In 1952, the Federal Communications Commission lifted a freeze on the number of television channels on the broadcast spectrum. Many of the new channels would be reserved for educational purposes, and Inland Steel Chairman Edward Ryerson made it his mission to make sure that Chicago secured a place on the dial. The Chicago Educational Television Association was formed by Ryerson and other civic leaders to lobby for, create, and fund a new public television station, and WTTW – Window To The World – was born.
At a temporary studio and offices in Chicago’s Banker’s Building, a new staff of writers and directors was trained for work in television. Report to the Teachers, WTTW’s first program, hit the airwaves on September 6, 1955. Under the leadership of Dr. John Taylor, former University of Louisville president and deputy director-general of UNESCO, WTTW’s staff of 54 regularly scheduled 40 programs a week, Monday through Friday. It was during this time that the station also served as a “working exhibit” in the east wing of the Museum of Science and Industry.
With an emphasis on a mix of information and entertainment programming, WTTW’s low-budget, offbeat offerings quickly escalated in number. By its first anniversary, WTTW had doubled its program output, telecasting 43 hours a week, and had scored several television firsts for Chicago and the nation: the first remote from Orchestra Hall, the first language course, and the first series on income tax preparation, which culminated in a two-hour SPEC-TAX-ULAR special.
In partnership with Chicago’s Board of Education, in 1956 WTTW became the first station in the country to televise college courses for credit via its TV College. Chicago-area students were able to enroll at one of the participating junior colleges and attend classes at home in front of their television sets. Within five years, approximately 15,000 students had enrolled for credit. A decade later, TV College’s annual report noted that 80,000 people had enrolled for credit, with an overall viewership estimated at 10,000 per broadcast.
In 1961, following its success with TV College, WTTW became involved with the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI). Transmitting from a four-engine DC-6 airplane circling a six-state Midwest region, MPATI tele-lessons were broadcast daily to participating high schools and colleges with a potential enrollment of approximately 7 million students. WTTW was selected as one of a small number of national production centers to produce two of the tele-courses, World History and American History.
Beyond direct classroom-oriented instruction, children’s programming has always played a critical role at WTTW. In the early days, WTTW aired programs such as Story Time with Miss Bunny, The Storyteller with Val Bettin, and Totem Club.
Co-founded by Don Clayton and Rachel Stevenson, Totem Club originally starred Joe Kelly of Quiz Kids fame and, for most of its eight-year run, National Barndance featured celebrity Arkie the Arkansas Woodchopper. Short on budget but long on ideas, the series was broadcast live five days a week, offering children a specific viewing experience each day. There was Grandmother’s Kitchen, Funcraft for You, Let’s Make a Play, Dr. Andy Merrick’s Animal Clinic, Indian stories with Chief White Eagle, plus, over time, Science Day, Animal Day, Baseball with Hall-of-Famer Roger Hornsby, Water Safety Day, and Farm Day. For her work in producing Totem Club and her pioneering efforts to make the series available to deaf children, Rachel Stevenson was honored with McCall’s Golden Mike Award in 1962.
From his cluttered rolltop desk, or from the reasonable facsimile of a distant planet’s surface, Dr. Daniel Q. Posin of DePaul University explained astronomy and physics to viewers of all ages in ways that were unique, entertaining, and always informative. This respected scientist-academician would be honored time and again for his style of presentation and unusual use of the medium as developed in his Universe Around Us, Dr. Posin’s Universe, and Dr. Posin’s Giants.
Today, Arthur, Sesame Street, The Cat in the Hat, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Caillou, Wild Kratts, Dinosaur Train, Curious George, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Peg + Cat are beloved in the hearts and minds of Chicago-area children and families.
The station’s popular Festival series offered Chicagoans ballet, modern dance, music, satire, and drama. Festival would provide a foundation for future arts programming and, in the process, recall imaginative production/scenic techniques cultivated in the critically acclaimed Chicago School of Television days of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
On the heels of its first successful membership drive, WTTW celebrated its second decade of operation on August 15, 1965 by taking up residence in its current home at 5400 North Saint Louis Avenue on the northwest side of the city. Designed by architects Perkins and Will, the new facility was built on five acres of land providing 52,000 square feet of work space. Three studios were designed into the facility – large enough to hold an entire symphony orchestra and high enough to permit dramatic productions to fly in scenery and accommodate elaborate lighting plans.
