CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation

 

Courtesy of CPTV

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In honor of CPTV’s 50th anniversary celebration, we decided to capture memories from some of the early participants. What follows are key excerpts from our interviews, in an expanded version of our April 2013 issue print feature. Read here about the birth and development of Connecticut Public Radio (WNPR) and the CPTV triumph that was UConn women's basketball.

Catching a Wave  ( the 1950s-’60s )

On Oct. 1, 1962, at 9:40 a.m., the Connecticut TV audience—or, we should say, those viewers living in the Hartford area who’d thought to buy a television with a UHF receiver—were greeted with a new presence on the dial, WEDH Channel 24, the first full-power station in the Connecticut Educational Television Corporation (CETC) network (WEDN-53 in Norwich and WEDW-49 in Bridgeport became operational by the end of 1967, later to be joined by WEDY-65 in New Haven). At its inception, WEDH was one of only three educational television stations in New England, including Boston’s mighty WGBH Channel 2, and was the 68th station in the nascent National Educational Television (NET) network. Like WGBH and WNET Channel 13 in New York City, the CETC network differs from most other states’ educational stations in that it’s neither owned nor operated by Connecticut’s state department of education or university system, but is a private, community-based 501(c)3 nonprofit. WEDH set up shop on the campus of Trinity College, where it resided for 42 years.

Frank Donovan (CPTV host/producer, 1962-1990): Hartford’s WEDH Channel 24 debut was the climax of a 10-year effort. In 1952, the FCC had allotted the CETC three UHF channels for educational television. But very few people could pick up UHF broadcasts; if they wanted to, they had to pay an extra $100 for a receiver. By the time Channel 24 came on the air, there were only two commercial UHF channels operating in Connecticut, both doing very poorly: the NBC affiliate Channel 30 and Channel 18 in Hartford. It wasn’t till President John F. Kennedy signed the “All-Channel Receiver Bill” in 1962 that TV manufacturers were forced to include UHF receivers in their products.

David Carson (CPTV advisory board member, 1979-present): Initially, VHF Channel 3 was supposed to be allocated to Hartford’s public television station, much like Channel 2 was assigned to Boston. What happened was, the CETC didn’t have any money, or a television tower or anything like that, so a deal was made to reallocate Channel 3 to Traveler’s Insurance Co., for its commercial station WTIC. Traveler’s Broadcasting in turn guaranteed WEDH its own spot on a new broadcast tower being built for WTIC on Avon Mountain, and gave a grant of $30,000 to the CETC as startup funding.

Frank Donovan: In 1953, funds were requested from the state General Assembly for Connecticut educational television, but nothing happened. So, Gov. John Lodge set up a study group that made a report in 1954. One of the things they needed to decide was, “What constitutes educational television? Does it apply only to children, or adults as well?” They wound up going to the Connecticut attorney general and got a decision that it was a broad term that should be applied to both.  

Anders Yocom (CPTV producer/director, 1962-1974): I started with WEDH the day it went on the air, actually a few days before Oct. 1. I was a senior at Trinity, so I worked as a camera operator and general crew member until I graduated in 1963. Then they hired me full-time as producer and director. The first day on the air was very exciting; I remember that we toured the facility and studio, and just talked a little bit about what educational television was and what the plans were for the station.

Frank Donovan: The first WEDH studios were located in the basement of the Trinity College library, and later in Boardman Hall, a science building on campus. The state of Connecticut proved quite generous in funding capital improvements needed by the CETC; it was a state grant along with a donation of land from Trinity that enabled the construction of a new studio building on the corner of Summit Street and New Britain Avenue in 1969. Certain private corporations made donations to help provide the technical equipment. But very little help came from the school system—getting that was always a real struggle.

Anders Yocum: Ben Huddleston was the original station manager. He had worked at WNBC-TV in New York. Another key early figure was Douglas Leonard, who Ben hired as the first program director—it was Doug who hired me. Paul Taff, who replaced Ben around 1970, had been head of children’s programming at WNET, where he produced “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Jack Kean (CPTV executive, 1968-2002): I worked as remote supervisor with WGBH Channel 2 in Boston for 10 years before being offered the position of chief engineer at WEDH in 1968. When I started, all three CETC stations—including WEDN-53 in Norwich and WEDW-49 in Bridgeport—were operational, but they weren’t interconnected in any way. On cold nights the Boardman Hall steam pipes would knock so loudly that at times, you couldn’t hear the broadcasts. During my first few weeks, my wife sat at home and cried, asking me, “Why did we ever come here?” I told her, “The worse it is, the better it’s going to be for me.”

Anders Yocom: What justified the development of public television in the early days was that the stations produced a lot of programming that could be used by teachers in school classrooms. At first, we did at least two “in-school” series, both hosted by Jane B. Cheney. She was the head of the Children’s Museum of Hartford. She was pretty knowledgeable about social studies and biology, so we did one social studies show and the other about native animals. The programs were 20 minutes long; Jane would prepare the subjects and bring things in from the museum to show. It was pretty primitive, I must say. We weren’t broadcasting in color, and we only had two cameras in the studio, so the pattern was wide shot/close-up, wide shot/close-up. For 20 full minutes.

Jack Kean: Doug Leonard and I started to work together on what was technically a very sloppy on-air operation. We let everyone know that one of us would always be watching during prime time, and things improved noticeably. One guy sort of threatened me—apparently some of the crew had had this nice deal where they’d start a tape and run out for coffee.

Anders Yocom: Early on there was no Corporation for Public Broadcasting, no PBS. We shared programs with other stations through a system called “bicycling”: Shows would arrive through the mail, either on 16-millimeter film or two-inch videotape. We would have the right to air them for about a week; then we’d have to ship them somewhere else. Quite a few documentaries we broadcast came through this way, as well as something called “World Perspectives on the News.” Later WEDH made some attempts to do live interconnects with other stations, but they were done by the stations taking shows from one another off the air and retransmitting them; Norwich would pick up the signal from Boston, Hartford from Norwich and so on. Atmospheric conditions would sometimes cause the whole process to shut down. But at least the Boardman Hall studio gave us space to do a lot more of our own programs. We started a four-night-a-week news program, which Pat Sheehan hosted for a while before going on to become news anchor at WTIC-3. I anchored that program briefly as well, with Irving Kravsow, who at the time was managing editor of the Hartford Courant.

Jack Kean: The technical equipment of the time was incredibly bulky and primitive. But we did design, I guess, the first handheld camera ever built in the U.S. We took an RCA color camera, removed the parts and repackaged it in such a way that the cameraman just held the tubes and the lens. The electronic part of it went into a backpack that another man wore.

Anders Yocom: In 1967, we got our first three-camera remote truck. That opened up all kinds of possibilities, enabling us to travel all over the state. But even before that, we got “single-system film capability”—a 16-millimeter Auricon camera with sound, the first technical advancement that allowed us to get out of the studio and into the community. I was the principal guy on that camera; that was how I learned 16-millimeter shooting and editing.

Jack Kean: We began color-broadcasting film and tape in 1968. I became a vice president of CPTV in 1971, overseeing an engineering department of 23 people once we moved into our Summit Street studios.

Anders Yocom: The establishment of PBS in 1970 brought big improvements. Stations were finally interconnected nationally, and we started to air programs like “Masterpiece Theatre” and “NOVA,” which put us on the map.

Frank Donovan: Cable television, which was introduced in Connecticut in 1972, had a big impact on the reach of CPTV. Cable was what first made it at all possible for parts of Connecticut to receive UHF television, particularly the southwest, which had been dominated by VHF channels from New York.
 

CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation

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