our signal was never as strong in Winnipeg as our engineers thought it would be,” lamented Boyd Christenson, an early KCND announcer and program host who was interviewed by the Winnipeg Free Press in the mid ’80s. 
“We weren’t getting the dollars we needed out of Winnipeg to sustain the station,” Christenson said, describing the station’s financially troubled early years. 
The station’s fortunes dramatically improved after the arrival of cable TV in Winnipeg in the late ’60s. 
KCND’s survival in the early years was no doubt driven by the fascination that many Manitobans had for the glamour of Kennedy-era America and a yearning for something different on their screens, which led to a cult following in Winnipeg. 
“KCND was strictly bargain basement,” former Winnipeg resident Greg Klymkiw wrote in a June 2010 article for the Electric Sheep web site. “Though to kids, tired of fiddlers from Newfoundland and joyful Canucks winning useless pen and pencil sets on stupid Canadian TV, KCND was… AMERICA!” 
“I kind of fell in love with KCND-TV Channel 12,” a commentator named Rob wrote to The View from Seven in November 2010. “For some reason the channel 12 logo was very cool!” 
“My dad’s bedroom TV had only local stations, but he got channel 12 by installing an interior Channel 12 Antenna… sometime in ’71 or ’72 but we weren’t allowed to use his TV. My younger brother used to sneak in there and watch reruns of ‘Lost in Space’ at 6 PM while my dad was working evenings,” Rob wrote. 
“Sometimes my dad called us to his bedroom to watch ‘Chiller Thriller’ at 10:30 PM Saturday night,” he added, referring to the station’s popular Saturday night horror movies.