BOSTON (CBS) – Seventy years ago this week WBZ-TV went on the air for the first time. It was a challenge, but one the station’s owners were determined to meet.
It was post war Boston, 1948 and radio was king, but plans for a new kind of broadcast center were in the works, a plan to bring the first TV station to New England. “We wanted to be the first in New England. We had made a commitment to ourselves that we would be, and we wanted to see it through,” says Bill Swartley, WBZ’s first General Manager in an interview that first aired years ago.
It was a race to get on the air. Plans to go on in March were set back by the worst winter in years with slow going erecting the TV tower. At 650-feet it was the tallest structure in New England at the time. But on June 9th, 1948 at 10 am, WBZ-TV went on the air with a test pattern, which lasted much of the day.
At 6:30 pm, the few TV screens in the area lit up with a film of prominent New Englanders wishing the TV station well, like Cardinal Cushing and Boston Mayor Curley. That was followed by a live news report anchored by Arch MacDonald. The problem? The TV station was still under construction. With no furniture in the studio, like a good journalist, he improvised. “We had this piece of plywood and I sat on a keg of nails and that’s how the station got on the air,” MacDonald remembers.
In those days, TVs were few and far between. People gathered at storefronts to watch, and Gillette put 100 TVs in the Boston Public Garden so 10,000 fans could watch the Braves play in the World Series.
But people made the investment in what was the high tech wonder of the time. Viewership and programming grew. There was Winston Churchill, live from Boston Garden. President Eisenhower visited Channel 4 and we’re still a little embarrassed that a clock fell and hit him on the head. And of course we broadcast a speech by Pres. Kennedy when he came home. “It is a great pleasure to come back to a city where my accent is considered normal,” JFK told the crowd.
There were local shows like The Lady of The Bookshelf. Bob Emery would become “Big Brother,” Rex Trailer built Boomtown and even the commercials were live. We would create New England’s first morning show, “Swan Boat” with Nelson Bragg.
It was part variety showcase, part newscast with Jack Chase. “People desire to know, and television, reflecting that need, has tried to be more and more immediate,” Chase reflected.
Delivering on that immediacy and accuracy would grow with the times and the technology.