Educational Broadcasting Corporation History

356 West 58th Street
New York, New York 10019

Telephone: (212) 560-2000
Fax: (212) 582-3297

Non-Profit Company
Incorporated: 1961 as Educational Television for the Metropolitan Area, Inc.
Employees: 479
Sales: $171.6 million (2001)
NAIC: 513120 Television Broadcasting

Company Perspectives:

For four decades, Thirteen has been asking big questions. And in so doing, it has encouraged its viewers to ask illuminating questions of themselves and their world. This is the vision that drives the non-commercial, educational, inspiring public television that Thirteen provides.

Company History:

Based in midtown Manhattan, Edcuational Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) is the corporate parent of Channel Thirteen/WNET, a New Jersey-based public television station serving the New York City metropolitan area. Thirteen/WNET is also an important contributor to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network, providing a large portion of its programming, including the Newshour with Jim Lehrer as well as a wide variety of cultural and arts programming. Moreover, the six million viewers that Thirteen/WNET delivers each week is a key factor for other PBS producers when approaching corporate and private foundation underwriters. In addition to Thirteen/WNET, EBC now controls WLIW, a Long Island public television station, which was expected to complete a merger with Thirteen/WNET in 2002.

Public Television Origins in the 1950s

WNET resulted from a 1970 merger of a public television station, WNDT, with a producing organization, NET (the National Educational Television and Radio Center). The roots of NET reach back to the end of 1952 when "National" was not part of its name and the newly incorporated Educational Television and Radio Center was simply known as the "Center." Earlier that year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside 242 television stations for educational purposes. Unlike Europe, where a public television system was centralized and created from the top down, non-commercial television in America evolved in an almost haphazard manner. Demand for television frequencies from commercial interests following World War II had been so high that in 1948 the FCC initiated a four-year freeze on new licenses in order to decide how to make enough channels available. Advocates for reserving television bandwidth for educational/public purposes took advantage of the freeze to lobby the FCC. Many of these pioneers were affiliated with the college educational radio stations that had formed the National Association of Education Broadcasters (NAEB) and had been successful in their fight to reserve FM radio frequencies for educational purposes. NAEB and other educational organizations created the Joint Committee on Educational Television, which then received funding from the Ford Foundation in order to take on the powerful commercial forces that were poised to dominate television. Even after the FCC agreed to reserve stations for public use, a year passed before the first educational television station, located in Houston, was on the air. From the outset advocates of educational public television recognized that the new stations would need a program exchange service in order to fill their air time. It was for this purpose that the Center was created, funded by a $1.35 million grant from the Ford Foundation. In May 1954, the Center, operating out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, offered its first slate of educational fare, some five hours delivered by mail on kinescope film, including such programs as Geography in Conflict, Understanding Your Child, and From Haydn to Hi-Fi. At that point, however, only six public television stations were operational--and none in the New York City area.

By the end of the 1950s, New York still lacked a public television station. Nevertheless the Center moved to the city, added "National" to its name, and began billing itself as America's "fourth network." Because all of the seven New York VHF channels that were available to most television sets of the day were already allocated to commercial interests, the FCC in 1952 was able to offer only a UHF channel for public use in New York City. Virtually no one could receive the frequency, so it was not activated, despite some efforts from a organization called the Metropolitan Educational Television Association (META), formed in the mid-1950s and comprised of representatives from area educational institutions and universities. META eventually turned its attention to production, creating a few programs for the Center to distribute. Because the sponsoring organizations of META's board members all competed with it for funding, it was decided in 1959 to dissolve META and donate its broadcasting facility to New York University. Two years later, one of the area's seven VHF stations, channel 13, became available. The head of the Center, John White, was informed of this development by a broker, Howard Stark, who had been hired to secure a much needed New York station for the budding national network of public television stations.

The Early Years of Channel 13

Channel 13 was the only one of the major New York metropolitan television stations located on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The FCC granted the license in 1946 to Bremer Broadcasting Corporation largely because of the company's New Jersey roots. The company's founder, Frank V. Bremer, was a radio pioneer who had been broadcasting in the state since the earliest days of the medium. Channel 13, using the call letters WATV, may have technically been a New Jersey station, but it was clearly intended to primarily serve New York City. Like the other area stations, its broadcasts emanated from the Empire State Building, although WATV continued to maintain its studios in Newark. In the beginning, it had actually attempted to transmit from New Jersey, only to discover that viewers in the state had their antennas directed towards Manhattan, making the move to the Empire State Building a virtual necessity. Still, WATV was the poor cousin among the city's television stations. In 1957, Bremer, now known as Atlantic Television Corporation, sold channel 13, plus AM and FM radio stations located in Newark, for $3 million to National Telefilm Associates, Inc. (NTA), which renamed the television station WNTA. NTA was established in 1951 as Ely Landau, Inc., a California television film distributor named after its founder, who three years later took on two partners and reorganized the business under the NTA name. WATV was intended to be a commercial outlet for NTA properties, but after the corporation lost $7 million in 1960, it began looking to unload its Newark media interests, pare down debt, and concentrate on its syndication business.

