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September 1964 - KCET Signs on the Air

KCET Day One Schedule
Detail of KCET's first day of programming. | Photo: KCET Archives

At 11:15 a.m. on Monday, September 28, 1964, KCET, on the UHF frequency channel 28, first signed on the air.

Run by General Manager Jim Robertson and a staff of 56 employees, with a monthly operating budget of $65,000, KCET became the ninth television station licensed in Los Angeles, broadcasting its 1.2-megawatt signal - the most powerful television signal in L.A. -- from a General Electric transmitter atop Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Just five days prior, on September 23, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had approved of KCET's broadcasting application via telegram, granting the station the ability to sign on the air.

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Without any fanfare, the first thing to air on KCET was a block of programs intended to be shown in local schools, starting with a French language instructional program called "Parlons Français." The school programs were provided by the Regional Educational Television Advisory Council (RETAC), which, prior to KCET's existence, produced educational programming that aired on L.A.'s commercial television stations, many of which had designated certain timeslots for educational programs.

Prior to KCET, the station most associated with educational programming was KCOP-TV (Channel 13). On the morning of September 28, just as all systems were readying for the 11:15 a.m. launch, programming staff realized the RETAC videotape that contained the school programs was nowhere to be found. Eventually it was discovered that the tape was inadvertently mailed to KCOP's studios instead, so CTSC Board Vice President Jim Loper jumped into his car and raced two miles across Hollywood to KCOP's studios on La Brea Avenue to retrieve it, and sped back to KCET's Vine Street studios to hand it to the station engineers - with just minutes to spare.

Other programs that aired the first day were "The Friendly Giant," "The French Chef with Julia Child," "Conversations with Eric Hoffer," and "Kaleidoscope" - all of which were broadcast nationwide on the National Educational Television (NET) network, of which KCET became the 91st affiliate. In the days before satellite downlinks, NET's television programs, which existed on two-inch video tapes or motion picture film reels, had to be physically delivered or mailed to stations for airing, and later sent to other NET-affiliated stations so they can air the programs themselves.

KCET's initial programming, all in black and white, was limited to the hours of 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. Daytime hours were dedicated to classroom teaching in cooperation with city and county schools. Evening programming was devoted to cultural programs for enlightenment, entertainment, and education.

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