Ask anyone to name one of the Marx Brothers, and chances are nearly everybody will respond "Groucho". Although he starred with his brothers Harpo and Chico in a long series (thirteen films in twenty-one years) of comedy movies that were both box-office hits and often critically-acclaimed, the reason Groucho became the most famous of the Marx Brothers had nothing to do with movies, and everything to do with a quiz show that first appeared on radio in 1947, moved to television three years later, and would go on to become one of the longest-running prime-time hits in network television history.
In addition to his co-starring roles with his brothers in the movies, Groucho tried radio several times during the 1930's and early 1940's. None of these programs were successful. Even the last of his flops, "(Pabst) Blue Ribbon Town" in 1943-44, which the critics loved, could not register high-enough Crosley numbers.
Groucho did better in guest spots on other comedy and variety shows. One night in 1947, he and Bob Hope were among the stars of a radio comedy special sponsored by the Walgreen drug store chain. What happened that evening--and who witnessed what happened that evening--would change Groucho's career forever and lead his show-business career to new heights.
Marx and Hope were supposed to do a pre-written comedy skit. But both men disregarded the script and ad-libbed their way through the skit. As it turned out, the ad-libbed skit was far funnier than what had been written in the original script. And it was Groucho who really shined in the ad-libbed bit.
The program was produced by a creative young radio producer named John Guedel, who at the time produced two hit network-radio programs ("People Are Funny" once-a-week at night for NBC, "House Party" during weekday afternoons for CBS), both starring Guedel's close friend Art Linkletter.
After the show ended, Guedel approached Groucho and suggested that he try a program where he could ad-lib. Guedel specifically suggested that Groucho emcee a quiz show. Not knowing if Groucho, one of the great screen comedians to agree, Guedel was pleasantly surprised when Marx agreed with enthusiasm.
The idea for the new show would be that Groucho would do a comic interview with the contestants before they played the quiz. Guedel already had a format for the quiz portion of the show: on his "People Are Funny", he had from time-to-time done a bit called "You Bet Your Life", in which contestants could win either cash or cartons of the sponsor's cigarettes by correctly answering general-knowledge questions posed by Linkletter (incorrect answers resulted in players lose part of their winnings). Guedel wanted to use this as the basis of the quiz, which contestants, appearing in teams of two, would play after being interviewed by Marx.
To insure that the best ad-libs and comic exchanges would get into the final product, Guedel wanted to pre-record "You Bet Your Life". By pre-recording the program, and editing it, dull (or extremely risque) parts would be "left on the cutting room floor", and only the best comedy would survive to the final product that would go on the air.
But pre-recording the show immediately eliminated CBS and NBC from consideration to air the program, due to rules they still had barring pre-recording of shows. But ABC, who had let Bing Crosby pre-record his shows, was more than willing to give the new show a shot.
Elgin-American watches became the sponsor of the show, and a young San Francisco native--George Fenneman (at that time only 26 years old, but with several years of announcing experience already behind him)--was signed on as combination announcer and straight man.
"You Bet Your Life" premiered on October 27th, 1947 over ABC, and it began the way every other episode would for the next fourteen years: with Fenneman announcing "Here He Is, The One, The Only....", and the studio audience finishing the sentence with a loud "Groucho!".
Each week, three teams of contestants would appear. After being interviewed (and often insulted) by Groucho, they played a brief quiz. For the first decade, the quiz format consisted of contestants being asked four questions from a list of questions worth between $ 10 and $ 100. A correct answered earned the team the amount the question was worth (the higher the dollar amount of the question, the more difficult it was), while a wrong answer resulted in half the contestants' winnings being taken away. The object of the game was to win more money than either of the two other teams, in order to come back at the end of the show to try for a bonus question for an additional cash prize. The end-of-show bonus question may have been the first instance of a "bonus round", which is now standard on virtually every game show. During the quiz, the contestants could choose the category of questions; but they could not choose the category of the jackpot questions.
Contestants evenly split winnings: if a team won $ 200, each member would walk away with $ 100.
Besides the quiz, there was one other way contestants could win money on the show. At the beginning of each program, Groucho and Fenneman announced a "secret word". If any contestant said that "Secret Word" anytime during their appearance, the team would split $ 100. Once "You Bet Your Life" began on television in 1950, a toy duck holding two $ 50 bills would descend from the studio ceiling.
From time-to-time during the latter years of "You Bet Your Life"'s run on television, model Marilyn Burtis, sitting on a bench, would descend from the studio ceiling to give out the money instead of the duck, and on one memorable occasion, Groucho's brother Harpo descended from the studio ceiling instead of the duck. And, during the television years (the show being pre-filmed then), came one of the loudest instances of studio- audience laughter ever and one of the great bloopers of the century, although it was edited out of the show. It seems one night, a contestant said the "Secret Word", the duck came down, and hit George Fenneman on the head! Fortunately, Fenneman wasn't badly hurt, and he was able to continue, but the laughter from the audience was so loud and lengthy that reportedly, the sound of the laughter stemming from this incident became a staple of situation-comedy soundtracks well into the 1970's!
By 1949, "You Bet Your Life" was a certified hit, and its original sponsor, Elgin-American, could no longer afford to remain as sponsor. Chrysler Corporation, specifically the DeSoto/Plymouth division, stepped in and became the new sponsor starting in the fall of 1949. That autumn, "You Bet Your Life" moved to CBS (one of many comedy-oriented shows that moved over to CBS during that period), and became an even bigger hit.
Marx won a George Foster Peabody award for his work as emcee of "You Bet Your Life", the only instance to date of a comedian winning the award for hosting a game show. When informed he won, Groucho reportedly asked "Who's Peabody?"
As the 1940's ended, Marx and Guedel began to look at moving the show over from radio to television. One evening in December, 1949, TV cameras were brought in to Studio A at CBS' Columbia Square in Hollywood (where "You Bet Your Life" was broadcast from that year), and a kinescope recording was made of the entire recording session, edited down to a half-hour show to show DeSoto and CBS that "You Bet Your Life" could translate well to the new medium.
DeSoto was willing to sponsor the show on TV as well as radio, but NBC outbid CBS for the 1950/51 season of both the radio and television versions, the first case of NBC stealing away someone who had signed with CBS during the "Paley's Comet" talent raids of 1948 and 1949.
The show moved to NBC in October of 1950, retaining the Wednesday-night time slot on radio it had had since the beginning. But the television version would appear on Thursday evenings. Since the show was still pre-recorded in advance (now done on film in a studio at NBC's facility at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood; an audio tape was also recorded and both were separately edited down to the half-hour episodes broadcast on their respective mediums), the radio version of "You Bet Your Life" would actually air about 24 hours PRIOR to the television version! This situation would exist for most of the 1950's.
The TV version in its first years on the air (1950-55) wasn't very visual. The set just contained curtains, a podium and a chair behind it for Groucho to sit on, and microphones on floor stands for George Fenneman and the contestants. The most visual thing about the set of the early TV years was the "DeSoto/Plymouth Dealers" logo.
As successful as the radio version of "You Bet Your Life" was, the new television version was even more successful, ranking well-up the top ten of the Neilsen ratings for most of its television run. For the first five years on television, "You Bet Your Life" was far and away the most popular game show on television.
In the 1956/57 season, the show's ratings began to dip. The show was still quite successful, but not ranking high in the top ten. Part of the reason might have been the prizes available for contestants to win, which were now minuscule compared to what was available on "The $ 64,000 Question" and "Twenty-One".
For the fall of 1957, Guedel increased the amount of money available for contestants to win, but wisely, did not increase them to the astronomical levels of some other game shows. The quiz was still incidental to Groucho's antics.
The quiz format was changed for the 1957/58 season: Contestants would now be asked a series of questions in their chosen categories. If they correctly answered four questions in a row, they split $ 1,000, and had a chance to return at the end of the show to play the bonus round. Only two teams competed on each show, as opposed to three teams had previously appeared on each episode. The bonus round was also changed. A wheel came out on-stage, marked with the numbers "1" through "10". One member of the team was asked to pick a number. If the wheel landed on that number, the bonus question would be worth $ 10,0000 ($ 5,000 to each member). The other member was asked to pick a second number. If the wheel landed on the second number, the bonus question would be worth $ 5,000 ($ 2,500 to each player). If the wheel landed on any of the other eight numbers, the bonus question would be worth $ 2,000 ($ 1,000 per player).
On the other hand, if a team got two wrong answers in a row, they were out of the game, and ineligible to go on to the bonus round.
If a team went broke, or wound up with little money, Groucho would ask a nonsense question as a consolation. The most famous was "Who Is Buried In Grant's Tomb?". This would allow contestants to leave with $ 25 each ($ 50 per team), since Groucho always stated that "Nobody Leaves Here Broke".
The changes in the quiz format and the larger prizes did the trick, as "You Bet Your Life" returned to the top ten of the Neilsens for the 1957/58 season.
By the mid-fifties, the set of the show was changed to make it look a little more visual--flats with wallpapered designs on them. But it was still Groucho and the contestants who viewers tuned in to see--not an elaborate set. In 1959, the set was changed again, with white flats accented by vertical black stripes at measured intervals, in an attempt to make the set more up-to-date-looking.
In 1959, the format of the main quiz was changed again. Now, contestants would be asked four questions in a category of their choice. They could pick questions worth between $ 100 and $ 3009, and had to win at least $ 500 to go to the bonus round. As had been the case earlier in the decade, the higher the amount, the harder the question. Under the new quiz format, it was actually possible for contestants to win more than ever before--$ 1,200 in the quiz (as opposed to the previous $ 1,000), and up to $ 10,000 in the bonus round (team members continued to split winnings), but most contestant teams would be more interested in just winning $ 500 to qualify for the jackpot round.
In 1959, NBC radio ended most of their entertainment programming, and "You Bet Your Life" left the medium where it had begun a dozen years earlier. The show continued to be quite popular on television--for a short time.
But "You Bet Your Life" was moved out of its longtime Thursday 8 P.M. timeslot to Thursdays at 10--head-to-head against a new action-adventure gangster series on ABC titled "The Untouchables". For only the second time in its run on television, "You Bet Your Life" was not in the top ten, and for the first time, it was no longer winning its time period.