When White heard that channel 13 was about to become available, he assembled a group of influential New Yorkers, including businessmen and educators, to bid on the station and make it a non-commercial enterprise. The citizen's group made a $4 million cash offer, which was promptly rejected. Other interested parties soon emerged, including Landau, who resigned as chairman of NTA in order to form a company to bid on channel 13. David Susskind, in conjunction with Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox were also reported to be in the running. White's group upped its bid to $5.5 million but fell far short of the $8 million reportedly offered by one of the commercial interests. Channel 13 would have likely remained a commercial station were it not for the newly appointed head of the FCC, Newton Minow, who very much wanted to see New York have an educational/public television outlet. By setting up hearings to discuss channel 13, he was able to determine its fate. Faced with a delay of at least a year, the commercial bidders withdrew, leaving the field open to the citizen's group, which in May 1961 was chartered as Educational Television for the Metropolitan Area (ETMA). Despite having a clear advantage, ETMA faced further hurdles in acquiring channel 13. For a time it appeared that NTA's fortunes might improve enough so that the corporation would retain the station. A deal for re-run rights to "Play of the Week" with WNEW-TV ultimately fell through, but the development boosted the final purchase price of WNTA. For a time, New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner also held up the transfer of his state's only VHF channel to ETMA, but at the eleventh hour backed off when the new owners agreed to schedule programming oriented specifically for a New Jersey audience. On December 22, 1961, the transfer was completed, with ETMA paying NTA $6.45 million, of which $1.25 million came from the six area commercial television stations which were happy to eliminate a competitor for local ad dollars.

In April 1962, ETMA, which sounded too much like the earlier META organization, changed its name to Education Broadcasting Corporation and a month later gained non-profit status. White hoped to make the new station into something of a subsidiary of the Center, but the Ford Foundation, the principal backer of both groups, vetoed the merger plan and forced White to sever his ties with the station. Free of the Center, channel 13, now known as WNDT (New Dimensions in Television), went on the air at 8:00 p.m. on September 16, 1962, introduced by legendary television news pioneer Edward R. Murrow, who stated, "Tonight you join me at the birth of a great adventure." Following this historic broadcast, however, the adventure would be delayed for two weeks, the result of a strike by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which was concerned about the non-actors that would likely appear on educational television. Once WNDT returned to the air, it quickly faced a financial crunch. Within two years, the station was on the verge of failure, forcing White and the Center, now known by the acronym NET, to step in with a rescue effort. Ford once again squelched merger plans, giving the new EBC board a year to improve its fund-raising efforts. Because it succeeded, merger talks were again halted, although White tried once more two years later. WNDT may have been able to survive, but it fell far short of its potential in both fund raising and programming. Instead of taking advantage of its New York locale and becoming America's preeminent public television station, WNDT was merely an adequate operation.

NET and WNDT Merge in 1970

Developments in Washington ultimately resulted in NET and WNDT joining forces. In 1967, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created and funded by Congress in order to create programming for the loose system of educational television stations(now more commonly known as public television stations) spread across the country. Two years later, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was established to distribute CPB programming as well as productions from local public stations. As a result of these changes, NET began to lose its place in the emerging public television landscape. While PBS began to assume the mantle of America's fourth television network, NET was turning into a fifth wheel, despite its solid reputation and strong organization. Now it was Ford that suggested NET and WNDT join forces, combining NET's producing resources with WNDT's broadcasting facilities to create what the country's public television system so desperately needed: a powerful flagship station located in the top media market. Because the two organizations were located in Manhattan, there was resistance from both sides. However, since the major benefactor of each party was Ford, a compromise was ultimately found and consummated on June 29, 1970. The chairman of WNDT was paired with the president of NET to run the new operation, renamed WNET (eventually becoming known as Thirteen/WNET), with EBC serving as the corporate parent.

To breathe life into Thirteen/WNET, a young publishing executive named John Jay Iselin was hired as general manager of the station. Under his leadership, Thirteen/WNET began to create exciting local programming as well as become a major producer of programming for PBS. In 1971, Thirteen/WNET launched The Great American Dream Machine, a critically acclaimed anthology show. In that same year journalist, Bill Moyers began to host This Week, a show devoted to news and commentary. Thirteen/WNET founded Television Laboratory in 1972 in order to make the work of independent filmmakers available to the general public. A year later, the station produced the controversial documentary series An American Family. Other programming highlights of the 1970s included the introduction of Theatre in American (1974)and Dance in America (1976), the critically acclaimed series The Adams Chronicles (1976), the launch of The MacNeill/Lehrer Report (1976), the premiere of Live from Lincoln Center (1976) and Live From the Met (1977), and The Shakespeare Plays (1979). Highlights of the 1980s included Brideshead Revisited (1982), Nature (1982), American Playhouse (1982), The Brain (1984), Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (1984), American Masters (1986), and The Story of English (1986).

