Early TV Was Like Radio with Pictures

TV Reached Houston on January 1, 1949.

It came. We saw. It conquered us all. It was the middle of the 20th century and our communication media preferences were changing fast, from radio to television, and from big movie theaters out there in the world to those little theaters that moved just for us in our own homes. What a wild world it was turning out to be.

In spite of the fuzzy, squint-sized black & white pictures that came with our first 10 inch screen TV sets, the medium rapidly addicted us all to the idea that we could actually possess in our own homes, and for our own personal use, with no one sitting in front of us to block our view, a little machine that produced moving pictures for our individual home entertainment.

At first, television broadcasters and their home audiences shared this state of mind in common: Neither really knew what they were doing. Some may argue that this truth still holds today, but if it does, it is no longer a condition we may attribute to naiveté.  If it’s still true today, it’s now due to the kind of missing creativity that spawns reality television programming over great storytelling.

Back in 1949, when TV first came to Houston, everyone labored with two wrong handles on the new medium. Broadcasters and viewers alike treated the medium as either (1) radio with pictures; or (2) the movies with a small screen.

Nobody really knew what kind of baby had landed on their doorstep – and we especially misunderstood and underestimated the potential and demand for interaction that television would produce as the medium matured. In the beginning, people just saw it as a medium for putting out pictures that other people could watch for the sake of movement alone. Old movies became popular fare at local stations and slapstick comedy, boxing, and wrestling were all big too – because they all moved rapidly into action..

The early news broadcasts were literally radio with pictures. You got to watch a man sitting behind a desk literally reading the news from the typed paper in his hand. The only movement was the reporter’s lips as he read – and the papers being placed down on the desk as each page of reading was finished.

At commercial break time, the news man might pull out a Camel cigarette from his coat pocket and light one up to show you how mild and satisfying it was before he placed it down in the ash tray to keep on smoking as he finished reading the news.

At KPRC-TV in Houston back in 1950, the news, weather, and sports  were  handled by Pat Flaherty (Thanks for the correction on Pat’s last name, Bill Bremer!), John Wiessenger, and Bruce Layer. There were no anchor women back in the day and all the broadcast faces were white. Fortunately, in spite of our many ongoing imperfections, we have grown up as a people since the middle of the last century, but we should never forget from whence we came – so we don’t ever go back. Not everything in the good old days was all that good or fair, but it was interesting.

Weatherman Wiessinger of Channel 2 always began his weather-casts with this statement: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Let’s see what the weather’s been doing.” He would then turn over his right shoulder, and using a stick of chalk as his pointer, he would indicate on a blackboard that contained an outline of the USA where the big weather-makers were occurring. Sometimes he drew clouds so that we might have an idea of what the next norther was going to look like. Lightning bolts made for a nice storm symbol too, but the rain drops he drafted were often hard to figure. The board would then be flipped to show the State of Texas – where Wiessinger would write the high/low temps from around the area. Sometimes the temps from the previous day would have to be erased first. That discovery always seemed to irritate John.

Once again, it was radio with pictures in that news era. Even if broadcasters had a bigger image of their job, they lacked the technology to do much more than what amounted to radio with pictures.

Bruce Layer on sports was a favorite of mine. I didn’t know about it back in 1950, but Bruce Layer had broadcast the first Houston Buff game back on April 11, 1928, the season opener for the Houston Buffs in their very first official game at the then new Buff Stadium. Bruce was knowledgeable in a droning sort of way, but he liked the Buffs – and that made him alright with me.

One live program I really enjoyed each spring on Channel 2 was a weekly pre-season show called “The Hot Stove League.” Moderated by Lloyd Gregory with the help of Bruce Layer and writer Clark Nealon, The HSL was dedicated to examining the upcoming season of the Houston Buffs from about eight weeks over the time that led into the regular season. The show would feature guests like Buffs President Allen Russell and the Buffs manager and featured players as they became available.

Lloyd Gregory had been the arguably leading sports writer in Houston from the late 1920s forward, He is the guy who gave Joe Medwick his “Ducky” nickname during the latter’s 1934 season in Houston. After a female fan wrote Gregory, suggesting that Medwick should be called “Ducky” because he walks like a duck, Gregory just picked it up and put it on poor Joe and it stuck. For life.

This small slice of memory is pretty much how local programming worked here until the coaxial cable reached Houston and connected us to live broadcasting from New York on July 1, 1952. The flow of live TV into Houston via cable began to change everything, but I don’t think TV really separated itself from radio until the late 1970s, when satellite pictures and videotape enhanced the availability of fitting action pictures a thousand times over to the field of news reporting.

Just my thoughts. – Have a nice weekend, everybody!

Tags: , ,

16 Responses to “Early TV Was Like Radio with Pictures”

  1. David Munger Says:

    Bruce Layer and Clark Nealon, two really nice Gentlemen.

