Oscar Robertson, at far left, guard for the Cincinnati Royals basketball team, does an early stint as an auctioneer for the WCET benefit Feb. 16, 1968.(Photo: File)
Long before Big Bird, Barney or “Mystery!,” WCET-TV debuted on airwaves 60 years ago with a children’s show called “Tel-A-Story.”
The Channel 48 broadcast from a studio in Music Hall on July 26, 1954, could be seen on only 500 TVs able to get ultra-high frequency (UHF) channels 14-83.
But WCET was on the air, after a three-year process responding to the Federal Communications Commission’s campaign to bring “noncommercial educational television” to cities.
The local effort was rewarded the next year, on March 11, when the FCC issued license No. 1 to the Greater Cincinnati Television Educational Foundation. FCC staffer Edgar Holtz from Cincinnati helped Channel 48 get the first license, despite Houston’s KUHT-TV going on the air a year earlier.
“We walked into his office, and he helped us walk it through to the commission,” said Clyde Haehnle, 92, the WLWT-TV executive who “did all the applications” for WCET in the 1950s with attorney Nelson Schwab.
WCET in the 1950s, however, was vastly different from today’s Public Broadcasting Service affiliate. To watch the city’s first UHF station, TV owners had to buy a converter box for $15-$35, said WCET General Manager Uberto Neely in a 1954 Enquirer story.
WCET was to be joined that year by TV stations owned by WNOP-AM and WCIN-AM, which had acquired UHF construction permits, Neely said. But those stations never went on the air, leaving Channel 48 as the only UHF station here until WXIX-TV (Channel 19) in 1968.
Another big difference: Channel 48 was “educational TV,” not public TV. The first trustees were top officials at Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Reading, Covington and Archdiocese of Cincinnati schools; Xavier University, the University of Cincinnati and the College of Music; and the main public library.
“We had lessons in science, chemistry, art and all kinds of things for the schools,” said Haehnle, a Channel 48 board member in the 1970s.
Up to 90 percent of funds came from schools, resulting in limited programming and broadcasting hours. Channel 48 was housed in Music Hall for five years until getting a big boost from two commercial stations.
WLWT in 1959 let the station move into its vacant “Mount Olympus” studio under the Channel 5 tower at 2222 Chickasaw St., Fairview. WKRC-TV gave Channel 48 old cameras, monitors and other equipment after it moved from the Times-Star building Downtown into its current Highland Avenue studios. The donation enabled Channel 48 to expand broadcasting to five weeknights on Feb. 1, 1960.
The TV picture changed radically in 1966. The Cincinnati Board of Education withdrew $117,000 after a school tax levy defeat, prompting a campaign to raise $100,000 in about three weeks. From the crisis came the “Action Auction” in 1968, which generated $31,000.
“They didn’t have any money. Things were bad. They were going off the air,” said Barbara Kellar of Hyde Park, who started her 45-year relationship with the station at the first “Auction.” Kellar, host of the CET Arts “Showcase” program (8 p.m. Sundays, Channel 48.3), later chaired the “Auction” before creating the “Live on CET!” fundraising gala 10 years ago. Her husband Lorrence (Larry) is a station board member.
Even after the arrival of cable TV with home shopping channels in the early 1980s, “Action Auction” remained the station’s major fundraiser.
Channel 48 “has a strong core of volunteers who work tirelessly for the ‘Auction’ every year, and love it,” said attorney Michael Hirschfeld, a former WCET board member.
WCET’s finances also were stabilized by the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuted that year, followed by “Sesame Street” in 1969, before PBS was formed in 1970.
In the 1970s, WCET began providing PBS with programming. Lilias Folan’s “Lilias, Yoga & You” local Channel 48 show aired on PBS from 1974-79.
After moving into the new Crosley Telecommunications Center on Central Parkway in 1976, WCET produced for PBS Cincinnati Opera director James De Blasis’ interpretation of “Elixir of Love” as a 19th century western in 1978, and conductor Michael Gielen’s 1980 Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut.
Starting in 1991, it produced PBS pledge specials with “Lawrence Welk Show” stars and sing-along maestro Mitch Miller; nine national Erich Kunzel Cincinnati Pops specials; and two CSO concerts.
Channel 48 also made local programs about Music Hall; German immigrants; race relations; broadcasters Joe Nuxhall, Nick Clooney, Gary Burbank, Waite Hoyt and Powel Crosley Jr.; arts patron Irma Lazarus; area churches; and the “It’s Academic” high school quiz show.
The first licensed noncommercial station led PBS stations by providing the first local on-demand classroom programming via cable TV (1983), instructional resource guides for teachers (1985) and the first 24/7 local arts channel (2010).
On Central Parkway, WCET found revenue in satellite uplinks for Procter & Gamble sales teleconferences and feeding newsmaker interviews to TV networks, and renting spacious Studio A to “Rain Man,” “Little Man Tate” and other movies.
Director Barry Levinson filmed Vernon Manor bedroom scenes with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise for Oscar-winning “Rain Man” in Studio A, which has the old Palace Theater’s “flying rig” to raise and lower scenery and curtains.
“ ‘Rain Man’ was filmed here because they could move walls very, very easily,” said Jack Dominic in February, before retiring as station manager and executive vice president.
Today the station is managed by Dayton-based David Fogarty, under the 2009 merger with Greater Dayton Public Television.
Channel 48’s production crew “got the flying rig for nothing (in 1982). They were crawling around up the ceiling and welding pulleys. To this day we use it,” Dominic said. ■
1951: FCC offers Channel 48 to Cincinnati.
1953: Construction permit granted.
1954: First broadcast, “Tel-A-Story” at 4 p.m. July 26 from Music Hall.
1955: Issued license No. 1 for noncommercial educational TV on March 11 by FCC.
1958: Estimated 10,000 children watch Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Young People’s Concert telecast from Music Hall.
1959: Moves into “Mount Olympus” studio under WLWT-TV tower, 2222 Chickasaw St., Fairview.
1966: Cincinnati Public Schools cancels $117,000 funding after tax levy defeat.
1968: First “Action Auction” raises $31,000.
1974: Lilias Folan’s “Lilias, Yoga & You” debuts on PBS.
1976: Moves into new Crosley Communications Center, 1223 Central Parkway.
1980: First Cincinnati station offering closed-captioning.
1983: First PBS station providing local on-demand programs to schools via cable TV.
1985: “The Music Man,” Cincinnati’s first stereo TV show.
1988: “Rain Man” films scenes in Studio A.
1995: PBS airs first of nine “Cincinnati Pops Holiday” concerts with conductor Erich Kunzel.
2006: Launches CETconnect.org website.
2005: Cincinnati’s first 24/7 HDTV broadcasts.
2009: Merger with Greater Dayton Public Television to form Public Media Connect Inc.
2010: CET Arts (Channel 48.3), first U.S. 24/7 local arts station.
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