The history of WPIX

Posted at 7:10 PM, Nov 16, 2012
and last updated 2012-11-16 19:11:43-05

The evolution of the WPIX logo, from its days as the TV station of the New York Daily News, to its place as the flagship station of the CW network.

Strong news coverage is only one reason why WPIX ranks as one of New York’s most beloved stations.  The station’s success is due to its long history of innovative programming and its current mix of CW Television Network shows, syndicated off-network hits, WPIX coverage of New York events and sports, and the station’s original productions.

The TV station of New York’s Picture (PIX) Newspaper

Since its birth, WPIX has been headquartered in the landmark News Building on 42nd Street in New York.

WPIX stands as a tribute to the late Capt. Joseph Patterson.  As early as 1939, Capt. Patterson became interested in television and ordered a preliminary survey for a TV station to compliment The News.

But the war intervened, and it wasn’t until May 14, 1947, a year after Capt. Patterson’s death, that the FCC granted The News permits to construct a television station for operation on Channel 11 under the temporary letters WLTV.

It was 1947 and the Daily News had a television station, but it needed a name…a contest was offered to station employees, with a $100 prize for the best call letters.

The contest was won by Vincent Krug.  That station was named after the Daily News slogan, “New York’s Picture Newspaper”, which the printers called “PIX”.

The call letters were changed in July, 1947, after an employee contest won by Vincent Krug who worked in The News’ Circulation department.  He won $100 for supplying “PIX”, which is newsroom lingo for picture.  Daily News was a Picture Newspaper, and WPIX would provide a Picture Broadcast.

WPIX would go on the air as the city’s first independent station.  Channel 5 was at the time the flagship for the DuMont Network.  PIX as the station is known, would compete against network affiliates, and soon become one of most successful independent stations in the country.

Opening night spotlights swept over the Daily News Building – John Tillman was the first face exposed to Channel 11 viewers when they turned on the cameras on the night of June 15th, 1948 at 7:30pm.  The station then launched into a record 5 hour, 41 minute, star-studded inaugural.  An impressive cast of entertainers like Ed Sullivan, Basil Rathbone, Fred Allen, Gloria Swanson, Irene Dunne, and Arthur Godfrey, public officials and industry leaders saluted WPIX before the stations new audience of over 1 million viewers.  The station went on the air with three sponsors.

In 1948 less than 4 million homes across the country had televisions, and NYC only had an estimated 50,000 sets.

Following a dedication by clergymen of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths, the station President, F.M. Flynn, outlined The News station policy to its viewers:

“The New York News,” he said, “is proud to become an active factor in this modern miracle of mass communication.  The opportunities and responsibilities are recognized.”

An immediate success

And recognized they were, from the beginning, WPIX has established viewer success thanks to its syndicated programming, news and sports coverage, and outstanding local special event telecasts.

He went on to say:  “We will honor our obligation to the community with the best public service programs and strive toward progressive improvement of our news, feature and entertainment programs…”

In the early days, WPIX found its niche with news, sports, and public service programming.

WPIX was the first station to use newsreel-type cameras for daily news coverage.  The first to put movies on the air with “Night Owl Theater” and “Six Gun Movie”.

The news department is born

Within two months after the station went on the air, WPIX’s TelePIX newsreel show pulled a coup with its blanket coverage of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.

WPIX’s live interview with presidential candidate Thomas Dewey was a major scoop for WPIX at the 1948 Republican Convention also in Philadelphia.  It was Dewey’s first on TV.

Committed to news since the first full day the station presented hourly news reports followed by PIX Newsreels.  WPIX was truly an offspring of New York’s “Picture Newspaper”, the Daily News.  With Telepix, WPIX first gave newsreel footage a key role in newscasts.  No longer was a newscast just like radio, except you could see the newscaster talking.  Telepix Newsreel became a favorite as it actually showed the events of the day.

Baseball and WPIX

The station was strong is sports from the beginning.

The stations association with Major League Baseball started only 21 days after the station first went on the air.  On July 6, 1948 WPIX air a game between rivals the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  And WPIX camera crews began their dominate telecasts of top Madison Square Garden events.  By the end of the stations second year, WPIX led all stations with remote telecast of baseball, Rangers’ hockey, football, Knicks basketball, boxing, wrestling, and stock car races.  The New York Giants started in 1949 and the Yankees in 1951 on WPIX.

