70 Years of ABC7: Van Amburg, the 1970s and a TV news revolution

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Van Amburg and the rest of the "Channel 7 News Gang" put on their cowboy outfits and rode into San Francisco Bay television sets in the 1970s, creating an iconic TV commercial that created buzz on the level of today's viral videos.

A lot of people scoffed at the unorthodox promotion, but the ad, along with groundbreaking news reports, launched a decade of the highest news ratings in Bay Area history.

Amburg took over as lead anchor of Channel 7 News in 1969. Within a few months, he and news director Pat Polillo began developing an entirely new format that would change local TV news forever.

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Paul Jeschke was installed as producer of the 11 p.m. news and remembers Channel 7 in the '70s as "a no holds, barred news operation that made up the rules as we went along."

The shows were called "News Scene." The basic format looks familiar now, but for its time, it was a revolution -- with cutting edge stories on social change and a new focus on people's everyday concerns.

Consumer issues, health news, stories about children and education -- even pop culture -- all started to get more attention.

"For the first time in television news, every single story revolved around people and what they were thinking and what they were doing. It wasn't events that we were covering... we were really covering people's lives," Jeschke said.

It was a huge success. "Everybody was watching KGO-TV in those days. The format had changed dramatically and all eyeballs were glued to that television station," remembers former ABC7 News Anchor and Reporter Don Sanchez.

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Amburg was at the center of it all. Colleagues say he was the ultimate promoter, known for dramatic teases that would draw in viewers.

Jeschke still remembers Amburg's tease the night a man was shot on the Bay Bridge. "'He had 50 cents in his hand and bullet in his head. We'll have film.' How could you not watch?" Jeschke said.

At the peak of its popularity, some evenings more than half of all people watching television in the Bay Area were tuned to Channel 7's "News Scene," and they were not just watching Amburg.

Co-anchor Jerry Jensen was part of the winning equation. Jensen was a solid newsman, also known for what was then a new concept -- funny stories on odd topics at the end of the newscast.

Despite the addition of lighter topics, the heart of Channel 7 "News Scene" remained a heavy focus on local news, which in the early '70s included a string of terrifying stories.

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During 1973 and '74, the Bay Area was rocked by the murder of Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of Oakland schools, the murders of 15 people in racially motivated attacks known as the Zebra Killings, and the kidnap of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

Another key to Channel 7's new format was sending reporters beyond the boundaries of San Francisco. That idea got even more important when BART opened in 1972 and people began moving farther and farther out of the city.

"It was not just a San Francisco station, it was a Bay Area station. So they encouraged us to go out to different neighborhoods and connect with people," said reporter David Louie, who was hired in 1972.

Louie was just the second Asian American reporter on Bay Area television news. Louie recalled, "There was a lot of curiosity, who is this person who is coming in to report for ABC7? What's his background? Who is he? Especially in the Chinese American community, they wanted to know - what generation am I? Where did my grandparents come from?"

Another critical member of the News Gang was Pete Giddings, the first professional meteorologist on Bay Area TV. Giddings did his own forecasting, with a reputation for accuracy, some pretty extreme polka dot ties, and an early dedication to environmental reporting.

In 1976, Giddings produced an acclaimed series on what was then the worst drought in state history. He included tips for viewers on saving water, even demonstrating an item that was just starting to gain popularity, the low flow showerhead.

Giddings was also part of the attention grabbing commercials that were an early News Scene staple. Some of the most extreme ads featured consumer reporter John Brian, who dressed up as Superman or the Lone Ranger coming to the viewers' rescue.

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The crazy commercials added to the team's reputation for what some called happy talk, the chit chat between the anchors that did not necessarily have a serious news purpose, but did make them seem like regular human beings.

Some nights the audience was so big, Channel 7 "News Scene" was one of the highest rated newscasts in the whole country. In 1974, that popularity brought Mike Wallace of CBS' "60 Minutes" to San Francisco to find out what was going on.

Wallace was not a fan and blasted KGO-TV for showing what he thought was too much crime and sex and not enough national and international news.

General manager Russ Coughlan made no apologies. During the "60 Minutes" segment Coughlan, wondered aloud: "Isn't fire, crime and sex news? I think we all deal in that, even the esteemed New York Times has to put a little sex in there once in a while, somewhere on the back page."

Amburg also stood by the station's people-first format. "It has to do with the fact I try to relate, that I try to talk, that I do get involved, that I do solve problems, that we get the old lady the house that she's been burned out of," he said.