    Thanks Bill, for never letting the memories die.

  2. Anthony Cavender Says:

    Bill: My uncle was one of the first news broadcasters for Channel 11, when the station was listed as being in the Galveston-Houston market in the early 1950’s. I recall that he travelled to Galveston for a short local nightly newscast.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Tony:

      Good Golly, Tony! Don’t leave us wondering!

      What was your uncle’s name? If he was there during the KGUL days, I’m sure I will remember him. Back then, Channel 11 used to sign on/sign off with a film of a flying seagull over the beaches of Galveston – and with “Claire De Loon” by Claude Debussy playing softly in the background.

  3. Ken Dupuy Says:

    Bill, as usual, thanks for the undying memories, undying because of your efforts.
    Before I bought my family a $15 used TV, and before the neighbors allowed us to watch Ed Sullivan, and local wrestling, I imagined that one would be able to watch the Long Ranger and the like while listening to the sound on the radio. It was to be a grand event!
    Ken

  4. Anthony Cavender Says:

    Chilton G. Bennett. I can remeber seeing him thropugh the wavy lines on the TV screen. Does this strike a chord with you?

  5. Bill Bremer Says:

    Thanks for the informative and entertaining look at early Houston television.
    One small observation: I feel certain that the newscaster you refer to was Pat Flaherty, not Pat Flannigan.
    Do you know if Lloyd Gregory had an ad agency with Charles Giezendanner known as the Gregory-Giezendanner agency?

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Bill –

      Thanks for “brain-freeze” correction. The old Channel 2 anchorman, indeed, was Pat Flaherty, not Flannigan. I’m going to go back now ad correct that error in the main body of the column. with thanks to you.

      Yes, you are correct on the name of the Gregory partnership firm in advertising too.

      Bill McCurdy

  6. Bill Bremer Says:

    Can you please tell me if the photo of the early TV that accompanies your post a stock photo or something specific to Houston television?

  7. Bill Bremer Says:

    Visit the KPRC History page on Facebook if you’d like to see photos of early KPRC and KLEE personalities.

    You don’t have to join Facebook to see this material, you can view it just as you would any other web page at:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/KPRC-History/310468298169

  8. Early radio pictures Says:

    […] Early TV Was Like Radio with Pictures В« The Pecan Park Eagle Aug 20, 2010 … The early news broadcasts were literally radio with pictures. You got to watch a man sitting behind … […]

  9. Dottie Hemme Says:

    The KGUL sign off with the seagulls flying over Galveston and Claire de Lune music in background was filmed by Jim Sam Richards.

  10. Cutting Edge Television | Trail Baboon Says:

    […] brand new people didn’t really know what to do with it. Some the early attempts were merely radio with pictures, but eventually we figured out how to do things like Downton Abbey, House of Cards and The […]

  11. Ed Gore Says:

    The way I remember it, Claire de Lune accompanied a short film of a seagull flying over the beach, but it was not at sign-off, it was at the beginning of the KGUL Late Show, which came on nearly two hours before sign-off. The Late Show was the name of the local late movie on Channel 11 in the nineteen fifties and it had nothing to do with David Letterman’s Late Show on CBS that came along many years later. I only remember the seagull and Claire de Lune playing at the beginning of the Late show, but it’s possible that the seagull film and Claire de Lune was repeated at the end of the Late Show. This may have given some people the impression that it was part of sign-off, but sign-off was a separate presentation that consisted of several distinct parts. First, there was usually a short inspirational poem or religious message. Then, an announcer told us interesting facts about the station, such as the ERP (Effective Radiated Power) of the station in Watts. Finally, the station ended with the day with The Star Spangled Banner playing over a short film that usually included pictures of jet planes flying in formation and the U.S. flag waving in the wind. After that, the screen either went blank, or the test pattern came on accompanied by a test tone. The actual details are lost to time, and the sign-off process may have changed through the years, but this is how I remember it.

  12. Ed Gore Says:

    Regarding Bill Bremer’s interest in the unusual TV shown in the picture, that was a pre-WWII “mirror lid” TV set from the mid to late nineteen thirties, or early nineteen forties. The 9 to 12 inch CRT picture tubes in those early sets were so long that the tube had to be stood up on end with the screen pointing up, so the picture had to be reflected at a right angle by a mirror in the lid of the set. Without this trick, the set would have been four feet deep. This type of TV was no longer made by the late nineteen forties when TV came to Houston. If anyone had one of these old sets when KLEE went on the air, it wouldn’t have worked, because the TV transmission frequency allocations had changed and the number of scanning lines had increased to 525 making the prewar sets incompatible with the postwar NTSC TV standards.

  13. Richard J. Bennett Says:

    Hello ! I’m looking for ‘The Jack Hamm Show’, an early television art show starring Jack Hamm. I am friends with his daughter and would like to try & locate the old film clips. Can you help me here ? Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: