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End of an era: WCET-TV's 'Action Auction' goes online only in 2023

John Kiesewetter
Long-time "Action Auction" chair Dr. O'dell Owens sells a board during the 2019 telecast. Owens died in November.

WCET-TV's Action Auction, the biggest fundraiser for Cincinnati public television for five decades and an annual homecoming for volunteers and former employees, will be shifted to an online-only event in 2023.

"We understand this may be disappointing for many of our long-time viewers, bidders, buyers, sponsors and donors who enjoy the live event, but this transition will allow us to continue to raise money for the stations and utilize technology to become even more successful," said Kitty Lensman, president and CEO of WCET-TV, WPTO-TV and Dayton's WPDT-TV, in an announcement Tuesday.

The web-based bidding process pioneered during the COVID-19 pandemic will replace the broadcast.

"That system has been so successful and efficient (since 2020) that we've determined we no longer need the live broadcast part of the event for the fund-raiser to be successful," Lensman said.

A summer online auction, started in 2020, will begin on May 3. A fall auction will be held in September, according to the release.

John Kiesewetter
At its peak, about 100 volunteers were needed every night to broadcast the "Action Auction" from WCET-TV's large studio.

Since 1968, the Action Auction has raised millions for public television here, with the help of thousands of volunteers who answered telephones, displayed items, read descriptions and distributed the winning items to the highest bidders. TV and radio personalities would regularly appear as auctioneers. Former Channel 48 staffers often returned to volunteer as Action Auction camera operators. It was such a huge operation that LaRosa's brought ovens into Studio B to feed the volunteers.

WCET-TV, the nation's first licensed public television station in 1955, created the fundraiser in 1968 after the Cincinnati Board of Education withdrew $117,000 for the TV operation after a tax levy defeat. The first Action Auction raised $31,000.

Even after the arrival of cable TV with home shopping channels in the early 1980s, Action Auction remained the station's major fundraiser. At its peak, Channel 48 sold new homes and automobiles during a 10-day telethon which raised more than $1 million.

In 2001, after civil unrest in nearby Over-the-Rhine, the Auction was postponed. And after WCET-TV General Manager Susan Howarth launched the website in 2006, the Action Auction moved online for a year — but quickly returned the next year.

In recent years, the trio of area public TV stations that merged to form Public Media Connect Inc. in 2009 — WCET-TV (Channel 48), WPTO-TV (Channel 14) and Dayton's WPTD-TV (channel 16) — simulcast the Cincinnati auction on Channel 14 and eventually merged the Action Auction into a regional simulcast by replacing Dayton's Great TV Auction on Channel 16.

"People asked for online bidding for years and, when we couldn't have dozens of volunteers in the studio each night during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to integrate and test an online bidding system into the annual fundraising event," Lensman explained in the announcement.

"The bidding, payment and pickup systems that were in place for 2020, 2021 and 2022 will remain the same — there just will not be a live on-air showcase of items next September," the announcement said.

Don Jones, who chaired the event in 2013 and has been involved with the Auction for years, will chair the 2023 event. Long-time Auction chair Dr. O’dell Owens, who died in November, "supported the decision to move the event online before it was made official," the release said.

"Some of the efficiencies moving the Auction online allows us to allocate staff and volunteer time to other communities projects," Lensman said in the release.

Retired Cincinnati radio personality and former Auction chair Jim Scott, who participated in the first Auction shortly after arriving at WSAI-AM in March 1968, says that "if the bottom line is to make as much money as they can, and if this change makes a meaningful difference in the amount they collect, then good for them."

However, he'll miss seeing everyone at the Auction telecast. "Anyone involved with it really enjoyed it. And they might lose some of the human touch" by cancelling the telecast, Scott says.

The TV stations "are looking forward to growing the auction in new ways moving forward,” Lensman said in the release.

"The Action Auction has been going strong for 55 years and we plan to continue the tradition of the event online. When the auction started, it raised the majority of the funding the station had to work with throughout the year. While the auction doesn’t raise the $1 million it raised back in the '80s when the event was an all-day, 10-day extravaganza, the event is still a hugely important part of our budget and our mission at CET and ThinkTV. We still need our volunteers, donors, sponsors and bidders to make this event successful," she said.

From the release: To support your PBS station and receive valuable marketing support in return, visit or, or call 513-345-6552.

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.