When TV Stations Aired Local Movies

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This morning I was emailing back and forth with a longtime colleague and friend about the 1965 Warner Brothers movie, “The Music Man” with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, and it speared this week’s Foote Files.

During the 50’s and 60’s, theatrical movies were a staple of a local station’s local programming, especially on an independent station like KTVT was back then. Movies were sold into local syndication for a finite period of time, usually packaged together (anywhere between 15-20 up to sometimes 80-100 titles), and licensed exclusively for a select number of airings at an agreed upon price. A station could air them anywhere they wanted as long as they did not exceed the number of exhibitions authorized. WFAA Channel 8 ran a 10:30pm simply called “Great Movies.” KTVT aired a 9pm movie, but interrupted it at 10pm to do a 15-minute newscast with anchors in Fort Worth and Dallas. The networks also aired movies during the week as well and once the network airings were over, they would then be licensed locally. No cable deals, no interactive streaming deals, just the big three networks and local stations. In addition, the station would typically buy prints of the movies and “library” them at the station until such time that they no longer had the rights. Some prints came in 16mm film but some stations could handle 35mm.

When I started buying movies for KXTX in 1984, WFAA had dropped the 10:30pm movie but aired one at 3pm until such time that they aired reruns of “Dallas” for 1 year and then came Oprah Winfrey which changed the landscape! But there were other players: KTVT, KTXA, KDAF, and KDFI. Five independent stations competing for movies. As demand for movies increased, so did the license fees! And some of the movies contained national spots retained by the distributors which reduced the stations’ available commercial time they could sell to advertisers. You could always tell when a rating period was going on because all the stations scheduled movies with John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damne, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff. Action adventure!

By 1990, the landscape had changed. A major supplier of movies started selling to USA Network and others followed suit, draining the supply of programming that had been a staple for TV stations for over 30 years. This event triggered some major TV groups to seek alternatives with filmed entertainment studios… and that’s how the WB and UPN Networks came about (these two merged in 2006 and became The CW). Stations today still air movies but just not as many. You can still see movies on the weekend on TXA 21, Saturdays at 7pm (unless there are live sports) and Sundays at 2pm and 4pm.

Some interesting facts on licensing movies locally back then:

  • Frank Sinatra had a deal with the studios prohibiting stations from airing his movies more than twice a year as he was concerned about over exposure!
  • Directors had agreements with studios that restricted editing. Director George Stevens was one such director. When we aired the movie, “Giant” with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, it had to air in full without edits. At 201-minute running time, wow! Same for Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger.
  • Four John Wayne movies, “The High & The Mighty,” “Hondo,” “McLintock,” and “Island In The Sky” were produced by Wayne’s production company, Batjac Productions and had full control over exhibition rights. Wayne’s son Michael was very meticulous in how these films were released.

Roll ’em and action!

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