Most Shared

WRGB: The Birth of a Station

WRGB: The Birth of a Station

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - First WRGB TV image

It was quite a year, Hoover became President...
Mickey Mouse was first seen on film...
Sonja Henie was the star of the Amsterdam Olympics...
Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic...
Ravel wrote "Bolero"...
and "Button Up Your Overcoat" was the popular tune of the day.

The Geiger Counter was developed and the first color movies were shown. The year was 1928, a time of invention and ambition, and the world was about to grow smaller, and far away lands were to become neighbors. It would be a year remembered, but the winds of change actually would begin decades earlier in Schenectady, New York.

On Christmas Eve, 1906, General Electric inventor Ernst Alexanderson broadcast the world's first radio program with song and music via his new creation, a high frequency alternator.

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History -

A few years later, Alexanderson, in 1918, perfected a bigger 200 kilowatt alternator permitting long-range radio messages. That same year, the famous Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi wanted to buy exclusive rights to the alternator. President Woodrow Wilson appealed to General Electric not to sell, but instead organize an American Company to use it. A company later called RCA. (GE withdrew from the affairs of RCA in 1933 until GE purchased RCA in the late 1980's).

By 1924 and from "Alex's Lab," the first wireless telegraph picture was transmitted across the Atlantic. It was the handwritten page from a letter Alexanderson sent to his father, a Professor in Sweden. As Alexanderson's prolific genius began amassing dozens and later hundreds of patents, his attention turned to sending moving images through the air.

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Ernst Alexanderson
Ernst Alexanderson

With the roaring twenties in full swing and prosperity seemingly boundless, the public was receptive to new inventions and ideas, but most of all, to something amazing called television.

The initial home television reception over the air took place in Alexanderson's home in 1927, but the first public demonstration and WRGB's birth date was January 13, 1928 as the first experimental television program was broadcast and shown in Dr. Alexanderson's home at 1132 Adams Road in Schenectady, New York. The broadcast signal had a range of 15 to 20 miles. In Alexanderson's laboratory, witnesses saw a mechanical device, large and clumsy with a tiny screen and a perforated "rotating scanning disc. "...a disc that would eventually give way to the all electronic picture tube in use today. Magazine articles began to appear with fanciful descriptions of what the new technology would bring. Yes, the science fiction had become science. Television was here and we would never be the same again. Newspapers like the New York Times heralded the event. It was front page news in the Boston Post with headlines reading, "Radio with pictures for the first time!"

An eyewitness to the event, Willard Purcell, who retired from WRGB in 1960, recalled the 1928 picture. He said, "...the face of a man, smoking a cigarette, on the little screen looks like it had been made with x's on the typewriter. It was very crude and wavered from side to side..." The small screen was not black and white, but a pink color.

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Boston Post
The Boston Post Front Page

Then on May 10, 1928, the first regular television program began twice a day, three days a week with the world's first television newscasts. Station manager Kolin Hager read the farm and weather reports. Two days later on May 12, 1928, General Electric issued a publicity release which said, " from Saturday, May 12, 1928, station WGY (WRGB) will broadcast television programs three days a week." In the spring of that year, the Federal Government gave us our first name, W2XB, although we were popularly known as "WGY's Television" named after our then sister radio station six years our senior. All this led to numerous television firsts.

On August 22, 1928, the world's first remote news telecast took place. Televised live from the State Capitol in Albany, New York, Governor Al Smith announced his acceptance of the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. From eyewitness accounts, "There was a special platform built for the occasion on the lawn in front of the Capitol building in Albany. The cameras were on this platform and before the ceremony, there was a rehearsal. Everything went perfectly. The four television sets in Schenectady carried the picture clearly. Later when the real ceremony was held it rained. Everyone had to move everything inside and someone put some arc lights up to light the room for the cameras. The picture then was dreadful. The lights flickered on and off, and made ripples in the picture. Nobody could see much of anything there in the State Legislative Chambers. The Governor periodically left his position before the microphones to stare directly into the TV camera and say a few a words." The photograph that is commonly available today is actually a photograph of the rehearsal outside.