For the 1960/61 television season, the series was re-named "The Groucho Show", but the format was otherwise unchanged from the 1959/60 show. By this time, DeSoto/Plymouth (Chrysler would soon discontinue the DeSoto nameplate) ended its sponsorship, and a variety of sponsors took over. But "The Untouchables" continued to dominate the time period, and it was announced in the spring of 1961 that "You Bet Your Life"/"The Groucho Show" would be ending its long run. The final episode was taped on May 17th, 1961, and the final first-run episode aired that June 22nd. Reruns continued through mid-September.
When most game shows are canceled, that's the last you'll ever see of them (unless at some future point, the show is revived in a brand-new version). But "You Bet Your Life" became one of the few TV game shows ever to be syndicated as reruns after it left network television. Several generations of people too young to have been able to watch the shows when they were first broadcasts have enjoyed Groucho's barbs, the humorous interviews, and yes, even the quiz. When the reruns were placed into syndication, they were titled "The Best Of Groucho", which was also the title "You Bet Your Life" was given during a 13-week period each summer when reruns of the best shows of the just-ended season were shown.
Eight months after the final taping of "The Groucho Show", Marx returned to emcee another game show, "Tell It To Groucho" for CBS (also produced by John Guedel). Marx again did comic interviews with contestants before playing a quiz, in this case, a visual-identification game. Replacing Fenneman as on-camera sidekicks were two teenagers, Jack Wheeler and Patty Harmon, who had appeared on "The Groucho Show" during its final season. "Tell It To Groucho" only lasted a few months.
Much like Ed McMahon would years later, George Fenneman found the sidekick's role was a road to stardom on his own. During the "You Bet Your Life" years, Fenneman also hosted two other game shows--"Anybody Can Play" (ABC, 1958-59, also produced by John Guedel), and "Your Surprise Package" (CBS daytime, 1961/62). He also was in demand for narration jobs and commercial voice-overs.
Groucho Marx died in 1977. Twice after his death, "You Bet Your Life" was revived with different hosts: Buddy Hackett in 1980, Bill Cosby in 1992. Neither version lasted more than a year. If truth be told, both revivals, on their own merits, weren't bad. But many viewers remember Groucho on the original show, and as fine comedians as Buddy Hackett and Bill Cosby are, neither could emcee "You Bet Your Life" the way that Groucho could.
So many bits Groucho did on "You Bet Your Life" were memorable, but I'd like to conclude this article with a couple of them. Once, while interviewing a contestant who was a used-car salesman, Marx asked "How Many Times Have You Been Indicted?". And, when interviewing a pair of identical twin men who had married identical twin woman (both men and both women were dressed exactly alike for the show), Groucho let them introduce themselves, and then said "My name Is Groucho, and I'm Leaving!".
And of course, who could forget times when a contestant, prior to playing the quiz, would sing and Groucho would sing along!
Most people will know that Studio 8-H in NBC's New York headquarters has served as the home of the late-night comedy program "Saturday Night Live" since its premiere in 1975. What many viewers may not realize is that the popular late-night show is only the latest chapter of a long line of shows and performers, both on radio and television, who have called 8-H their working home for over 65 years, making it the world's most famous single broadcasting studio.
In the early 1930's, for the second time in a few years, NBC needed new and much larger studio space in New York City for their two radio networks, Red and Blue. There was also the thought of the future, and something called television. And RCA, NBC's parent company, needed much more office space as well. In November of 1933, RCA's new 75-story headquarters building (at that time, New York's third tallest building) was completed in the Rockefeller Center office development. The lower floors of the building contained a substantial number of radio studios.
Of the numerous studios, the largest was named 8-H (the number referring to the fact that the entrance is on the 8th floor of the building). Studio 8-H became the largest radio studio in the world with dimensions of 132 feet long, 78 feet wide, and 30 feet high. It could accommodate a full symphony orchestra and a large studio audience to watch that orchestra, and if television was really going to come, 8-H would be big enough to permit elaborate productions in the visual medium.
For the first few years, 8-H wasn't used all that frequently. It was too big for most radio production needs. But in 1937, RCA/NBC chairman David Sarnoff decided that NBC should have its own in-house symphony orchestra. After getting Arturo Toscanini out of Italy to serve as its conductor, the NBC Symphony settled in studio 8-H. It was the only studio in "Radio City" (as the Rockefeller Center area became known as) big enough for the 130-piece orchestra. For the next seventeen years, first on radio and then on TV, the NBC Symphony, due in large part to Toscaninni's fame, gained a substantial following.
But the NBC Symphony weren't the only users of Studio 8-H. By 1938, the "Magic Key Of RCA" radio variety program would use 8-H, in part because the show featured numerous guests--often two or three different bands or orchestras in a single broadcast--and a studio audience. Studio 8-H was the only place that could hold the entire cast and guest lineup for "Magic Key."
A number of big-time radio variety shows also used 8-H. And, beginning in 1936, 8-H would be NBC News' election-night origination point. 8-H was large enough for desks, chairs, files, news analysts, political experts, production personnel, and later, computers and those who used them to predict election results. Since 1948, 8-H has served as NBC's television election-night anchor studio as well. Until NBC sold off its radio networks in the 1980's, both TV and radio coverage of election night would originate in different parts of 8-H, where they could use the same data (results, and in later years, computer projections and exit poll results).
Studio 8-H was converted for television in the late 1940's, making the decision to originally build it years earlier a good one. Many of the live NBC dramatic anthologies of the "Golden Age" of television, like "Kraft Theatre" were broadcast from 8-H, as were NBC's prime-time New York-based variety shows and many specials. In the mid 1950's, 8-H was converted to color, and many specials would be broadcast from there.
While the NBC Symphony was disbanded in 1954, NBC had an in-house opera company during the 1950's that presented opera over the NBC-TV network; studio 8-H was often the point of origination. In addition to election nights, 8-H would also serve as the "NBC News Space Center" from 1965 through the end of the Apollo program in 1972, as 8-H was big enough for all the space vehicle mock-ups and flight path charts.
When converted to television, a balcony was added ringing the perimeter of 8-H on three sides. This would provide studio-audience seating for shows requiring it, while freeing-up the floor for sets, cast, and equipment.
And, when "Saturday Night Live" was launched in 1975, there was only one available studio at NBC in New York big enough for the numerous sets needed for this kind of comedy show with numerous skits over the course of a single 90-minute live broadcast: 8-H.
When opened in 1933, Studio 8-H was the world's largest broadcasting studio. It no longer holds that title (there are numerous sound stages in Hollywood used for TV program production that are larger), but it's safe to say that 8-H -- thanks to people like Arturo Toscanini, Milton Cross, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Colin Quinn and hundreds more whose names can't be listed because of limited space -- has the richest history of any broadcasting studio in the world.
In 1947, the Democratic Party's National Committee met to decide where to hold their 1948 Presidential Nomination convention. Two cities, San Francisco and Philadelphia, were interested. As the meeting began, legend has it that San Francisco was the heavy favorite. But the Philadelphia committee had an "ace in the hole"--they wanted Roger Clipp to speak to the party before a decision on a 1948 convention site was made.
Clipp was not a "political big-shot". He was general manager of WFIL radio in Philadelphia, which was about to put WFIL-TV (now WPVI) on the air, as Philly's second television station (the first, WPTZ--not KYW--had begun as an experimental station in the 1930's under the call letters W3XE, and would gain full commercial status in 1941, just before the U. S. entered World War II).
Clipp told the party that if they were to choose Philadelphia for their '48 convention that it would get on television--and not just on the three stations there that were scheduled to be on the air by the summer of 1948 (WCAU was also planning to start-up a television outlet), but thanks to the coaxial cable, on stations along the East Coast as far north as Boston or Schenectady, and as far south as Richmond. Clipp projected that 10 million people would see at least a part of the conventions on TV (Clipp, however, didn't tell the Democrats that at least nine million of that number who would see at least a glimpse of the conventions would do so at either a bar or a radio store). By contrast, San Francisco would not have a TV station on the air until the fall of 1948, and even if it had a station broadcasting in time for the 1948 convention, the City By The Bay would have been the only city to get live TV coverage.
Clipp was successfully able to convince the Democrats to pick Philadelphia for their 1948 convention to take advantage of the new medium. Shortly thereafter, the Republicans also agreed to hold their 1948 convention in the City Of Brotherly Love, also wanting to take advantage of TV coverage.
Although 1948 would be the first "large-scale" network TV broadcast of a political convention, the 1940 Republican Convention, also in Philadelphia, was actually the first to be broadcast on live television. NBC sent down a couple of first-generation cameras to Philly, beamed the coverage to New York, and then fed it back to Philadelphia (on W3XE) and Schenectady (on General Electric's experimental station, which would soon be known as WRGB). Lowell Thomas was anchorman for that pioneering effort, but he wasn't even in Philadelphia! Instead, he would sit in the transmitter control room of NBC's W2XBS atop New York's Empire State Building, watch what was going on in Philly via a TV monitor, and then comment. Most of his commentary was to identify speakers before of after they spoke (i.e. "We have just seen [name of person] speaking on behalf of Wendell Willkie". It would be the only convention broadcast on live TV until 1948.
The infant television industry sent nearly all of its remote units to Philadelphia to cover first the Republicans, then the Democrats. The '48 conventions would also give television news its first two superstar anchormen. NBC's anchorman was John Cameron Swayze, an experienced journalist with long print and radio experience, who had come east in 1947 after serving as NBC's Hollywood/West Coast bureau chief. Swayze wasn't too successful in radio, and wound up in the spring of 1948 narrating "The Camel Newsreel Theatre", a ten-minute featurette each weeknight at 7:50 P.M. "Camel Newsreel" was a joint effort between NBC and Fox-Movietone newsreels; Fox-Movietone provided ten minutes of newsreel film of the day's major news stories, NBC would write a script to go with the pictures (often written by Swayze himself), and Swayze would narrate it--off camera. His face wasn't shown until the conventions.
CBS' choice for anchor at the '48 conventions was Douglas Edwards, a young reporter who had some radio news experience and who had been narrating a once (more recently twice)-a-week newsreel. Unlike Swayze, Edwards' face was seen on-camera. In addition to hosting CBS convention coverage that summer, Edwards' twice-a-week newscast would be expanded to five-nights-a-week once both conventions had ended.
Once or twice a night, a top radio newsman such as Ed Murrow (CBS) or H. V. Kaltenborn (NBC) would pop up on the television side, providing two or three minutes of analysis and opinion on what they thought went on.
