Aug. 10 designated WABC-TV Day in NYC, Empire State Building to be lit in Ch. 7 blue, as we turn 75

ByRolando Pujol WABC logo
Friday, August 18, 2023
WABC-TV at 75: Celebrating the history of Channel 7
As WABC-TV celebrates 75 years on the air, Bill Ritter looks back at the storied history of WABC-TV.

7 LINCOLN SQUARE (WABC) -- Channel 7 has been on your side -- and on your TV -- for 75 years.

Thursday, Aug.10, marks our big anniversary, and New York City is celebrating along with us!

Mayor Eric Adams declared Aug. 10 as WABC-TV Day in NYC, and the Empire State Building has been lit in WABC blue Thursday night to mark the special occasion. The festivities began at an Empire State Building ceremony Thursday morning which you can see below.

There was a special ceremony held at the Empire State Building to celebrate 75 years of Eyewitness News.

WABC-TV is celebrating with a special report on the station's history. We'll also be sharing well wishes from former reporters and anchors who remain beloved by viewers. Keep an eye on Channel 7's social pages all day for special throwbacks as well.

It all began for Channel 7 on Aug. 10, 1948, with a vaudeville extravaganza at the RKO Palace Theatre in Manhattan.

Watch WABC-TV's 75th anniversary celebration at the Empire State Building.

The emcee was song-and-dance-man Ray Bolger, best known as the Scarecrow on the "Wizard of Oz."

In those earliest days, Channel 7 -- initially called WJZ-TV -- was on the air for just a few hours a day, the key station of the fledgling ABC network.

Channel 7, which adopted the WABC-TV call letters in 1953, and its parent network had to overcome big odds to survive.

ABC was a startup of sorts in an industry that was dominated by NBC and CBS, which could draw from their powerful radio networks. Indeed, ABC was a spinoff of NBC's old "Blue" radio network. The competition was tough -- a fourth TV network, DuMont, folded early on.

Channel 7's schedule had the feel of a local station, not a big network affiliate in those early days. There were locally produced children's programs presenting cartoons, Westerns, and other films.

Before Bob Keeshan became world-famous as Captain Kangaroo on CBS, he was hosting shows like 'Time for Fun," as Corny the Clown, on WABC-TV.

In 1988, TV historian Kevin Butler interviewed Bill Britten, a later host of "Time for Fun," who played Johnny Jellybean. Britten told him "Time for Fun" "was the highest-rated show in the NYC viewing area ... it beat out the soap operas."

"Time for Fun" was canceled in 1960. It was just part of the constellation of WABC-TV children's programming in those days.

There were talent shows, game shows, roller derby, and parades. WABC even picked up reruns of "The Little Rascals." John Zacherle, playing Zacherley aka the Cool Ghoul, hosted a horror movie showcase on Channel 7.

The Eyewitness News This Morning team celebrated 75 years of Eyewitness News.

ABC's news department was slow to catch up to NBC and CBS, and it's no surprise that news lagged behind at WABC as well.

Early local efforts included a newscast anchored by staff announcer Scott Vincent. In the 1960s, an up-and-coming reporter named Bill Beutel presented a newscast called "The Big News," before heading off to bigger things covering news for ABC overseas. He'd be back when the news got big at WABC-TV.

The pieces of Channel 7's news puzzle came together slowly, but when they did, they changed the industry. Channel 7 hired away Roger Grimsby from our sister station KGO in San Francisco.

WABC tried to make noise with a newscast called "Roger Grimsby and the Noisemakers." Nobody was listening or watching.

Station execs noticed the success TV news visionary Al Primo was having in Philadelphia, with his Eyewitness News format on Westinghouse's KYW-TV Channel 3.

They convinced Primo to come to New York and he promptly worked the same magic here starting in November 1968.

Far from the dull, self-important rip-and-read newscasts of the day, Eyewitness News popped with teams of reporters -- or Eyewitnesses -- roving the streets for news. These reporters and anchors reflected the city's diversity. Members of the news team spoke to one another like human beings -- some dismissed that as "happy talk" but even those dismissing it were soon offering a similar approach to news presentation.

ALSO WATCH | Bill Ritter discusses legacy of WABC-TV on 75th anniversary

For decades, one of the most important faces at Eyewitness News has been Bill Ritter. On Thursday, he took some time during his vacation to chat with Kristin Thorne about the station's 75th anniversary.

The broadcasts had exciting theme music -- the Tar Sequence from the film "Cool Hand Luke" -- appealing sets, graphics, and compelling sports, with the likes of Howard Cosell and Jim Bouton, and weather, originally with Tex Antoine.

The ratings began to rise and soon the whole industry was taking notice. In a few short years, the Primo effect had spread up and down the dial, in New York and beyond.

In September 1970, he paired the wry Grimsby and debonair Beutel, a perfectly matched anchor duo, the leaders of a team that would include iconic names like Melba Toliver, John Johnson, Doug Johnson, Geraldo Rivera, the list goes on.

In February 1972, Rivera's groundbreaking Willowbrook investigations changed laws and set a high bar for investigative journalism. He explored the scourge of drugs and tugged at hearts with his "Littlest Junkie" expose.

It was powerful investigative journalism, muckraking of the highest order, and it remains part of our DNA today.

RELATED | More videos celebrating out 75th anniversary

Beyond investigations, WABC has long been a leader in breaking news, with so many stories, including the murder of John Lennon, the hunt for the Son of Sam, and the horrors of 9/11. If it happened in or around New York, you could "believe in Eyewitness News," as the old campaign went, to bring you the news, fast, fair, and finely reported. That trust extended to our reporters in unusual ways. John Johnson, for instance, found himself diffusing hostage situations on more than one occasion, called in to be a voice of reason.