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - New York Governor Al Smith
New York Governor Al Smith

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - The Queen's Messenger
"The Queen's Messenger"

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Director Mortimer Stewart
Director Mortimer Stewart

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Proctor's Theatre
Proctor's Theater

The following month in September 1928 with only four television households in the area, each equipped with a "pink 3-inch screen," WRGB televised the world's first dramatic program, "The Queen's Messenger," by J. Harley Manners, a blood and thunder play with guns, daggers, and poison. There were more technicians required for special effects than there were actors. In fact, technical limitations were so great and viewing screens so small, that only the actor's individual hands or faces could be seen at one time. Three cameras were used, two for the characters and a third for obtaining images of gestures and appropriate stage props. Two assistant actors displayed their hands before this third camera whenever the occasion demanded.

Our founder, E.F.W. Alexanderson, remembered the presentation as "a little drama, a playlet, that was not a great work of art by any means." The director was a man brought up from New York City especially to work on the play. Everyone became very annoyed with him when he kept calling his rehearsals at 4:00 a.m.

According to the New York Herald Tribune's article of September 11, 1928, "...Director Mortimer Stewart stood between the two television cameras that focused upon Miss Isetta Jewell, the heroine and Maurice Randall, the hero. In front of Stewart was a television receiver in which he could at all times see the images that went out over the transmitter; and by means of a small control box he was able to control the output of pictures, cutting in one or another of the cameras and fading the image out and in. Whether it was successfully received at any point, other than the operation installation of the General Electric Laboratory, could not immediately be ascertained. It was the general opinion among those that watched the experiment that the day of radio moving pictures was still a long, long way in the future. Whether the present system can be brought to commercial practicability and public usefulness, remains a question." With all its technical weaknesses, however, "The Queen's Messenger" marked the first step toward modern dramatic programs.

The '20's and '30's were a great pioneering era, an exciting time where nothing was impossible and visionaries dreamed of color, giant screens, and worldwide communications. In 1929, GE engineers produced television images by means of the cathode ray tube, forerunner of the modern picture tube. On May 22, 1930, the first public demonstration of large screen television took place before a theater audience. The sellout crowd saw a seven-foot television picture projected on stage at Proctor's Vaudeville Theater in Schenectady, New York. It was the first showing in any theater in the world of television. Front pages across the nation proclaimed, "The radio wizards in Schenectady had worked in secrecy for the past few years." The performance took place in GE Building 36, two miles from Proctor's. Martha Rust sang and Frank Camadine played the harmonica. Vaudeville teams bantered back and forth by television. Reception was excellent in spite of the distance of 129 miles. WRGB cameras, also at the Fair, gave thousands of visitors their first chance to perform on television via closed circuit. Several of these actual cameras are still in existence in storage at the Schenectady Museum & Planetarium. The Fair telecast marked the creation of the first television network, WRGB and NBC. Then on January 12, 1940, continuous network broadcasts began between the two companies. A third station, owned by the Philco Company in Philadelphia, WPTZ, later joined the network in 1942.

During the late '30's and early '40's, WRGB experimented with a variety of program ideas, many were later adopted by the television industry and are still a staple of programming today. Variety shows, dramas, and boxing events were the most popular program forms in those early days. In fact, the earliest "rating" surveys taken by the station to gauge viewer interest showed boxing and wrestling to be the most popular in the fall and winter followed by variety shows, light operas, news commentaries, and full-length plays. A two-hour variety show in 1939 included musical numbers, dancing, skits, cartoonists, a boxing match and game shows. Boxing and wrestling were extremely popular and would have ranked first in the "ratings" if they had been telecast on a year-round basis.

Among the plays presented during this period was "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The cast went right through the entire play without a break. In those days, since video tape had not been invented, television was all live. There were eight different stage sets for the production. As each scene took place during the live broadcast, the players simply walked from one set to another. WRGB also produced some Gilbert and Sullivan and presented an entire evening of "Pinafore."

