January 23, 2009

WRC, Washington, DC

So here we are at a most exciting moment in broadcast history, just a few weeks away from the end of full-power analog TV broadcasting in the US, unless, of course, the new Congress changes the date. Until they do that, though, we'll continue to devote the next few weeks of Site of the Week - from now until (maybe) transition week, February 17, 2009 - to a look back at some of the more significant sites in Northeast analog TV history. This week, with a tip of the cap to another huge transition that's taking place down there, we travel to Washington, DC and NBC's home in our nation's capital. There's much more from our July 2008 DC trip coming later this year on Site of the Week - stay tuned for looks at WTOP, NPR and more!)

Even in low-rise Washington, DC, there's a distinctly suburban feeling to the neighborhood around one of the capital's most important and historic broadcast facilities.

Yet this unimposing building tucked in the woods just north of American University has a half-century of history that stretches from the Kennedy/Nixon debates to the dawn of digital TV - and so we were thrilled to get a chance to peek inside on a sweltering summer day in 2008.

The building at 4001 Nebraska Avenue NW serves many functions: it's the Washington bureau for NBC News and MSNBC; it's the home of "Meet the Press" and "Hardball"; it's the studio and transmitter site of NBC's Washington station, WRC (Channel 4); it provides leased transmitter space for Radio One's WKYS (93.9 Washington) and several LPTVs; and it used to be home to NBC's Washington radio stations, WKYS and the old WRC (980, now WTEM).

All that in that little two-story building? Well, not exactly - as the jam-packed parking lots around the building should tell us, there's a lot more inside than is visible from the circular driveway in front, as we find out when we begin our tour downstairs. (The lot slopes downward from the front of the building, so much of the ground floor is at ground level in back.)

As befits a building that went up in 1958, the halls are lined with green institutional tile, reminiscent of an elementary school of the era, but those tiled hallways (once home to WRC Radio, which later relocated to a new addition in the back of the building that's now used as office space) soon give way to a huge engineering area, where rack upon rack houses current NBC equipment and a surprising number of relics from the network's past, including some of the gear that was used by WHD-TV, the pioneering experimental DTV station that operated here from 1996-2002. There's also a vestigial master control area, though WRC's master-control functions are now hubbed from NBC in New York, and a satellite room as well - and beyond that, a big transmitter room that houses the Larcan analog transmitter on channel 4, which will soon be switched off, and the Thomson digital transmitter on channel 48, which will remain on the air. (The FM transmitters are in a room just beyond the TV transmitters.)

Some history? Absolutely: WRC signed on in 1947 as WNBW, NBC's second TV station after its New York flagship WNBT. Its original studios and transmitter were at the Wardman Park Hotel near the National Zoo, a mile and a half southeast of this site. In 1958, NBC consolidated its Washington TV and radio operations out here, building a state-of-the-art facility that was dedicated, as a plaque near the main elevators attests, by President Eisenhower and NBC head honcho David Sarnoff.

At the heart of the new facility was - and is - Studio A, on the building's first floor, just off a long hallway that runs along the front of the building behind the lobby. This studio - as another plaque outside its door attests - was home to the first incarnation of the Muppets, when young puppeteer Jim Henson did his "Sam and Friends" show from here each afternoon. It hosted the second Kennedy/Nixon debate on October 7, 1960. David Brinkley did his half of the "Huntley/Brinkley Report" - and later "NBC Nightly News" - from this studio. Since 1961, it's been home to "It's Academic," the nation's oldest high school quiz show.

And from the day it opened, it's been home to "Meet the Press," the set of which can be seen in its partly-disassembled state below.

(Our visit came just a few months after the untimely death of Tim Russert, whom we'd very much love to have met, if only to discuss western New York politics and other local matters; his portrait along the hallway outside Studio A was - and probably still is - draped in black to mark his passing.)

What's on the other side of that long blue hallway with its oh-so-70s mirrored ceiling? A long, narrow room along the front of the building that serves as the heart of NBC's Washington bureau, which in turn is right around the corner from the cafeteria, as we discover when we hear "excuse me" from behind, only to find that we've been preventing Andrea Mitchell from returning to her desk with her lunch. (Sorry!)

The famed "green room" where Washington's most prominent politicos hang out before appearing on "Meet the Press" is tucked around on the other side of Studio A, and continuing down that hallway brings us to the smaller studio that's used for WRC's local newscasts. (The noon show has just started as we arrive.)

And that's it for our tour - which means we'll have to come back eventually to see some of the parts of the building we missed, including the WRC newsroom and another studio upstairs used by MSNBC.

We'll return to this Washington trip later this year on Site of the Week - but we can't say goodbye to analog TV in Washington without showing three other prominent TV sites, all within a couple of miles of the WRC/NBC facility. Just a few blocks to the north, on one of DC's highest points, the towers of WJLA (Channel 7) and WUSA (Channel 9) sit behind the building that used to be channel 9's "Broadcast House" (and is now a health club!). Continuing just a few blocks further north on Wisconsin Avenue, Fox's WTTG (Channel 5) has studios and transmitter within sight of the DC/Maryland line. And heading out River Road into Bethesda, there's a tower shared by several UHF stations - Fox's MyTV affiliate WDCA (Channel 20) and public stations WETA (Channel 26) and WHUT (Channel 32) - but not for long, since none of their digital facilities are out at River Road. Instead, WETA-DT (27) and WHUT-DT (33) are on the towers of channels 7 and 9, while WDCA-DT (35) is on the WTTG tower.