WNET, channel 13 (branded as "THIRTEEN"), is a non-commercial educational, public television station licensed to Newark, New Jersey. WNET is owned by WNET.org (formerly known as the Educational Broadcasting Corporation) and is also the parent of Long Island PBS station WLIW (channel 21) and the operator of the New Jersey Public broadcasting network NJTV. WNET is a member station of, and a primary program provider to, PBS. WNET's main studios and offices are located in Midtown Manhattan with an auxiliary street-level studio in the Lincoln Center complex on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The station's transmitter is located at One World Trade Center.
Independent station (1948–1962)
WNET commenced broadcasting on May 15, 1948, as WATV, a commercial television station owned by Atlantic Television, a subsidiary of Bremer Broadcasting Corporation. Frank V. Bremer, the CEO, also owned two North Jersey radio stations, WAAT (970 AM) and WAAT-FM (94.7 MHz.). The three stations were based in the Mosque Theatre at 1020 Broad Street in Newark. One unusual daytime program, Daywatch, consisted of a camera focused on a teletypewriter printing wire service news stories, interspersed with cut-aways to mechanical toys against a light music soundtrack. Another early series by the station was Stairway to Stardom (1950–1951), one of the first TV series with an African-American host.
On October 6, 1957, Bremer Broadcasting announced it had sold its stations for $4.5 million to National Telefilm Associates (NTA), an early distributor of motion pictures for television, joining its NTA Film Network. On May 7, 1958, channel 13's callsign was changed to WNTA-TV to reflect the new ownership; the radio stations adopted these call letters as well. NTA's cash resources enabled WNTA-TV to produce a schedule of programming with greater emphasis on the people and events of New Jersey, in comparison to the other commercial television stations. NTA also sought to make channel 13 a center of nationally syndicated programming and produced several such entries, notably the anthology drama series Play of the Week; the talk show Open End, hosted by David Susskind; children's show The Magic Clown; and a popular dance program emceed by Clay Cole. The station continued to lag behind New York's other independent stations—WNEW-TV (channel 5), WOR-TV (channel 9) and WPIX (channel 11)—in terms of audience size, and NTA incurred a large debt load. National Telefilm Associates put the WNTA stations up for sale in February 1961.
"Tonight, you join me in being present at the birth of a great adventure." Edward R. Murrow, on the first broadcast of WNDT on September 16, 1962. By this time, it was obvious that the non-commercial frequency that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) originally allocated to the city, UHF channel 25, would not be nearly adequate enough to cover a market that stretched from Fairfield County, Connecticut in the north to Ocean County, New Jersey in the south. Prior to 1964, when the FCC required television manufacturers to include UHF tuners in newer sets as per the All-Channel Receiver Act, most viewers could not view UHF stations except with an expensive converter; only a few manufacturers made sets with built-in UHF tuning. Even for those who could access UHF stations, reception was marginal even under the best conditions.
This time ETMA was competing with NTA founding president Ely Landau, who had resigned from the company in order to head his own venture for this; and by David Susskind, who received financial backing from Paramount Pictures.
ETMA's initial bid of $4 million was rejected by NTA, but the citizens' group remained persistent. With the support and guidance of National Educational Television (NET) already in their pocket, ETMA later received an endorsement from newly appointed FCC chairman Newton Minow, who established public hearings to discuss the fate of channel 13. The pendulum quickly shifted in favor of channel 13 going non-commercial, and the private firms withdrew their interest.
On June 29, 1961, ETMA agreed to purchase WNTA-TV for $6.2 million. About $2 million of that amount came from five of the six remaining commercial VHF stations (WPIX was the lone holdout), all of whom were pleased to see a competitor eliminated. In addition, CBS later donated a facility in Manhattan to ETMA and NET for production uses. The FCC approved the transfer in October, and converted channel 13's commercial license to non-commercial.
But faced with either consummating the transaction or seeing it cancelled, ETMA settled their differences with New Jersey officials on December 4, 1961. After a few last-minute issues arose to cause further delays, the transfer became final on December 22. Later that evening, WNTA-TV signed off for the final time. ETMA and NET then went to work converting the station, which they said would return with its new format within three months.
Ten months later, channel 13 was ready to be reborn. With legendary CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow at the helm on the maiden broadcast, ETMA—now the non-profit Educational Broadcasting Corporation—flipped the switch to WNDT (for "New Dimensions in Television") on September 16, 1962. Richard Heffner was appointed as WNDT's first general manager, serving in that position in its first year; Heffner continued to appear on channel 13 as producer and host of the public affairs program The Open Mind until his death in December 2013.
Educational/public television station (1962–present)
During the transition, and after the inaugural broadcast, WNDT faced an immediate crisis. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) was concerned about the use of teachers—some of whom were union-certified performers—on non-commercial television, and how they would be compensated should their work be distributed nationally.
