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RKO Pictures

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The classic logo of RKO Radio Pictures.

RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures is an American film company.

The company was formed in 1929 from the merger of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater company, Joe Kennedy's Film Booking Office (FBO), the American branch of Pathé, and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Kennedy had bought the basis of FBO in 1925, RCA took a share in FBO in 1927 and Kennedy had acquired a share of KAO in the same year. Kennedy then forced the chairman of KAO out and took over before selling out the two companies to RCA, creating RKO.

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RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

RCA bought its way into the motion picture business to have an outlet for its new variable density optical sound-on-film system, RCA Photophone. All of the major studios and their theater divisions had already signed exclusive contracts to use the other sound-on-film system, AT&T Western Electric division's Westrex variable area optical sound-on-film system. The inclusion of the word "radio" into the corporate name "RKO Radio Pictures" was in honor of the ownership by RCA. The broadcasting-tower logo was suggested by David Sarnoff himself.

In the 1930s, RKO churned out movies at the rate of forty per year under the names Radio Pictures and RKO Pathe. As head of production for two years, David O. Selznick signed a number of stars who would carry RKO through the decade, including Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. The company signed a lucrative distribution deal with Walt Disney Productions in 1936 that would last until 1954. From 1941 to 1952, it also released Samuel Goldwyn's productions. During this time the RKO Studio Club was founded by Errol Leslie "Sandy" Sanders.

The studio produced movies with Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Johnny Weissmuller, Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, Mary Pickford, John Ford, George Cukor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Alfred Hitchcock.

Some of the studio's memorable titles include King Kong, Citizen Kane, It's a Wonderful Life, Gunga Din, Suspicion, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hitler's Children, The Bells of St. Mary's, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Magnificent Ambersons and nine Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. More than the other major studios RKO relied on B-pictures to fill up its schedule; many of those also stand out, including Cat People, The Seventh Victim, I Walked With a Zombie, The Narrow Margin, and Isle of the Dead.

During the Great Depression RCA was forced by the Justice Department to reduce its holdings in the company. Control passed to the investor Floyd Odlum and the Rockefeller brothers. But the shaky finances and excesses of the Kennedy-Sarnoff years undercut RKO, and in 1932 it sank into receivership; a corporate re-organization in the mid-1930's led to better times. From 1935 onward, the Pathe name was used only on newsreels; all features went out under the revised name "RKO Radio Pictures." With help from the boom years of World War II and better management under Charles Koerner and Dore Schary, RKO made a strong comeback in the 1940s.

After years of weathering financial ups-and-downs, Floyd Odlum decided to cash in his RKO holdings, and in 1947 put his stock on the market. For a time it was assumed that J. Arthur Rank, then expanding his British and American holdings, would bite. But to the surprise of many, in 1948, Howard Hughes gained control by buying 25% of the outstanding stock. During his tenure, the recently resurgent RKO again suffered, as Hughes' eccentric management style often shut down production for weeks or months at a time. Distracted by his aircraft-manufacturing interests and angered by a stream of lawsuits from minority shareholders, Hughes startled Hollywood in 1954 by buying out all other stockholders, taking total control of RKO at a cost of $24 million. The following year he ended his RKO association by selling the company to the General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million. Hughes retained the rights to all pictures he had personally produced, including a few made at RKO; he also retained the contract of his discovery, Jane Russell. Howard Hughes never produced another film.

Previously, the RKO theater chain had been divested in the wake of the Hollywood Anti-trust Case of 1948; in 1953, the chain was sold to the Century Circuit; some houses that survived into the 1970s later were sold to Cineplex Odeon.

RKO's new owner General Tire held considerable broadcasting interests, having purchased New England's Yankee Network in 1943 and created General Teleradio (by the merger of the Don Lee Broadcasting System and Bamberger Broadcasting Service in 1950) in 1952. Thomas O'Neill, son of General Tire's founder William O'Neill and chairman of the broadcasting group, saw that General Tire's television stations, indeed all stations, would need programming. In 1953 they had made an offer to Howard Hughes for the RKO film library; now that library was theirs, and rights to about 700 RKO films were put up for sale. The final selling price of $15.5 million convinced other timid studios that their libraries held vast profit potential. The C.&.C. Television Corp., a subsidiary of the beverage maker, bought the RKO library and peddled it to stations along with ads for C&C Cola. All but the most recent RKO films were widely playing on television by 1956.

General Tire made a half-hearted effort to run the studio, hiring veteran producer William Dozier as head of production. Most RKO pictures of this era are either remakes of earlier successes or seem like enlarged B-pictures. Years of mismanagement had driven away many directors, producers and stars, and had led the Disney company to set up its own distribution firm. After a year and a half of little success, production at RKO shut down for good in January, 1957. Studio lots in Hollywood and Culver City were sold to Desilu Productions late in 1957 for $6.5 million.

The former RKO lots were home to Desilu until 1966, when Desilu was acquired by Gulf+Western and merged into G+W's Paramount Pictures as the Paramount Television studios, which the Hollywood lot remains to this day.

With the closing down of production, RKO also closed its distribution exchanges; from 1957 through late 1959, all remaining product was released through others, including Warner Brothers, Universal Studios and MGM. Many of these last productions carry a copyright "RKO Teleradio Pictures Inc."; later this was shortened further to just "RKO Teleradio Inc." By the end of 1959, all that remained of the ambitious studio was the parent company, RKO General. This was also the holding company for all General Tire's broadcasting and soft-drink bottling enterprises. Years afterward Thomas O'Neill claimed that General Tire had broken-even on its investment in RKO, that the sale of the film library and studio lots, along with the proifits from its own productions, had let them walk away cleanly.