As WABC-TV dominated the news ratings in the 1970s, the station was riding a soaring ABC network. At first, primetime picked up, with shows like "Happy Days" and "Charlie's Angels," and then, by the late 1970s, Roone Arledge put our network news division on a path to success, much as he did with sports earlier.

We were "Still the One," as the ABC slogan of the time went, even if that era was our first big taste of success.

Beyond news and popular network shows, WABC-TV kept New Yorkers entertained with movies. "The 4:30 Movie" was a strong lead-in to the 6 p.m. Eyewitness News. Channel 7 squeezed movies into a 90-minute time slot, sometimes splitting them over multiple days.

Before Netflix and HBO, "The 4:30 Movie" - and the late-night movies and the morning "Prize Movie," where viewers could call in and win a prize - were appointment viewing. Especially fondly remembered are the 4:30 Movie's theme weeks, with a run of films from franchises like "Planet of the Apes." Pity the editors who had to trim those films to fit tight run times. To this day, WABC continues the tradition, showing a movie late Saturday night, a rarity on broadcast TV these days.

Take a time machine back to WABC-TV in 1979!

By late 1981, "The 4:30 Movie" was canned to make way for an expansion of Eyewitness News to 5 pm, initially anchored by weathercaster Storm Field and fan favorite Rose Ann Scamardella, famously paired with Ernie Anastos at 11 as well. The great Tom Snyder was around during those years, too, as was Ira Joe Fisher, with his backward-writing weather wizardry.

Roger Grimsby, Bill Beutel, Tom Synder, Spencer Christian, Kaity Tong, and Ira Joe Fisher appear in promo timed to the 1984 Winter Olympics.

The four o'clock hour was where we first showed "Jeopardy!" in 1985, and, momentously, is where we placed Oprah Winfrey in December 1986. Oprah followed by 90 minutes of "Eyewitness News," "World News Tonight" and then, starting in 1990, the combo of "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," were a shared experience for viewers for decades.

Oprah's been off the air for more than a decade, but the schedule otherwise remains untouched. 1990 was also the year you first heard from Yolanda Vega on our lottery drawings. In those years, we encouraged viewers to say hello to Roz Abrams and keep an eye out for that news van again! And for 30 years, Joel Siegel informed and entertained us with his reviews of movies, Broadway shows and his appreciation of pop culture. (See a 1979 ad with him below.)

Joel Siegel in an Eyewitness News promotion, one in a series for the campaign "Good neighbors, Good Reporters."

Legacy is a word you hear a lot in the halls of 7 Lincoln Square, and the first face you see every day before even walking into our lobby belongs to Regis Philbin, who is honored with a plaque.

Philbin is something of an ABC hero. He saved our local morning talk show and turned it into a national phenomenon. Since 1970, WABC had been experimenting with the format, beginning with John Bartholomew Tucker's "AM New York." He was also part of the original Eyewitness News crew.

It went through various names and hosts, including "Good Morning New York." It was briefly on fire when Stanley Siegel took over in the mid-1970s and made headlines with a famous interview with a seemingly under-the-influence Truman Capote, but Siegel decamped to WCBS and the morning program continued with hosts like Spencer Christian -- who also handled weather and sports on Eyewitness News -- and Judy Licht.

Then, the station brought Regis on board in April 1983.

Newsday TV critic Marvin Kitman wrote off Philbin before he even arrived, but Kitman was wrong. With Regis in the chair, WABC's "The Morning Show" slowly began to build an audience, eventually eating into Phil Donahue's commanding lead on Channel 4 at 9 a.m. By 1985, "The Morning Show" (circle 7s in the Os) hit its stride with Kathie Lee Gifford joining Regis.

So successful was the show that by 1988, it went into national syndication, and became a sensational hit. To this day, the show is produced at WABC, with Kelly Ripa and her husband Mark Consuelos keeping the show on top.

Our commitment to serving our viewers extends well beyond news and talk shows.

WABC has always put community service first, with trailblazing shows like Gil Noble's "Like It Is" leading the way starting in 1968. Today, "Here & Now" with Sandra Bookman carries on the tradition. "Tiempo," today hosted by Joe Torres, is now in its 40th year, and "Up Close with Bill Ritter" continues the work of local news analysis and interviews begun on "Eyewitness News Conference" with hosts like the great Milton Lewis. Few reporters knew Gotham better than Milt.

Community has always been at the heart of our mission. Among our early programs were parades, and specials to raise awareness for the Red Cross and the need for blood donations.

To this day, we are singularly focused on caring for our viewers, through our decades-long commitment to breast cancer awareness, child wellness, and fire safety. For years we celebrated our best and brightest in area high schools through the "Best of the Class" campaign.

In the past decade alone, we have added the New York City Marathon, and the National Puerto Rican, Pride and the Columbus Day parades to our roster of meaningful community programming.

But we've always seen the news as the core part of that service. Since the days of Grimsby and Beutel, we have kept growing and innovating our news presentation. Bill Ritter and Liz Cho have been anchoring together for 20 years now, longer than Grimsby and Beutel. Lee Goldberg first brought you the weather 27 years ago. Sam Champion first delivered the weather, on weekends, starting in 1988. The Eyewitness News family has been part of your family for a long time, and we're grateful.

WABC's commitment to the news has only grown over the years, now with streaming-only news shows, and original documentaries and series that have been popular on Hulu. Digital innovation has been at the heart of what we do since 1998, when went live, to today, with WABC leading across platforms.

And yes, the best is yet to come, a bright, multiplatform future built on the shoulders of people who over 75 years have made this the No. 1 TV station in the nation.

Thank you for being part of our journey.