ABC and DuMont also produced coverage of the 1948 conventions. Because ABC's own New York station (WJZ-TV, now WABC-TV) wasn't yet on the air, ABC's convention broadcasts aired in New York over WPIX, a newly-launched independent station.
The 1948 conventions helped to establish television news, although the coverage was barbarically primitive compared to what can be done today. It was all in black-and-white, there were few cameras (hand-held minicams were still years away), and "floor reporters" on television would often have to bring guests up to the anchor booth to have them actually be seen on TV; otherwise, the primitive cameras were usually unable to pick-out the floor reporter and his interviewee out on the convention floor.
It helped that the 1948 Republican convention saw a number of candidates battling for the nomination and the Democratic convention featured a number of southern delegates dramatically walking-out of Convention Hall to oppose a civil rights "plank" in the party's platform, creating a memorable television moment.
For those who had TV sets between Boston and Richmond along the coast, you could see it all live, gavel-to-gavel. For the rest of the country, NBC filmed key events of the '48 conventions off the TV screen, one of the earliest uses of kinescope recordings, edited the films, and showed them the next day. For stations on the network, the filmed highlights would precede that day's live coverage. For those stations not on the network, the films would be flown for next-day showing and would represent the only TV coverage these cities would see.
By 1952, network television had reached coast-to-coast. Albuquerque was the only city with a TV station in the 48 contiguous states not hooked-up to network lines by the time Chicago played host to both party conventions that year.
Although Swayze (who finally began to appear on-camera when his nightly newscast was expanded from 10 to 15 minutes in early 1949) and Edwards were still anchormen of their respective networks' evening newscasts in 1952, neither anchored their network's coverage. Instead, NBC used Bill Henry (a veteran reporter with considerable print experience with the Los Angeles Times and a former CBS News correspondent) as its anchorman; while CBS used a young unknown who had been anchoring the local news on its Washington affiliate -- Walter Cronkite (ABC's coverage was anchored by John Charles Daly, who also was ABC's vice-president of news and who would begin anchoring a nightly 15-minute newscast for the network in the fall of 1953 -- the same John Charles Daly who hosted the game show "What's My Line?").
Being the first conventions broadcast live in the Midwest, Southeast, and West Coast (not to mention that millions of people on the East Coast who had TV sets by 1952 didn't have them at the time of the '48 conventions), political conventions were still enough of a novelty in 1952 to attract the attention of the entire country. They pulled what was, at that time, the largest viewing audiences in television history.
In 1952, Cronkite and CBS dominated the ratings (in spite of the fact that CBS had fewer affiliates than NBC at the time), so it was no surprise that he would return to the CBS anchor desk in 1956. NBC, however, decided not to use Bill Henry as its 1956 convention anchorman (although Henry did appear as a news analyst from time-to-time during NBC's coverage). The two men NBC eventually did name would revolutionize television news.
Chet Huntley had started out as a pre-med student who switched to radio andm in time, would become a successful Los Angeles newsman, first at KNX radio, then at KECA (now KABC) radio/TV, and finally as an anchorman of local news at KNBH (which had become KRCA and is now KNBC) in Burbank, as well as some network assignments out of the west coast. David Brinkley began his news career at a small newspaper in his native North Carolina, moving on to the United Press, then to NBC in Washington where he became one of the youngest -- and best -- TV/radio correspondents working out of the capitol. Brinkley was also considered a superior writer who also had a sharp wit.
Although CBS actually won the ratings war in 1956 for both conventions, it had only been able to squeak by NBC. The new NBC team was the talk of the country. That October, Huntley and Brinkley would take over NBC's nightly newscast (Huntley relocating to New York, Brinkley remaining in Washington) and after a slow start, would eventually dominate the evening news ratings during the early 1960's.
ABC in 1952, 1956, and 1960 (all three times anchored by Daly) would remain a distant third in the convention ratings, despite Daly's popularity. He simply didn't have a strong "bench" of talented floor reporters and other correspondents in the convention city as CBS and NBC did.
In 1960, Huntley and Brinkley trounced the competition, and CBS made one of the two biggest mistakes it ever made in covering a political convention: To counter Huntley and Brinkley, CBS decided to use Edward R. Murrow as co-anchor with Cronkite. The idea was that CBS would have the two biggest "names" in television news together, which would draw viewers. But this pairing backfired. Cronkite and Murrow both could do a superior job as a "solo" anchor, but putting them together made them uncomfortable, as they tried to "jell" as a team but never being able to do so.
Interestingly enough, while Cronkite routinely anchored CBS broadcasts of special news events, it wasn't until 1962 that he took over as anchorman of the evening news. It was hoped that by replacing Edwards with Cronkite that CBS would regain the ratings crown. Cronkite began to gain on Huntley and Brinkley, but would still remain a distant second for a few more years.
TV coverage of the 1964 conventions is best remembered for three incidents, two of which can now be considered laughable, the third causing a short-lived national scandal.
Prior to the Republican Convention in San Francisco, CBS producer Don Hewitt (now the executive producer of "60 Minutes") found a book containing NBC's plans to cover the 1964 conventions. He was about to take it to his network's convention headquarters when he was intercepted by NBC producer Scotty Connal (who would later head that network's sports efforts). Connal reportedly threatened to heave Hewitt out the window if he didn't turn over the book. Hewitt did turn over the book, but did have time to briefly scan its contents. Unfortunately for Hewitt and CBS, fortunately for Connal and NBC, the book contained nothing more than routine background information about the campaign, nominee Barry Goldwater, and things like that -- nothing about NBC's plans to cover what was going on.
The second incident also happened in San Francisco. NBC floor reporter John Chancellor was covering some kind of dispute on the convention floor when he suddenly found himself being arrested by the local police! So there was Chancellor, strapped into his floor-reporter's gear, signing-off with "This is John Chancellor, NBC News, somewhere in custody!". Anchormen Huntley and Brinkley burst out laughing! This incident had a happy ending -- once Chancellor was taken off the floor, someone noted who he was and told Chancellor that he wouldn't be held in custody at all and to get back on the convention floor and do his job for NBC.
The third incident to come out of TV's coverage of the 1964 conventions resulted from Huntley and Brinkley dominating the ratings over CBS and ABC (Daly had left ABC at the end of 1960; its 1964 convention coverage had been co-anchored by Howard K. Smith and Edward P. Morgan, two long-time ABC newsmen who had distinguished themselves anchoring coverage of the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy).
CBS wasn't going to take being a poor number-two to Chet and David any more. It was reported that the decision to replace Cronkite at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City with Bob Trout and Roger Mudd was made by CBS chairman Bill Paley himself. But as was the case with Cronkite and Murrow in 1960, Trout and Mudd didn't click as a team either, and CBS fared even worse in Atlantic City than it had in San Francisco, when Cronkite was in the anchor chair. A few weeks later, Paley ordered the news division to have Cronkite anchor the network's 1964 election-night coverage. While NBC still won the election-night ratings race, CBS was a close second. In the evening news battle, Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley would run neck-and-neck until late 1967, when Cronkite would pull ahead in the ratings, maintaining that position until he stepped down from the anchor slot in 1981.
The 1968 Republican Convention in Miami beach was uneventful, but the Democratic Convention in Chicago was another story. Protests against the Vietnam War had turned violent (a government commission would later write that the Chicago Police had incited rioting), and television was often being blamed. Thus, while Huntley and Brinkley were back on NBC, Cronkite back on CBS, and Smith (minus Morgan) back on ABC, the images most remembered from the 1968 Democratic Convention were of rioting in Chicago's streets, and CBS floor reporter Dan Rather being beaten up.
A trend of the future began to appear in ABC's coverage of the 1968 conventions: instead of going full gavel-to-gavel, ABC would go on the air at 9:30 (Eastern time), and do a 90-minute (or longer, if that night's session ran past 11 on the east coast) program, mixing tapes of earlier events and live coverage of some major moments, such as the keynote address and candidate acceptance speeches. ABC would again cover the conventions in this manner for 1972 and 1976. From 8 P.M. (Eastern) (7:30 P.M. Eastern in 1968) until 9:30, ABC would run regular programming. In 1972 and 1976 especially, ABC's early-evening counterprogramming would win an increasing number of viewers.
CBS and NBC would continue gavel-to-gavel coverage through 1980; ABC briefly went back to it that year after Roone Arledge became head of that network's news division. But since then, network coverage of political conventions has been cut back. There are two causes. One is that there simply isn't the viewer interest that there was in the past. Another reason is that convention ratings used to be so high because there would usually be (unless there was an incumbent President seeking re-election) a number of candidates running for the party nomination, and no single candidate was able to get the number of delegates needed to win the nomination during the primary season. Thus, the convention would select who would be that party's Presidential nominee, so millions of viewers would watch. Today, the nomination is usually decided midway through the primaries, and as a result, with the nominee already known, political convention coverage doesn't require the amount of on-air time it once did. A case could be made that cause number two above is the reason for cause number one -- the nominee is already known, so people don't watch.
Although at this writing (April, 1999), network plans for the 2000 conventions (the Republicans will meet in Philadelphia, the first time that city will have played host to a convention since 1948; the Democrats in Los Angeles, the first convention there since 1960) are not yet set, many broadcast journalists who came to Chicago to cover the 1996 Democratic Convention openly predicted that it would be the last time that broadcast-TV networks would carry live coverage of all four days of a political convention, and that in 2000 and beyond, the only live broadcast-network TV coverage of the conventions might come on the final evening -- to cover the acceptance speeches of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees.
For those who want more of the conventions, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and C-SPAN will cover the conventions start-to-finish with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcasting them the way ABC, CBS, and NBC used to do them. C-SPAN will have its cameras on the podium -- almost exactly what NBC did when it did the first-ever live television broadcast of a convention in 1940 -- but minus an off-camera newsman identifying who just spoke. But nowadays, sophisticated electronic graphics can do that job.
On the evening of October 4th, 1957, perhaps the most stunning news bulletin since the attack on Pearl Harbor came across wire service printers in newspaper, radio, and television newsrooms across the world:
The flash read something like this: "FLASH--RUSSIANS LAUNCH ARTIFICIAL SATELLITE". It announced to the world that the then-Soviet Union, a supposedly-backwards country, had been first to launch an artificial satellite into orbit. While the satellite, named Sputnik 1, weighed only 184 pounds on earth (and of course, nothing in the weightless environment of outer space), Sputnik 1 was a call-to-arms for the United States to try to catch up in the area of space exploration. It would also mark a period of fifteen years where extensive coverage of space efforts--broadcast live--became a large part of the efforts of news divisions of the three commercial television networks.