Although WRGB telecast scores of "experimental" programs between 1928 and 1939, from a small 12-foot square studio, a more complete and regular schedule began November 6, 1939, generally thought to be the benchmark date for the beginning of modern television. A few years later, when the attack on Pearl Harbor closed down live, talent-produced shows at many other television studios, WRGB continued to operate of a full schedule. The 1945, General Electric publication entitled, "Television Show Business" stated, "this was to continue show business development so that programming would have a backlog of experience when the manufacturing of television sets and transmitters resumed after the war." Except for a short time in 1941, program production never stopped at WRGB and for awhile it was the only operating station in the country.

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Washington Ave. Studio
Wash. Ave Studio

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - GE TV studio

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Louis vs. Conn Fight
Louis vs Conn Fight

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Betty Hutton
Betty Hutton

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Tyrone Power in 'Captain from Castille'
Tyron Power in
"Captain from Castille"

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Balltown Studios
1400 Balltown Road
Niskayuna, New York

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Ernie Tetrault
Ernie Tetrault

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Freddie Freihofer Host Jim Fisk
Freddie Freihofer Host Jim Fisk

WRGB-TV Channel 6 News :: Station - WRGB History - Avid Media Composer Non-linear Editing System
Avid Media Composer
Non-linear Editing System

World War II delayed the growth of television for several years, but WRGB continued to program and experiment. Staffed by a small crew of technicians and producers, many of them women, WRGB was telecasting each week throughout the war years. Originating from the studios on Washington Avenue in Schenectady, WRGB produced variety and dramatic programs that are possible only on a network level today.

It was during this time that national advertisers began taking note of television's future potential. During the '40's and early '50's, many techniques of production that today are commonplace were devised and tested on WRGB. Not only was production seasoned and perfected, but performers, artists, and entertainers were given the opportunity to adapt to this new medium. The proximity of Schenectady to New York City, coupled with its remoteness from the scrutiny of New York City critics, made the station an ideal place to master the art of performing before the television camera. WRGB demonstrated the effectiveness of commercial television to many key national advertising personnel by producing special shows and demonstrations that would usher in commercials a few short years later.

Our Washington Avenue studios went into operation on December 19, 1941. Heralded as the most modern television production facility in the country and the first building created solely for the purpose of television, the original studios at the Washington Street location were 41 feet by 70 feet with an 18-foot ceiling. Lighting was overhead, water cooled, mercury vapor lights, which were installed prior to the war. Occasionally, during live shows, the water-cooled lights leaked dropping awkward "spring showers" on the living room set below. These lights were supplemented by incandescent spotlights, on an experimental basis, in late 1944.

Between November 1939 and September 1944, WRGB telecast 958 television programs; over 700 of them between 1943 and 1944. The content included art, children's programs, commercials (at that time called "sales plugs"), dance telecasts, discussions, full-length plays, one-act plays, educational programs, fashion shows, "game shows," hobby shows, light opera, minstrels, monologues, musical telecasts, news programs full-length operas, public service telecasts, puppet shows, quizzes, religious telecasts, reviews, special features, sports, variety shows, vaudeville acts, and women's programs. More musical programs were telecast than anything else.

On September 15, 1940, a variety show took place at the old studios in the GE main plant. Ted Steele was the Master of Ceremonies; he played an organ recital. The show as an hour long and also featured a dance review and a showing of still photographs and slides.

The most complex variety review televised during this period of time was on September 1, 1945 called the "Americapers," presented by the Green Mansions Playhouse of Warrensburg, New York. A one-hour show with 11 skits, including a comedy singer, chorus, an operating room scene, a furlough bride skit, a takeoff on old-time vaudeville, and a Barnacle Bill pantomime dance; also a street scene called "Mr. Verdis on the Hurdy-Gurdy." Nine different sets were required.