Amburg had already generated controversy for leading a show with a report that a man's severed genitals were discovered on a railroad track. When Wallace asked about that incident, Amburg strongly defended the decision to run the story.

"At that time, the Santa Cruz murders were going on. Now if we had found a finger beside the railroad track in the East Bay, we would have had it on. Now I was not uptight about the fact that it was a male sexual organ. I mean, to me, there was a victim somewhere, something had happened. This was grabbed by many members of the press saying - hey look what they are doing to grab audience. We didn't cut that thing off and put it over there," Amburg said.

Whatever the motivation, the ratings kept growing and so did the diversity of the news team.

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Reporter Rigo Chacon was hired in 1974 after he was lured away from another Bay Area station. When Chacon thinks about it now, he remembers, "It was like going from the little league to the majors."

Chacon lived in San Jose, which had doubled in population in the past decade. He soon launched the Bay Area's first South Bay bureau while, at the same time, trying carefully to define his role as the first Latino reporter on Bay Area news.

"When I would explain to people in the Mexican community that I had to be objective, that I couldn't be a spokesman, they said, 'Well, what good does it do then to have you there?'" he recalled.

The good came from Chacon's determination to cover stories that better reflected the diversity of the community.

"I brought to the table stories that had never been told. I brought to the table stories that wouldn't be told. I brought to the table stories that broadcasters hadn't thought of. So yes, we made a difference," Chacon said.

Valerie Coleman Morris also joined Channel 7 in 1974 as a reporter and weekend anchor. She was one of the first African American anchors in the Bay Area and the first anchor to appear on Bay Area television pregnant.

At first, she hid it. "I wore a huge belt all the time. That was just my fashion because I did not know what would happen if I said 'I'm pregnant,'" Morris said.

Even after the station management found out, Morris stayed on the air and she became a popular part of the news team. But, according to Morris, women in the newsroom were still considered secondary to men. So in later years, she would go on to push management for equal treatment.

"When we look at it now and we see the number of women who are in key anchor positions, I feel good about this because, 50 years ago, it was not that. Fifty years ago, it was a pretty solitary course," Morris said.

One place the news team was always united was serving the community, even when it was controversial. Back in the '70s, coverage of child abuse fell into that category, leading to a powerful station editorial by general manager Russ Coughlan.

In the editorial, Coughlan acknowledged some viewers were upset the station had started doing stories on child abuse. But he said, "We are not doing it to be popular. What we are really trying to do is save some lives. And as long as I am general manager at Channel 7 in San Francisco, we are going to continue to serve the community in spite of that criticism."

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Meanwhile, the community Channel 7 served was changing. One evolving story of the '70s was the demand for gay rights.

For many, the topic was still off limits. But in 1976, Jensen and the Channel 7 News team spent six months working on a groundbreaking series called "Bay Gays." The series showed the gay community in bars, bath houses and featured two men who were living as husbands -- a new concept for the time.

During the mid-1970s, Channel 7 led reporting on many other major Bay Area's stories including: Sara Jane Olsen's failed attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford in San Francisco, the brutal eviction of elderly Filipino Americans from the city's International Hotel and the passage of the Jarvis-Gann Initiative, later known as Proposition 13, that rolled back property taxes.

Channel 7 was also known for hard hitting investigations, including one by reporter Steve Davis who was asking questions about Jim Jones and the People's Temple in San Francisco, months before hundreds of Jones' followers died in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978.

Davis' reporting on the cult led to death threats. He and his family actually had to move out of their house as a precaution.

Just nine days after the Jonestown tragedy, Channel 7 brought viewers another stunning story -- both Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White.

The following year, Channel 7 cameras were there as riots broke out when White was found guilty of manslaughter, rather than murder.

It was a sad end to a decade marked by a lot of tragedy, but a new era was beginning.

In December 1979, Van Amburg and David Louie led the first local American TV news team to visit mainland China, which had been closed to westerners for 30 years.

It was an ambitious effort, connecting the Bay Area's Chinese community with its roots, an early sign of how much broader the reach of local news would be in the next decade.

Heading into the 1980s, stations all over the country were copying Channel 7 News' winning formula. Better technology made it easier to get news and pictures to viewers fast. The controversial format mellowed a little, but ABC7 kept the focus on real people and the issues that matter to them.

Then, as now, we are committed Building a Better Bay Area.

Look back with us through the ABC7 archives to witness our unique communities through the eyes of some of the first people to broadcast their stories, as ABC7 celebrates 70 years in the Bay Area.
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