The U. S. wasn't completely caught off-guard by Sputnik 1. The U. S. had a satellite of their own on the drawing boards, to be named Vanguard, which was expected to be ready for launch by the end of 1957.
On December 6th, exactly nine weeks after Sputnik 1 (and a month after the Soviets' second satellite, Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika on board), the Vanguard rocket stood on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida--at that time a top-secret military base. Stationed just outside the Cape's gates were large mobile units from the networks, with cameras mounted on the roof shooting over the fences and showing the rocket as it was prepared for launch.
In mid-morning, the rocket ignited and took off--but instead of putting the satellite into orbit, the rocket lost thrust and collapsed on the launch pad, exploding into a fiery inferno. The satellite was thrown free and survived the carnage.
Eight weeks later on January 31st, a backup satellite developed by the U. S. Army (in the event the Navy's Vanguard suffered a delay), Explorer 1, was successfully launched into orbit. Once more, the TV cameras shot over the gates to show the liftoff, and a press briefing would air later that night. In the wee hours, films taken inside the Cape--which showed a much better view of the rocket than distant cameras outside the Cape's gates ever could--were released to the networks.
Later in 1958, a new civilian agency--the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed to take over the fledgling space effort. As a civilian agency, NASA was able to open up parts of the Cape to press and TV cameras. Launchings would, unlike the Russians', be held out in the open.
The meaning of an "open door" policy was made clear after the first seven astronauts (the men of Project Mercury) were named in 1959. If the Russians had a launch disaster in which a cosmonaut was killed, they could keep it suppressed from the west (Remember that in those days, the Russians never announced what their space missions were going to be until they were actually launched). By contrast, if an American launch ended in a disaster with the rocket destroyed and the astronaut(s) dead (as was the case with the space shuttle Challenger in 1986), it would appear on live television across North America, and as communications satellites came onto the scene, the entire world.
From Alan Shepard's suborbital flight in May, 1961 until the mid-1980's, manned space launches were routinely shown live on network TV (today, an occasional launch--such as John Glenn's return to space onboard the shuttle Discovery--still merits some live TV coverage). Not only were the launches shown live, but during the 1960's, it was common for ABC, CBS and NBC for a three-orbit mission to begin live coverage two hours before the launch, show the launch, then stay on through the entire three-orbit flight and stay on the air until the astronaut and his space capsule had both been picked up by the recovery ship after splashdown. This would take up some 8 1/2 to 9 hours of nonstop coverage per network!
And if it was a "big" mission (such as John Glenn's 1962 first U. S. orbital flight or the first moon landing seven years later), the networks would also carry live coverage of the astronauts' post-flight news conference from either the Cape or (after it was completed) the NASA manned space flight headquarters near Houston and the tickertape parade New York would hold in the astronauts' honor.
Many senior newsmen at the networks at the dawn of the space age didn't understand space exploration, didn't like it, or simply thought it was far too technical. But three television newsmen, one for each of the networks, did correctly grasp early on the fact space was going to be one of the major stories of the century and spent umpteen hours of preparation to study the subject and be able to articulate their knowledge to viewers in a way they could easily understand. These three newsmen were Jules Bergman of ABC, Frank McGee of NBC, and of course, Walter Cronkite of CBS, who would serve as anchormen of their respective network's space coverage through the "moon-race" years and on to the end of the Apollo project.
Bergman's interest in space came from the fact that he was a onetime science teacher who dabbled in journalism. Hired by ABC as a special correspondent to cover science and technology, Bergman covered a wide range of science and technology stories over his 25-plus years at the network, but during the 1960's, a large amount of his time was spent covering space.
McGee was a native of Oklahoma who found himself covering the Civil Rights movement in the south when he joined NBC News to serve as a correspondent in this region. Since his region included Cape Canaveral, where the rockets were launched from, McGee made it a point to study the infant art of astronautics, and got on the space beat, even after moving to New York to serve as anchorman of NBC's local New York newscast.
Cronkite had a longtime interest in aviation, going back to his first airplane ride as a youngster. In fact, Cronkite briefly left journalism at the end of the 1930's to work for Braniff Airlines in public relations. But after a short time, Cronkite discovered that while he loved aviation, he hated P. R., and returned to news reporting.
Just prior to Sputnik 1, Cronkite had completed work on a 26-week half- hour CBS series on aviation history called "Air Power", which told the story of aviation from the Wright Brothers to the jet planes coming into service at the time the series was being put together. As an aviation buff, Cronkite was the logical choice to host "Air Power", and later, to anchor CBS space coverage.
Because there were no communications satellites at first, the splashdown and recovery of an astronaut could not be broadcast live. There were no live TV transmissions from inside manned spacecraft. There'd be plenty for the networks to show from when they went on the air with space coverage until the rocket climbed out of sight of the cameras at Cape Canaveral. But what then?
The three networks commissioned cartoon producers to film simulations of flight maneuvers taking place out of range of TV cameras. To have something to show viewers during splashdowns, the networks filmed practice exercises in which the capsule, dangling from its parachute, was dropped from a plane (the actual dropping out of the plane, of course, was edited out) and splashed down. The practice recovery would be filmed and shown during the actual recovery, synchronized to the actual event where possible, with the word "SIMULATION" constantly appearing on the bottom of the screen.
In December, 1965, the recovery of a manned space flight was shown live for the first time when the twin missions of Gemini 7 and 6 (the first two manned spacecraft to make a rendezvous--or meeting--in orbit) splashed down 48 hours apart. While neither capsule splashed down close enough to the carrier U. S. S. Wasp to have the actual splashdown shown, live TV coverage was beamed from a temporary uplink antenna on the Wasp's deck to the Early Bird satellite in orbit, then down to an antenna in Maine, then via landline to Houston, and from there, via another landline to New York and the networks.
Six months later, in June of 1966, an American space capsule (Gemini 9) finally splashed down close enough to the carrier to allow the final descent and splashdown to be televised live. The picture of the capsule, colored black from the effects of re-entry, its orange-and-white vertically-striped parachute, and the blue sky with a hint of a couple of white clouds made a spectacular image on America's TV screens--even more so in color (the first launch to be shown live and in color was that of Gemini 4 a year earlier by NBC. ABC and CBS began showing live launch-day coverage in color beginning with Gemini 5).
NBC made a major effort beginning with the Gemini 5 flight in August, 1965 and continuing until the end of the Apollo moon landings, to house their mockups, simulations and orbital-tracking maps in one huge studio. Famed studio 8-H would be used during space flights as the NBC News "Space Center", and on a balcony overlooking the studio (and all the mockups) would sit Frank McGee (except during launches, when McGee was usually at the Cape. Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Hugh Downs, or John Chancellor would "mind the store" in 8-H while McGee was at the Cape). ABC and CBS had just as many mockups and simulations in their studios, but for some reasons, they didn't look as impressive to the home viewer as NBC's set-up in Rockefeller Center's 8-H.
The year 1967 began as a busy one for NASA and the network news divisions. That February would see the first manned flight of the Apollo program, (an 11-day earth-orbital test of the command module) the first unmanned and--later in the year--manned tests of both the huge Saturn 5 rocket that would take men to the moon and the landing craft that would get them on the surface. There was a chance that if everything went well, two Americans could be walking on the moon as the year ended. While NASA was setting Apollo in motion, the networks had begun planning of their coverage of these flights and looking ahead as to how properly to cover the first moon landing, which loomed as the news story of all time.
Then came January 27th, 1967.
The three men who were to have flown that first Apollo test--and who were also said to be in line to fly the first landing mission--Gus Grissom (Mercury pioneer), Ed White (first American to walk in space) and Roger Chaffee (a highly-regarded young astronaut) died in a flash fire that consumed their Apollo 1 spacecraft on the ground during a countdown rehearsal. The news stunned the nation, and sent the networks into action, calling Bergman, Cronkite and McGee, respectively, to anchor "instant specials" that evening and live broadcasts of the three astronauts' funerals the following week.
Apollo came back to life that fall with the first test launch (unmanned) of the Saturn 5 rocket. Walter Cronkite will always remember this launch not just because of the spectacular nature of it, but because the roof of his anchor trailer almost caved in thanks to the shock waves generated by the climbing rocket. That night, David Brinkley noted on his NBC newscast that it wasn't a question of whether the first Saturn 5 rocket flew--but whether Cape Canaveral sank.
With new anchor studio buildings built of more solid materials, the networks went to work in 1968 and 1969 covering the resumption of manned flight. First came the first manned flight of the command module, then a manned orbit of the moon, then testing of the lunar landing craft. The three networks each devoted 9 hours of live coverage of the first manned Apollo flight (Apollo 7), 24 hours each to the first moon orbit (Apollo 8), and additional hours of coverage for the two test flights of the landing craft.
By July, 1969, all was in readiness to fulfill the late President John F. Kennedy's pledge of a manned lunar landing before the decade ended. ABC, CBS and NBC announced 60 hours apiece of live coverage of the landing flight--with half of that (31 hours) falling in a period between midday July 20th and early evening of July 21st, 1969, including the entire period the landing craft and its two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were on the moon. The networks believed that on such a historic occasion, that to go back to regular programming at any time while the astronauts were on the lunar surface--even when asleep and nothing much was going on--would be inappropriate.
As a record-breaking audience watched, Apollo 11, with Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (who remained in orbit around the moon while his crewmates landed on it) took off on schedule the morning of July 16th, 1969. To show how important an event it was, while the launch took place at 9:32 A. M. (Eastern Daylight Time), the three networks actually were on the air three-and-a-half hours prior to that--at 6 A. M. Eastern time--to show preparations for launch, the three astronauts leaving their crew quarters to head to the pad, their entering the command module, reports on the record crowds on nearby beaches, and (a commonplace occurrence during the eight-day Apollo 11 mission) reports on the state of the world at this historic junction in time.
An even larger viewing audience--estimated at 125 million in the United States and between 500 and 800 million worldwide--watched late Sunday evening, July 20th, 1969 at 10:56 P. M. Eastern when Neil Armstrong became the first earthling to step onto the surface of another celestial body and uttering these now-famous words: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind".
