It started innocuously, like many 1960s experiments. Area residents who witnessed it might remember spinning that old UHF dial on the black-and-white TV and discovering there was a fourth station!
Spunky little WVIA-TV had begun broadcasting “Instructional Television,” shows with what looked like curmudgeonly professors writing chalkboard scribble, as though someone had the afterthought of recording a live lecture.
If that were all WVIA ever offered, the station now located midway between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton would have been lucky to celebrate a five-year anniversary, much less the 50th it will mark with a Nov. 13 gala at Mohegan Sun Pocono, in Plains Township. (For event information and ticket-purchasing, go to wvia.org/50/).
But public television and WVIA in particular always have been innovators and savvy scavengers in programming.
Yes, it’s true, the Northeastern Pennsylvania station began by airing video of an American flag and audio of the national anthem, followed by a “technical difficulties” message. But once the glitches were gone, the premiere was the first in a long line of local productions, a show about the new station titled “All About Us.”
WVIA-TV, Channel 44, became the local home of “Sesame Street,” children’s programming so original even adults watched early episodes, and so daring it tackled the real life death of actor Will Lee by having his “Mr. Hooper” character die as well. If you watch Big Bird coming to terms with it, odds are you’ll still tear up today.
WVIA pioneered a path that has become a mainstay of many upstart cable channels, airing classic TV shows and movies. Long before TCM, DVDs or even VCRs, for many youngsters ’VIA was the introduction to Hollywood masterpieces.
There were the “happy little trees” of painter Bob Ross. There was host Jacob Bronowski on “The Ascent of Man,” warning against belief in the absolute as he reached into the ponds of Auschwitz, where the ashes of those gassed – including his relatives – were flushed. There was Carl Sagan, explaining in layperson’s terms on “Cosmos” how we are all “star stuff.”
Today there is Masterpiece, which has brought us everything from “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” to “Downton Abbey.” And there is locally produced programming you would never see anywhere else simply because there is no place like WVIA, the first area station to be satellite-equipped and to broadcast in high definition.
Its lineup includes “Call the Doctor,” “Scholastic Scrimmage,” “Homegrown Music Concerts” and televised political debates.
WVIA-TV is not perfect, nor free of controversy, but it is and always has been an innovation lab, media frontier explorer, and quality programming aggregator. It is public TV as public asset.
It is more than the “fourth station.” It brings a fourth dimension to our area’s media. Without it, we would be a lesser community.