The station teamed with the Yankees from 1951 through 1998.  And when, after nine seasons on WPIX, the NY Giants went to the West Coast in 1957, the station quickly signed a record-breaking contract with the Yankees to televise over 140 ball games at home and on the road. The contract for over 400 programming hours was at the time the largest single time sale in the history of the medium.  For 47 years, the station was the broadcast home of the New York Yankees. And since 1999, it has been the Mets that have made WPIX a baseball destination.

The station becomes the first New York television station to air an interleague Mets. Vs Yankees game in full High Definition on its digital channel.

In 1957, WPIX premiered this famous three man team (Rizzuto, Mel Allen, and Red Barber) to broadcast the Yankee games.  Phil Rizzuto would go on to work in the Channel 11 booth for 40 consecutive years.

Though the years, the station has aired nearly every major sports franchise in the New York area.

An early home to Ed Sullivan

Also in 1948 a little known news columnist named Ed Sullivan would make his first TV appearance on WPIX with his show, “Little Old New York”, long before he was “The Toast of the Town.”

In August 1951, the station benefited from its transmitting site being moved to the Empire State Building, where a higher antenna and greater signal strength gave viewers a better picture than ever.

Also in 1951 the station began airing telecasts of Senate crime commission grilling American’s reigning mobsters.  When mob boss Frank Costello threatened not to talk if the camera weren’t taken off his face, WPIX focused on his nervous fingers instead becoming one of the most memorable images in TV history.  The station stayed on the story for eight straight days.

It was also in 1951 that the station expanded its newscast to a half hour, anchored by John Tillman, Guy Lebow, Jack McCarthy, and Joe Bolton.  The news operation has matured into one of the finest of any station, and has expanded from a half hour a day to ….a day.

A tradition of fine children’s programming

Few people realize that PIX was New York’s first educational television station.  From 1951 to 1958, The NY State Education Department leased the facilities, airing educational programming from 9am to 3pm daily until Channel 13 was acquired to become the area’s full time education station.

Few New York schoolchildren of the 1950s and 60s were raised without viewing Captain Jack McCarthy and Officer Joe Bolton.  They were truly two New York institutions who hosted a variety of children’s programming.

In 1955 WPIX became the first NY station to air The Our Gang/Little Rascals films on their daily kid’s TV show, The Clubhouse Gang.  Joe Bolton, the station’s weatherman, found a new audience hosting the Clubhouse as Officer Joe.  Officer Joe and Captain Jack would become beloved children’s programming hosts for over a decade, into the 70s hosting among other favorites, “The Popeye Show”, “The Three Stooges” and of course “The Little Rascals Show”.

New York kids from the 50s and 60s grew up watching WPIX stars like Officer Joe Bolton, Chuck McCann, Jack McCarthy, and Bill Britten who played beloved Bozo the Clown.  In the early 60s New York kids knew when to find Bozo on WPIX.  In the afternoons, also known as peanut butter and jelly time.

The first African/American performer to host a kid’s TV show was on WPIX – Scoey Mitchell as Fireman Mitchell as Fireman Frank on the last version of “Let’s Have Fun” from September 1967 to June 1968.

And “The Magic Garden” with Carole Demas, Paula Janis, and of course Sherlock the Squirrel charmed young viewers throughout the 70s with their music and storytelling.

Another popular children’s show was created to appeal to kids from many different backgrounds.  “Joya’s Fun School” and “Time For Joya” hosted by Joya Sherrill was also a success with local kids and critics and educators alike!

New York’s movie station

In 1958, WPIX entered the film syndication field, the first television station to take this step.  “The Russian Revolution” was produced by the station and was such a success; it was sold to stations across the country and to the Canadian Network.

In the 80s the station reined as New York’s “first station” for free movies, showing more hours per week than any other station in town. WPIX also had a long standing affair with movies, starting with “Night Owl Theatre” in the early days, and extending their feature library into one of the largest in town by the 1980.  Big stars and hit titles satisfied viewers.

