September 27, 2023

Guest Essay: Growing up with KTVU

Today I'm pleased to present a guest column by Bill Griffiths, a loyal reader of It's About TV. Sparked by our recent Northern California TV Guides, Bill and I struck up an email conversation, and Bill offered to share his memories of television in Northern California, in particular the then-independent giant KTVU. Whether or not you're from the Bay Area, I think you'll enjoy his essay; I'll bet it brings back some fond memories for you as well! 

by Bill Griffiths

Some time ago I came across It’s About TV and started reading with great interest Mitchell’s entries about TV Guide. No matter what the year or the regional edition, I’ve encountered fascinating nuggets about television and media history. It is also a reminder about how great and influential a magazine TV Guide had once been. The name may still be around, but the product is indistinguishable from other entertainment publications. What has inspired me to contribute an article came about from the recent spotlight of Northern California TV Guides. I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, and while these late 1960’s issues predate me, I enjoy reading about the highlights and listings of these familiar channels—the ones I used to watch: KRON 4 (NBC), KPIX 5 (CBS), KGO 7 (ABC), KQED 9 (PBS). Unfortunately, we were not able to adequately view most of the UHF stations, although independent KFTY-TV 50 in Santa Rosa came in pretty good. 

Of all these channels, there is one that stood out, and it was easy to see why it was one of the top-rated independent stations in the country: KTVU Channel 2. As a child, it was impossible to watch KTVU for too long without hearing its memorable slogan "There’s Only One Two" accompanied by its familiar logo, which was refereed by many as the Circle Laser 2. While KTVU has changed over the years, going from an independent channel to a charter affiliate of the Fox broadcast network to being owned by the Fox Television Stations Group, the classic "2" logo is still in use as it has been since 1975. Even you have never lived in the Bay Area, you may have heard of or even seen a little of KTVU. The alliance with Fox would bring the station some national recognition with several scenes in the 1993 Robin Williams comedy hit Mrs. Doubtfire utilizing the Channel 2 studios at Jack London Square in Oakland. I remember watching the movie upon its release and when an establishing shot of the building signage came on the screen, there was an audible reaction by most people in the theater! 

Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, those years viewing KTVU were a golden time. For starters, they seemed to have the best selection of cartoons such as the pre-1948 color Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and Droopy, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Bullwinkle and Rocky, Spider-Man, and Scooby-Doo. Coming home from school, afternoons didn’t’ seem complete without some animated entertainment which generally was followed around 4:30 by that great live-action cartoon series Gilligan’s Island. Occasionally Gilligan and the crew would take a rest and another kid-friendly sitcom would turn up for a while such as the color episodes of My Three Sons and even the Barney Miller spin-off Fish.  

Even with these re-airings of repeats, KTVU was willing to try something different in the late afternoon hours. In the 1960s there was Captain Satellite (Bob March). Almost a decade after its finale, came Captain Cosmic (with his wonder robot 2T2!) which was primarily formatted around dubbed versions of Japanese superhero shows. Capitalizing on the popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek (which enjoyed a long run in the early evenings on KTVU starting in 1969) the show was a hit for a time. The cosmic captain was played by Bob Wilkins, who also hosted the phenomenally popular late Saturday night Creature Features. I only have vague memories of Captain Cosmic, but vividly recall one of the featured programs "Ultraman". Then again, I was never much into science fiction and thus did not see too many Star Trek episodes. 

Pat McCormick
In between all this entertainment, KTVU made sure to throw in a little education during the commercial breaks. These gentle life lessons were called "Bits & Pieces" and generally ran about one minute each. The PSA’s ranged from promoting good manners and kindness to acknowledging people’s diverse backgrounds and heritage without being heavy-handed or divisive. The most entertaining featured the puppets Charley and Humphrey who were created, performed and voiced by the legendary KTVU personality Pat McCormick. Not until later did I discover that Charley (a horse) and Humphrey (a bulldog) once hosted their own popular afternoon show featuring many of those classic cartoon shorts I would ultimately enjoy. "Bits & Pieces" would rerun consistently into the early 90’s. McCormick was quite a presence on KTVU, hosting the live Dialing for Dollars movie series middays, being the MC of a short-lived interactive kids game called TV Powww, co-hosting the local portions of the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon and serving as weatherman on The 10 O’Clock News until his retirement in 1995. 

I would move on from the classic cartoons, but would eventually revisit them and develop a deeper appreciation for their humor which was more mature than my boy brain could ever realize.  From cartoons, my viewings of choice on Channel 2 shifted to comedies. Besides Gilligan, I laughed at the antics of I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Bewitched, The Odd Couple and other classics. In the 1980’s I often would watch M*A*S*H reruns, and that series proved very important to KTVU. Soon after the beginning of off-network repeats in 1979 the show became one of the biggest hits in the station’s history, so much so that it was being aired twice each evening. Significantly, the costs of each episode were made back in the commercial immediately following the opening credits. After that it was pure profit. That money went towards construction of a new state-of-the-art studio nearby from the old facilities. The building became known to staffers as "the house that M*A*S*H built". Equally enjoyable for me laugh-wise were other grown-up sitcoms such as Three’s Company, WKRP in Cincinnati, and two programs I first saw on KTVU before regularly watching them in first-run: Cheers and NewhartCheers followed a similar trajectory as M*A*S*H in that soon after its addition to the schedule it was being seen twice a night.  

