At First Light: KCET and Me

Original KCET Schedule
A scan of KCET's first few days of programming in 1964. A scan of KCET's first few days of programming in 1964. | Photo: KCET archives

Monday, September 28, 1964 dawned brightly in Los Angeles. The weather was mostly clear over the basin, but predictably smoggy as the day wore on. Kids began another school week. The Warren Commission report on the assassination of President Kennedy had just been published. There was more fighting in Vietnam. I had just turned 16. After school that September evening, I could have tuned the 19-inch, black-and-white television in the side room of my Lakewood house to watch a preview of KCET's programming on UHF channel 28. I didn't. Algebra and Latin homework occupied me until dinner, which was around seven when I was a boy because my father worked downtown and commuted by bus.

I probably watched "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" on channel 7 after dinner. In that week's episode, a foreign agent released a "demoralizing gas," the TV guide said, while the atomic submarine Seaview and its crew plunged below "crush depth."

KCET's depth ran that first night of broadcasting to "People and Politics" with Richard Heffner, an hour of "News in Perspective," and a half-hour of "Kaleidoscope" with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Heffner was one of the founders of educational television in New York. James Day was the host of "Kaleidoscope" whose guests in the 1960s included, among many others, Eleanor Roosevelt, Buster Keaton, Robert F. Kennedy, and Bing Crosby. Both men were serious about educational television.

KCET's programming day ended with "American Memoir," a series of half-hour essays by Dr. John Dodds of Stanford. His thoughts that evening were about "Culture for the Millions."

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Slipped into KCET's lineup at 8:00 p.m. -- between questions of culture and politics and if "the millions" would care for either -- was a half-hour program where a tall, trombone-voiced woman demonstrated how to make classic French dishes with an American lack of pretension.

Julia Child and the "The French Chef" were on KCET from the beginning, the tapes of the programs produced by WGBH in Boston shipped around the country to be shown in strict rotation by other stations. KCET sent its tapes to KERA in Dallas. That was how networks were made then.

KCET's first years reflected what "educational television" (as it was called) was supposed to be. KCET's day in the mid-1960s began at 11:45 a.m. with a block of programs aimed at students in elementary schools. The futurists said, as they always do, that new technology would revolutionize education, and television would lead the revolution. Evenings for adults were educational, too, with programs like "Modern Math for Parents," "Resurgent Japan" and "Background for Western Drama." Too deep for a depthless teenager like me.

I didn't grow up with public television. KCET didn't teach me to read or count or navigate an urban neighborhood, although I soon learned to enjoy the satire and knock-about qualities of "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company."

I grew into KCET, starting with evenings sitting with my mother watching "The French Chef" for its unaffected slapstick and its love of making people happy with a well made meal, and later with series like "American Playhouse," "Masterpiece Theater," "Nova," "Wall Street Week," and "The Western Tradition" (with the incomparable Eugen Weber). "Citywatchers," hosted by Los Angeles Times writers Art Seidenbaum and Charles Champlin, extended the reach of my suburban imagination to include more of Los Angeles and its story.

I had learned a lot from television before KCET. Los Angeles had seven broadcasters by the end of the 1950s with hours of air to fill with something, mostly from the vaults of Hollywood. Sitting in front of the TV on long vacation afternoons had been an education in the language, humor, prejudices, and fears of the 1930s and 1940s as projected from the "B"-movies shown on channels 5, 9, 11, and 13.

I learned a lot more from television in the years after KCET's first light. At some early point in my watching, KCET's programs stopped being educational with quotation marks and became the kind of questioning, involving television I wanted to see and to see more of.

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