The Centenary Of A Quiet Television Pioneer
The 100th anniversary of the birth of an Emmy Award-winning television pioneer occurred yesterday, Dec. 1.
The occasion was noted by a few friends and family, but passed without any public fanfare. And yet, the legacy he left is still felt among those in the industry who believe, as he always did, that television has an almost limitless potential as a teaching tool and, therefore, can be a major force for good.
Bob, as he was known to his colleagues throughout his career, was born in Southern California in 1922, even before radio had taken a strong foothold. But modern technology always fascinated him, and by the time he got to college and graduate school in the late '40s and early '50s, this exotic new medium that allowed moving pictures to actually be broadcast into someone's home had captured his imagination. He taught radio for a spell to students at the University of Oregon in Eugene, but television's possibilities called him to his first TV gig at KPIX-TV in San Francisco, where he spent his first eight years. It was there that he began to realize that his creative ideas could help turn television into something that can educate. Never satisfied with the status quo, his restless nature led him to reach high, always wanting to try something new. For a program about the law, he hired actor Raymond Burr, most famous for his portrayal of the TV lawyer Perry Mason, to host the show. It won a Peabody Award, which for 80 years have "championed the creativity and achievements of storytellers across television, streaming, radio, and digital media," according to its website.
He wanted to do more, but KPIX was a commercial TV station. He yearned for a place he could go where the main focus of programming was not just entertainment, but instruction. And ideally, in his mind, both. The next eight years of his career were a series of fits and starts at jobs that seemed promising at the time, but never quite offered him the chance he craved to spread his creative wings and use television the way he always envisioned it could be. He worked at Washington State University's educational TV channel for a couple of years in Pullman, WA; his (mostly) patient and supportive wife went with him as he started migrating east, taking his family with him to each stop. There was a year in Ames, Iowa, another commercial station; a year at an educational TV lab in Hershey, PA, that he liked, but it paid abysmally.
While in Hershey, he got wind of a brand new, state-of-the-art facility that was being built just outside of Baltimore, Maryland, to serve specifically as the center for Maryland Public Television. He interviewed for a got a job as a producer. At age 47, he had found his candy store, and for the final 15 years of his career he made the most of it.
He produced series after series of innovative instructional television programming, most of it designed to be used as part of the curriculum in Maryland's public schools. There was a show called NewsLab that presented current events to young people in an engaging, entertaining way that they would remember. Recalling his success with celebrities in San Francisco, he reached across the country again to Hollywood to the land the services of actors such as Jamie Farr of "M*A*S*H" and Ron Glass of "Barney Miller." For a program called "Tomorrow's Families" that focused on modern family issues, he persuaded Greg Morris of "Mission: Impossible," one of the top-rated TV series at that time, to host the program. His crowning achievement, the one that won him his Emmy for excellence in educational programming, was a series called "Once Upon A Town" that presented books in an engaging way that made 4th and 5th graders want to read them.
"He did not think instructional television should take a backseat to anybody, and insisted that we all aim high," recalls one of NewsLab's writers. "I recall the BBC’s live television drama workshop at Maryland Public Television that he arranged and organized as one of the highlights of my time at the Center. In those early days of public broadcasting he envisioned an American BBC and took this big step in that direction.” There were times when his insistence for excellence rankled. The Maryland center's executive director once famously noted to Bob's immediate supervisor: "You know what? Bob is a pain in the ass." The supervisor, understanding Bob and the talents he brought to Maryland Public Television better than most, replied, "That may be -- but he's our pain in the ass."
He was a family man who loved his wife and three kids. As a product of 1940s and 1950s America and many of its role expectations, he left most child-rearing duties to the mom, concentrating on the work he was so passionate about. He retired at age 62 and lived for another 33 years, always enjoying family time, but never sitting idly for long. Bob was always thinking of new ideas, new possibilities. The best pioneers are never content.
The world of instructional television is better today because of Bob's work. I was privileged to know him for 63 years. Along the way, he also taught me a thing or two about how to make a great video, take excellent photos, and some lessons about character, honesty and faithfulness.
You see, Bob was my dad.