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Eggheads built TV in the 60s for yuppi kids' tool.

"Tonight you join me at the birth of a great adventure." The words are those of Edward R. Murrow, and they were spoken on September 16, 1962, the first day Channel 13-then called WNDT (New Dimensions in Television)went on the air, using an owl as a logo.

Within a week, as if fate wanted to warn the public broadcaster of the turbulent years to follow, the WNDT staff went on strike at the command of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It seems the union was concerned about all those non-union eggheads-teachers, scientists and journalists -- being brought into the studio.

But despite the early hiccups, New York's public television survived (it became WNET in 1970, when it merged with National Education Television) and proceeded triumphantly to supply the nation's public television stations with some 40 per cent of their primetime shows.

Some of the greatest and most widely acclaimed events on television originated on Thirteen/WNET, including The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Nature, Innovation, Adam Smith's Money World, Great Performances and Travel.

Oddly enough, WNET has its roots in a little, limping Newark, New Jersey VHF station with the call-letters WNTA. Public Television wanted the spot on the spectrum, but so did others. WNTA eventually won.

History worked in the new station's favor. The Cuban Missile Crisis came along, and in October, 1962, the station devoted many hours to the coverage of the hearings

But, despite riding high on continuing critical acclaim, Channel 13 had a forever nervous time when it came to its financing, a state of affairs that continues to this day.

To begin with, the station did its best with a very limited budget. Then, in the seventies, the oil companies decided that it made sense to back WNET's shows -- productions like Great Performances. Ford Foundation got into the act, and Thirteen was one of four stations funded to build local contributions and reduce its dependence on the federal government.

But politics interfered. President Richard Nixon did not like public television, and even vetoed a bill funding the system. The inimitable Nixon felt public television was not on his (political) wavelength. Ford gradually phased out presidential support. Foundations began to step in in 1983. In 1987, Dr. William Baker took over as WNET president (a one-time TV announcer, later a TV executive and an arctic explorer who was one of the few men to set foot on both the North and South poles), and soon felt the chill air of conservative disapproval in Congress.

If WNET made mistakes, it can also point to a great many outstanding accomplishments. In 1971 and 1972, The Great American Dream Machine was a popular success. That same season, the analytical Bill Moyers came aboard and Great Performances premiered. Thirteen/WNET went on to produce landmark programs such as Brideshead Revisited, The Forsyte Saga, The Adams Chronicles, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, The Brain, The Mind, Art of the Western World, and An American Family.

The Children's Television Workshop's innovativze Sesame Street captured the young in 1969 and revolutionized pre-school television. Big Bird and the Muppets became tangible members of families everywhere. Earlier this year, WNET and all PBS stations scored successes with Ken Burns' The Civil War, one of the most widely-watched and acclaimed shows in its history, and with its continuing series of Nature, with specials Land of the Eagle and Realms of the Russian Bear. Recent years have seen Thirteen/WNET become the fountainhead of its own productions. Co-production, both with other PBS stations and with producers abroad, is up sharply.

The station's real significance over the past three decades has been its determination to stay true to its ideal of introducing quality entertainment and information programs, to throw the spotlight on American society, to provide educational services and to survive in a fiercely competitive commercial climate. It's been successful in its search for the elusive goal of better television.
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Publication:Video Age International
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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