On July 16, 1943, an all-western hour, glamorized the square dance. The program was called, "Ho Down Night," and featured a quartet of singing cowboys. Dozens of other program descriptions and dates can be found in the 1945 publication entitled, "Television Show Business." WRGB has been providing programs of interest to younger viewers longer than any other U.S. television station. This commitment to children's programming goes back many years. For example, in 1941, the Mont Pleasant High School drama group presented "The Pageant of Christmas Eve." The Scotia Jr. High school created "The Thanksgiving Program" in 1942, and Pleasant Valley school presented "The Easter Festival" in 1943. A sampling of other early local children's programs included:

Children's Story 1942
Stories for the Nursery 1942
Uncle Gene and Alexander visit 1944
Martha Harper Presents 1944
The Storyteller 1944
Sleeping Beauty 1943
The Children's Hour 1942
Youth Night 1943
The Whisker 1944

In 1944, the 6th graders of Schenectady's Yates School created and staged their own "puppet" version of Rumpelstiltskin here on WRGB.

On February 26, 1942, W2XB was renamed WRGB when the station received its commercial license from the Federal Government. (This license is on display at the WRGB studios). Our new call letters paid tribute to the late Walter R. G. Baker, a pioneer in television and radio and a GE Vice President involved in setting up the station. With the war at its peak, the American Television Society presented the station an award in 1943 for the greatest contributions to television program development of the year. The society wrote, "We wish to pay tribute to the courageous viewpoint of the management, for carrying on against all odds at a time when the future of television depends to so great degree upon you."

By 1945, there were nine television stations operating in the U.S.: NBC's WNBT; CBS's WCBW; Dumont's WABC in New York City; Philco's WPTZ in Philadelphia; Balabann Kate's WBKB, and Zenith's W9XZV in Chicago; Don Lee's W6XAO and Television Production's W6XYZ in Hollywood; and of course, General Electric's WRGB in Schenectady. A total of 300 television sets were in use in the Albany/Schenectady/Troy area with the largest sets having a 7-1/2" by 10" screen. Surveys made in 1943 and 1944 indicated that many, many people were saving for their first television set.

As the war ended, commercial television began. It was 1946 and WRGB aired programs Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Local advertising was almost nil because of small audiences. The station practically had to give the first commercials away. The only thing the sponsor was charged for was the cost of props. On June 19, 1946, WRGB aired its first network commercial. Gillette was the sponsor, and the show was the Heavyweight Boxing Championship between Joe Louis and Billy Conn.

On August 10, 1946, the station announced that it would expand to 5 nights a week. By 1948, there were 1919 television sets owned in the area and that number thereby increased at a startling rate as the broadcast day lengthened and the number of programs grew. A year later, there would be over 18,000 television sets in area homes; 139,600 by February 1951, and 198,600 by February 1952.

In the early '50's WRGB televised programs from four television networks, NBC, ABC, CBS and Dumont, as well as producing more than nineteen live shows. Later WRGB became solely affiliated with NBC, the network with which the station had set up the first experimental network.

In 1954, WRGB provided eighteen hours of programming from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. each weekday and 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. on weekends including programs from the four major networks and local programs as well. In that same year, twenty-eight local programs were originating each week in eighty-two local time segments from WRGB studios. Each program was live.

Color television was just around the corner and on September 12, 1954, WRGB broadcast the first network color "spectacular" from NBC. A 90-minute program, starring Betty Hutton. In later years, that word spectacular would change to "special." The same reference used today.

The first local color origination would be on Nov. 25, 1957. That evening WRGB aired "Cinema Six," the color movie was the 1947 film "Captain from Castile" starring Tyrone Power.

Technical changes also improved in 1954 when WRGB's long-time channel number changed from 4 to 6. Our transmission power was increased from 16 to 93 kilowatts and a new transmission tower and antenna three times higher than the old equipment were put into operation. With a much larger coverage area, WRGB was now in position to provide services for years to come.

