Thomas F. O'Neil, 82, Ex-Chief of RKO, Dies


Thomas F. O'Neil, the former chairman of RKO General studios who brought movies to television and experimented -- unsuccessfully -- with an early coin-operated pay-TV system, died Saturday night at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 82, and the cause of death was heart failure complicated by pneumonia, said his son Shane.

Mr. O'Neil's career began with the General Tire and Rubber Company, which his father William O'Neil had founded. He was running the tire company's Boston office when he visited the offices of the Yankee Network, a radio network the company had invested in to recapture some radio advertising costs.

''After that visit he called up my grandfather and said, 'Dad, I like the broadcasting business better than the tire business,' '' Shane O'Neil recalled.

Mr. O'Neil was just back from the war in the Pacific, where he had commanded a Naval landing craft. With his father's encouragement, he formed General Teleradio in 1948 by combining the Yankee Network with a station operating in a new medium: WNAC-TV's first telecasts went to exactly two small-screen television sets placed in the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston.

More stations were added to General Teleradio in the early 1950's, including the Don Lee Network's KHJ-TV in Los Angeles and its West Coast radio stations, WOR radio and television stations in New York -- purchased from R. H. Macy & Company -- and, in 1952, the Mutual Broadcasting System.

It was his television stations' insatiable appetite for programming that led Mr. O'Neil to start buying the broadcast rights to movies. Some Hollywood studios boycotted the venture for fear that giving away movies on television free would undermine their theater business, and Mr. O'Neil had to scramble to find titles, once paying the Bank of America $1.3 million for 30 titles in 1953.

Mr. O'Neil told his advertising sales people that he had named his thrice-weekly movie broadcast 'The Million-Dollar Movie,' not for the cost of making the film, but for the amount of commercial air time they were going to sell for each one. Because he was only interested in the broadcast rights to the movies for his stations, Mr. O'Neil started selling those rights to other TV outlets, a process he called syndication.

Mr. O'Neil took General Teleradio into the motion picture studio business because of his constant need for new titles, and that quest took him into nonstop negotiating with Howard Hughes, the eccentric aviator and entrepreneur, for the purchase of RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.

According to his son, Mr. O'Neil haggled with Mr. Hughes in taxicabs driving around Central Park, on cross-country flights piloted by Mr. Hughes and in Las Vegas, Nev., until finally, in 1954, the two signed a contract in the main floor men's room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, turning RKO Pictures over to General Teleradio for $25 million, or about $150 million at today's prices. Mr. O'Neil changed the studio's name to RKO General.

The studio library's 600 titles solved Mr. O'Neil's movie programming problems, and he began diversifying his company into regional airlines as well as resort hotels and Pepsi-Cola bottling franchises.

Now a studio owner himself, Mr. O'Neil set out to see if people would pay to watch TV. In 1961 RKO General bought Video Independent Theatres of Oklahoma City, which had been experimenting with a crude form of pay-TV, and applied some of its lessons in a joint venture with the Zenith Corporation, which made a coin-operated box that, for four quarters, would unscramble the movie broadcast over the company's Hartford outlet, WHCT-TV.

The venture did not last long.

''The real problem was, you still had to pick up the money,'' said Shane O'Neil, who became president of RKO General in 1983.

Thomas F. O'Neil was born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in Akron, Ohio. He graduated from Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass., and promptly joined the Navy. He retired from RKO General in 1985.

Mr. O'Neil is survived by his wife, Claire; five sons, Shane, of Bedford, N.Y., Mark, of Virginia Beach, Va., Conn, of Sequim, Wash., Liam, of Vashon Island, Wash., and Owen, of Cos Cob, Conn.; four daughters, Lili O'Neil, of Liberty, Me., Carol O'Neil, of San Francisco, and Claire O'Neil and Grace O'Neil Bogart, both of Petaluma, Calif.; 20 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

-NEW YORK TIMES, Mar 17, 1998



Thomas F. O’Neil, 82; Brought Movies to TV

Thomas F. O’Neil, scion of a tire magnate who opted to find his own way in the entertainment industry and was a pioneer in bringing feature films to television, has died.

A family spokesman said this week he had died Saturday at his summer home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 82 and had been battling heart problems and pneumonia.

O’Neil was one of a handful of visionaries in the early days of TV to see that movies and television could coexist to mutual advantage.

Encouraged by his father, William, founder of General Tire & Rubber Co., the younger O’Neil returned from World War II service in the Pacific to form General Teleradio in 1948. He began limited TV broadcasting while starting and buying radio and TV stations on both coasts. (Among his acquisitions were the Don-Lee Network’s KHJ-TV in Los Angeles and Don-Lee West Coast radio stations.)

In 1952, the Mutual Broadcasting System was added to General Teleradio.

To satisfy his TV programming needs, O’Neil began negotiating for broadcast rights to feature films. Many major studios objected, fearing TV would harm the theater business. But O’Neil not only secured dozens of films, he also sold the broadcast rights to other TV outlets–the first television syndication deals.

One memorable negotiation involved Howard Hughes and his RKO Radio Pictures, which O’Neil eventually purchased via a contract signed in a men’s room at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

O’Neil changed the name of the studio to RKO General, and with it O’Neil’s company began producing films for pay TV. But the effort was unsuccessful.

“The problem was,” O’Neil’s son Shane said of the coin-operated box used then, “you still had to pick up the money.”

In addition to five sons and four daughters, O’Neil is survived by his wife, Claire.

-LOS ANGELES TIMES, Mar 18, 1998