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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Television: Pictures From the Air


April 15, 2015
 BUFFLO BOB SMITH My introduction to television came during a trip to Saratoga Springs, NY around 1950.  Howdy Doody was a program I recall. It was the beginning of a life-long fascination with the medium.  The show premiered in 1947 and was a pioneer in children's programming. It continued until 1960 and its broadcast in color helped to sell new sets. 
 HI-O SILVER.  One of the programs that made a successful transition from radio to television was the Lone Ranger.  From 1933 to 1954 it was regular on radio and from 1949 to 1957 it was a television standard.  
ALL IN THE FAMILY.  After WW II, the number of televisions in American went up dramatically.  Ads for televisions focused on the gathering of families around the television set.  By 1960, 66% of Orange County homes had televisions.   


Most area residents received their first television signal in 1954.  It was in that year that WMTW Channel 8 from Mt. Washington and WMVT Channel 3 (later WCAX) from Mt. Mansfield began broadcasting.  It had been a long time coming. 

In 1910 the Burlington Free Press described an apparatus that “enabled the operator to see over wires at a considerable distance.”  Described as “seeing a radio” in 1913, the invention was called television.  In 1922, The Evening World reported: “Television will enable you to sit in your parlor somewhere in the United States and see a thirsty gent tip up a glass of hooch in Australia.”

This column describes early television broadcasting  reception in the area. It follows the March article describing local radio broadcasting. Those who missed that article may locate it on the Internet at “Radio Broadcast Received” at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. 

In 1928 WGY, later WRGB Channel 6,began broadcasting from Schenectady, New York on an irregular basis. It was one of a few experimental television stations operating prior to 1945. Nationally there were very few television sets to receive the signals.  With the end of WW II, however, consumer interest in owning a television increased and so did the number of commercial stations.  In 1948 Boston’s WBZ Channel 4 became the first commercial station in New England.  

Locals went to great lengths to receive television. One of the first was Charlie Hall of West Topsham. In a recent interview Hall said that he first saw television in 1946 while visiting in New York. He purchased a 7” television and erected an antenna with electricity on a nearby hill.  One afternoon he carried the set through the snow to the top of the hill to view Channel 6.  His parents accompanied the viewing party.  A few minutes into the reception “dancing girls” appeared on the snowy screen.  His mother informed his father they were not going to stay. He did. Hall said his mother did not speak to his dad for two weeks. 

To satisfy his neighbors’ interest in television and to get them out of his living room, Hall purchased a number of used televisions and sold the repaired sets to them.  Around  1948, Jack Williams of East Corinth received television from an antenna on what is now know as Antenna Hill above the village. Harold Stever of Bradford built an antenna on the hill above his Summer Street home to receive an elusive signal.  Merlin Blake erected a 50’ antenna on his house on South Pleasant to get Channel 4.  Eddie Perdue built an antenna on Mcgoon Hill in Corinth.  Perdue assisted the others with their projects and established himself early as a go-to for television repairs and sales.    

 In 1951, The United Opinion published an article with a photograph showed an engineer from Expanding Horizons of TV presenting a demonstration of network television in the Bradford Academy auditorium. By that time there were four national television networks broadcasting programs, but reception locally was still spotty at best.  

All that changed in 1954.  That February, The United Opinion reported that A.E. Hale was planning a television sales shop.  The paper stated “Bradford, long on the outer fringe of the fringe area, is now reported to be getting better reception.”  It mentioned a new station broadcasting from Portland, ME, that there would soon be one from Manchester and another from Mt. Washington in the fall.  With these, the area will be well situated to enjoy the best of television.”

In September the newspaper reported that the “test pattern by WMTW is clear and hopes are raised for good reception.”  It mentioned that the station would begin broadcasting on Sept. 25 and would carry network programs of CBS, ABC and Dumont, as well as local live shows.  It also reported that signals from Mt. Mansfield were due soon. 

Much of the interest in television was among sports fans. One of the first programs broadcast by WMTW was a  Major League Baseball game of Detroit at Cleveland. Once the station was on the air, the paper reported “general satisfaction, but some disappointment” among viewers of the area.  Bradford village was still on the fringe and television was “sometimes good, more often unreliable.” 

That fall the newspaper printed the program schedule for the two stations.  It indicated that Channel 8 broadcasted from mid-afternoon until midnight. Programs included news, professional and collegiate sports, weather reports, dramatic productions and shows such as “Life With Father,” “Burns and Allen” and “Superman” and those featuring Jackie Gleason and Arthur Godfrey.

Getting a first television was a monumental event.  Finding the best roof antenna position was a feat that required at least three individuals, one on the roof turning the antenna to and fro, one inside evaluating the reception and one on the lawn passing messages between the other two. There were shouts of “turn it left,” or “just a bit to the right, no, too far, back just a bit.”  

The mountainous terrain proved formidable in getting a good signal. Mount Tug kept many in Bradford village from receiving Channel 3 and mountains kept many in Piermont from getting Channel 8. It was reported that at least one Woodsville home got reception bounced off the cliffs across the river. At least one elder recalled a neighbor using an old set of bed springs in the attic to get reception.  One Orford resident put an antenna 40’ up in a large pine 500 yards from the home. 