In 1957 WRGB moved its studios to its current 1400 Balltown Road address in Niskayuna, New York. With full production, news and programming services, the new studios greeted hundreds of area visitors each week, in effect becoming a local tourist attraction. In fact, during the Open House that November, literally thousands of area residents passed through the new building, greeting celebrities of the day, and learning how the marvel of television brought pictures to their home. People waiting to get in formed lines that snaked around the building and for blocks down the street. Traffic jams went for miles around the station despite the enormous parking facility next to the new building. During that open house on Nov. 21, 1957, GE's first color camera was displayed with closed circuit pictures for the press.

WRGB was among the first to recognize the need for educational television programming. Before the founding of "Public Television," our management spearheaded the drive that resulted in the formation of the Mohawk-Hudson Council on Educational Television. Through the donation of airtime, facilities, and funds, the station helped the council grow and become a vital force in the community.

One of WRGB's most popular early shows began in April, 1948. "The Teenage Barn," produced by Tommy Sternfeld, was telecast for 17 years and featured highly polished student performers who sang, danced and played instruments. It was truly a showcase for young talent and for the time, rather elaborately staged with very sophisticated camera techniques for local television of that era. Several segments from these programs still exist on tape in the WRGB archives. In the early 1960's, WRGB's Ernie Tetrault was one of the announcers on the program. Thirty to forty youngsters appeared on each show, Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. for half an hour. Some large groups as well as individuals performed. The program's last airdate was January 29, 1965 when it was third in the time period right behind "Meet The Press" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Other popular early programs included "The Freddie Freihofer Show" sponsored by the Freihofer Baking Company. The program, also entitled "BreadTime Stories" began November 21, 1949, in black and white and ran until 1966. The color telecasts began April 28, 1965. There were a variety of hosts over the years including, Ralph Kanna, Ed Joyce, Bud Mason and Jim Fisk who took over the program July 23, 1956. The program featured "squiggles," a cartoon drawing completed by the host with "abstract" assistance from the kids in the audience. For many preschoolers it was their first experience interrelating imagination and drawing skills and this magical thing called "television." "Breadtime Stories" was the first live local color series. Shortly thereafter, the "Pete Williams Show," "Teenage Barn," "Friday Nights," "Ginny's Game Room," and "Satellite Six" on Saturday mornings were telecast in color.

In June, 1961, WRGB telecast the first medical program in the area; an hour-long documentary which became the story of 7-year-old, Donna Langley's open heart surgery at Albany Medical Center.

On February 20, 1965, WRGB telecast the first local color television program, Saturday, at 2:45 p.m. entitled, "Engineering for Human Needs." The program was taped live at the studio. In more recent times, WRGB inaugurated the area's first local one-hour 6 p.m. newscast on January 22, 1973. The station was one of the first in the country to recognize the public's desire for more local news. Today, that hour is continually evolving, now composed of two individual half-hour newscasts which also broke new ground in the structure of local newscasts nationally. WRGB was also first to add additional locally daily newscasts, one hour 6 a.m. and a half-hour at 5 p.m.

On September 21, 1981, WRGB became affiliated with the CBS Television Network; and a year later in October 1982, TV-6 became the first commercial TV station in the market to provide programming 24 hours a day. On August 29, 1983, General Electric sold WRGB television for thirty-four million dollars to Unicom which was owned by the New York City investment firm, Forstmann Little & Company.

Two and one-half years later, Freedom Newspapers, Inc., purchased WRGB on March 4, 1986, for fifty-seven million dollars marking a new era in WRGB's development and the first ownership by a company solely in the communications' business. Today, WRGB television's excellence in local and national news is the hallmark of our image in the tri-state area. WRGB originates 28 hours of local newscasts each week and more viewers get their news, weather, and sports information from NewsCenter 6 than anywhere else. For decades, WRGB's newscasts have set audience viewing' records. Continually a leader, NewsCenter 6 joins a handful of other stations across the country with the largest news audiences in America.

