In 2004, Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) celebrates its 50th anniversary. WHA-TV/Madison signed on the air on May 3, 1954, and classroom and living room television screens across the state have since flickered to life with educating and illuminating messages from Fred Rogers, Julia Child, Big Bird, Alistair Cook, Dave Iverson, Patty Loew and more.
The airwaves have evolved into offering an array of arts and culture, premier children's programming, Wisconsin-focused productions, nature and science shows, and news and public affairs programs springing from the resources of WPT, the peerless PBS distribution system, talented independent producers and international sources.
Through the years, the stations expanded, with five others becoming part of what is now known as Wisconsin Public Television. The first to sign on was WPNE-TV/Green Bay in 1972, followed by facilities in Wausau, Park Falls, La Crosse and Menomonie/Eau Claire.
When WHA-TV signed on one spring day in the nascent days of television, it was only the third noncommercial station in the country. Its programming that day was a local production, "The Friendly Giant."
The program was an inspired forerunner to children's programs. Each gentle episode began with the Friendly Giant arranging a miniature chair for young television "visitors" to his castle. Then he would read from a book and play a tune on a recorder, accompanied all the while by his giraffe and rooster puppets.
That grounding in educational orientation remains a hallmark of WPT, said the current Director of Television Malcolm Brett.
"Then, as now, families and parents turn to Wisconsin Public Television as a place to reassure, socialize and educate children. That mission is carried out each and every day on our airwaves through noncommercial programs, as well as in classroom curriculum and through WPT community outreach efforts such as Ready to Learn." He continued, "Ready to Learn trainers fan out across the state to help preschoolers build literacy and socialization skills so they are prepared for the rigors of formal education."
As WPT moves into its next 50 years, it once again draws on an illustrious past. In 1964, a Wisconsin high school French class was connected with a French high school English class for cultural and educational exchange.
Now, WPT is poised to begin the explosion in learning that the digital age will make possible. WPT is readying educational material to be broadcast along with programming. It's working with university educators in the state, and nationally, to unleash the potential to reach new, varied and vast audiences. Work continues to develop material for K-12 use, too.
"Twenty-six years ago, I was proud to join Wisconsin Public Television as the station manager," said Byron Knight. "As the years have passed and the accomplishments have accumulated, I continue to feel that pride for the service we deliver. I look forward to successive years with equal anticipation."
Knight is now director of the Broadcasting and Media Innovation Unit for University of Wisconsin-Extension. The unit oversees WPT, along with the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.
From "The Friendly Giant," WPT has continued to expand its roster of local productions. In the 1950s, there was "Quiz the Professor" and "Music Quiz." Added later were programs like "The Wisconsin Magazine," "Sprockets" and taped University of Wisconsin-Madison sporting events.
Today, offerings like "Here and Now," "Teen Connection," "Concerts on the Square," "The Wisconsin Gardener" and "In Wisconsin" meet the needs of contemporary audiences. Through partnerships such as the Cultural Coalition of Wisconsin, WPT also offers Web services like PortalWisconsin.org, the state's premier arts and culture Internet site.