Perhaps because they had covered the space effort from the start and had much interest in it, Cronkite, Bergman and McGee had enough adrenaline to anchor almost the entire 31-hour nonstop broadcast of July 20th-21st, 1969 that included the landing and moonwalk. Cronkite, by one account, was at the CBS anchor desk for 28 of the 31 hours, with McGee and Bergman each being at their respective anchor desks for about 24 of the 31 hours.
On July 24th, the command module splashed down in the Pacific. The three astronauts were picked-up by the aircraft carrier U. S. S. Hornet and by President Richard Nixon, who had personally flown there to greet the three heroes on their return. In the days and weeks to come, the three networks had additional live coverage of the astronauts returning to Houston, parades and dinners in their honor, and post-flight press conferences.
By Apollo 7 in 1968, NASA finally included a black-and-white TV camera for astronauts to send back live TV "shows" from space that were routinely televised by the networks. For the first moon landing, NASA had included a color TV camera in the command module, but much to the chagrin of ABC, CBS, and NBC, put a black-and-white camera in the landing craft. Later moon landings would feature color TV pictures from the moon, and towards the end of the Apollo program, spectacular live color TV transmissions of the upper half of the lunar landing craft (the lower half stayed on the lunar surface) taking off to rejoin the mother ship which had remained in lunar orbit.
While network coverage of subsequent lunar landings decreased, space coverage nevertheless remained a major part of the networks' news efforts through the end of Apollo in December, 1972. It is even safe to say that the public enthusiasm for space exploration and its hero-astronauts might not have been there had NASA not made the risky gamble of allowing live television coverage of manned space flights. Win or lose, success or failure, triumph or tragedy, it would all happen on the screen of our television sets--live as it was happening.
Many have called ABC, CBS, and NBC coverage of the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (the man who made the decision for the United States to go to the moon), November 22nd-25th, 1963, as television's "finest hour", but a strong case can also be made for TV's coverage of America's manned space program from 1959, when the first astronauts were selected to 1972, when the last Apollo lunar mission safely came back, as just as fine a "finest hour".
Special note should be given to the Gulf Oil Corporation and General Foods' Tang breakfast drinks, who between them, sponsored network space coverage during that span. They allowed the networks to air extended segments of coverage without interruption (most notably the July, 1969 moon walk of Armstrong and Aldrin) in order so that the American public could see every minute of history in the making. Tang, of course, also has had a direct connection to the space program--for over 35 years, the product (a powdery orange drink mix that you add water to and then drink) has been "standard equipment" on U. S. manned spacecraft.
Another special note should be given to other newsmen who, while not becoming the "stars" Bergman, McGee, and especially Cronkite were becoming, helped to report the space story. At NBC, Roy Neal was the network's reporter at Mission Control in Houston for many years. On CBS, the late Charles VonFremd (until his 1966 death) was CBS' man at the control center, and Mike Wallace (now host of "60 Minutes") was "minding the store" either in Houston or New York during a launch while Cronkite was at the Cape. At ABC, Tom Jarriel (later part of "20/20") provided in-depth reports during the Apollo missions, supplementing Bergman's job at the anchor desk.
While one could find tapes of network coverage of the early days of space exploration and watch them, one wouldn't really get the full impact of what the space program meant to 1960's America by watching them. You really would have had to live through those times.
Compared to many other pioneer television broadcasters, the Outlet Company of Providence, Rhode Island would get a stroke of luck when it put WJAR-TV in Providence on-the-air in July, 1949, becoming Rhode Island's first television station.
The stroke of good luck came because Providence is close enough to Boston that Providence viewers could easily receive Boston's television stations, then and now. After Boston stations WBZ-TV (channel 4) and WNAC-TV (channel 7, now WHDH) signed-on in June of 1948, several thousand Rhode Islanders who lived in the Providence area purchased TV sets and were able to watch programs from the two Boston stations even though there were as yet no TV stations in Rhode Island itself.
While Outlet was lucky that there were already thousands of TV sets in the Providence area when WJAR signed-on, meaning that Rhode Island only had to be introduced to WJAR and not television in general, Outlet faced long delays to reach the point when WJAR could go on the air.
The FCC originally gave Outlet the construction permit for WJAR-TV in 1947, around the same time it did for three other New England TV stations (the aforementioned WBZ and WNAC, plus New Haven's WNHC-TV channel 6-now WTNH on channel 8). WJAR, however, became the last of the four to sign-on. As things turned out, Outlet would be very successful in television.
Outlet was no stranger to broadcasting; it already owned WJAR radio (at 920 KHz.; today the radio station, under a different owner, is known as WHJJ), which was one of the oldest radio stations in Rhode Island. The WJAR facilities were on the top floor of the Outlet store in downtown Providence at 176 Weybosset Street (the building no longer exists; it burned down in a fire during the 1980's). But WJAR didn't have the top floor to itself; it had to share it with the Outlet Company's offices.
Although WJAR-TV today broadcasts on channel 10, its original CP was for operation on channel 11. The TV studios, as noted above, would be shared with WJAR radio on the top floor of the Outlet store, the transmitter and antenna would be in a newly-constructed facility in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. WJAR-TV would share its transmitter building and tower with WJAR-FM, which had gone on the air, broadcasting at 95.5 MHz, and simulcasting WJAR-AM fulltime (as most FM stations under the same ownership as AM stations did at the time).
Because WJAR-AM had been a charter member of the NBC Red Network (in fact, affiliated during the 1923-26 span with the WEAF Network which eventually became NBC Red), the new TV station would also be an NBC affiliate. But, since WJAR would be the only TV station in Providence for awhile (thanks to the 1948 FCC "freeze" on the licensing of new TV stations), WJAR-TV didn't carry the full NBC television schedule. WJAR-TV would carry most NBC television programs, but in its early years, WJAR also carried a sizable number of CBS programs and a handful of shows from ABC and DuMont.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon, July 10th, 1949, WJAR-TV went on the air with regular programming. After a brief dedication program, WJAR carried a Boston Red Sox game from Fenway Park in Boston (actually produced by WBZ-TV in Boston). While the telecasts of the Red Sox and the old Boston Braves were split among both Boston TV stations on the air at that time (as the rights were held by a brewery who didn't want to show favoritism towards either WBZ or WNAC), WJAR picked-up nearly all the Sox or Braves televised games, whether originated by WBZ or WNAC. From 1949 until the Braves left for Milwaukee after the 1952 season, WJAR actually carried about as many major-league baseball telecasts as any single TV station in the country.
Despite having cramped television facilities (the author of this piece visited WJAR-TV in the late 1970's, a couple of years before they moved out of the top floor of the Outlet and into their own, much larger, broadcast center, and noted how small the studios were!), the station would produce a wide range of local programs over the years from that relatively small space.
News has always been a strong component of WJAR's schedule, even from the beginning. While the first newscasts were five minutes of an announcer reading a script into a camera, the length of newscasts--and the depth of coverage--expanded greatly in the years to come. In 1953, WJAR became one of the first TV stations in New England to regularly deploy film cameramen into the streets to shoot newsfilm.
But in the early days, there were a lot of other local programs being produced from those small studios. In the mid-1950's, onetime child movie star Bobby Breen, by this time in his 20's, hosted a local talent show on WJAR. A young Ted Knight, later to co-star on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" also worked there, as both an on-air face and as a producer; a slightly-later 1950's talent show had Russ Emery acting a a "vocalist/ emcee" as a TV Guide listing noted; and one notable local program that was originated away from 176 Weybosset, "Breakfast at Sheraton", which aired live from the lobby of the Sheraton-Biltmore in downtown Providence.
The one person whose name is most associated with WJAR-TV is that of Art Lake. A youthful announcer at WJAR radio in the late 1940's, he moved over to the TV side when that started, and over the years, has served as an announcer, news anchor, personality, and weather reporter. Today, Lake is still at WJAR, handling weather reports during the morning news (5:30-7 A.M.), and the local cut-ins during the "Today Show". Lake also wrote and co-narrated a 1984 special celebrating WJAR's 35th anniversary, and this author wouldn't be very surprised at all if Lake again writes and narrates WJAR's 50th anniversary special in July, 1999.
On the surface, things were going well for WJAR during the early 1950's. The station quickly turned the corner from loss to profit; WJAR's parent, the Outlet Company (as well as competing retailers) were selling TV sets like crazy; and viewers seemed to like the fact that the best NBC and CBS programs, not to mention Boston's baseball teams, were all on one station.
But underneath the surface, some viewers in eastern Connecticut weren't too happy. Their complaint wasn't with WJAR's programming, which they seemed to enjoy. The problem was that they had occasional problems with reception. There was occasional interference on channel 11, with WPIX New York's signal causing problems with trying to view WJAR. It had turned out that the FCC had made a mistake by assigning channel 11 to stations as close as Providence and New York.
When the FCC lifted its "freeze" in 1952, it ordered WJAR to move one spot down on the TV dial, from channel 11 to channel 10. The change took place in May, 1953. As a result, reception of WJAR in eastern Connecticut substantially improved. No more would WPIX cause interference (in fact, WPIX also benefitted, since its signal in Connecticut would no longer receive interference from WJAR). The move to channel 10 would enable channel 11 to be reassigned to New Hampshire as a noncommercial allocation. Closer to home, however, the move to channel 10 also allowed the FCC to give Providence a second VHF allocation--on channel 12. WJAR's monopoly of Providence TV was about to end.
Cherry and Webb, who like Outlet was a retail store and a broadcaster (they put WPRO radio on the air in 1931) in Providence, applied and got the license for channel 12. Another applicant got the license for a UHF station on channel 16, to be called WNET (no relation to the New York station currently using those call letters). The owners of WNET couldn't do anything to stop WJAR, but they actually got an injunction in 1953 that prevented Cherry and Webb from putting WPRO-TV on channel 12 on the air until 1955.
WNET became a primary ABC affiliate with some DuMont programs (although when ABC got "Disneyland" and "The Mickey Mouse Club", neither program would air on WNET, instead, the former would air on WJAR for a time, and both on WPRO once the latter got on the air). WJAR, still the only VHF station (and the only Providence TV station most viewers were able to receive), continued as an NBC primary affiliate with a number of CBS programs also broadcast (Arthur Godfrey, "I Love Lucy", etc.).
In 1955, WPRO-TV (now WPRI) was finally able to get on the air, and took the CBS affiliation (since WPRO radio was with CBS at the time), leaving WJAR as the NBC affiliate, a relationship that continues to this day. When WNET left the air in 1956, WJAR began to carry some ABC programs, while WPRO would carry other ABC shows.