Popular rerun shows had always been the foundation of KTVU’s success in spite of the fact that the idea behind "There’s Only One Two" was to emphasize their strong position of independence. When looking at those 1960’s TV Guide listings, it surprised me that Channel 2 picked up some of CBS’s daytime schedule that was not cleared by KPIX. Thus, future classics such as The Jack Benny Program, The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies had a weekday presence on Channel 2 while they were still producing new episodes. This even extended to game shows such as The [New] Price is Right when it premiered in 1972. Management must have decided that despite the prestige of network programming, by 1975 no CBS daytime shows were being seen on KTVU. If it wasn’t cleared by KPIX, one would have to look for them on either Channels 20 or 44, if they were picked up at all. Channel 20 (as KTZO and later KOFY) would take some CBS and NBC shows in the 1980’s (including daytime Price is Right) but that’s another story. 

    Betty Ann Bruno and Dennis Richmond, 1980s
KTVU would proudly assert its status as a popular independent station through first-run syndicated programs, movie series (The 8 O’Clock Movie, Weekend Premiere, Sunday Super Cinema, KTVU Presents, Dialing for Dollars, The Movie of the Week, Chiller Diller and Creature Features), acquired documentaries, talk shows, British imports (Benny Hill was a long time late night staple), the aforementioned off-network reruns, and a nightly 10 p.m. news program. The 10 O’Clock News was the quintessential example of an honest straight-forward award-winning newscast with anchors and reporters staying on for years and even decades-long tenures. To name more than a few: Dennis Richmond, Elaine Corral, Barbara Simpson, Vern Hawkins, John Fowler, Rob Roth, Betty Ann Bruno, Faith Fancher, Rita Williams, Lloyd LaCuesta, George Watson, Leslie Griffith, Bob Shaw, Tom Vacar, Brian Banmiller on business, sports with Gary Park, Mark Ibanez and Joe Fonzi, weather with Pat McCormick and Bill Martin, and feature reporter Bob MacKenzie who also reviewed shows for TV Guide. Some of his reviews you may have seen on this blog. 

It was a surprise when KTVU became a charter affiliate of the Fox Network in 1986. While Channel 2 could have stayed independent, research and ratings were showing the growing influence of cable/satellite which would ultimately make it more challenging to acquire first-rate movies and series-- thus the decision to join with an upstart network. Because Fox began with a limited schedule, KTVU would continue to look much like an independent station into the early 1990’s. Gradually during the decade Channel 2 would increasingly identify on-air as "Fox 2", which It does to this day. 

I do miss those simpler times coming home from school and turning the set onto Channel 2 to be entertained for a while. Thanks to YouTube, I can experience some of those bits and pieces of KTVU video memories. For example, I recently discovered a half-hour 50th anniversary special from 2008 comprised of various clips and interviews covering the station’s history and legacy. Going further back is an almost complete 1968 episode of Captain Satellite with promos for upcoming telecasts of roller derby, Giants vs. Dodgers baseball and Romper Room. Others have posted shorter moments such as promos, station ID’s, Charley and Humphrey's PSA's, Bob Wilkins’ sardonic host segments, and the introductions to movie broadcasts with graphics and music that could rival those of the networks. They’re worth checking out. Perhaps they may lead you to look for local television clips from where you grew up. For me, seeing those KTVU Channel 2 images come alive once more takes me back to a time of the not-too-distant past where "There’s Only One Two". 

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Many thanks, Bill! I'm grateful for you taking the time to share your thoughtful essay. The warmth of those memories shows through in what you've written, and I think that's precisely what so many people feel about television of the past, and what we risk losing in these homogenized times when the local imprint of television seems to be getting smaller and smaller. This will certainly enhance the experience for me whenever I write about a TV Guide from the Bay Area!

If you'd like to share your memories of growing up with television, or if you have a TV Guide you'd like to relive, I'd be only too happy to share them with everyone else. You know how to reach me! TV  


  1. It's a shame that he couldn't get a good UHF picture, as I imagine KBHK-TV 44 had some good offerings as a Field Communications/Kaiser Broadcasting station. I have fond memories of watching its sister station, Boston's WLVI-TV 56, while visiting my grandparents, and I also remember watching Philly's WKBS-TV 48 while visiting my aunt & uncle in PA.

    1. Jon, Bill's follow up on your comment: I was able to watch KBHK Channel 44 on occasion at my grandparents' house. They had a lot of good shows too and by the late 1970's had acquired the off-network reruns of some popular and top-rated series such as The Brady Bunch, Emergency!, Happy Days (under the syndication title "Happy Days Again"), All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and others. I recall being quite disappointed when they added one of my favorite childhood shows CHiPs (initially syndicated as "CHiPs Patrol") and not being able to watch it much. When I did see them, the episodes were butchered to add more commercial breaks.

      Around 1986-87 they really topped KTVU when Star Trek was added to the schedule. And why was that? KBHK had agreed to take the upcoming Star Trek: The Next Generation and Paramount only allowed the original Star Trek's to be seen on stations that also had Next Generation.

  2. Our UHF channel in Pittsburgh was Channel 53. It was there I got to see many of the old TV shows and movies I still enjoy. And since we had a black and white set, I didn't know what was old and what was 'new'. My dad loved it because it was the only local station he could watch the Pittsburgh Penguins.
    I was caught up in the horror movie rage sweeping the country. In late 1960s and Channel 53’s version was Scream-in Theater.
    Done on the cheap, the original host was a vampire: Count Von Thirstenburg who I think was fired by management. His replacement was a guy named Paul Kawecki who played Tarantula. He got rid of the count by driving a stake into him while in his coffin, complete with blood and screams (I still remember it, I was around eight).
    Hellava way to be fired.
    Channel 53 gave me a love for those old shows and movies I still have to this day.

  3. 10 Ton Press currently publishes a Charley & Humphrey comic book series. The latest issue (#4) came out recently.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!