Sunday, February 17, 2013

Remember Nite-Owl on WFLD-TV Chicago?

Today, as I was playing some songs on the radio, I came across the Little River Band's 1981 hit, "Night Owls."  The video for this song was a common sight on late night video programs and in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV.  But I was reminded of something else:

Nite-Owl on Channel 32 in Chicago.

Does anyone else remember this?  Nite-Owl was a program that dominated the early hours on WFLD-TV in Chicago and consisted of news, weather and sports all provided by funky computerized block graphics played with a soft-rock soundtrack of popular hits and muzak from the time.  I was in junior high  and found myself staying up late, mesmerized by the high-tech (for the time) computer graphics.  One night in 1981, I was at my friend's house across the street and we turned on Nite-Owl after Saturday Night Live and fell asleep to the blue glow and soft music emanating from the tv.

I distinctly remember hearing that Little River Band song and thought it would make a good theme to the program.

Nite-Owl premiered in September of 1981 and was attracting some 75,000 viewers a night within a year.  The company then expanded and started charging a fee, but it soon died out by 1984.

Here's a promo for the premiere of Nite-Owl from 1981:

And here's a 10 minute segment from August 25, 1982, featuring "Love is in the Air" by John Paul Young, "Who Am I?" by Petula Clark and "Biggest Part of Me" by Ambrosia.

The service was provided via teletex, which was hooked up into the computers at the Chicago Sun-Times.  The editorial office for Keyfax was located in Elk Grove Village where editors typed up the copy and sent it back to WFLD in Chicago over a telephone line.  The service was paid for through advertising placed between the 100 or so pages that scrolled throughout the night.

Nite-Owl, although archaic by today's standards, was really ahead of its time.  It foreshadowed 24 hour news channels and internet RSS feeds.  It looked much like the on-line bulletin boards and dial-up services of the early and mid-1990s.  Remember Prodigy and Compuserve?  Nite-Owl looked just like those 1990 internet gateways.

But with  soft-rock soundtrack.


  1. When other stations were signing off, WFLD kept going. And I remember the reason behind it.

    People started working late or coming home after 2nd shift and wanted some news. This was a way someone could come home from work, sit down with a drink and catch up without any political bias.

    Ahead of it's time.

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  3. Great memories. I was a member of the Bullseye Club for the show's short life. Each hour, there was a segment devoted to games, e.g. trivia, and the mascot of the segment was known as the Nite Owl Trickster. His block-graphic flying saucer would land onscreen and he would emerge and wave. Bullseye Club members received a certificate (signed by the Trickster)and a button. Members were also supposed to periodically receive promotional items, but I don't think that ever happened. I also had a fan letter that I sent quoted onscreen during the show, a real thrill in the early 80's.
    Unfortunately, they tried to scale up too quickly by transitioning to a subscription model with a separate decoder box which would have given viewers the ability to dial up individual pages on demand, also an impressive feat for the time. However, the demand for the pay service was hugely overestimated, leaving the company with only a fraction of their projected subscribers. The handful of cable providers that offered the service dropped it after a few months, and Keycom's remaining assets were absorbed by parent company Centel.
    A more detailed history can be viewed at

  4. If you're a serious tech historian, here's a link to an excerpt from New Scientist Magazine from July 22, 1982, about the technical workings of Nite-Owl. Pretty complex by 1982 standards.

    1. Thanks for sharing that link, any Nite Owl fan needs to read it.

      And how funny to remember a time when TBS wasn't a household name.

  5. I remember this from my senior year of high school. I competed in radio speaking on the speech team, and since I had to be up really early anyway I got my sports and weather info for my script from Keyfax. Gotta love the groovy easy-listening and yacht rock music that accompanied the telecasts. Three songs I definitely remember include Poetry Man by Phoebe Snow, Really Wanna Know You by Gary Wright and Touch Me When We're Dancing by the Carpenters.

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