March 12, 2010

WPXI, Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is one interesting television market. Even today, it has fewer stations than just about any other large market in the country - but today's TV lineup in the Steel City is a veritable cornucopia compared to what you'd have found on the dial in the first decade of Pittsburgh television.

From 1949 until 1953, there was just one TV station in Pittsburgh, DuMont's WDTV (Channel 3, later channel 2) - and even when commercial competition came to town in 1953, it was in the form of two weak UHF signals, WENS-TV 16 and WKJF-TV 53, that failed to put a dent in the monster down the dial.

Neither station survived the early years of UHF, and even the arrival of educational TV (WQED-TV 13) in 1954 did little to challenge the DuMont monopoly. (Indeed, that monopoly gave DuMont a lot of leverage to get its shows cleared by other networks' O&Os in other markets, helping the network to limp along for a few more years before it expired in 1955; by then, WDTV had been sold to Westinghouse, becoming KDKA-TV.)

It was not until 1957 that another commercial VHF signal came to Pittsburgh: WIIC, channel 11, with studio and transmitter just north of downtown on the steep slopes of what would become known as "Television Hill." WIIC and KDKA-TV gained another competitor the next year when WTAE-TV (Channel 4) completed the big-three network trifecta: CBS on KDKA, NBC on WIIC and ABC on WTAE.

Channel 11 called Television Hill home for half a century, even as its calls changed from WIIC to WPXI-TV in 1981 and even as its original 1957 studio/transmitter building was expanded and renovated repeatedly.

By the early years of the 21st century, though, the facility was aging beyond repair, hampered by a confined piece of land in an inconvenient location - and so WPXI and owner Cox Broadcasting looked elsewhere for the station's next half-century.

The chosen spot was on Evergreen Road in the Summer Hill area just off the I-279 "Parkway North" expressway, just north of the old Television Hill location but with far better highway access and much more land to build on.

The building opened over Labor Day weekend in 2007, and it was precisely a year later when we stopped by as part of a National Radio Club convention tour of the 69,000-square foot, $30 million facility.

The centerpiece of the new WPXI is a two-story newsroom that's literally the crossroads of the building. The front lobby opens almost right into the sprawling space, you have to pass through it to get to the studios and control room beyond - and it's visible from up on the second floor where the salespeople and executives live, too. (That's a conference room up on the second floor behind the blue wall.)

The newsroom also opens directly into the main news studio, with just a scrim separating the din of the newsroom from the back of the set in the studio next door. This facility was built for HD from day one, with two enormous HD displays flanking the opening to the newsroom from the set.

If you're walking into the studio, though, you do so through some history: the thick wooden doors that were salvaged from the old Television Hill studio entrance, a nice touch of class!

There's a smaller studio next to the news studio that's used for talk shows on WPXI's sister cable network, PCNC (Pittsburgh Cable News Channel), and beyond that one corner of the facility is home to master control. The 21st-century version of a TV master control would be an eye-opener to a TV engineer of even a decade or two ago; gone are the walls of CRT monitors, big switchers and tape decks. It's all digital now, and all it takes are a few flat panels on the wall to keep track of it all. ("It all," in this case, includes not only WPXI and PCNC but two more DTV subchannels, one carrying Retro TV and the other carrying weather.)

The control room for WPXI's newscasts sits just off the back corner of the newsroom, and it's relatively simple, too: mostly computers and flat-panel displays. In addition to its own newscasts in the morning, at noon, 5, 6 and 11, WPXI also originates the 10 PM newscast that's fed just down the street to Sinclair's Fox affiliate, WPGH (Channel 53).

In next week's installment, we'll take a look at that tower, as well as most of the rest of Pittsburgh's TV towers - and we'll go see what happened to WPXI's old Television Hill building, too!

In the meantime, stop by beginning Wednesday, March 17 to hear some of the station IDs we collected as we spun around the Pittsburgh radio dial in 2008...and don't miss your chance to grab one of the dwindling remaining stash of the all-new Tower Site Calendar 2010, just in time to fill that space on the wall where your 2009 edition once hung.

(It's more than just pretty pictures and dates - the modest sum we raise from each year's calendar helps make possible the travel needed to make this feature happen every week on the website...and we're grateful for all your support!)

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