A tiny, low-def President Truman walked into Dallas-Fort Worth living rooms in 1948, and he brought along showbiz.
Seventy years of “Seinfeld,” storm radar and Dallas Cowboys drama later, we remain fascinated by the free but sometimes frustrating spectacle of television.
At first, “we came home and turned on the TV just to look at the screen,” said George Ann Carter Bahan of Fort Worth. She was Mrs. Amon G. Carter Jr. in 1974, when that Texas communications pioneer family sold the first TV station in the southwestern U.S., now KXAS/Channel 5.
“Back when it started, we’d watch TV even when there wasn’t a show,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Four hundred viewers were watching their new black-and-white TVs on Sept. 27, 1948, when what was then WBAP/Channel 5 went on the air two days earlier than planned, solely to show Truman speaking at the Texas & Pacific Station.
Until then, the nearest TV station was in St. Louis. Across the South and Southwest, the Carters’ WBAP-TV was the only station between Virginia and Los Angeles.
Two days later, Channel 5 went on the air to stay. An old movie, “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” was followed by “The Texas News,” for most of a decade ranked the nation’s No. 1 TV newscast.
For its 70th birthday, here are five things you might not know about now NBC-owned KXAS/Channel 5:
1. Serious TV weather started here.
Radio and TV hosts had always read forecasts, but Channel 5 was the first TV station to build a local newscast around a professional weather team.
On Oct. 31, 1949, after the Monday night TV wrestling, a team of three staff meteorologists on loan from American Airlines launched the nightly “Weather Tele-Facts” segment.
One, Harold Taft (1922-1991), became the station’s best-known local personality over a 42-year career. He was affectionately nicknamed the “World’s Greatest Weatherman.”
(In July 1959, Channel 5 added Texas’ first storm radar.)
2. Serious news anchors started here.
Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson worked as a reporter and anchor at Channel 5 in 1999-2000, before her network job that led to Roger Ailes’ ouster and helped launch the #MeToo movement.
Star-Telegram archives show that Carlson reported often on local women’s shelters and crisis centers, and helped several raise money. She will soon be the subject of a Showtime series with Naomi Watts in her role.
Most Fort Worth folks know that CBS News contributor and three-time presidential debate moderator Bob Schieffer started at Channel 5 as a news anchor in 1966, transferring from a Star-Telegram reporting job when the station switched away from a film-newsreel format.
Fewer know that “60 Minutes” correspondent and former CBS anchor Scott Pelley’s first big-city job was at Channel 5. He was a producer and editor in 1978-81.
In a 2014 DFW.com profile, he said: “My favorite years were reporting in Texas. I’m a Metroplex guy.”
Another former KXAS host was later outed by the #metoo movement. Charlie Rose started his talk show career on KXAS April 2, 1979, when he was the station’s newly arrived program director. His show debuted weekday mornings before “Donahue.”
Former NBC “Sunday Today” anchor Boyd Matson was a KXAS sports anchor. Ambassador Karen P. Hughes was a reporter.
Show host and movie critic Bobbie Wygant started at Channel 5 in 1948 and worked fulltime for 51 years before switching to a contributing role. She is recognized as the Southwest’s first female TV host and first movie critic.
3. Bob Schieffer flubbed his debut.
Schieffer’s first Channel 5 appearance was a milk commercial. It went sour.
In 1954, when he was at North Side High School, Schieffer and other students were studio guests for a Saturday teen dance show hosted by a “soda jerk” college student from Denton, singer Pat Boone.
The show was named “Foremost Teen Times” and sponsored by Foremost Dairies. For a commercial, Schieffer was supposed to pour milk, take a drink and say, “That Foremost milk is sure good.”
“I got it perfect,” he wrote by email — “except for saying, ‘That Vandervoort’s milk is sure good.’ “
Vandervoort’s was a competitor.
“I was never invited back until I became the station’s news anchor,” he wrote.
4. What ‘WBAP’ stands for.
For generations, almost since the day in 1922 when WBAP radio went on the air, historians have told how President Herbert Hoover named it WBAP for “We Bring a Program.”
True, except the Star-Telegram reports of that day also tell another story.
The federal official issuing licenses, Chief Radio Supervisor W.D. Terrell of the Commerce Department, announced that WBAP stood for “Will Be at Party.”
“All of the radio fans will want to be at the radio parties given by the Star-Telegram station,” Terrell said.
(True story: Founder Amon Carter was always a futurist, yet he thought radio’s potential had limits. When he started the radio station, Carter gave newspaper executive Harold Hough $300 and said, “When that $300 is gone, we’re out of the radio business.” Hough went on to national acclaim as a broadcasting leader and visionary.)
5. Where to find all this history
The Star-Telegram’s online archives at newsbank.com cover WBAP in detail.
For example, that’s where you learn that the first public place to gather and watch a TV was the Tap Room, 810 Main St.
The first live TV sports event in Texas was a Paschal High School-Amarillo football game. (But WBAP had already filmed a Fort Worth Cats playoff game where manager Bobby Bragan homered.)
But the jackpot of WBAP and KXAS video history is at the University of North Texas University Libraries Special Collections, where decades of “Texas News” scripts are posted online and some old newsfilm has been processed and posted.
“In the first decade, it’s insane what they covered,” said the library’s Morgan Gieringer.
“There’s all these dead bodies, people being pulled out of wrecked cars — you really get to see the birth of the medium.”
You see movie stars like Joan Crawford visiting, and the region’s sports history plays out. All the city’s legends are here, from the 1954 escape of Pete the Python to the 1960s sightings of the Lake Worth Monster.
The collection includes 20,000 news reports and 45,000 scripts, all searchable online.
It costs $7,500 per month of film to preserve it all, so consider a donation to UNT. (And SMU’s Jones Film Collection has WFAA/Channel 8’s news archives — help them, too.)
“The coverage was really local,” Gieringer said: “They covered the Soap Box Derby, and beauty pageants, and school openings.”
That’s the Channel 5 we remember.