During this second decade, WTTW programming moved to another level of distinction. In 1968, Book Beat, hosted by Robert Cromie, delivered a steady stream of literary notables into viewers’ homes, and became the first of seven WTTW offerings to win the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. One year later, in 1969, the legendary Burr Tillstrom and his Kuklapolitan Players, urged out of television retirement by WTTW Board Chairman Newton N. Minow, produced a series of half-hour specials resulting in an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming. It was also during this period that WTTW initiated its Auction as an entertaining and effective method of fundraising.
The next important era in WTTW history began in 1971 when Newton Minow recruited Washington, D.C. career broadcaster William J. McCarter to assume leadership of WTTW. McCarter promptly expanded the broadcast schedule to seven days a week, introducing a wide range of general interest programming. Under McCarter, WTTW produced a large number of nationally broadcast series and specials, and having expanded to 120 logged hours of programming per week, the station continued its tradition of excellence with such memorable series as the local music series Soundstage, Consumer Game, Made in Chicago, and Prime Time Chicago. McCarter’s programming and financial successes led to the Harvard Business School’s selection of WTTW as a case study of a well-run major public television station.
Cited by A. C. Nielsen as the most-watched public station in the country (a status WTTW still enjoys today), WTTW began its third decade with an eclectic program lineup balanced between national and local programming, with a dash of international production mixed in. The highly acclaimed 26-part series on school desegregation, As We See It, and the profound examination of mandatory retirement, Miles to Go Before We Sleep, were both Peabody Award winners, as was Ruth Page’s ballet, The Merry Widow. Opening Soon at a Theater Near You (later retitled Sneak Previews), starring film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, became the first movie review series on television.
On the international level, WTTW’s co-productions with the BBC culminated in the three-part Atlantic Realm series and the six-part Peabody Award winner The Making of a Continent.
For local audiences, there was again a wide range of offerings, including sports with Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko’s World Series of Softball, The Do-It-Yourself “Messiah,” Joel Weisman’s Chicago Tonight: The Week in Review, Chicago Commodities Report, the innovative Public Newscenter, and the last broadcast home for Chicago’s legendary Kup’s Show. In turn, Image Union provided a much-needed showcase for independent film and video producers. In April 1984, WTTW’s flagship nightly public affairs series Chicago Tonight premiered, with host John Callaway.
The organization’s fourth decade witnessed spirited political coverage on the local, state, and national levels, plus documentary production that gave new meaning to the term public affairs. Technically, WTTW became the first local television station in the country to utilize high-definition technology. Special programs, including Mozart by the Masters and Solti’s Beethoven: The Fifth Symphony Revisited, were applauded by Chicago audiences as was Wild Chicago and its offbeat view of the people and places comprising Chicago’s urban jungle. Excellence in children’s programming was encouraged through WTTW’s American Children’s Television Festival, culminating in the presentation of the Ollie Awards, named for the most gregarious of the Kuklapolitan Players and honoring the best in children’s programming. To this day, the Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching continues its long tradition of shining a spotlight on outstanding Chicago-area educators.
In the 1990s, the award-winning Chicago Matters series was a collaborative effort between WTTW, the Chicago Community Trust, WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio, The Chicago Reporter, and the Chicago Public Library, and focused on the tough problems of violence, racism, aging, and immigration policies – problems that confront many Chicagoans on a daily basis. Another Peabody Award winner, The New Explorers, a co-production with Kurtis Productions, Ltd., portrayed 20th-century scientists as adventurers working in space, under the oceans, or, possibly, with endangered species.
For contemporary music lovers, in 1993, the critically acclaimed series Center Stage – a Chicago Production Center and VH-1 Network co-production, made its national debut. Performers such as k. d. lang, Keith Richards, and Neil Young were free to explore their music “with as few frills and distractions as possible.”
And, combining lively music with pleasing visuals, The Kidsongs Television Show was designed to provide entertainment and educational experiences.
