Looking back on 60 years of television
During my lifetime there have been many innovations that changed our lives, but perhaps none more significant than television.
I remember Tuesday, Dec. 22, 1953, the day Greenville’s WNCT-TV signed on the air. My father, A. Hartwell Campbell, was responsible for bringing television to Eastern Carolina, the fourth oldest continuously operating station in our state. In July 1949, WBTV in Charlotte became the first station between Richmond and Atlanta. Months later Greensboro’s WFMY signed on the air. In September 1953, WSJS (now WXII) began broadcasting from Winston-Salem. Durham’s WTVD started operations in 1954, as did WMFD (now WECT) in Wilmington. In 1955, WUNC in Chapel Hill and WITN in Washington signed on. Raleigh’s WRAL started broadcasting in 1956.
Those first black-and-white TV sets cost about $200 and required an outside antenna to clearly receive the pictures and sounds. There were four national networks: NBC, CBS, ABC and DuMont. None provided a full day of programming, so as much as 40 percent of a stations’ daily offerings were originated locally. It was exciting to watch innovative local programming in children’s shows, live entertainment, cooking shows, educational and public forums and even religious programs.
Without Teleprompters, videotapes and sophisticated graphics early TV newscasts were mostly re-writes from the AP or UPI newswire, with the occasional still picture projected on a rear screen. Those 15-minute newscasts included the news, weather, sports and farm reports. In our state Doug Mayes, Ty Boyd, Charles Kuralt, W. E. Debnam, Lee Kinard and other personalities became like members of our families. We were introduced to national broadcasters like Greensboro’s Edward R. Murrow, Wilmington’s David Brinkely and legendary newscasters named John Cameron Swayze, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite, to name just a few.
We loved Lucy, Jackie Gleason, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, Steve Allen and rarely missed Gunsmoke’s Marshall Dillon, Alfred Hitchcock, The Twilight Zone, staged-for-television dramatic and musical productions, mid-day soap operas and quiz shows. TV launched Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Beginning with the telecasts of the 1957 NCAA basketball tournament, Greensboro’s C.D. Chesley started us on the path of passionately following ACC and college sports broadcasts.
The music world changed when Ed Sullivan introduced us to Elvis and The Beatles. Television helped bring down Joe McCarthy, showed us the injustice of segregation, the truth about Vietnam, the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The televised Watergate hearings helped bring down a sitting president, and who will ever forget that “one small step for mankind” when Americans first landed on the moon?
TV has become part of the fabric of our lives. Those born after 1960 cannot know what life was like before television changed our eating and sleeping habits, social interactions, and our views of our state, nation and world. The medium introduced us to fashion trends, has entertained us, informed us and brought the world into our living rooms, showing us at our best, but also our worst.
While we in the profession pause for a moment to celebrate 60-plus years of television, we recognize that we stand on the shoulders of those early television pioneers. It is a time to rededicate ourselves to the high ideals of fairness and of being a positive influence in serving the public interests.
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.