RKO General

At its height, RKO General's broadcasting holdings included KHJ-AM-FM-TV Los Angeles, KFRC-AM-FM San Francisco, WHBQ-AM-FM-TV Memphis, CKLW-AM-FM-TV Detroit/Windsor, WNAC-TV, WRKO-AM and WROR-FM Boston and WOR-AM-FM-TV New York. The radio stations became famous as some of the leading adult contemporary, rock and top 40 stations in the world. However, RKO General's real legacy may be the longest licensing dispute in television history.

RKO General's licensing saga began in 1965 when it applied for renewal of the license for KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. Fidelity Television, a local group, challenged the license. At first, it charged RKO General with second-rate programming. Later, and more seriously, Fidelity claimed General Tire made its vendors purchase advertising time on RKO stations if they still wanted to sell General Tire's products. The RKO General and General Tire executives who testified before the Federal Communications Commission rejected the accusations. An administrative judge found in favor of Fidelity, but the FCC remanded the matter for further findings in 1972. While the KHJ hearings were underway, RKO faced a license challenge for WNAC-TV in Boston. The FCC conditioned renewal of RKO's license for KHJ-TV on the WNAC proceeding. When RKO applied for renewal of WOR-TV in New York, the FCC conditioned this renewal on the WNAC proceeding as well.

On June 21, 1974; an administrative law judge renewed WNAC's license despite finding that General Tire had engaged in reciprocal trade practices. However, in 1975, one of the original competitors for WNAC-TV asked the FCC to take another look. It alleged that General Tire bribed foreign officials, maintained a slush fund for American campaign contributions and misappropriated foreign corporate funds. The proceedings dragged on for six years.

On June 6, 1980; the FCC stripped RKO of the licenses for KHJ, WOR and WNAC. Factors in the decision were the reciprocal trade practices of the 60s, false financial filings by General Tire, and gross misconduct by General Tire in non-broadcast fields. The ultimate basis for the revocation, however, was RKO's dishonesty before the FCC. RKO denied numerous allegations of corporate wrongdoing on General Tire's part during several proceedings from 1975 to 1977. However, in 1977, as part of a Securities and Exchange Commission settlement, General Tire released a report in which it admitted to an eye-popping litany of corporate misconduct. The FCC found that RKO had displayed a "lack of candor" regarding General Tire's misconduct and thus threatened "the integrity of the Commission's process." RKO appealed the decision to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The court upheld the WNAC revocation solely on the grounds of RKO's dishonesty. It ordered a rehearing of the proceedings for KHJ and WOR. WNAC was sold to New England Television, a merger of two of the original competitors for that station, and renamed WNEV-TV. It has since become WHDH-TV.

In 1983, General Tire persuaded Congress to pass a law that would require the FCC to automatically renew the license of any VHF television station that voluntarily relocated to New Jersey. At that point, RKO General officially moved WOR-TV's city of license from New York to Secaucus, New Jersey. However, it essentially remained a New York station. Ironically, WOR-AM began in nearby Newark and didn't move to New York until 1941. A year later, General Tire reorganized its far-flung corporate interests into a holding company, GenCorp. General Tire and RKO General became the leading subsidiaries of the new company.

In 1987, FCC administrative law judge Edward Kuhlmann found RKO unfit to be a broadcast licensee and stripped RKO of all of its licenses. Kuhlmann based his ruling on numerous instances of misconduct on RKO's part. Among other things, RKO misled advertisers about its ratings, engaged in fraudulent billing, lied to the FCC about a destroyed audit report and filed false financial statements during the WNAC proceedings. The group by this time included WOR-AM-TV and WRKS-FM (the former WOR-FM) in New York, KHJ-TV and KRTH-AM-FM (the former KHJ-AM-FM) in Los Angeles and eight other radio stations. GenCorp and RKO planned to appeal, claiming that it had fired every party responsible for the misconduct. However, the FCC told RKO that it would almost certainly deny any appeals and strip the licenses, and urged RKO to sell the stations in order to avoid this indignity. Over the next two years, RKO dismantled its broadcast operations. WOR-AM went to Buckley Broadcasting, WRKS to Summit Communications and KRTH-AM-FM to Beasley. WOR-TV was sold to MCA and became WWOR-TV, while KHJ-TV went to Disney and became KCAL-TV. RKO was forced to sell the stations at considerably less than market value (the group was estimated to be worth at least $750 million).

RKO Pictures

RKO General was sold off by GenCorp in 1987, and renamed RKO Pictures in 1989 when it was acquired by Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley, who planned to once again make movies on the claim that theirs was the same company as the original RKO-Radio Pictures and had been continuously involved in film production and/or distribution. In fact, rights to a majority of the RKO film library were sold in the 1960s to United Artists, and later incorporated into MGM/UA, which in turn became part of the holdings of Turner Entertainment, where the rights stand today via Time-Warner. RKO Pictures have reprinted some RKO titles which had fallen into public domain and syndicated them to television, with a modernized version of the old RKO logos. This has created some confusion among younger film fans who assume the company of the 30s and 40s was only called RKO Pictures (and, presumably, had a color logo while the films were in black and white).

RKO Radio Pictures Inc. is well-known by its "Globe and Radio Tower" logo.

External links

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