Ambrosino and Nova: making stories that go ‘bang’

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

From Current, May 4, 1998

By David Stewart

MichaelAmbrosino-1998interview-by-BarzykOn the first of May in 1971, Michael Ambrosino sat at his desk at 25 Wetherby Gardens in London writing a six-page, single-spaced letter to Michael Rice, vice president for programs at WGBH, Boston.

“This project in science,” he wrote, “would begin to fill an appalling gap in PBS service. It would attempt to explain and relate science to a public that must be aware of its impact.

“The strand would be broad enough to cover all of science and . . . beyond its normal confines . . . biology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, sociology, psychology, medicine, anthropology could all provide program topics.”

The letter, filled with detailed explanations of production team schedules, content of programs, coordination with the BBC and financial requirements, is a remarkably accurate description of Nova, the series that Ambrosino named and ushered onto the air March 3, 1974. Even more remarkably, the 1971 plan still resembles what has become, 25 years later, the longest-running documentary series in America.

When Ambrosino proposed the series, he was on leave from WGBH and near the end of a year-long fellowship provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The fellowship had sent him to work with the BBC and to observe its production procedures. He was 40 and an experienced producer. In 1957 he had joined WGBH, where one of his first producer-director assignments was “The Ends of the Earth — Explorations of Antarctica.” Two years later he was producing a series entitled Science Six, featuring elementary science experiments. In the ’60s he produced, directed and conducted TV interviews for programs that ranged from politics and election coverage to discussions of sex and drugs and music performance. By 1969 he was producer of Michael Ambrosino’s Show, described by WGBH as “a cultural magazine that aims at putting Boston viewers in first-hand contact with their city.”

In London he observed the BBC’s Features Group and a production unit that was creating a strand of diverse, internationally acclaimed documentaries under the title Horizon. (Writing to Rice, Ambrosino described a “strand” as “a continuous run of broadcasts that a unit presents and administers. Some are freshly produced, some are coproduced, some purchased and some repeated. This method allows flexibility, lowers costs, increases quality, enhances communications with foreign broadcasters and spreads the responsibility of administration.”) Nova became the first of many WGBH strands.

Remarkably, the 1971 plan still resembles what has become, 25 years later, the longest-running documentary series in America.

Horizon had been established by a talented and extremely energetic program executive, Aubrey Singer (who later served briefly as the BBC’s deputy director general). The Horizon unit had been formed within the new BBC-2 channel in the early 1960s. It soon attracted prestigious film producers who were given considerable independence in making single-subject, all-on-film documentaries.

Viewer reception to these programs — many rooted in scientific exploration — surprised everyone, not least the BBC itself. According to John Mansfield, Nova‘s fifth executive producer, “When BBC-2 arrived, it was agreed that science with a capital “S” must be given a special chance. There was little hope that it would be popular, but it was generally agreed that a dose of science television would do the country good.” From the beginning, Horizon programs — such as “The Making of a Natural History Film,” which later led off the Nova series — were popular in the U.K. and throughout the world.

For many years they set the standard for TV documentaries, winning every international prize available. When Ambrosino left England in the fall of 1971 he was determined to establish an American version of Horizon at WGBH.

In a “welcome back” press release in mid-September, the station described its delight at the prospect of resuming Michael Ambrosino’s Show and, almost as a footnote: “In addition, he is working on the design of a project to make WGBH a major source of science programming on PBS.”

Ambrosino could not have urged the creation of Nova on a more receptive program executive than Michael Rice, who was familiar with the U.K. from his days as a Rhodes scholar and could appreciate the value of strong program ties to the BBC. Rice, who died at age 47 in 1989, is still regarded as one of the most intelligent and creative program managers in public broadcasting’s short history. When Ambrosino went to England to begin his fellowship, Rice was immersed in choosing the first BBC dramatic productions for what would become Masterpiece Theatre.

I wanted to examine how the world worked, to use the scientific process of discovery as a narrative device to tell good stories.