By the early 1950s television began to erode the popularity of radio.  Some popular programs such as “Ozzie and Harriett“and “The Lone Ranger” were able to make the successful transition from one medium to the other.  Nationally the number of televisions grew exponentially from 3.9 million sets in 1950 to 52 million in 1960. The census in 1960 indicated that about 66% of Orange County homes had televisions.  

Reception was in black and white, speckled with snow. Connie Longo of Corinth recalled watching the Walt Disney show in the late 1950s. “Reception was inconsistent, and sometimes terrible. But wow, there was a world out there.”  Shureen Metcalf of Bradford said her family had an old console set, “all you could see were shadows most of the time, but we would sit and watch anyway.” She said that they purchased a plastic cover for the screen that had three colored layers to give the impression of color reception. 

Wayne Blake, one of the early television technicians in the area, recalled that viewing a snowy picture by reflecting it in a large mirror across the room gave viewers a “better picture.” Another suggestion was to cover the screen with a sheer cloth thus mitigating the effect of the snow.   

A review of the local newspaper after 1960 offers a profile of the changes in television viewing locally. In 1960 a wide-angle 23” Admiral set was advertised for $209 with trade. Colored TVs were introduced in the mid-1950s but did not become popular until ten years later when the networks began to broadcast primetime programming in color. In 1962 one local ad offered a combined  black and white and colored model and a year later Perdue and Blake of Bradford advertise a colored TV.    

The assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 proved network televisions importance as a news medium and unifying force in American society.  Beginning moments after news of the assassination became available until the state funeral three days later all networks suspended regular programming, replacing it with news reports, taped and live.  Millions of people around the world watched, glued to the latest coverage.

Television also began to play an educational role. National Educational Television, later PBS, was established in 1954.  In 1959 New Hampshire Public Television began broadcasting from studios located at the University of New Hampshire. Despite some opposition from the Legislature, Vermont Educational Television was established in 1967 by the University of Vermont.  Programming offered enhanced educational opportunities for students and the general public.  In 1962 local schools began wiring for television.

Cable television with its subscription membership did not appear in the area until the late 1960s. The opportunity to receive additional channels without the bother of antenna was a great advantage.  Articles in the newspaper reported the progress. In May 1971 a television repeater was sought for Piermont and Bradford with the hope of two channels.  A year later plans were underway for a seven channel cable system for Woodsville and Wells River. 

In 1975 a Community Antenna System was proposed for Bradford village and additional ones in Waits River and East Corinth.  A survey of potential subscribers was favorable.  Arvid Johnson of Bradford recalled that the project in Bradford did not go forward because the quality of the signal was not better than that received by antenna.  In 1976 G. O. Enterprise finally brought cable to Bradford with up to eight channels servicing nearly 350 homes. Our first monthly cable bill was $6.50 and we took down our roof antenna.

Over the next decade cable television was proposed in several other villages including Haverhill Center in 1981 and Piermont in 1987.  Additional channels including Channel 31, a 24-hour news channel and all sports channel were added to the lineup.  Video recording machines became popular and video rental stores opened in the area. In 1984 Perry’s Oil Service demonstrated satellite television, an innovation especially popular in rural locations. 

Televisions sets had larger screens, stereo sound and solid state components replacing tubes.  These innovations led to better sound and resolution.  Additional channels were also added on cable and satellite systems.

Each year and decade brought new popular shows many of which are still available as classic reruns.  In the 1950s they were “I Love Lucy,”Gunsmoke” and “The Texaco Theatre” with Milton Berle, in the 1960s “Bonanzaand “The Beverly Hillbillies,” in the 1970s All In The Family had the most viewers and it was “Dallas” and “Dynasty” that had high ratings in the 1980s. News programs included “The Today Show,” “60 Minutes” and the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite. Miniseries such as Roots kept many tuned in to each episode. Game shows were popular as were the “Mickey Mouse Club” and “American Bandstand.”

Daytime soap operas included “Days of Our Lives,” “As the World Turns” and “General Hospital.”  Each had hundreds of episodes and millions of faithful viewers. Television programming that targeted children ranged from cartoons with sugary cereal ads to “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”  Public television offered intellectually stimulating programming mixed with British comedy and drama.  “Upstair, Downstairs "is an example of the latter. Broadcasting turned Super Bowl Sunday into a new national holiday. That annual sports event ranks, along with the closing episode of “M*A*S*H,” among the most viewed programming during those years. 

Local programming included “Across The Fence and “You Can Quote Me.” Local news events were reported by anchors such as Richard Gallagher of Channel 3. The weather from the top of Mt. Washington was made warmer by the reporting of Marty Engstrom. Chris Nahatis, the pot-smashing salesman for Saladmaster Cookware, premiered his infomercial in 1954. Local performers who made regular appearances included Duke & the Swingbillies.

As it has since television programs were snowy shadows on 7” screens, television broadcasting will continue to change.  Many now have the choice of hundreds of channels and soon will be able to be given even more control over the bundle of stations available.  Larger screens, better sound, wireless remotes, recording systems, enhanced digital pictures and streaming videos are now available.        

Programs of the past may be recalled with fondness or with the feeling that they were a waste of time?  Perhaps you grew up in a home that did not have a television or limited viewing.  It may have been considered the “boob tube” or “the idiot box.”  Maybe you agree with those who viewed commercial television programming as a “vast wasteland.”    

Since the 1950s television has been the premier home entertainment in the area. Created in 1951, the Television Code of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters states: “television program material should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.”    How well has it fulfilled this challenge?   

  


    

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