In addition to news, WRGB has presented a wider variety of local programs than any other area station, including "Student Spectrum," a daily newscast produced by young people; "NewsCenter Six Sunday Morning with Liz Bishop," a behind-the-scenes look at news issues of the week; the area's first real estate show; the regions first local shopping show; and "TV Tournament Time," where area bowlers performed for nearly 30 years. At the time, this bowling show was the longest running local sports program in the country. You'll also find a variety of specials on WRGB, including the "Melodies of Christmas" each December, and special documentaries on local issues year round.

TV-6 donates hundreds of thousands of dollars through our "Making a Difference" projects in the form of public service advertising and programming. During the winter, WRGB collects thousands of coats in our "Coats for Kids" campaign held in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. WRGB also creates a special food-basket drive that involves all the major food market chains in the area. Hundreds of tons of food have been collected and distributed to the needy.

And there's more, WRGB continues its television leadership position with new marketing techniques and new local program formats. In recent years, multimillion-dollar expenditures were made on computerization and television satellite technologies including the area's first mobile satellite uplink truck and fixed uplink, giving WRGB more up and downlink capability than any other station in the region. WRGB's satellite truck went on-line in July of 1988. Five months earlier, the area's first computerized newsroom was installed and in October of that year, WRGB provided the area's first closed-captioning of our Newscasts throughout the day. Today, virtually all of our local, syndicated, and network programming is closed captioned. WRGB is on the cutting edge of computer technology. WRGB is the first area station to own non-linear computer editing systems which eliminate videotape from the editing process and increases picture quality. In November 2000, WRGB launched the area's only station-owned doppler radar, Instant Doppler 6. Avid Media Composer Non-linear Editing System In 1992, scenes from the Universal motion picture "Sneakers" starring Robert Redford and Sydney Poitier were shot on our NewsCenter 6 set. Newsman Ernie Tetrault taped pivotal scenes that appear in the film.

On September 2, 1993, at 1:58 p.m., WRGB telecast the first commercials ever aired from a hard-drive storage system by any television station. This commercial break came directly out of a computer with no videotape involved. On October 11, 1994, WRGB eliminated the use of videotape in playing commercials on the air and began full-time use of computer hard disks for airing all commercials, public service announcements, and promotion spots.

Recognized as the country's pioneer television station, and according to some, the longest continually operating television station in the world, WRGB serves the Albany/Schenectady/Troy market. Its service area in New York and New England has grown to over a million television households in five northeast states.

Beginning in a small 12-foot square studio in 1928, WRGB is now housed in a 50,000 square foot communications complex, the largest television facility between New York City and Montreal.

Our founder, Ernst Alexanderson lived to see much of WRGB's success, he died in 1975 at the age of 97. From the smoking cigarette in that first telecast, to men hitting golf balls on the moon; from Milton Berle and "Bonanza" to microwaves, satellites, and worldwide instant communication -- Alexanderson was here for it all -- and thanks to him, so was WRGB.

That pioneering spirit and commitment to be the best have been historic WRGB traditions for over sixty years. Today, those accomplishments are the hallmarks we compare with tomorrow's vision. WRGB will continue to provide new and unique services for our time and the decades beyond.

At New York City's Plaza Hotel, on February 24, 1987, the broadcast pioneers honored WRGB's 60th Anniversary with an industry attended banquet and awarded the station the highly coveted Golden Mike Award. The first time ever for any television station. The award stated, "We honor WRGB for your pioneering work as the first television station and for distinguished contributions to the Art of Broadcasting and in recognition of dedicated adherence to quality, integrity, and responsibility in programming and management." The speaker at the banquet was CBS anchorman, Dan Rather. The event honored the scores of men and women employees who over the past 60 years made WRGB one of America's great television stations.

During the banquet, President Ronald Reagan stated, "As the first television station in the United States, WRGB was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word...the history of this station is truly the history of television."

Click here to watch more "Today in History" videos!"

Advertise with us!

Got a News Tip?

Do you have a lead on a good news tip or want to share a story idea? Click here and let us know!