WWNY TV began broadcasting at 8 pm, on the evening of October 22, 1954. It was a Saturday, and the very first program was a live broadcast from our then-studio on Champion Hill.
The people who put the station on the air were there, of course, as was a minister to give a prayer. The public was not invited, however; a note in that day’s newspaper pointed out that the 32 by 30 foot studio really couldn’t accommodate much traffic, especially since the “studio space will be taken up by participants…which include the Watertown Male Chorus, Women of Song, guest artists plus the operating staff…”
Looking back 50 years, a couple of things jump out about that first night: the newspaper article describing WWNY called it “The Watertown Daily Times television station.” And at 11:15 that night, there was a five minute newscast.
The history of WWNY is bound up with two newspaper-owning families, and with the news itself. The Johnson family - owners of the Watertown Daily Times - created WWNY. Back then it was called WCNY, the ‘C’ standing for Carthage, our primary community of license. (And if you don’t know where Champion Hill is, it’s on the road that connects Watertown to Carthage, and it’s closer to Carthage.) The call letters were later changed to WWNY.
From the start, WWNY stressed its local identity. In his remarks opening the station, John Johnson Sr. said “We are locally owned, managed, engineered and announced,” conditions that are still largely true today.
And from the start, the station was affiliated with CBS. The very first station identification graphic show a ”7,’ a banner across the 7 that reads “WCNY-TV, Carthage NY” and in the corner, a CBS ‘eye.’ (However, because it was the only commercial TV station in the area for many years, WWNY also had agreements with other networks; so, for instance, as late as 1980 you could watch the ‘Today Show’ on WWNY.)
Television took a good while to catch up to radio - a few months after WWNY went on the air, the local paper had an account of “extensive coverage” by WWNY of a manhunt for Frank “The Hook” Talarico, who managed to ecape from St. Lawrence County’s jail. The coverage was extensive in “bulletin and special program form,” the paper reported, but it was talking about WWNY radio, the radio station the Johnsons put on the air a decade before WWNY TV. Television, John Johnson Sr. said, “at its present state of development cannot handle with speed fast-breaking news developments.’
People found a lot to like anyway; by the mid-1960s, you could get “My Favorite Martian,” “Lassie” and “Gilligan’s Island” (among others) in color, and WWNY was straining its tiny studios on Champion Hill.
The Johnsons decided to build new premises for the station in downtown Watertown, on Arcade Street, where the newspaper offices had been for a hundred years. Ground was broken on October 16, 1968, and the TV station was operating from Arcade Street in mid-February, 1970. (Incidentally, there’s a time capsule in the cornerstone of our building. Among other things, it contains a film of Bob Tompkins - the station’s longtime anchorman and to this day one of the two or three best known employees in WWNY history - explaining the rest of the contents of the time capsule. We wonder what the future will use to play the film.)
By the time the station’s 20th anniversary rolled around in 1974, it was difficult to imagine things getting much better for WWNY. The Johnsons threw a party in the station’s studio with 200 guests, including the president of CBS television in that era, Robert Wood. (The man sitting next to Robert Wood that night was Anthony C. Malara, universally known as Tony, who was at the time the general manager of WWNY TV and radio. Tony Malara was to eventually join CBS and become president of CBS Television.) Yet the celebration was short-lived, a newspaper writer later observed.
In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission ordered the Johnsons to sell WWNY within five years. The theory was - the owner of the only local newspaper shouldn’t own the only local commercial TV station. The fact that the federal government had originally encouraged the Johnsons and other newspaper owners to go into the TV business because “these were the people who knew news and knew community service” (Anthony Malara in Watertown Times article, January 5, 1988) was lost on the FCC. By 1981 - after an unsuccessful struggle against the FCC - the Johnsons had sold WWNY to United Communications Corp. of Kenosha, Wisconsin for $8.2 million.
In doing so, the Johnsons turned over the station to people whose values were very consistent with theirs. Howard Brown, the principal owner of UCC, believed (and believes) in small, locally run newspapers and TV stations of high quality.
The world of television started changing fast at about the same time UCC bought WWNY - there was talk the station would become an ABC affiliate, though it didn’t happen. There was talk of ‘live eye’ news reports, which did happen. People were outraged when a political candidate used a picture of an abortion in his ad (we ran a warning before the ad aired); and by 1983, we had the first stirrings of local competition.
What changed for WWNY after its sale to UCC was everything - and nothing. We remain the dominant presence in local television - our newscasts are regularly ranked among the top rated in the country, as is the station as a whole. We remain an oasis of family-owned and community-oriented broadcasting in an increasingly ‘corporatized’ world. People still come here to work, and stay for many years.
Yet we are not quite insulated from the larger world; in 1981, our morning news consisted of two five minute newscasts. (As late as 1998, it was a mere half hour.) Now, we produce more than two hours of news in the morning each weekday, and a total of more than four hours a day. These changes came in response to several things - a second commercial television station starting up, and attempting news twice - during both the late 80s and the period from 1998-2004.
Beyond the immediate challenge was the increased availability of news by cable. Finally, the expansion of Fort Drum brought to the Watertown area an unprecedented (for modern times) influx of people not native to northern New York.
The single most significant change within WWNY came in 2001, when United Communications Corp. entered into an agreement with Smith Broadcasting to operate a Fox network affiliate with low power transmitters in Watertown and Massena. With the Fox affiliation came a 10 pm newscast; it debuted on April 11, 2001, and was at first seen by only the handful of viewers that could receive the low power signal ‘off air.’ An agreement with Time-Warner Cable in the fall of 2001 placed the station (WNYF Fox 28) on cable channel 2.
The 10 pm news debuted for most of the north country on October 4, 2001. After a year of joint operation, UCC took complete ownership of WNYF.
As WWNY/WNYF enters its second 50 years of operation, we continue to believe that small broadcasters have a special obligation to be good stewards to their communities, to “do well by doing good.”
[Watertown is located in the northwest section of New York, near the juncture of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. The area's natural beauty is a perfect backdrop for four seasons of recreation. From world class fishing and boating in the 1000 Island Seaway region, to camping or skiing in the nearby Adirondack mountains.]
Thursday, May 5, 2016, Watertown, NY