In July, 1959, WJAR organized a public celebration for its tenth anniversary on the air. This included a parade down the streets of Providence (conveniently including past the Outlet), followed by a concert (also broadcast on WJAR) by singer Connie Francis, who at the time had become the first female superstar of rock 'n roll music with such hits as "Who's Sorry Now?" and "Lipstick On Your Collar", the latter being on the charts when Ms. Francis came to Providence.
As the 1950's ended, two popular local programs on WJAR were one hosted by Jay Kroll (initially, he hosted daytime movies, but during the 1960's, he would get a local talk show) and a disc-jockey show hosted by Clay Cole, who would go on to greater fame in New York.
Cole's show had a gimmick where some of the teenagers in the studio- audience would mime to popular records in what could be termed a very primitive attempt at music videos. One surviving tape of a 1959 show (included in a 1984 WJAR anniversary retrospective) shows a group of teenagers mimicking along to a then currently-popular tune, "Ding Dong", by the McGuire sisters, which was more of a rock-and-roll-like sound for them.
Kroll, who earlier on had hosted WJAR's movies, by the mid-1960's, would host a local talk show. One surviving tape of a 1968 show (also included in the 1984 WJAR anniversary program) was an interview taped on location in Boston where Leonard Nimoy was appearing. Nimoy, of course, was playing the role of Mr. Spock on "Star Trek", and the interview was taped at a time when the survival of the show for the 1968-69 TV season was uncertain. Kroll ended the interview by saying he hoped NBC would keep "Star Trek" and called it one of the better shows on TV.
Although a primary NBC affiliate, WJAR continued to air some ABC shows until December 31st of 1962, when the secondary affiliation with ABC ended. The next day, January 1st, 1963, ABC went to WTEV in nearby New Bedford (now WLNE-TV), which had signed-on that very day as the third Providence-area VHF station.
From the late 1960's through the early 1980's, WJAR-TV also originated extensive coverage of Providence-area college basketball, carrying games of the University of Rhode Island and Providence College for most of that time.
Play-by-play (after 1970) was provided by Chris Clark, still the most popular (and considered the best) television sports reporter in the history of the Providence market. Since Providence College basketball radio broadcasts were on WJAR-AM, Clark did a TV/radio simulcast of those games also on channel 10, and radio for non-televised games. In addition, Clark also did TV-only broadcasts of URI.
Providence College men's basketball during the early 1970's had the very talented Dave Gavitt as head coach, players like Ernie DeGregorio, and would go on to the 1973 NCAA Final Four. The team moved into the newly- completed Providence Civic Center in 1972, and sold it out for every game---even though many of those home games were televised by WJAR. No Providence-area sports team, college or minor-league-pro, before or since, enjoyed the kind of popularity PC basketball did in the early- to-mid 1970's, and WJAR made a lot of money off the broadcasts.
Clark's sidekick on PC and URI hoop telecasts was Jack Comley, who when not providing analysis on WJAR's hoop broadcasts, hosted a daily phone-in talk show "TV Talk Back". Comely died some years later, much too soon, and is fondly remembered by those who worked with him.
By the late 1970's, the top floor of the Outlet Building was getting to be too small for WJAR's needs. So, in 1979, WJAR radio and TV, moved out of the Outlet Building and into a brand-new building next door. This provided more space for the stations' activities.
Around this time, WJAR began "Marianne's Funbunch", a local children's show that would precede the NBC Saturday-morning schedule, and a local version of "PM Magazine", combining Providence-area feature stories with material produced by the "PM" cooperative. Charlie Jeffreds (of WJAR radio) and Joan Henderson were the initial hosts; later Mark Wile and Shiela Martinez would serve as co-hosts.
And WJAR's newscasts expanded as well over the years. The station's early-and-late evening newscasts expanded to a half-hour in early 1967 (when WJAR began broadcasting live local programs in color; it would convert from black-and-white to color newsfilm the next year); then the early-evening news went to an hour in 1971 (it went back to a half-hour in 1973, but would eventually expand back to an hour, and in time, to 90 minutes). Noontime and early-morning newscasts would follow.
During the 1980's, the Outlet Company decided to close their retail stores, sell-off their radio stations (including WJAR-AM), and concentrate on being a television broadcaster. In the early 1990's, WJAR moved again, this time leaving Providence entirely for a state- of-the-art broadcast center in suburban Cranston. The Cranston broadcast center features a fully-computerized newsroom, a weather center that would be the envy of Boston's "big three" TV news stations, and is ready for the transition to digital broadcasting.
After 47 years of being an NBC affiliate, WJAR became an NBC owned- and-operated station in 1996 when NBC purchased WJAR and Outlet's other NBC affiliate, WCMH in Columbus, Ohio.
The author of this article lives in Norwood, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, but close enough to Providence to pick-up WJAR off-air or on cable. He notes that WJAR's news department began what he considers to be a useful weather innovation in 1996--when severe weather threatens the area, WJAR puts up a small map of Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, and eastern Massachusetts on the lower-left corner of the screen, with different colors noting what areas have severe thunderstorm watches or warnings, tornado watches and warnings, etc. During severe weather, viewers in the WJAR area can tell at a glance if their area is "under the gun" for severe weather. It is something other TV stations may wish to consider.
From the time "true" (read: another VHF station) competition came to Providence-area television in 1955, WJAR has been the dominant station, especially in local news. For most of the past four decades, WJAR has had as large of number of newscast viewers as its local competition combined. While it may be out of habit (remember, WJAR did have a television monopoly in Providence for the first several years it was on the air), it might also be due to the quality of the station's newscasts--WJAR usually wins the lion's share of awards given out to Providence television newscasts.
Those who worked at the Outlet Company in the early 1920's, when the old WJAR radio went on the air, would have to smile were they to come back and look over the first half-century of WJAR-TV. They would probably be satisfied that their vision of how a broadcaster could serve his community has come true.
On June 9th, 1948, after being delayed by World War II, commercial television broadcasting finally came to New England. The first TV station in the region to sign-on the air to commence regular commercial broadcasting was WBZ-TV [ch. 4], then [as it still is] owned by Westinghouse. WBZ beat-out WNHC-TV [ch. 6, now WTNH-TV on ch. 8] New Haven and WNAC-TV [ch. 7, now known as WHDH] for the honor. WNHC went on the air June 15th, 1948 and WNAC signed-on June 21st, 1948.
The following is an article from the June 5th, 1948 Boston Sunday Post and lists WBZ-TV's program schedule for that first week on the air. I have done additional research to indicate the source of each program, which is in parentheses after the title. A program indicated as (L) was a live, local program. A program indicated as (LF) was a locally- produced program on film [there being no tape yet], (F) indicated a syndicated film program, and (NBC) indicated a network program. WBZ became an affiliate of NBC upon its going on the air in 1948, a relationship the station would continue until early 1995, when WBZ changed affiliation to CBS, as part of Westinghouse's [WBZ's owner] purchase of that network. Any other notes not part of that Boston Post article will also be indicated in parentheses.
News tape broadcasts seen during the day were also five minutes long, so WBZ-TV often went off the air, to come back on at the time of the next program listed. Interestingly enough, from its first day on the air, June 9th, 1948 until September 27th of that year, WBZ was on the air only five days a week--Wednesdays through Sundays--and would only sign-on the air on Mondays or Tuesdays if there was a baseball game [that summer, WBZ and WNAC each split half the home games of the Red Sox and the old Boston Braves, the first baseball telecast in Boston being a game between the Braves and the Chicago Cubs from Braves field on June 15th] or the 1948 Republican and Democratic conventions.
Although WBZ-TV [excluding test patterns] would be on the air for only 17 hours and 55 minutes that first week, the station's programming day would quickly expand. A year later, 1949, the broadcast day had stretched to 5-11 p.m. (with an earlier sign-on for a sports event of special event). By 1950, WBZ was on the air daily from 12:30 p.m. to 12 midnight, in 1951, sign-on was back to 10:30 a.m. [sign-off unchanged], and in 1952, WBZ-TV's broadcast day began at 7 a.m., and continued until 12:30 a.m. or even a bit later.
Boston was one of the "lucky" cities of very early television. By that, of course, is that Boston was connected to the network (what there was of it) prior to the sign-on of the city's first TV station.
Boston was connected to the A T & T "East Coast" television network in the late fall of 1947, as for a time, it looked like WBZ would go on the air late that fall as well. It was the northern terminus of a network that extended down to New Haven, New York (with a northbound leg connecting New York and Schenectady/Albany), Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. In 1948, the "East Coast" network was extended to Richmond. Two other TV networks were built by A T & T in 1948; one connected San Francisco and Los Angeles, the other connected St. Louis with Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
In January of 1949, just a week before President Truman's inauguration, the Eastern and Midwestern networks were joined by a link between Philadelphia and Cleveland via Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Throughout 1950 and 1951, the East/Midwest network was expanded to the west and south while the West Coast network was extended south to San Diego and north to Seattle.
And of course, in the late summer of 1951, the East/Midwest and West Coast networks were finally linked, with a relay from Omaha to San Francisco via Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno.
But Boston was lucky to have so much live network television in 1948. Many cities not yet on any of the network lines had to settle for poor-quality kinescopes, and as a result, many early TV stations didn't have much network fare, relying on local studio programming, local sports, and lots and lots of ancient movies, some of them silent!
For the convenience of initial viewers, here is the complete WBZ-TV program calendar for the week.
