Thomas F. O’Neil, a longtime radio and TV executive who helped create the popular “Million Dollar Movie,” died March 14 of heart failure at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 82.
Following service in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, O’Neil acquired the Yankee Network, a group of Boston radio stations, in 1947. The next year he formed General Teleradio by combining Yankee Network with the new venture of TV.
During the early 1950s, O’Neil upped his acquisitions of radio outlets, acquiring the 45 stations of the Don Lee Network on the West Coast in 1950, along with Los Angeles’ KHJ-TV. In 1952 he acquired New York’s WOR-AM and WOR-TV from R.H. Macy Co. He then acquired the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1953.
During this time, O’Neil came upon the idea of airing the same film three times a day, five times a week, similar to a movie theater, as a way to attract viewers and to increase his inventory of programs to run. The concept, known as “The Million Dollar Movie,” was an overwhelming success.
In 1954, O’Neil entered into a deal with Howard Hughes, purchasing RKO Radio Pictures from him for $25 million.
This deal provided O’Neil with a healthy library of films to run on his TV stations. RKO’s name was then changed to RKO General. He sold the RKO Studios lot on Gower Street (now Paramount Television) in Hollywood to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu Prods. in 1957.
In 1961 he bought Video Independent Theatres, the first company to test “telemovies,” the first commercial attempt at pay TV. As a result, O’Neil began the first large-scale pay TV system, using RKO’s Hartford, Conn., TV station, WHCT-TV.
O’Neil retired in 1985.
He is survived by his wife, Claire McCahey O’Neil, five sons, four daughters, 20 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
— John Magrisso