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For more than 30 years, John Kiesewetter has been the source for information about all things in local media – comings and goings, local people appearing on the big or small screen, special programs, and much more. Local media is still his beat and he’s bringing his interest, curiosity, contacts and unique style to Cincinnati Public Radio and 91.7 WVXU. Contact John at johnkiese@yahoo.com.

Celebrating 75 years of Cincinnati television

WLWT-TV 75th endslate lighter CROP.jpg
Courtesy WLWT-TV
WLWT-TV's 75th anniversary logo premiering Feb. 9 has images of Ruth Lyons, Bob Braun, Bob Hope, and an old camera and production truck.

WLWT-TV led the way before and after the city's first commercial TV broadcast on Feb. 9, 1948.

Television officially arrived in Cincinnati 75 years ago today at 12:30 p.m. Feb. 9, 1948, when WLWT-TV began broadcasting — more than a year before Taft Broadcasting's WKRC-TV and Scripps' WCPO-TV.

Starting today, WLWT-TV will launch a year-long 75th anniversary celebration of its incredible legacy, which will include a TV special later this month featuring some old TV clips and a ribbon-cutting on the new WLWT Hall of Fame.

WLWT-TV was the 20th television station in the US. It was no surprise that Cincinnati's Crosley Broadcasting put the city's first TV station on the air because Crosley was one of the nation's major broadcasting leaders.

John Kiesewetter
The old Elks hall at Ninth and Elm streets Downtown was known as "Crosley Square" when it housed WLW-AM and WLWT-TV from 1942 to 1999.

Crosley built the first and only 500,000-watt AM signal on the air for WLW-AM in 1934; conducted video experiments in Carew Tower in 1939 (put on hold during World War II); and built the Voice of America relay station on Tylersville Road in Butler County in 1942-43.

WLWT-TV actually beat the other Cincinnati media companies to television by two years.

In early 1947, Crosley began broadcasting on experimental W8XCT. By the official launch of WLWT-TV a year later, Crosley already had televised Cincinnati's first Reds game, college football and basketball games, variety shows, a weather show, religious service, boxing, bowling, wrestling, ice skating, swim meet, a Harlem Globetrotters professional basketball game at Music Hall (10 years before the NBA Cincinnati Royals came to town) and a commercial (for Wiedemann Beer).

Thanks to its powerful WLW-AM, the "Nation's Station," which reached more than half of the 50 states at night, Crosley Broadcasting had a stable of stars to spread over both TV and radio.

Candee Records
Ruth Lyons' weekday live "50-50 Club" show was so popular that Lyons' produced several cast albums of music heard on the show. Lyons (seated in white) is flanked by Bob Braun (right) and newsman Peter Grant (left).

For the first 25 years, WLWT-TV dominated the local TV airwaves with Ruth Lyons' 50-50 Club, the Paul Dixon Show, Bob Braun Show and Midwestern Hayride, a weekly country music show which aired nationally as an NBC "summer replacement" for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the 1950s.

Singer Janette Davis, a performer on experimental W8XCT, was the first of many Cincinnati stars to appear on national TV, moving to New York for CBS' Arthur Godfrey and His Friends (1949-57). Lyons' show was so popular that it aired weekdays on NBC from Oct. 1, 1951 to Sept. 5, 1952.

WLWT-TV's early stars included announcer-humorist Jean Shepherd (who wrote A Christmas Story); Bill Nimmo (later announcer for Johnny Carson's Who Do You Trust?); newsman Peter Grant; dancer-producer Len Goorian; comedian Bob Shreve; and singers Betty Clooney (sister to Nick and Rosemary), Marian Spelman, Bonnie Lou and Ruby Wright. Variety show host Nick Clooney and country singer Kenny Price came along in the 1960s.

The off-camera talent included several eventual Hollywood producers: Douglas Cramer (Dynasty, Hotel, The Love Boat), Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Earl Hamner Jr. (The Waltons).

Courtesy Media Heritage
Reds All-Star catcher Johnny Bench (holding microphone) hosted a syndicated variety show from Crosley Square in the early 1970s. To Bench's left is Rob Reider from the "Bob Braun Show."

In the early 1970s, WLWT-TV launched the syndicated Johnny Bench Show, a variety program starring the Reds All-Star catcher. Twenty years later, WLWT-TV in 1991 premiered the Jerry Springer daytime talk show, which aired nationwide the next year.

Channel 5 also gave Bob Trumpy, Bill Hemmer, Joe Morgan, Steve Horstmeyer, Pat Barry, Clyde Gray, Rob Reider, Nancy James and Thom Brennaman their TV starts. WLWT-TV's news alumni include CBS reporter Lee Cowan and CNN's Gene Randall and Toria Tolley Hammill.

