Wednesday, February 4

What Am I Bid?

For sale. Cheap. Make me an offer. One WNEP “Skycam” helicopter model kit,
still in its original cellophane-wrapped packaging. Snaps together. Needs no glue for assembly.

For sale. Cheap. Make me an offer. One set of “Skycam” Pilot’s Wings. Plastic,with a straight-pin backing. Was passed out to youngsters by WNEP-TV in the mid-eighties.

For sale???? Expensive? Published reports say WNEP-TV’s Bell 206B3 Jet Ranger, purchased from WMAQ-TV in Chicago in August 1984 and rechristened “Skycam 16” has been “grounded.”The reports don’t say if the ship is being sold, just that because of economic pressure it won’t be flying; and pilot Randy Freeman has been laid off in a cost-cutting move.

Am I being too personal and too judgmental if I say that this marks a watershed moment in local TV news history? What if I say that the long upward climb for TV news has come to an end, and the back-sliding has begun?

One thing I’m not going to do here is second-guess WNEP management’s decision. I haven’t seen the Channel 16 budget or books. And if it comes down to jettisoning equipment or people, I’ll vote to let the people stay every time.

But the times must be terrible if one of the most dominant stations in America—a station that controls the ratings and the advertising rates in this market—has to make such a drastic move. Ouch!

It may be unavoidable—owning a helicopter is a huge expensebut forgive me for feeling it 's a betrayal of a commitment WNEP made roughly 35 years ago.

Back in the mid-70s the Shelburne family (Tom Senior and Junior) controlled the station. I wasn’t around then, but the story is told that Tom Jr. had a consultant from Frank N. Magid Associates in his office, and was asking what the new, cutting edge trends in broadcast news were. The one-word answer (according to legend) was “helicopters.” And, again according to legend, just days later the first “Skycam 16,” a leased Hughes 500 bubble-jet, landed in the front yard.

Elden Hale was News Director back then. He knew the value of the helicopter in gathering news from more than 20 counties in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania. And he also instantly, instinctively, recognized Skycam’s promotional opportunities. Before long, the implied message was, “If you’re watching a station that doesn’t have a helicopter you’re not really getting news.” It was one of many things WNEP did first and better than the other stations in town.

They laughed at lowly WNEP while Elden was eating their lunch! Before too long it was too late to play catch-up. "Newswatch 16" was the market leader, then a national leader in news ratings.

By 1984 I was news director and the lease on the Hughes was up. Elden and the Shelburnes put pilot Jack Ruland (who had worked for the leasing company) on the payroll full-time and bought a Bell JetRanger from WMAQ in Chicago as the new “Skycam.” I continued Elden’s tradition of "selling" the helicopter as part of the team: I even put it into the open. In those days it was, “…Newswatch 16 with Nolan Johannes and Karen Harch; Chief Meteorologist Tom Clark; Joe Zone on sports; and Pilot Jack Ruland in Skycam 16.”

Ah, the memories!

We flew the ship everywhere. And marketing/promotion genius Sheryl Bourisk came up with a great idea. Back in those days we covered—and rode in—a half-dozen community parades a year. Sheryl pressed all hands into service building floats for countless parades, until she came up with a stroke of genius. She rented a flatbed truckJack landed the helicopter on it—we added handrails and some bunting—our on-air folks climbed on boardand voila! The WNEP “Insta-Float!”

I’m the one, though, who saw that some other TV station somewhere was selling model kits of its helicopter. I ordered the models, even flew in a "chase chopper" and personally shot the pictures for the box art. We sold (if memory serves) 10,000 Skycam kits, with all proceeds going to children’s charities.

Of course, my most vivid memory comes from January 10th, 1985 (1/10 is easy for me to remember—it’s my birthday). A bunch of us were meeting that morning in my office when we heard a police call for an escapee from the Farview State Hospital in Waymart. “That’s the hospital for the criminally insane, isn’t it,” I said, “The bad guys?” Everyone nodded. I said, “That’s out in the middle of nowhere. Let’s put the helicopter up. Maybe we can help spot this guy running through the woods before he gets away.”

