Scott D. Pierce: Proudly independent KJZZ-Ch. 14 turns 25

First Published      Last Updated Feb 14 2014 10:54 am

Exactly 25 years ago, KJZZ signed on as Utah's newest television station.

It wasn't KJZZ then, it was KXIV. Clever call letters for Channel 14. (Channel XIV, get it?) And it was Feb. 14.

First up, at 6 a.m. on that Tuesday? Popeye cartoons.

A lot has changed since then. Larry H. Miller bought the station in 1993 and changed the call letters to KJZZ as the station became the home of the majority of the Utah Jazz games on TV … until 2009, when FSN Utah (now ROOT Sports) became the NBA team's local home and KJZZ became Jazzless.

"As it turned out, it's been a good thing for us," said Jeremy Castro, general manager of KJZZ and vice president of broadcasting for the Jazz. "ROOT Sports has been a great partner for the Jazz and a great outlet for the games. And they pay us a rights fee that more than makes up for the revenue we could generate on KJZZ." (Reportedly, that deal pays the Jazz $240 million over 12 years.)

But it did mean sort of a return to Channel 14's roots — mostly syndicated shows and a few local productions.

The station has been affiliated with a couple of networks — UPN (1995-2001) and My Network TV (2006-08) — but mostly has gone it alone. And against some big competition.

"We have to battle the giants — Sinclair, Nexstar, Tribune — for programming," said Castro, pointing to KUTV-Ch. 2, KTVX-Ch. 4 and KSTU-Ch. 13, respectively. "So being independent is tough."

A lot tougher than it used to be, said program director Bob Quigley, who's been with Channel 14 since the beginning.

"In our early days, we had syndicators beating down our door to buy the next 'Cheers' or the next 'Donahue,' " Quigley said. "Programming options were plentiful and we could pick and choose as we wanted. Today poses great challenges for independent stations."

Off-network shows go to cable first. "Where we were once the movie kings of this market, now you can hardly beg, borrow or steal a movie title to air," Quigley said.

But, Castro said, KJZZ's greatest weakness — the lack of a network affiliation — is also its greatest strength.

"We're not a slave to a network," he said. "If I want to put a high-school football game on, I don't have to ask for permission. If I want to run a Jazz special on a Tuesday night, same thing — I can just do it."

The only complication to making those kind of decisions is if it messes with "Wheel of Fortune" at 7 p.m. or "Jeopardy!" at 7:30 p.m.

"If we ever have an occasion to pre-empt them for any reason … watch out," Quigley said.

"You don't run 'Jeopardy!' and, oh boy, you hear about it," Castro said.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.