On July, 17 1959, the world saw its very first instant replay.  A ninth-inning single against the Chicago White Sox had spoiled Ralph Terry’s no-hitter for the Yankees.  WPIX sportscaster Mel Allen asked the director, Jack Murphy, to see the hit replayed on videotape.  It was in 1965 that the station aired another first, this time the first colorcast of Yankees baseball.  The station goes to full color two years later in 1967.

“The Secret Life of Adolph Hilter” was one of WPIX’s early documentaries, shocking New Yorkers with never before seen footage and attracting huge audiences.

Milestones in news coverage

One of John Tillman’s many exclusives was his coverage of the dramatic sinking of the Andrea Doria in 1956.  30 years later viewers would see her safe opened live on WPIX too.

The station’s newscasts over the years had many names,  including Action News, helmed by such distinguished names as Pat Harper and Bill Jorgensen. Independent Network News, INN – began June 1980 & had a station list of nearly 150 stations across the country — was a pioneer. Its successor,  USA TONIGHT, by 1988 was seen via satellite on over 100 stations across the nation.

When the station introduced their first regularly scheduled morning newscast in 2001, it won an Emmy Award as New York’s Best Morning News, its first year in the air.

Today the PIX 11 News Team features some of the city’s most recognizable journalists and personalities including Jodi Applegate, Kaity Tong and Irv “Mr G” Gikofsky.

WPIX-TV also produces the news interview program PIX11 News Closeup hosted by the station’s veteran anchor, Marvin Scott.

In 2001, WPIX unveiled Air 11, the nation’s first all-digital TV news helicopter.  The chopper is able to send razor-sharp images from as far as 100 miles from the WPIX control room.

Felix, Oscar, Ralph and Alice

And syndicated series have always been an important part of the station’s schedule.  Of course no show is more loved, or has played longer on WPIX than the New York comedy classic, “The Honeymooners”.  Reruns of the series first appeared on the station in 1957.  The series has brought laughs to many generations of viewers, and even today, WPIX’s New Years Marathon is to still going strong.

A list of successful syndicated shows that have aired and air on WPIX represent the best that the television industry has created.  From “The Odd Couple” and “Happy Days” to “Star Trek,” “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, to Friends,” “Will & Grace,”  and “Two and A Half Men” and Family Guy, the station has always invested in the best for our viewers.

The station as always been a true friend of the community, whether that means airing award winning local programming that addressed the problems and issues of the tri-state community like Best Talk, or Richard Hughes editorials (with his famous signoff “What’s your opinion? We’d like to know.), or broadcasting the best of local traditions, like the St Patrick’s Day Parade first broadcast in 1949 airing for over four decades until 1992, and Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral which is still a magnificent holiday special on the station’s schedule today.  Parades, fireworks, and local specials have always been part of WPIX involvement with the New York community.

The Yule Log

There is no more popular WPIX original than The Yule Log.  Of course there is one local special that burns more warmly than any others in our viewer’s hearts and their homes.  Christmas just isn’t Christmas in New York without WPIX’s Yule Log mesmerizing glow.  This famous loop of film, a simple blend of video and Christmas carols, has been a Christmas card to our viewers.  Created in 1966 by then station manager, Fred Thrower, to give NY apartment dwellers their own fireplace on Christmas Day, the Yule Log has been dubbed the first music video by beloved fans.  Now broadcast in HD, the Log, with its simple one camera shot of a fire, continues to brightly burn, and airs paired with another WPIX tradition, the 1934 Laurel and Hardy timeless masterpiece, “March of the Wooden Soldiers”, on Christmas Day.

‘The big idea’

WPIX has also had some fun with our viewers.  Viewers of the mid 1980s will remember the NY Emmy Award winning promotional campaign starring the fictional WPIX employee Henry Tillman who was “a little guy” striving to come up with “the big idea”.

On November 6, 1994 Channel 11 presented the New York City Marathon as a local event.

WPIX became a “super station” in the 60s when cable systems started carrying its programs throughout the Northeast.  The station has been carried nationally by satellite since 1984, making it the fourth “superstation” in the nation at that time.

WPIX joined the WB Television Network in 1995, and aired many hits including “Dawson’s Creek,” “Smallville,” “7th Heaven,” and “Gilmore Girls.”

From the first instant replay to the first all-digital helicopter, WPIX has remained true to its history as a trendsetter and innovator in broadcasting.