by Joseph Gallant
WTAO-TV was owned and operated by Harvey Radio Labs through a 100%-owned subsidiary, Middlesex Broadcasting Company, which also owned WTAO-AM and WXHR-FM. Studios and transmitter were at the WXHR-FM transmitter site in Woburn. WTAO-TV was scheduled to begin regular programming on September 28, 1953, but went on the air a day early in order to carry an ABC network presentation of football. During the 1953 season, ABC would send mobile units to Notre Dame football games (home and road), make kinescope recordings, and edit them down to 75 minutes (including commercials) for Sunday-night showing. The commentator was Harry Wismer, who did play-by-play as a voiceover while watching the kinescope recording on a TV monitor on Sunday as the film of the game was being broadcast. ABC couldn't carry Notre Dame football live in 1953 because the NCAA had a contract with NBC giving that network exclusive rights to live broadcasts of college football games.
Channel 56 had DuMont and ABC affiliations, but didn't take very many programs from either network. It instead broadcast such fare as old movies (during the fall of 1953, WTAO-TV had movies from 6:15 to 7:30 and 9:00 to 10:30 most weeknights), some syndicated fare, and cheap travelogue films. During 1953-54, they did carry Captain Video, one of TV's pioneering science-fiction shows (live except for some pre-filmed special effects and done on an awfully small budget) from DuMont and a couple of ABC shows.
WTAO-TV did have local news in the fall of 1953 at 6:00 and 10:30pm, both 15 minutes in length. They had no newsfilm -- just a man reading news into a camera (Bob Merhmann, later at the old WJIB-FM, and host of WUMB-FM's Commonwealth Journal until throat cancer forced his retirement, was the "anchor"). An ad in a Boston newspaper in September, 1953 referred to the newscast as "'United Press News'--First With the News", so United Press News was probably just 15 minutes of reading wire copy from the old United Press (the same wire service Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley began their journalistic careers with; it later merged with the International News Service [INS] to form United Press International).
During the fall of 1954, WTAO-TV carried DuMont's Monday-night boxing show from St. Nicholas Arena in New York; DuMont's Sunday-afternoon NFL games (also in the fall of 1955); and from ABC, Kukla, Fran and Ollie (which moved to ABC from NBC in the summer of that year) and John Charles Daly (yes, the same man who also hosted What's My Line?) anchoring the ABC network news.
Except for sports events, DuMont's programming ended during the spring of 1955 (Captain Video and the dramatic anthology Studio 57, sponsored by Heinz, both moved into first-run syndication for a short time thereafter), and with the success of Walt Disney's prime-time show (which in Boston ran on WNAC-TV/7, not on 56) and the Mickey Mouse Club (also on channel 7 instead of 56), much of ABC's programming began to run on WBZ-TV/4 or WNAC-TV. As a result, WTAO-TV was practically an independent in the fall of 1955. It no longer ran the DuMont boxing, but continued the NFL games (also airing on WMUR-TV/9 in Manchester NH and WPRO-TV/12 in Providence RI) on Sundays.
Local news was long gone on WTAO-TV by the fall of 1955, although they did run a weekly show titled We Women which was a production of the Massachusetts Department of Commerce spotlighting "a charming woman industrial editor" from the Bay State "for her outstanding work in the field" (as the Concord Enterprise described it). For a time in 1955, they had a show called Winna (listed in TV Guide as "Prizes") which I think may have been local. But nearly the rest of WTAO-TV schedule was movies. Film buffs who could get channel 56 and didn't mind seeing pre-1948 films were able to watch movies weekdays at 4:30, 5:45, 7:30, 8:45, and 10:00pm; broadcasting hours in October, 1955 were 4:00-11:30pm Monday-Saturdays and 2:00-11:00pm Sundays.
Apparently, the end was near as 1955 ended. My research showed that by early 1956, WTAO-TV's schedule was cut back to 6:00-10:00pm, with the schedule nearly all old movies.
I was unable to find any TV listings for WTAO-TV in any Boston newspapers after March 30, 1956, although the Boston Globe listed them on the "TV Dial" as late as early 1957 (they probably just didn't notice that channel 56 had vanished).
Harvey kept the license for WTAO-TV and it reappeared briefly between May 17 and November 17, 1962 for FCC-sponsored UHF tests, then was sold to the partnership of Kaiser Broadcasting and the Globe in 1965 which re-named it WKBG-TV, converted it to color, and resumed broadcasting on December 19, 1966 (one day behind schedule -- transmitter problems on the 18th precluded them from signing-on as scheduled and its live inaugural program had to be videotaped and broadcast the next day).
Additional comment from Peter Q. George: Today, this station is WLVI-TV ("CW56"), operated as a part of a duopoly by Sunbeam Television with WHDH-TV/7 in Boston. Sadly, upon the consumation of the sale to Sunbeam by Tribune Broadcasting on December 19, 2006, all 150+ employees of Channel 56 were terminated, a situation sadly and ironically reminiscent to the day former sister station WKBS-TV in Philadelphia was taken off the air and terminated all of its employees in 1983. The employees of WLVI-TV stayed truly professional right to the very end and had the opportunity to say goodbye upon the completion of its last newscast (THE Ten O'Clock News) on December 18, 2006. Sunbeam took over remote control via their Bulfinch Place studios in Downtown Boston at midnight and began their new newscast at 10:00pm the next evening. Called News 7 @ 10, it was a rather flashy, graphic laden, tabloid newscast ... quite the opposite of what WLVI-TV had broadcast for over 22 years. WLVI-TV is the same broadcast license that dates back to 1953's WTAO-TV, although Sunbeam will probably never recognize that.
This article originally appeared in Peter Q. George's "UHF Morgue" at his former RadioDXer site and is republished here with his permission. Reformatting and editing, plus some additional content, by K.M. Richards.
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