By the mid-1980s, Thirteen/WNET had established itself as a producer of cultural programming that was now seen around the world. Despite a well-deserved reputation, the organization faced severe financial problems, which resulted in cutbacks in 1986. Iselin was replaced as president of Thirteen/WNET in 1987 by William Baker, who had considerable commercial television experience with Group W, as well as ties to public broadcasting. He was both a member of the board of Connecticut Public Television and served on the National Association of Broadcasters' Task Force. Improving Thirteen/WNET's finances while maintaining its ability to produce quality programming became Baker's primary concern. Even as a slumping economy forced another period of belt tightening at the station, he and chairman Henry R. Kravis launched a $65 million capital campaign in 1992. Of that amount, $35 million would be set aside for an endowment, $15 million would be used to upgrade facilities, and another $15 million would be set aside as a contingency fund. In fact, the fund-raising efforts of Thirteen/WNET were so successful that by 1997 the endowment fund grew to $70 million.

Thirteen/WNET was one of the few public television stations to enjoy the security of an endowment fund. Moreover, the station was able to finance the conversion from analog to digital transmission (at the cost of $30 million), as mandated by the FCC in the mid-1900s with a May 2003 deadline. Most public television stations were not so fortunate, including Long Island's WLIW-TV, channel 21, which lacked the $5 million to $10 million it needed to upgrade to digital technology, despite being the fourth most-watched public television station. Thirteen/WNET, on the other hand, was America's most watched public television station. In November 2000, Thirteen/WNET began discussing the possibility of taking over WLIW-TV, a decade-old idea, as well as WNSE-TV, channel 25, a Brooklyn-based, New York City Board of Education-owned station. By the summer of 2001, a deal was struck with WLIW-TV, calling for EBC to contribute $4.6 million to the station's digital conversion, $700,000 annually for five years in order to produce Long Island programming, and another $750,000 to be used to promote WLIW-TV and its programming. In exchange, EBC would hold the station's license and receive all of the station's future fund-raising efforts. In addition, all bequests, as were legally possible, would be transferred to Thirteen/WNET's corporate parent. Moreover, programming decisions for WLIW-TV would be made by a joint committee equally divided between the two stations. If necessary, a final decision rested with the president of EBC. The alliance between the two public stations, the audience of which greatly overlapped, also allowed for better coordination of fund-raising efforts. No longer during pledge weeks would both stations compete for the attention of the same viewers, sometimes with similar special programming.

On July 31, 2001, the Board of WLIW-TV agreed to the merger plan, which was forwarded for final review to the FCC. The WNSE-TV merger discussions continued with the New York City Board of Education, but this matter soon took a backseat to the events of September 11, 2001. When on that morning terrorists crashed two jetliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Thirteen/WNET not only lost two analog transmitters and a digital transmitter and its antennae, it also suffered the tragedy of having one of its engineers killed. In an instant, it became a non-broadcaster, losing about a third of its viewers, with only cable television subscribers able to receive its programming. A temporary antenna located in New Jersey was used to provide analog-only transmission, which was low powered, and Thirteen/WNET was still unable to adequately reach all of its viewers. As the station developed a long-term solution, either using the Empire State Building or by building a new tower, it faced the possibility of decreased funding, the result of pledge drives appealing to a much smaller audience. Moreover, other PBS-producing stations faced problems with underwriters, who wanted to be assured that the full New York audience could be delivered before committing their money. In the 40 years since the Educational Broadcasting Corporation was formed to buy Channel 13 and the 30 years since the station merged with NET to form Thirteen/WNET, New York public television grew so important that its fiscal health now affected the entire PBS network.

Principal Subsidiaries: Thirteen/WNET; WLIW-TV.

Principal Competitors: WCBS; WNBC; WNYW; WABC; WWOR; WPIX.

Further Reading:

  • Block, Valerie, "WNET Winded From Lost Airtime," Crain's New York Business, November 5, 2001, p. 3.
  • Carter, Bill, "PBS Channels In New York Plan Merger," New York Times, August 1, 2001, p. B1.
  • ------, "Record WNET Fund Drive," New York Times, April 9, 1992, p. 24.
  • Day, James, The Vanishing Vision, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995, 443 p.
  • Hudson Stoddard Report: Pre-History Through 1961-1970, New York: WNET/Thirteen, 1987.
  • Odenwald, Dan, "New York's Ex-Rival Stations Merge Under Single License," Current, August 6, 2001.
  • Sikov, Ed, "Only the Best," New York: WNET/Thirteen, 1987.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 48. St. James Press, 2003.