WEDNESDAY, June 9th 10 A.M. - 12 Noon - Test Pattern 5:15 P.M. - Test Pattern 6:15 P.M. - Boston Scenes (LF) 6:30 P.M. - WBZ-TV Inaugural Program. Including: Dean Edwin vanEaten, Archbishop Richard J. Cushing, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, Mayor James M. Curley, C. Lawrence Muench, president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, and Walter Evans, President of Westinghouse Radio Stations, Inc.(LF) 6:54 P.M. - Sports Featurette (F) 7:00 P.M. - Fighting With Kit Carson (CHAPTER # 1), stars John Mack Brown, Noah Beery, Sr., Noah Beery, Jr. (F) 7:20 P.M. - Big Broadcast - Cartoon (F) 7:25 P.M. - (SHAWMUT) Nightly Newsteller(L) (ANCHOR: ARCH MacDONALD. THE NEWSCAST WAS NAMED AFTER ITS SPONSOR, SHAWMUT BANK IN Boston) 7:30 P.M. - New England Holiday(F) 7:42 P.M. - Weather(L) 7:45 P.M. - Coming Attractions (L) 7:47 P.M. - Speech by Gov. Robert F. Bardford welcoming WBZ-TV to Boston (L) 7:50 P.M. - (CAMEL) Newsreel Theatre (NBC) (ANCHOR: JOHN CAMERON SWAYZE, WHO UNTIL EARLY 1949 WAS ONLY HEARD NARRATING NEWSREELS AND NOT SEEN ON-CAMERA DURING THIS NEWSCAST. MOST OF THE NEWSREELS PROVIDED FOR THIS PROGRAM WERE SHOT BY MOVIETONE, WITH SOME NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON FOOTAGE PROVIDED BY NBC) 8:00 P.M. - Magic Words(NBC) 8:12 P.M. - Future Look - Mrs. Mary Wright and H.D. Hodgkinson interview young boys. (L) 8:27 P.M. - Kisses To You (F) 8:30 P.M. - In The (KELVINATOR) Kitchen - Alma Kitchell (NBC) 8:45 P.M. - Story Of The Week, Richard Harkness, guest. (NBC) 9:00 P.M. - Television Theatre (NBC) 10:00 P.M. - To Be Announced 11:00 P.M. - Boston Post Views of News In New England(L) (THIS EARLY TV NEWS EFFORT WAS AN ANNOUNCER ON-CAMERA READING NEWS, AND OCCASIONALLY, VIEWERS WOULD SEE A PHOTO FROM THE BOSTON POST OF A NEWS STORY ON-SCREEN AS THE COMMENTATOR READ THE STORY) 11:10 P.M. - Sign-off Thursday, June 10th 10 A.M. - 12 Noon - Test pattern 1-1:40 P.M. - Test Pattern 4:00 P.M. - INS Newsreel (L) 6:00 P.M. - Test Pattern 6:55 P.M. - News Tape (L) 7:00 P.M. - Fighting With Kit Carson (F) (CHAPTER # 2) 7:20 P.M. - Coming Attractions (L) 7:25 P.M. - Nightly Newsteller (L) 7:30 P.M. - Jack and the Beanstalk (F) 7:40 P.M. - Stop Starvation (Children's Crusade) (F) 7:50 P.M. - Newsreel Theatre (NBC) 8:00 P.M. - Salt Water Wonderland (F) 8:15 P.M. - The Nature of Things, Dr. Roy K. Marshall (NBC) 8:30 P.M. - The Lanny Ross Show (NBC) 9:00 P.M. - You Are an Artist - Jon Gnagy (NBC) 9:15 P.M. - NBC Newsroom (NBC) 9:30 P.M. - Barney Blake, Police Reporter (F) 10:00 P.M. - INS News (L) 10:05 P.M. - Boston Post Views of News in New England (L) 10:10 P.M. - Sign-Off Friday, June 11th 10 A.M. - 12 Noon - Test Pattern 1-2 P.M. - Test Pattern 6:00 P.M. - Test Pattern 6:55 P.m. - News Tape (L) 7:00 P.M. - Fighting With Kit Carson (CHAPTER 3) 7:20 P.M. - Coming Attractions (L) 7:25 P.M. - Nightly Newsteller (L) 7:30 P.M. - Preamble to Peace (U.S. Army) (F) 7:42 P.M. - Bold King Cole (F) 7:50 P.m. - Newsreel Theatre (NBC) 8:00 P.M. - Sports Time (L) 8:15 P.M. - New England Calling (F) 9:00 P.M. - Sports Reports (NBC) 9:15 P.M. - Newsreel (NBC) 9:25 P.M. - Boxing from Madison Square Garden (NBC) 10:00 P.M. - Feature Match (FROM MADISON SQ. GARDEN) (NBC) 10:30 P.M. - INS News (L) 10:35 P.M. - Boston Post Views of News In New England (L) 10:40 P.M. - Sign-Off. Saturday, June 11th 10 A.M. - 12 Noon - Test Pattern 1:00 - 1:55 P.M. - Test Pattern 1:55 P.M. - News Tape (L) 4:00 P.M. - INS News (L) 6:00 P.M. - Test Pattern 6:55 P.M. - News Tape (L) 7:00 P.M. - Fighting With Kit Carson (F) (CHAPTER FOUR) 7:20 P.M. - Coming Attractions (L) 7:25 P.M. - Nightly Newsteller (L) 7:30 P.M. - Julius Caesar (F) 7:50 P.M. - WBZ Newsreel (L) 7:55 P.M. - INS Documentary (F) 8:00 P.M. - The Little Ballerina (F) 9:00 P.M. - Instruments of Orchestra (L) 9:30 P.M. - INS News (L) 9:35 P.M. - Boston Post Views of News In New England (L) 9:40 P.M. - Sign-off. Sunday, June 12th 10 A.M. - 12 Noon - Test pattern 1:10 P.M. - News Tape (L) 5:30 P.M. - INS News (L) 6:00 P.M. - Test Pattern 6:55 P.M. - News Tape (L) 7:00 P.M. - Fighting With Kit Carson (F) (CHAPTER FIVE) 7:20 P.M. - Coming Attractions (L) 7:25 P.M. - Nightly Newsteller (L) 7:30 P.M. - Sea - Going Thrills (F) 7:40 P.M. - Weekend In Bermuda (F) 7:50 P.M. - Sunday Newsteller (L) (A REVIEW OF THE WEEK'S MAJOR NEWS IN BOSTON AND NEW ENGLAND) 8:00 P.M. - Author Meets the Critics (NBC) 8:30 P.M. - NBC Playhouse (NBC) 9:00 P.M. - Shawmut Home Theatre (MOVIE) - Alexander Korda's film Q - Planes with Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Valerie Hobson. (F) 10:30 P.M. - INS News (L) 10:35 P.M. - Boston Post Views of News In New England (L) 10:40 P.M. - Sign - Off
Although at this writing (February, 1998), the station hasn't promoted it, and may not, the truth is that Boston's WHDH-TV (channel 7; originally WNAC-TV and later WNEV-TV) is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary; the anniversary itself is June 21st, making channel 7 New England's third-oldest and Boston's second-oldest television station, beaten out by WBZ-TV (ch. 4, Boston) by 12 days for the honor of the first in New England and by WNHC-TV (ch. 6 New Haven, now WTNH on channel 8) by 6 days for the honor of the second-oldest station in New England.
The original owners of channel 7 were the Yankee Network, a radio group originally owned by the Shepherd Stores and managed by John Shepherd. Shepherd was a pioneer broadcaster, who set-up several radio stations in New England, set-up a regional network ("The Yankee Network") to feed programming between them (and eventually, to numerous other stations in other parts of New England), and started-up one of the very first FM radio stations. By the time channel 7 was about to go on the air, the Yankee Network had been sold to General Tire & Rubber, who wanted to enter broadcasting in a big way (they also purchased New York's WOR and other assorted stations). A few years later, after buying the RKO movie studio, General Tire rechristened their broadcasting division as RKO General, and that name will be used in the remainder of this article to refer to the ownership of Boston's channel 7 between 1948 and 1982.
RKO General got a construction permit after World War II for channel 7, with studios in the Yankee Network headquarters at 21 Brookline Avenue in downtown Boston, just off of Kenmore Square (Today, if you look carefully on 21 Brookline Avenue, you can still see "Yankee Network" over a now shuttered door which at one time was the main entrance to the studios).
RKO General was able to expand the 21 Brookline Avenue facilities for TV by converting the largest radio studio there to television, building an addition out of the back of the building (which at the time was a hotel) for additional space, and taking over vacant offices which had been empty since 1943, when WAAB, the Yankee Network's other AM station in Boston was moved to Worcester to comply with FCC duopoly rules of the time. A transmitter was set-up in Malden (a suburb just north of Boston) with an transmitting antenna atop an existing radio tower.
Because of problems WBZ-TV (channel 4) had in building a new studio complex, WBZ's on-air debut slipped through the spring of 1948, and WNAC (also the call letters of Yankee Network's remaining Boston AM station) began to believe they would beat WBZ to the air. However, WBZ went on first, on June 9th. WNAC would be second, on June 21st, coinciding with the opening day of the 1948 Republican Convention, the first political convention to receive widespread network TV coverage.
WNAC radio was affiliated with Mutual, a company that did not have the financial resources to start-up a national television network. But, CBS affiliation (WBZ was originally an NBC affiliate) was available, and WNAC grabbed it. There were two reasons. One was that WNAC radio was a CBS affiliate for a decade, from the network's birth in 1927 through 1937; but the second (and most important) was that CBS was at the time a close second in the radio network ratings war behind NBC, and was about to begin a series of "talent raids" which would bring a number of big stars from NBC (most notably Jack Benny) over to CBS, some of whom would have hit TV programs. And CBS' reputation in radio news also probably played a factor, especially when you consider that throughout the "Golden Age Of Radio", the Yankee Network has the most comprehensive local and regional news coverage on Boston radio.
WNAC also picked-up "secondary" affiliations with the ABC and (now-defunct) DuMont networks.
For various reasons, WNAC/WNEV/WHDH has has numerous network affiliation changes, over the years. Here's a list of affiliations and dates:
June 21, 1948 through September, 1953: CBS, ABC, and DuMont. (some ABC and DuMont shows were seen on WBZ, ch. 4)
September, 1953 through November, 1957: CBS and ABC.
November, 1957 through December 31, 1960: CBS
January 1, 1961 through March 18, 1972: ABC
March 19, 1972 through January 1, 1995: CBS
January 2, 1995-present: NBC.
In 1949, WNAC pioneered daytime television in Boston (on a daily basis), with two local programs: "Inter-Vues" with Bill Hahn (who in later years would leave the air and go behind-the-scenes as head of public affairs for the station at the end of RKO General's ownership) and "Shopping-Vues", a homemaker's show with Louise Morgan (both Hahn and Morgan were with the Yankee Network on radio). Initially, both shows were preceded and followed by test patterns, but in time, they would get better "lead-ins" and "lead-outs" as the network broadcasting day expanded. Hahn's show would only run a few years, but Morgan's would run over a decade, enhancing her reputation as "New England's First Lady of Radio and Television".