AFTRA called a strike on the morning of WNDT's debut. Engineers and technicians who were members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) refused to cross the AFTRA picket line, leaving the station's management and other non-union employees to produce the three-hour inaugural broadcast. Immediately afterwards, channel 13 went off the air again, as the strike continued for nearly two weeks. The striking workers returned WNDT to the air after ten days, and on September 28, the labor dispute was settled. But the station's financial resources were drained, requiring an infusion of cash from the Ford Foundation to help keep the station running.
NET originally wanted to merge its operations with WNDT, which would have given the station a direct line of funding as well as make channel 13 NET's flagship station. The Ford Foundation, which supported both groups, stopped the proposed mergers on at least two different occasions (in 1962 and 1965).
Events that began in 1967 led the Ford Foundation to change its stance and push for a WNDT-NET merger. The newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting (created by an act of the United States Congress) initially supported NET's network role, while providing government funding for programming. But that move was followed two years later with the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Service as the CPB's own distribution system—which was a direct threat to NET's territory. It has been intimated that the CPB's creation was an attempt to curb NET's production of controversial documentaries and replace it with a less controversial, government-friendly broadcaster, less hostile in particular to the Johnson, and later the Nixon administrations (NET ignored the demand and continued on with the production of the critically acclaimed documentaries). At one point, President Nixon, frustrated with NET's documentaries criticizing his administration, especially its handling of the Vietnam War, almost managed to cut NET's $20 million funding grant in half. As a result, this led both the Ford Foundation and the CPB to threaten NET with funding withdrawal in early 1970, unless it merged with the station. Not long after, the Ford Foundation brokered the merger of WNDT and NET, which took effect on June 29, 1970. Channel 13's callsign was changed to the present WNET on October 1, 1970. NET ceased network operations three days later on the 4th, with PBS taking over the following day, though WNET continued to produce some shows for the national PBS schedule with the NET branding until about 1972.
The Independent Documentary Fund and Video Tape Review series were both produces of TV Lab. TV Lab ended in 1984 when the CPB withdrew funds.
In 1987, Channel 13 celebrated its silver anniversary with a series of rebroadcasts of older programs titled Thirteen Revisited.
Channel 13's studios and offices were originally located in the Mosque Theater at 1020 Broad Street in Newark, with transmitter on First Mountain in West Orange, New Jersey, eventually moving to The Empire State Building and later, the World Trade Center. For a short time studios were located at the Gateway Center office building in Newark. The station eventually moved its operations to Manhattan in 1982 to the Hudson Hotel at 237 West 58th Street, while retaining the Gateway Center studios for a few more years. In 1998, it moved to 450 West 33rd Street, straddling the railroad tracks going into Pennsylvania Station. The Associated Press and numerous other media groups have headquarters in the same building.
Channel 13's transmitter facilities, including a newly installed digital transmission system, were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Gerard (Rod) Coppola, channel 13's head transmitter engineer, was among those who died when the north tower collapsed. His remains were discovered on December 25, 2001. For the next ten months, WNYE-TV, headquartered in Brooklyn, became WNET's surrogate transmitter and airwave: for those without cable, repeats of WNET's prime-time schedule were broadcast on WNYE until Channel 13 could re-establish transmission facilities back at the Empire State Building.
Some time later, in February 2003, WNET completed its merger with Long Island PBS broadcaster WLIW (licensed to Garden City and based in Plainview), combining the two stations into one operation. While most of the two stations' operations have been merged, they still have separate studio facilities, separate governing boards, and conduct separate fundraising efforts.
During 2009, WNET's parent company, WNET.org, sustained financial difficulties, and in January, the company pared its workforce from 500 employees to 415, due to severe problems with its budget and fundraising. In October, WNET announced that its studios at 450 West 33rd Street would soon be up for sale, as it no longer needed the extra space. In November, WNET announced that all WNET.org employees would take an unpaid furlough for three to five days between Christmas and New Year's Day, with a skeleton crew of engineers remaining during that time to keep the stations on the air; however, they, too, would have to go on furloughs at the start of 2010. In 2011, WNET moved its studios and offices to Worldwide Plaza.
WNET has been broadcasting digital-only since June 12, 2009.
On July 1, 2011, WNET took over the programming of the New Jersey Network, which was relaunched as NJTV. The network features increased coverage of news and issues pertinent to New Jersey, as well as programming from the WNET and PBS libraries. The transfer of programming to WNET was part of Governor Chris Christie's plan for the New Jersey government's exit from public broadcasting. As part of the deal, WNET airs NJTV's nightly statewide newscast, NJ Today (which was later renamed to NJTV News on November 4, 2013), to meet its local programming obligations since it still operates on a frequency allocated to Newark. Previously, it had aired NJN's newscast, NJN News, which it co-produced with NJN.
In 2014, the Tisch WNET Studios at Lincoln Center were built at the southwest corner of 66th and Broadway; this facility houses two television studios. The space can also accommodate lectures, screenings and concerts. The facility is named in honor of James S. Tisch and his wife, Merryl H. Tisch, whose $15 million gift was, at that time, the single largest donation from individuals in WNET's history.
On May 9, 2017, it was announced that WNET would resume broadcasting from Lower Manhattan at One World Trade Center by the end of the year.
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