Guest Commentary – Dunphy: He changed dynamics of L.A. news

May 27, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California: Good evening, I’m Jerry Dunphy.”
For almost half a century, newscasts on Los Angeles television stations opened in this manner. Jerry died Monday, May 20, as the result of a heart attack. He was at least 80 years old and was still delivering newscasts on KCAL-TV in L.A.
I first met “the Dunph” in January of 1976 when I went to work at KABC-TV as executive producer of Channel 7’s newscasts. The silver-haired Dunphy had just joined the station after John Severino, then general manager at KABC-TV, had outmaneuvered KNXT-TV (as KCBS-TV, Channel 2, was known in those days) for Jerry’s services. Jerry’s defection from “The Big News” on 2 to “Eyewitness News” on 7 changed the face of local television news viewing in L.A. to this day.
KNBC-TV, Channel 4, and KNXT had fought for news leadership through the ’60s into the mid-’70s. KABC-TV was a perennial third.
With Dunphy anchoring the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts at Channel 7, the station almost immediately moved to second place, ahead of KNXT. Channel 2 has been third ever since.
As the new executive producer, I inherited newscasts anchored at 5 p.m. by Chuck Henry and Christine Lund, at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. by Dunphy and John Hambrick.
It wasn’t very long before we made the decision to pair Dunphy with Lund at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. By May of ’77, KABC was No. 1 in Arbitron, and by February of ’78 it was first in both Arbitron and Nielsen. It stayed that way for years, and so the Dunphy legend not only continued but grew.
With KABC now No. 1, I was promoted first to assistant news director and then to news director. Imagine the shock when Jerry came to me in the summer of ’78 to say he needed heart bypass surgery. Thank God we had hired Paul Moyer from KNBC, I thought to myself.
Jerry’s biggest concern was to schedule his operation so he could return for the November book and repeat our success of February and May. And he did it-back in his regular slot, he took us to victory with seemingly no ill effects from what he had been through.
With Bruce Herschensohn’s help, we arranged a Dunphy-Richard Nixon live interview following a “Monday Night Football” game in 1979. It was an exclusive-the former president’s first extended interview since leaving the White House. No bombshells were produced in the almost two-hour telecast, but Jerry stood his ground and got a scoop that no network newsman could claim at the time.
I worked another four years with Jerry before leaving to run WLS-TV in Chicago in the summer of 1983. We never lost a newscast in that period of time, and KABC didn’t for a long time thereafter.
Why did Southern California love Jerry the way it did? Very few people had or have the talent Dunphy did to deliver a newscast. His ability to anchor was proven over and over. So when we expanded to a 4 p.m. news in 1980, did we look for another anchor? No! We asked Jerry to lead this show as well as the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. He jumped at the opportunity, and immediately the program was a ratings success.
Jerry was tireless at his trade-and Channel 7 was the beneficiary. He was not young then, but his ability to communicate through the tube was unparalleled. Call it longevity, a familiar face, credibility, sex appeal, a sense of humor, whatever-Dunphy had the chemistry to carry a newscast.
Jerry enjoyed life. He lived it hard, whether it was his work, a cocktail, winning ratings books or fancy cars, which were almost his downfall. Dunphy was regal in his
Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce, which was part of his deal at Channel 7. If that wasn’t enough, JD 7 on the license plate took care of any doubters. Jerry was literally ambushed in 1983 as he and Sandra Marshall, KABC’s makeup artist-who would become his second wife-left the station after the newscast. Gang members opened fire-Jerry was hit in the neck and wrist. I called the hospital from Chicago when I heard the story. The Dunph answered that he and Sandra were OK. I then suggested perhaps he change to a less ostentatious method of transportation and get a more anonymous license plate number so as not to present such an obvious target. I bumped into him months later, and he greeted me by saying he’d taken some of my advice. The Rolls was gone, he said, but JD 7 remained. What kind of car? The most expensive Mercedes made-and in fire-engine red. “Great,” I said to Jerry. “That will confuse everyone.”
KABC-TV had a dynasty in the Dunphy era. Although many people contributed to its success, it would not have happened without Jerry.
He taught me the lesson so well that when I got to WLS-TV and Fahey Flynn died the first week I was there, I brought back longtime veterans Floyd Kalber and John Drury. Nothing like those familiar faces to win in local news.
Our business lost a special person when Jerry Dunphy passed away. I’m grateful I had the chance to spend 71/2 years shoulder to shoulder with the one person who was synonymous with success in news in Southern California.