During the early years, WNAC also aired local sports. From 1948 until 1954, it shared Red Sox baseball telecasts with WBZ (the rights were held by a beer company who didn't want to show favoritism towards either station), and shared the old Braves with WBZ from 1948 through 1950 (WBZ got the exclusive Braves rights in 1951 and 1952; the team left town after the 1952 season to move to Milwaukee). WNAC also broadcast the first local pro hockey (Boston Bruins) and pro basketball (Boston Celtics) telecasts during the 1948-49 season, as well as college football games until the NCAA in 1951 signed an exclusive network TV deal that precluded most local telecasts of hometown college teams.
By 1953, WNAC was broadcasting with the maximum visual power of 316,000 watts, still from Malden.
During the 1950's, WNAC also began broadcasting the Sunday-morning Mass from the Boston Catholic TV Center. Airing for many years from 9:15 to 10 A.M., it still can be seen on Boston's channel 7 today, but much earlier than in the past.
Considering that today, local news is an extensive effort at many big-city TV stations, it's surprising that around 1960, WNAC's 11 P.M. newscast actually consisted of an announcer reading news while viewers saw "News", "Weather", and "Sports" slides on the screen! Before long, WNAC got the message and beefed-up its 11 P.M. news production to show an on-camera anchorman and film reports from reporters in the field.
In the fall of 1957, WNAC became a fulltime CBS affiliate when the ABC affiliation went to the newly-signed-on channel 5.
The 1960's would see some major changes at WNAC, and one that almost happened, until the FCC blocked it. In 1960, NBC and RKO General announced a swap in which NBC would get WNAC TV/AM/FM in exchange for NBC's WRC AM/ FM/TV in Washington, D.C. This would have made channel 7 Boston's NBC affiliate, and would have set-off "musical chairs" of networks and TV stations in the Hub (Channel 5 was to go from ABC to CBS; channel 4 was to go from NBC to ABC).
The FCC nixed the deal, but WNAC's CBS affiliation was headed for channel 5 anyway. WBZ managed to keep its NBC affiliation, so WNAC switched from CBS to ABC on New Year's Day, 1961.
Another change would be the end of Louise Morgan's daily TV show (she would continue on radio for several years), replaced at first by an interview show hosted by Heywood Vincent.
The most successful show in the half-century history of Boston's channel 7 premiered in the fall of 1961: "The Major Mudd Show", hosted by Ed McDonnell in an astronaut costume (this was, remember, just as our nation's space program was getting off the ground). At first, McDonnell as Major Mudd introduced Three Stooges shorts and cartoons, but by 1963, the Stooges and cartoons were cut back (though they still appeared), a studio-audience of children added, and comedy bits and games for the young studio audience were added. "Major Mudd" would enjoy healthy ratings well into the 1970's, and is fondly remembered today by those who watched the show while they were youngsters.
Besides the affiliation switch of January 1st, 1961, perhaps the next biggest changes for WNAC during the 1960's were the replacement of the old Malden transmitter/antenna and the conversion from black-and-white to color broadcasting. In March of 1964, a new transmitter and tower were completed in Needham (a suburb just west of Boston; the city's other TV stations were already transmitting from there), and three years later, the old black-and-white cameras were replaced by color cameras. WNAC was, by the way, the last of Boston's "big three" VHF network affiliates to move their transmitter to Needham and convert to color. During RKO General's ownership, WNAC was often last of the three to do something.
Also remembered from that era was "Dialing For Dollars", in which each weekday afternoon during the 1960's, a movie (WNAC had a ton of movies to pick from; its parent company RKO General owned the vast RKO Pictures movie library) would be interrupted from time-to-time so studio host Ed Miller would call a viewer to ask if he/she knew how much money was in the jackpot ("Amount") and a code ("Count") given out during the show (example" Four from the Top").
For a brief time around 1969-70, Dave Garroway, the original host of the "Today" show, tried to make a comeback by hosting a daily talk-show on WNAC which the station hoped would be nationally syndicated. The show failed locally, and thus was never syndicated.
By the time of Garroway's short-lived comeback, WNAC had joined its radio sisters (now renamed WRKO-AM and WROR-FM) in moving from Brookline Avenue to a new building at 7 Bullfinch Place in Boston's Government Center; the TV station is still based there.
As the 1970's dawned, there were storm clouds on the horizon. The FCC ruled that RKO General was unfit to be a TV station licensee (thanks to dealings by its parent, General Tire), and opened up the channel to competing applicants. Two such applicants, Dudley Stations and New England Television, later merged and became the primary challenger to RKO General.
A similar drama was being played out with the Boston Herald-Traveler, which owned channel 5. Stripped of its license, channel 5 was granted to a local group called Boston Broadcasters. CBS wanted nothing to do with the new channel 5 owners, so they approached channel 7 about resuming their affiliation relationship.
When ownership of channel 5 changed on March 19, 1972, WNAC again became a CBS affiliate with WCVB (the new channel 5) becoming the ABC station.
The year 1973 saw the premiere of the second most-successful show in the long history of Boston's channel 7--"Candelpins For Cash". This hybrid of a bowling show (using the skinny "candlepins" and small balls popular in New England) and a game show premiered in the fall of 1973, and instantly dominated its 5:30 P.M. weekday timeslot. For a time in 1974, WNAC's 6 P.M. newscast zoomed up to the top of the ratings heap. But while a vast improvement over a few years earlier, WNAC still didn't have the depth in its news department that WBZ and WCVB had, so while "Candlepins" would remain popular through the rest of the 1970's; the 6 P.M. news couldn't hold its lead-in's huge audience, even after it was expanded in 1975 from a half-hour to an hour (again, the last of the "big three" Boston stations to expand their early-evening news to an hour).
WNAC actually beat out one of its competitors (WBZ) in getting live news minicams out on the streets of Boston in the summer of 1976 (WCVB had been first with minicams, two years earlier)---but only because a labor dispute precluded WBZ from putting its first minicams on the street for several months!
Another WNAC favorite of the 1970's was a live call-in talk show hosted by veteran Boston radio talkmaster Paul Benzaquin, which aired at 9 A.M. In contrast to many of today's talk show hosts on both radio and TV, Benzaquin actually presided over an interesting discussion of issues and interviews of famous personalities.
By 1978, in an attempt to settle the FCC license issue, Dudley Stations and New England Television merged (taking the name of the latter), and struck ] a deal with RKO General to buy WNAC for $ 59 million. But the FCC turned the proposed deal down, saying that RKO General did not own the licensed for NETV to purchase.
Appeals finally ran out in the spring of 1982, and on May 18th of that year, ownership changed. The call letters were changed to WNEV-TV, but the station remained a CBS affiliate.
That fall, WNEV made a major effort to beef-up its local newscasts by hiring numerous reporters (some of whom were lured away from WBZ and WCVB) and installing a "dream team" of news anchors--Tom Ellis (who had first made WBZ, then WCVB, number-one in the news ratings) and Robin Young (who, although having no hard-news experience, was well-known as onetime hostess of WBZ's "Evening Magazine"). Many in and out of the industry thought this combination plus WNEV's commitments to make their news department the equal of WBZ's and WCVB's, was to mean certain success for WNEV and at last, channel 7 wouldn't be third of three news stations.
But the "dream team" of high-paid anchors backfired. By 1986, both Ellis (now at New England Cable News) and Young (now morning DJ at WBOS-FM Boston) were gone. Channel 7 would remain a distant third in the news ratings for more than another decade.
Another 1980's effort that met with less than spectacular success was a daily two-hour program called "Look". A mix of news updates, lifestyle features, interviews, call-in contests, etc., "Look" filled the 4 to 6 P.M. timeslot, and while hailed as an attempt to broaden the horizons of local programming, the show fell flat in the ratings. For its second and last year, it was retitled "New England Afternoon", trimmed to an hour, but still languished in the Neilsens. After two years, the program was cancelled in 1984.
Although yet another WNEV ratings flop, the local "Talk Of The Town" (a weekday local talk/variety show aired for six months during 1988) is notable for being one of the earliest jobs for Matt Lauer, the current co-host of the "Today" show.
Another attempt at local programming that didn't work out was "Ready To Go", a daily children's show that aired in 1990 from 7 to 8 on weekday] mornings (WNEV had gotten the go-ahead to delay the "CBS This Morning" show by an hour).
In 1991, NETV purchased WHDH radio, and the call letters were changed to WHDH-TV, which are still channel 7's call letters (as WHDH radio was sold off a few years later and the call letters changed).
By 1993, NETV was in debt, and local programming had been cut back. Even local news had been cut a bit, and some were wondering if WNEV would even be able to continue to afford any local news coverage at all. NETV sold both WHDH radio and TV in 1993. The radio station dropped the WHDH call letters, but the TV station still has them.
The new owner of WHDH was Ed Ansin, who also owns WSVN in Miami. Ansin rebuilt the news department that had been partially decimated under the final months of NETV ownership, and would in time have the largest local] TV news staff in New England.
But while Ed Ansin increased WHDH's news department in size, equipment, and time on the air, many were stunned at what else was going on--the channel 7 news, which was once almost a clone of WBZ and WCVB, suddenly gained a faster pace and more "tabloid" stories. Many news anchors and reporters left WHDH, disgusted at the turn the station's news department had taken. One such departure was R.D. Sahl, who in his time at WHDH, had become a solid, respected, and dependable newsman, perhaps the strongest thing WHDH's news department had going for it.
In 1994 came word that WHDH would lose its CBS affiliation at the beginning of the new year to WBZ, whose parent company (Westinghouse) was in the process of buying out CBS. WHDH grabbed the NBC affiliation, which took effect January 2nd, 1995.
The NBC affiliation has done wonders for WHDH. No longer are its news programs a distant third; currently, WHDH is a strong # 2 in local news (behind WCVB), occasionally beating WCVB for number-one, especially the Thursday 11 P.M. newscasts, which gets a great lead-in from the top-rated drama "E.R.".
In 1995-96, WHDH became one of the few local stations to ever produce a regular series for a national network when the station's daytime talk show "Real Life" was picked up by NBC for nationwide broadcast. But the show's national ratings were anemic, and "Real Life" was dropped by the network. WHDH opted not to continue it as a strictly local program.
And WHDH's arts/entertainment reporter Sara Edwards (who, like Robin Young, is an alumnae of Boston's version of "Evening Magazine") is also NBC News' arts and entertainment editor, (based in Boston, but making frequent trips to Hollywood and New York) seen on local newscasts of NBC affiliates throughout the country.
Even this brief look cannot begin to tell the whole, colorful history of Boston's second-oldest television station. For that, you'd need a book---a BIG book.