The end is near for a historic TV building in Philly
It’s been reported that the Comcast folks plan to move television channels NBC 10 and Telemundo 62 downtown when they finish scraping the sky with their new 1,200-foot headquarters. The present nearly 100,000-squarefoot complex on City Line will be sold for redevelopment. That pioneering structure houses lots of ghosts of TV history. It was built in 1952 to house WCAU Channel 10, then a CBS affiliate owned by the Evening Bulletin newspaper company. It was the first structure in the United States built specifically for television broadcasting.
The station had gone on the air in 1948 and was broadcasting from WCAU’s 1622 Chestnut St. radio headquarters and from remote locations.
Before television, WCAU radio had belonged to the morning Philadelphia Record newspaper and brothers Isaac Levy, a lawyer, and Leon Levy, a dentist.
When the Record folded in February 1947, The Bulletin acquired the station. The Bulletin company already owned WPEN, an old radio station, and had rights to channel 10 in the new TV industry.
The newspaper sold WPEN to the Sun Ray drug store company but kept the television channel. It became the third affiliate of the new Columbia Broadcasting System, headed by William S. Paley, a cigar company executive and brother-in-law of the Levy brothers.
WPEN radio had been the voice of The Bulletin. There was no “all news, all the time” station in those days. Most stations’ news came in short periodic reports read by announcers off the Teletypes of news services.
The Bulletin in the ’30s offered regularly scheduled radio news programs originating from an office in the back of the Bulletin newsroom. News was written and broadcast by a five-man staff headed by Harold Hadley, a concise writer with an authoritative voice.
After the acquisition of WCAU, the radio news operation moved to the station’s Chestnut Street headquarters. Early television programs originated there when Channel 10 started up on May 23, 1948. Channels 3 and 6 were already on the air, 3 at 17th and Sansom and 6 at 46th and Market. There was no coast-to-coast TV until 1951.
Channel 10 blossomed when the City Line studios opened in 1952. An example of what could be done there was “Action in the Afternoon,” a live half-hour daily Western soap opera that ran for a year in 1953. It was directed by Dick Lester, who later went to England and directed The Beatles’ first movie.
The main street of an Old West town was built in the parking lots; interiors of a saloon and other cowboyish rooms were in the studios. It was all live broadcasting then, including horseback chases and gun fights.
That was in the days before videotape and of large, bulky cameras that trailed thick, heavy cables, with rotating turret lenses, no zoom lenses. The pictures they produced were black and white.
In 1953, a new Philco TV with a then-giant 21-inch screen would cost you $229.95 (more than $2,000 in today’s money).
Channel 10 moved its tower in 1957 from atop the PSFS building to a 1,200-foot tower in Roxborough.
In 1958, The Bulletin sold WCAU to the CBS network. In 1995, in a complicated swap, 10 became an NBC affiliate and 3 went to CBS. In 2011 and 2013 deals, Comcast acquired NBC.
It’s very different now, but Channel 10 old-timers still talk about the day when a stagecoach got loose and rolled out of the “Action in the Afternoon” set and smashed into a station employee’s sports car in the parking lot. What did he tell his insurance company?