"The most priceless asset any station can have is its character."
These words by Dr. Stanton certainly apply to Channel 13. When WTVT signed on in 1955, the FCC guidelines for local programming were quite vague and open to interpretation. It loosely translated to this:
"Do some news and some public service programming. Maybe something for the kids. Figure it out."
Owning a VHF station in the lucrative Tampa Bay market was like getting a license to print money. The truth is that someone could have flicked the transmitter's 'on' switch, and revenue would pour into the management's coffers no matter what the programming efforts were on the local level.
Sure, the station could have hired an announcer who doubled as a kids show host. At 5 p.m., he could rip headlines off the A.P. wire and call himself a newsman while being shot by a locked-down camera against a plain black background.
I think one factor is that being associated with CBS (The "Tiffany" network) gave WTVT a mandate for quality, and it always came through the tube via locally produced programming. How many Bay Area kids grew up watching Mary Ellen, 3-D Danny, and 'Shock' Armstrong. Their parents watched the news with Hugh Smith, sports with 'Salty Sol' Fleischman and Andy Hardy, and weather with the incomparable Roy Leep. We also enjoyed the country style humor and songs of Ernie Lee.
My research on the early days of WTVT revealed something that I hadn't realized. You can't talk about the excellence of WTVT without acknowledging the influence of WKY-TV in Oklahoma City.
WKY-TV was the flagship station of the Gaylord chain, and many of WTVT's management, news people, and production personnel came either directly or indirectly from Oklahoma. WKY-TV was the breeding ground for some of broadcasting's finest talent, and WTVT was a beneficiary. With top people in place, Channel 13 got off on the right foot, and every management team since has carried on the tradition of exceptional local programming. For almost 50 years, WTVT has been a benchmark of quality through its service to the community.
I first stepped into WTVT on August 10, 1962. It was my 10th birthday and I was on "The Mary Ellen Show". As I took still photos of the set and camera crew there in Studio B, I decided that I had to be a part of the magic I saw that day. Ten years later, almost to the week, I walked into WTVT as a part-time employee. I'll never forget the pride and excitement I felt as I walked up to the employee entrance. It was the beginning of five years worth of service, and I loved every minute of it. I also made life-long friends, and although some of them live in other parts of the country, our bond knows no time limits.
I've always been interested in broadcasting history, and wondered what I could do with my trove of WTVT photos and memories. A fan of "Shock Theatre," Mr. Dave Morrison of St. Petersburg, suggested that I start a web site about "Shock" Armstrong, and I thought "Why not the whole station?" Dave provided some invaluable photos, a lot of research, and I bring my own stills and memories. I thank Dave very much for sparking the idea for this web site, and for his continued support. Dave is also a terrific photographer, and you can see some of his exceptional work at Morrison Photographics.
For the first six months, I was pretty much the web site's sole writer until Tony Zappone found BIG 13 and we began a friendship. Tony was with WFLA and WTVT and has the most incredible talent for recalling details of things he has seen and been part of over the years. Tony has written several feature articles for BIG 13, but I think he's proudest of JFK, As I Remember Him. It's the spellbinding and emotional story of how Tony met and photographed John F. Kennedy on November 18, 1963. Thanks for everything, Tony!
Also thanks to Bill Cotter, the Disney TV expert who is great at helping boobs like me learn how to manage a web site. Bill's book, The Wonderful World of Disney Television, can be found at Amazon.com and finer bookstores everywhere!
The content in this web site is the most up-to-date, current information I can provide, as a result of personally conducted interviews, newspaper articles, and my own memories. As new information or corrections come in, I will post them immediately.
Like any large institution that employed thousands of people over a period of almost 50 years, WTVT has its share of happy stories and not-so-happy stories. Familiar faces suddenly disappear...favorite shows are cancelled. Television is not always a kind business, but I believe that WTVT's situation is not unique. I've been living in Los Angeles for 25 years, and the same situation exists here, only on a larger basis. Remember that the Tampa Bay area is a top 20 television market, and that broadcasting is not only entertainment and information...it's a business.
My focus will be on the good times and people that preceded me, and those who continued after I left. I'm 50 years old and spent less than 10% of my life at WTVT, but it continues to influence me every day. That means there was something special going on. My memories remain very clear, and I hope they will bring back some fond memories for you.
One other thing rings clear from the many people I've talked to for information about WTVT. They all consider their time at Channel 13 to be a highlight in their lives. I was pleased to discover that I wasn't the only one who felt that way...I have lots of company.
Now, on to the world of "Big 13."
It was a different world back then...only 4 commercial stations in the Tampa Bay area, and the one I'm talking about here is the best...WTVT.
This is me running camera and on camera for a WTVT facility promotional video. I had a great time at Channel 13, and want to share some memories with you.