“I never thought of Nova as a science series,” said Ambrosino recently. “I wanted to examine how the world worked, to use the scientific process of discovery as a narrative device to tell good stories. . . . We also wanted to use some of the talented scientists that were all around, at Harvard, MIT and along Route 128 . This was going to be an active series. We had very few limits on what we could or should do.”

“Eureka!” was not to be

A long list of what Ambrosino calls “worthy” titles for the series was drawn up, including the public relations department favorite, “Eureka!” In the end he selected the title himself. “A supernova is something big, bright, new and bold, something to which you had to pay attention,” he explained.

Nova-opening-redAs fundraising began, he was frequently reminded of another and equally accurate, description of a Nova, i.e., making a big splash but then burning out quickly. “It was our little joke on the way public TV was funded in those days,” says Ambrosino. “You could find money to start things but after a year or two the funders wanted to put their money into the next new thing, and your series would be left out in the cold and dark.”

While he had hoped for a 1972 start, most agreed that finding the required funds (to say nothing of producing and acquiring programs) for a beginning in March 1974 represented a considerable achievement. In addition to a development grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the newly established WGBH Science Program Group found first-season support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, CPB, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Polaroid Corp.

In his initial proposal, Ambrosino had projected a budget of $1,178,000 for 30 hour-long programs — 12 of them would be WGBH productions, four coproductions, eight acquisitions and six rebroadcasts. The budget earmarked $60,000 for a group editor and staff, and $100,000 for publicity. In the end, the first season’s 13 programs cost about $1.5 million. By the third season the budget had doubled. (By contrast, Nova‘s recent 1990s seasons — 20 new hour-long programs a year — cost between $10 million and $12 million. As Alan Ritsko, Nova‘s managing director, explains, “About 10 of these are original productions. Most of the others are mini-coproductions that Nova controls from start to completion, sharing ownership and distribution rights with its coproducers.”)

Fortunately for purposes of recruiting a skilled production staff, NSF and Polaroid committed funding for two seasons. When the word went out that there would be openings for three production teams, Ambrosino received 170 resumes. Interviews were conducted in New York, London, Los Angeles and Boston. Robert Reid, former head of the Science and Features Department of BBC, became Nova‘s chief consultant. Not surprisingly the three production team leaders were British, two of whom had worked for the BBC. One of them, John Angier, subsequently became Nova‘s second executive producer. Many who helped produce some of the early programs became major producers at WGBH and elsewhere — including Paula Apsell, Nova‘s present executive producer.

The teams eventually moved into new quarters at 475 Western Avenue overlooking the Charles River. Channel 2’s new film facility, with its nine editing rooms, a small studio and a viewing room, also was home of two other WGBH series, The Advocates and Religious America. Before Nova had aired its first program, an additional production team was added to the Ambrosino’s responsibility. Its assignment was to produce a lengthy program on death and dying in America, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The program was produced and directed by Michael Roemer; he was assisted by David Grubin, who later produced film portraits of Presidents Roosevelt (Theodore and Franklin), Truman and Johnson for the American Experience series.

By December 1973, Team One, under Simon Campbell-Jones, had completed “Where Did the Colorado Go?” — an examination of water management in the Southwest. It was the series’ first original production and the second program aired. Angier and his team were finishing “The Search for Life” (origins of life on Earth), while former Horizon producer Francis Gladstone was in the midst of an ambitious dramatized version of the discovery of anesthesia, featuring Boston doctors in the leading roles. The series premier program, “The Making of a Natural History Film,” was an extraordinary film-within-a-film tour de force, demonstrating techniques used by the Oxford scientific film laboratory, a production organization making nature sequences for the BBC. The first season also included programs on dolphin intelligence, nomadic tribes in the Amazon, bird navigation, nuclear fusion, and chimps learning sign language.

“Producers are a naturally curious lot,” he says, “and good documentaries are made out of that curiosity. They hear a new idea from a scientist, read a journal, attend a lecture, and ‘bang,’ they want to find out more. The topic chooses you. We were after good stories that could be told visually, and good storytellers. Some shows were assigned but most of the ideas came from the producers themselves. I just had to make sure the season had a flow and variety.”Such disparate subjects, a hallmark of Nova from the start, have in common an emphasis upon beginning-middle-and-end stories. Storytelling was a major theme in Ambrosino’s initial proposal to Rice, his subsequent memoranda to PBS stations, and his recent responses to my questions about his work.

