On September 24, 1945 the Federal Communications Commission allocated four VHF television channels for Detroit. Applications were submitted by The American Broadcasting Company, Storer Broadcasting,  United Detroit Theaters, radio station WJR and The Evening News Association, but only three licenses were issued. This three part series will chronicle the early history of WWJ, WXYZ and WJBK, Detroit’s first three television stations.  

 Regularly scheduled commercial television came to Detroit on March 4, 1947. The station was WWDT, owned by The Evening News Association, publishers of The Detroit News. WWDT’s first broadcast day began at 2:30 PM with a test pattern and recorded music, followed by a video version of Coffee Club, a popular radio program heard on WWJ radio, and a cooking demonstration by Detroit News columnist Jean McBride. Walt Koste, producer of Coffee Club and a WWJ employee since 1944, was WWJ-TV’s first television director.

 For the inaugural broadcast DuMont placed several “telesets” at high profile locations around town, including Kern’s Department Store, the Statler and Book-Cadillac Hotels and Convention Hall. An estimated 1,500 TV receivers were tuned to the historic broadcast. The 500-watt signal was received eight miles away at the Dietz and Company appliance store at 7 Mile and Gratiot, which exceeded engineer’s expectations. These early broadcasts offered the technicians a chance to familiarize themselves with the new equipment before operating at full power.  

 Television was initially considered  an entertainment medium, with news an unnecessary afterthought. WWDT's news broadcasts were basically "illustrated radio," with an announcer reading stories from the wire services, illustrated by still photographs borrowed from The Detroit News. WWJ radio commentator and Detroit News columnist Ken Manuel was Detroit's first TV newscaster.

 On June 3, 1947, WWDT changed its call letters to WWJ, increased its power to 5000 watts and began daily programming. During the televised dedication, Evening News Association President William E. Scripps warned viewers that the broadcasts were experimental and technical difficulties should be expected. After the brief ceremony it was off to Briggs Stadium for a Tigers-Yankees ballgame. Seasoned WWJ radio broadcaster Ty Tyson adapted easily to the new medium. During a tricky catch by Tiger outfielder Dick Wakefield, Tyson remarked, “He nearly dropped it! Did you see it bobble?”

 WWJ’s first regularly scheduled program was The Hudson Sketchbook, hosted by Pat Tobin. The show was a precursor to the Home Shopping Network, designed to showcase products from the J. L. Hudson department store. Dick Beals, who played Santa’s helper Jump Jump in a holiday edition of the program, recalls in his autobiography Think Big how he cleverly dealt with a stage fraught Santa on live TV.

 “Santa was supposed to say something like, “Well, Jump Jump, look at these new 45 RPM records.” And Jump Jump was supposed to ask: “What’s a 45 RPM, Santa?” Santa: “Well, Jump Jump”… and then he goes into his pitch. But Santa couldn’t remember which product came next.

 So Jump Jump, that clever fellow, “jumped” in with, “Golly, Santa, here’s something new, a 45 RPM record.” And holding the stack of records up so I could look at him and the camera through the new, larger hole, I added, “And look how the center area is thicker so the grooves don’t touch.” Then I held them up horizontally and looked through the spaces. Then he was supposed to ask if I would like to play one on the record player with the large spindle adapter, but he didn’t. Jump Jump: “Santa, could we play one? I’d like to see how the spindle adapter works.” He nodded. Thank goodness he remembered how.”

  Missed cues, misfiring props and actors flubbing lines were all part of early live television. In his book Please Stand By- A Prehistory of Television, author Michael Ritchie tells of an early WWJ broadcast with the station’s general manager Harry Bannister and director Walt Koste.

  “To celebrate the start of regular telecasts, Harry sponsored a contest to find the most beautiful girl in Detroit. For the live crowning of “Miss Television,” producer Walter Koste acted as master of ceremonies. The stage set was a floral garden with a rose arbor at the rear, three steps above the stage. Each contestant would pause for a closeup in the arbor and then move downstage in a second camera’s wide shot. As the winner was announced in her arbor-framed closeup, Koste milked the moment: “Now darling, step down with all of the beauty and grace that heaven bestowed upon you.” The winning girl took one step, tripped and fell flat on her face; her legs went up and her dress flipped over, revealing her panty-clad bottom.”

  In 1947 the average retail price for a television receiver was $440.00, quite a bit of money when the average annual American salary was $3,500.00. But consumer spending rose by 60 per cent after World War II, and families were eager to purchase items like TV sets, new automobiles and other luxuries denied them during the war.  Thinking that children’s shows would have enough family appeal to increase TV sales, RCA, General Electric and Philco sponsored the first children’s programs on WWJ. The earliest kids shows were Our Story Book with Jane Durelle, Let’s See Willy Dooit and Junior Jamboree.

  Junior Jamboree was the brainchild of Detroit broadcast veteran Fran Harris, who first stepped before the WWJ radio microphone in 1930. Harris became Michigan’s first woman news broadcaster in 1943 when the station lost most of its male personnel to WWII.  She made an effortless transition to television in 1947 as host, producer and creator of much of WWJ-TV’s earliest programming. Traffic Court, a Harris creation, was the first TV court program in the country.

  Jamboree’s format served as the blueprint for all kids shows to come, offering puppets, magicians, animals from the Humane Society, local sports heroes and a cop with safety tips, all performing in front of a live peanut gallery of kids. The program was broadcast Monday thru Friday from a makeshift studio in the Detroit News building, where the rumbling of the printing presses one floor below was often heard in the background. The cast of Junior Jamboree included Jo Alexander and her marionette What Now, sketch artist Jerry Peacock, Detroit Police Sgt. Ronald “Dusty” Rhodes and magician Karrell Fox, who also played Milky the Clown on WWJ in 1962 after Clare Cummings TV retirement. Junior Jamboree left the video airwaves in late 1948 when the manufacture of RCA TV sets picked up enough for executives to think that the show was no longer needed.

  WWJ became an NBC affiliate in March of 1948, opting to carry only the network’s news programs while producing its own entertainment shows, like Mischa Kottler at the Piano with Detroit Symphony pianist Mischa Kottler, Inside Hollywood featuring local radio actor Rollon Parker and The Scotti Show, a musical comedy program starring popular Detroit nightclub entertainers George and Eleanor Scotti. 

  Sports proved to be a popular diversion on WWJ. In 1948 the station broadcast 26 baseball games, with Ty Tyson handling the play-by-play. Tyson, along with Harry Heilmann and Paul Williams, also covered the U. of M. and Detroit Lions football games as well as Red Wings hockey games and wrestling matches.  The Detroit News sports staff produced Sports Closeup, a daily ten-minute wrap-up of scores and highlights, and Bob Leslie was host of Cunningham’s Sports Ace, sponsored by Cunningham’s Drug Stores. 

   By September of 1948 both WJR and the United Detroit Theaters chain pulled out of the television race. WJR had appropriated $300,000 for television, but instead decided to invest $650,000 for expansion of their radio facilities. The United Detroit Theaters simply couldn’t raise the amount cash needed to fund a television station.

  When WWDT first hit Detroit's airwaves, television was considered an expensive novelty rather than a household necessity. Most TV receivers populated bars and TV showrooms, with very few home installations. . A short year later, television sales nationally grew more than 600 percent with most receivers now finding their place in the family living room. Locally, 9,000 TV sets were now tuned to Channel 4. For eighteen months WWJ-TV dominated the airwaves, but they were about to get some competition, courtesy of the American Broadcasting Company.

Copyright © 2007 Edward Golick Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Coming soon
Part Two:
WIXIE is On The Air!