WLWT current owners have a lot to chose from for their new Hall of Fame.

In the first years, when only a few hundred people owned TV sets, viewers were asked to call or write the company's Crosley Square headquarters at Ninth and Elm streets Downtown (now Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy) so they could be sent weekly program lineups. WLWT continued the practice through June 1949.

The year of experimental operation allowed engineers to figure out what worked — and what didn't. The station successfully broadcast the first Reds game, against the Phillies at Crosley Field, on Sept. 21, 1947, just days after remote equipment arrived.

1950s WLWT cameras at Crosley Field Media Heritage .jpg
Courtesy Media Heritage
W:WT-TV's color TV cameras at Crosley Field in the late 1950s.

But things didn't go that well when Crosley engineers telecast the first football game a few weeks later, the UC Bearcats vs. Dayton Flyers at Nippert Stadium on Oct. 11, 1947. Only having two cameras, they naively placed them on opposite sides of the 50-yard line — so when a guy started running down the field, and they switched to the other camera, he was running the other direction on TV.

By the Feb. 9 debut in 1948, they had worked out the major problems for the live debut broadcast of Luncheon at the Sinton from the Sinton Hotel on Fourth Street at 12:30 p.m.

Six days later, on Feb. 15, WLWT officially moved into its new ''Mount Olympus'' TV studios at 2222 Chickasaw St., University Heights, under the station's TV tower. Peter Grant proclaimed to viewers: ''Today is T-Day in Cincinnati! Television's here!'' Two months later, on April 9, WLWT-TV televised the first Opening Day, a station tradition until Channel 5's owners gave up Reds TV rights after the 1995 season.

John Kiesewetter
The old weather radar unit at "Mount Olympus" in 2007.

The innovations continued throughout the 1950s. The first local weather radar unit was installed at Mount Olympus in 1955. WLWT-TV first introduced local color programming in 1957 for Lyons' 50-50 Club, which attracted a "who's who" of singers, entertainers, comedians, Hollywood stars, political leaders and sports stars.

WLWT-TV's aggressive use and promotion of local color programming — and NBC's "Living Color" shows — earned Cincinnati the nickname "Colortown U.S.A." by 1962.

In the mid-1960s, while other local stations were airing syndicated daytime shows starring Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas, Channel 5 was broadcasting five hours of live entertainment programming every weekday, plus an hour of news, and sometimes a Reds night game.

Local daytime programming continued on WLWT-TV for 36 years, until the station canceled the regionally syndicated Bob Braun Show in 1984, as the station shifted most of its resources into news.

John Kiesewetter
WLWT-TV's "Mount Olympus" TV studio on Chickasaw Street in University Heights opened in 1948, but was quickly abandoned. It was demolished in 2007.

While TV has endured and thrived for 75 years, "Mount Olympus" did not. Lyons did not like the inconvenient University Heights location, and television programming soon returned to Crosley Square Downtown. WCET-TV, the nation's first licensed educational TV station, moved into the hilltop facility in 1959 and broadcast there until the Crosley Telecommuncations Center on Central Parkway across from Music Hall opened in 1976. "Mount Olympus" was torn down in 2007.

Channel 5 remained in Crosley Square until 1999, when it moved to its current location, 1700 Young Street, Mount Auburn, and became the city's first all-digital TV station. For the past 18 months, WLWT-TV folks have been digitizing "our entire station archives of old videotape," says Pete Salkowski, creative services director.

"We literally rounded up every old tape in the building and digitized it. We can now search and import anything in our archives quickly and easily to be presented and shared as needed. I have discovered some long-lost clips in there I've never seen before," he says.

WLWT-TV's historic anniversary celebration Thursday will "kick off a year-long celebration where viewers can look forward to remembering and sharing in 75 years of WLWT history. Our 75th anniversary special will be airing on WLWT later this month, and streaming on our Very Local app. Throughout the year both on-air and across our digital and social platforms, we'll be sharing the clips and highlights that will bring back a lot of memories for everyone across the Tri-State," he says.

"In the coming months we will cut the ribbon on the WLWT Hall of Fame and celebrate the inaugural class that helped build our historic 75-year legacy," he says.

For more WLWT-TV history read my past stories for WVXU: 70 Reasons to Celebrate WLWT-TV's 70th Birthday from 2018; Remembering Bob Braun and the 'Bob Braun Show' from 2019; and Paul Dixon's 'Chicken Wedding' Aired 50 Years Ago Today from 2019.

2019 MAY WLWT anchor team wins May Untitled (11).jpg
Courtesy WLWT-TV
The News 5 anchor team (from left): sports director George Vogel (who will retire March 31); husband-wife news anchors Mike Dardis and Sheree Paolello; and chief meteorologist Kevin Robinson.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.