In the few minutes it took to get the Skycam airborne, we learned more. The guy was a Farview inmate, but he was being treated at the old Scranton General Hospital downtown when he got away from his guards and hijacked a linen supply company truck. Now police all up and down the valley were pulling over trucks that said “Angelica Linen Supply” on the side. Our crew—pilot Jack Ruland, reporter Bob Reynolds and Photographer Tom Hoveywent tearing towards each stop. Finally, they spotted the truck on I-91 with state police in pursuit.

We went along for the ride: did we ever! I figured, “How long can it take to pull this guy over?” and I sent Frank Andrews into the studio to introduce a live report, interrupting our daily kids’ show Hatchy Malatchy.

How long? Thirty-eight minutes!

For 38 minutes the inmate, later identified as Kenneth Lunan, ran roadblocks while state and local police tried to pull him over. All the while, Tom (hand-holding the camera in the days before “Gyrozooms”) shot amazing live pictures—Bob and Jack did play-by-play—and Frank did color commentary (“That’s the Price Chopper/Fay’s complex on the corner”), warning people of the route and to stay off the roadways in the area. We looked on, live, as police fired several shots to try to disable the truck, and as it smashed into several vehicles parked by the side of the road.

I couldn’t stop pacing. At one point, listening to the scanners, I heard one local police car radioing for a location, only to be told, “Look under the helicopter!!!”

All I could remember was a Faye Dunaway line from the movie Network: “Son of a bitch, we struck the mother lode!”

In the end, police were able to sort of “nudge” Lunan into leaving the city and heading up rural “Snake Road” in Ransom Township where finally—riding on the rims, the tires shot out—he turned off into a farmer’s field and was captured.

The next day, the story of the chase was top-of-the-fold in each of Scranton’s two daily newspapers and each of Wilkes-Barre’s two—while the story of our coverage was just below the fold.

It was one of the first times a TV station ever cut in for live coverage of a police chase: long before O.J. Simpson and “White Broncos,” long before Los Angeles stations made chases more commonplace than commercials.

The most ringing endorsement we got, however, came from a six-year-old. Her mom later told me the girl came out of the TV room after the chase. when her mother asked her why she hadn’t come out after the kids’ program, she said, “Oh, Mom, after Hatchy Milatchy they had on Smoky and the Bandit! "

And it was entirely fitting that Jack and Tom were front and center.Some months before they were involved in a tragedy that brought tears to a lot of eyes. Now that I think about it, it might have been in the first Skycam.

A young boy—early teens—was walking across a railroad trestle when he slipped and plunged into the icy Susquehanna River in Luzerne County. Our assignment editor (maybe Don Jacobs, maybe Carl Abraham) sent the Skycam to tape the police boats attempting a rescue. But when they got to the river there were no police in sight: the swift current was carrying the boy away from all help.

That’s when Tom put down his camera and Jack maneuvered the ship so the skids were all but in the water. Tom grabbed for the boy—but the frozen youngster couldn’t reach out, and went under.

Tom and Jack were devastated. But I told them they had done all they could—that no one could have done more—and that they should be proud of their heroic efforts. I prayed my words had an impact. I knew they didn't.

That’s why I was proud they had a chance to both be involved in another big Skycam story, one with a happy ending: still, I think, the biggest helicopter story in market history.

Come to think of it: the model kit and the wings aren’t for sale. They’re priceless to me.

As are the memories. So long, Skycam.


An update. I'm told by an "old-timer," someone who was there, that his memory is that Jay Newman was News Director when the first Skycam, the Hughes, was acquired; and that it was later in the seventies. Could very well be. Elden left the station for a couple of years before coming back as manager.

Ironically, Jay later hired me at WCIX (now WFOR) in Miami. After several years as a top exec. in the CBS O-and-O chain he's now General Manager for WJZ-TV in Baltimore.