April 2, 2010

WVIT, New Britain, CT, 2008

This week's featured site falls squarely into the "Things That Aren't There Anymore" category - but at least it nestles securely in the subcategory of "Things I Documented Before They Were Gone," which is far superior to the alternate "Things I Missed Before the Wrecking Ball Got There."

This is NBC's WVIT-TV (Channel 30) at 1422 New Britain Avenue, on a little hilltop west of Hartford that's been home to a television station since almost the earliest days of television in the Hartford market - and in this week's installment, we show you photos from a September 2008 visit, a few months before the 1954-vintage WVIT building was demolished to become the parking lot for a new WVIT building where the parking lot used to be.

The history, first: Hartford missed out on the first wave of commercial television expansion in the late forties, leaving viewers to aim their antennas south to New Haven's WNHC-TV (then on channel 6) and the New York City signals beyond, northwest to Schenectady's WRGB (then on channel 4), or northeast to Boston and Providence.

When commercial development of UHF began in the early fifties, NBC led the charge with an experimental station in Fairfield County, and then a number of commercial stations began signing on in quick succession up and down the Connecticut River Valley. By the end of 1953, viewers with UHF converters and decent antennas could choose among two signals from Springfield (WHYN-TV 55 and WWLP-TV 61), one from Waterbury (WATR-TV 53), one in Hartford (WHCT-TV 18) and one licensed to New Britain but serving greater Hartford: WKNB-TV (sister to WKNB radio at 840 on the dial), which signed on in February 1953 from a temporary studio while construction got underway at New Britain Avenue. (The transmitter was, and still is, at nearby Rattlesnake Mountain, a site we'll chronicle in more detail in a future Tower Site installment.)

By 1954, channel 30 was on the air from this site, which must have looked far different in the days before I-84 cut across what was once the front driveway leading down to New Britain Avenue/US 6.

In 1957, NBC bought WKNB radio and TV, changing the TV calls to WNBC during a period when those calls were "in exile" from the network's New York flagship, which was then branded as WRCA. (Why was NBC buying a UHF station in a relatively small market? It and CBS both tried to take advantage of the FCC ownership rules then in effect, which allowed a single owner to have up to seven TV stations, as long as no more than five were VHF; NBC also bought in Buffalo, while CBS bought UHF signals in Milwaukee and here in Hartford, where it briefly owned WHCT-TV 18.)

WKNB radio and WNBC-TV went their separate ways after 1960, when NBC sold the stations to new owners; the WNBC calls returned to New York and the TV station became WHNB ("Hartford-New Britain.")

Over the next few decades, channel 30 went through several owners, including the 1978 sale to Viacom that brought the WVIT calls to the station. In 1997, Viacom sold the station to none other than NBC, and a few years back, NBC decided the time had come to move the station out of its half-century-old building. (Along the way, it also decided to sell most of its smaller-market O&Os, including WVIT, though the collapse in station values left the station without a buyer and still in the Peacock's hands - at least until Comcast takes over.)

So that brings us to September 2008, when we stopped by to visit chief engineer Joe DiMaggio (no relation - and yes, he gets that question all the time) and to get a look at the place while it was still there. This was not a big building, even before its western flank was removed to provide some space for construction to start on the new facility next door, and thus a tour was a fairly simple affair.

From the small front lobby, visitors could go right, up or down a half flight of stairs into the two-story eastern wing of the building that housed management and sales offices (and, back in the fifties, the WKNB radio studios downstairs) - or left, into the newsroom/studio area.

We went left, of course, starting our tour in the compact studio, designed in 1950s fashion with double-paned windows looking into what was presumably once a control room, then part of the newsroom. The production control room sat beyond the news set, with a small loft area above for audio.

Next to the studio were two decently-sized engineering areas: a rack room and a "tape room" that still had some actual tapes in it. WVIT's master control had long since moved out of Connecticut when we visited, supplanted by NBC's northeast master-control hub in New York, but it was in this room when it was here, if I recall right.

Returning toward the front of the building, the irregularly-shaped newsroom appeared to have been cobbled together from what had been several smaller spaces, and with nary a square inch to spare, the newspeople were especially eager to make the move next door to a much more spacious facility centered on a two-story newsroom/studio area.

There was a smaller room adjacent to the newsroom for news meetings and an adjoining space for news ingest - and from here, the hallway led us right back past the mail room to the front door and out into the rain.

One of these days (maybe even as soon as this summer), we'll get back to Hartford to see the completed new building, which wasn't quite ready for tours when we visited - and to see the WVIT transmitter site, not to mention some of the other new studio facilities that have been built in the market over the last few years.

In the meantime, at least we have these pictures to show you what once was in New Britain...

This is another one of those multimedia experiences, with lots of Hartford IDs appearing Wednesday, April 7 over at TopHour.com - and in the meantime, we urge you not to 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!)

Thanks to WVIT's Joe DiMaggio for the tour!

- Find out when the new Tower Site is posted, and much more! Follow us on Twitter @NERadioWatch -