As in decades past, WTTW specials continued to bring unique experiences and messages to our viewers. In 1993, Love in Four Acts featured four of Chicago’s young choreographers sharing their interpretations of love by creating dance works specifically designed for digital television. The Real McTeague was aired nationally via Great Performances on PBS, and was selected from among 500 entries in 30 countries to be screened at the Festival dei Popoli in Florence, Italy. In 1994, Remembering Chicago, a magical reminiscence of our city in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s was watched by Chicagoans of every age. Weaving memories and film footage from a variety of sources, including WTTW viewers, the Chicago Transit Authority, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Historical Society, the program won the Chicago Headline Club’s 1995 Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. The program’s success inspired the sequels Remembering Chicago Again, Remembering Chicago and World War II, Remembering Chicago: The Boomer Years, and Remembering Chicago: The ‘70s and ‘80s.
In 1995, WTTW president William J. McCarter received the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle Award in recognition of his more than 25 years of service to the television industry and his significant contributions to Chicago broadcasting.
In 1998, Daniel Schmidt took over as President and CEO of Window To The World Communications, Inc. Under his leadership, the station’s commitment to producing the best local and national programming continued to deepen. Check, Please!, Chicago Stories, Artbeat Chicago, Arts Across Illinois, Candidate Free Time, and Geoffrey Baer’s popular tour programs all created a direct connection between the station and our audience. The expansion of WTTW’s Chicago Tonight to an hour-long newsmagazine with host Phil Ponce and correspondents Carol Marin, Elizabeth Brackett, Eddie Arruza, Jay Shefsky, Paris Schutz, and Brandis Friedman furthers the station’s mission to cover a wider variety of local and national stories. In 2002, WTTW re-launched the Soundstage series, shot entirely in high-definition and distributed throughout the PBS system.
WTTW has gone beyond television to become a truly multi-platform media enterprise. In April 2002, WTTW began transmitting a digital signal of both the analog broadcast and at that time, the PBS feed of high-definition programming. In September 2003, WTTW opened the Digital Broadcast Operations Center, becoming a fully-digital broadcasting operation – for both the standard definition broadcast and high-definition broadcast. On January 1, 2004, the WTTW Digital channel was launched – the first customized, localized, and separate stream of digital programming. In August 2005, WTTW partnered with Comcast to offer its first menu of Video on Demand programming, and in December of the same year, WTTW launched a major redesign of wttw.com with video streaming and exclusive, rich content. Since that time, WTTW’s digital platforms (website, mobile apps, etc.) have been developed and redeveloped to offer both parallel and web exclusive content to our growing online audience. In January of 2006, WTTW Create was launched with a schedule of public broadcasting how-to and do-it-yourself programming; content from the WORLD channel was added in July 2013, when it was renamed WTTW Create/WORLD. And later in 2006, WTTW V-me was launched as the very first Spanish-language public broadcasting television service in Chicago.
Also during this decade, as an active participant in public broadcasting’s Ready to Learn initiative, WTTW was awarded major grants from the U.S. Department of Education to fund development of children’s transmedia properties which included the Emmy-winning series WordWorld and the interactive initiatives Mission to Planet 429 and UMIGO, designed to engage at-risk kids in low income neighborhoods in exercises to boost their interest and skills in science and mathematics.
As a multiplatform public media organization, WTTW is committed to and excited about the emergence of new technologies and digital broadcasting, and we are preparing our organization for the future with an increased emphasis on alternate platforms as a way of distributing content and – in particular – localized content.
In keeping with that local focus, WTTW is also dedicated to finding ways to extend our relationship to the community. Whether through outreach events, neighborhood screenings and station meet and greets, building tangible connections to the community is a mission-critical endeavor.
Under Dan Schmidt’s guidance, today WTTW is one of the most-watched public television stations in the country, serving more than 65% of Illinois’ diverse population as well as areas of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Its website, along with that of its sister station WFMT, attracts more than a half a million visits per month, where visitors have access to a wide variety of streaming video and audio, engaging blogs and other interactive web-exclusive features, mobile-optimized content, up-to-the-minute schedule information, and robust websites dedicated to their favorite series and specials.
In April 2014, Window to the World Communications, Inc. named its campus the Renée Crown Public Media Center to recognize a major gift by the Crown family to WTTW and WFMT in honor of Renée Crown and her tremendous contributions to the organization as a trustee and leader committed to exceptional public media programming and services.
In January 2015, WTTW announced, for the first time in its history, the naming of an on-air host position. The official title of the host of WTTW’s flagship nightly newsmagazine Chicago Tonight will be listed as the Alexandra and John Nichols Chief Correspondent and Host, a position currently held by Phil Ponce.
As the station celebrates its 60th anniversary, WTTW remains your Window To The World.