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New book channels Philly TV history

The “Philadelphia Television” version of the “Images of America” book series celebrates the city’s significant role in TV history

John Facenda. (File photo)
John Facenda. (File photo)Read more

Philly TV history goes well beyond Sally Starr, Dick Clark and John Facenda. It actually includes the very creation of the medium.

Our Town's relationship with television "started with the technology itself, which existed in the [1920s], and started being developed here in Philadelphia by Philo Farnsworth, who was an engineer," explained Bill Shull. "He worked on the technology at the Franklin Institute and at his own laboratory, which was on Mermaid Lane in Wyndmoor. Then he got hired by Philco, which was at C and Tioga [streets]. He helped develop the technology there.

"And he co-founded the city's first commercial channel."

Farnsworth's work here is just one of the many lesser-known aspects of local TV history showcased by Shull's book, Philadelphia Television (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99), part of the voluminous "Images of America" series.

The picture-stuffed, soft-cover tome surveys virtually every step of the Philly TV scene, including Farnsworth's research-and-development program, the groundbreaking broadcasting facilities built in the city after World War II, the 1950s "golden age" of live, local programming and the mid-'60s arrival of kid-friendly UHF stations. Along the way, readers meet a slew of broadcasting luminaries, some whose fame never transcended the signal strength of their stations and others who achieved national prominence.

Not that Shull intended to author such a book. Arcadia initially recruited former NBC10 news anchor Tim Lake to conjure Philadelphia Television after Arcadia published similar books Lake had put together on TV markets in upstate New York. But Lake had no interest in the Philly project, and recommended Shull, a 51-year-old Lansdowne native with whom Lake had worked at Channel 10.

Shull readily admitted that Philadelphia Television is not the definitive look at the subject - not that he wouldn't have liked it to be, but he was up against forces over which he had no control.

One hurdle was physical in nature. "I tried to get as many people in there as I could, but all 'Images of America' books are 128 pages," said Shull, who is currently consulting at WDRE-TV, Channel 31, the NBC-TV affiliate in Rehoboth Beach, Del. "So you just run into space [issues]."

Another was lack of source materials. He lamented that he simply couldn't find some photos, including that of longtime WPVI-TV (now 6ABC) kiddie-talent-show host, Al Alberts.

"I wanted to include a picture of Al Alberts - and his wife, Stella," he said. "I looked everywhere and contacted people about it, and nobody had a picture of Al and Stella. I'm very sorry about that."

But there are dozens of photos of such local broadcasting icons as stentorian-voiced news anchor John Facenda, of WCAU-TV (NBC10); the effervescent Texan Jim O'Brien, whose 1983 death in a parachuting accident plunged the Delaware Valley into mourning; and such revered kids'-show emcees as Starr, "Uncle" Pete Boyle, Chief (Traynor) Halftown and Pixanne (Jane Norman).

Also included are snapshots of many stars who used Philly as a springboard to across-the-board fame and fortune, including Clark; visionary comic Ernie Kovacs; Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" sidekick Ed McMahon; news anchors Jessica Savitch, Brian Williams and Matt Lauer; and morning-show monarch Kelly Ripa, whose career launch pad was the locally produced, mid-1980s dance-party series "Dancin' on Air."

Unfortunately, Philadelphia Television fails to provide an unequivocal answer to a question that has been hotly debated in local broadcasting circles for decades: Which station was the first in the world to erect a complex exclusively for TV broadcasting?

On the one hand, there was Channel 6's studio at 46th and Market streets, which opened in 1947. On the other, there's NBC10's still-in-use (for a couple more years) facility on the Lower Merion side of City Avenue at Monument Road, which was christened in 1952.

"Channel 6's building at 46th and Market was built first, but from what I understand, it was built for TV, and the radio studios moved in later," offered Shull. "Channel 10's building was the first 'broadcast center' ever built in the world. It was built to be TV and radio at the same time.

"It's a matter of semantics, most likely. I think the Channel 6 people will tell you 46th and Market was first, and [at Channel 10] - where I worked for 16 years - the old-timers there used to say, 'Oh no, this was the first building in the world built to be a TV station.' "