Producers are a naturally curious lot and good documentaries are made out of that curiosity.

From the start, Ambrosino promised the stations that “science will be interpreted in its broadest context.” Still, there were to be three areas of major interest: “basic science, science and technology’s affect on society, and science’s impact on public policy.”

Nova will aim at having audiences feel: ‘I can understand how science works. I can make sense of the world. I have an insight I didn’t have before.’”

Prepared for the accidents of life

Both storytelling and drama informed most of Nova‘s programs in the first years, as they had influenced Ambrosino’s early life. Born in Brooklyn, his family settled in Westhampton Beach on Long Island when he began high school in 1945. His father managed upper-income grocery stores in New York and owned his own specialty food store in Westhampton. “I took advanced math in a class of four,” he recalls, “and physics with seven. There were 28 in our graduating class.” He played drums in a jazz band and was an enthusiastic member of the school’s “spectacular drama club.” At 15 he was a dance band drummer: “I think I played every bar, senior prom and Polish hall on eastern Long Island.” With four others he also played in a volunteer fire department band, the Sons of the Beach.

He was accepted at Syracuse University to study physics, but switched to drama on the day of registration. “It was very romantic,” he says now. “The only rep company on the East Coast, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, went belly-up that same year.” Still, he worked three seasons in summer stock. When he returned to Syracuse for a masters of science degree, after a hitch in the army overseas, he began to make TV programs. “In starting Nova, I finally put my two loves together. I was lucky to find a road for my interests.”

Ambrosino says he believes in “preparing for the accidents of life.” An important one occurred in 1956 when he was invited to talk about closed circuit TV in the schools at a Harvard conference. (He had had six months experience.) Hartford Gunn, then president of WGBH happened to be there. “Three weeks later,” says Ambrosino, I was working at WGBH, developing school television for the State of Massachusetts. I was prepared. But it was an accident.

“Sitting at the next desk was the smartest and prettiest radio producer I had ever met. Lillian and I were married a year later and had three children.” The Ambrosinos were married for almost 40 years, until Lillian’s death from cancer in 1995. In addition to producing radio programs, Lillian Ambrosino was a reporter, one of the four founding members of Action for Children’s Television, a government consultant in Washington and a lawyer whose clients numbered many independent film producers.

“Making good films and making them on time and on budget is tough,” Ambrosino reflected recently. “We began production in ’73 and there were few folks in Boston or the U.S. who knew . The series premiered in the spring of ’74 with 13 programs, and we returned with 17 more in the fall. That’s a killer pace, but I knew we had only one chance to take our message to the stations for in the Station Program Cooperative, and I wanted us to survive.”

In 1972 and 1973, each Nova team spent seven to nine weeks on research. Much was done in the field, as the one-page outline grew into a full film treatment. The camera and sound crew then joined the team for four weeks of shooting — traveling about the country by plane, car, truck and helicopter. This was followed by two months of editing by some team members while others began again on a new topic. As Ambrosino wrote in a memorandum to stations in 1976, “As with all science, the end of one story is the beginning of another.” “I think the producer’s job is to find the power within the content, to have it grow out of the meat of the subject, not added on like sugar. All the pretty music and helicopter zooms finding that small seed and building a story around it.

“We tried to have the narration lag the awareness. Hopefully, the viewer will put the answer together just before the narrator’s golden tones give it all away. In this way, the viewers are empowered and will seek out more on their own. That really is the task of public broadcasting, to set the audience out on its own search. The viewers are then on the road to self-education for the rest of their lives. Folks hate to be taught, but they love to learn.”

That really is really the task of public broadcasting, to set the audience on its own search. Folks hate to be taught, but they love to learn

The first 13 programs were, of course, all new to the audience. In the next year, Nova presented 24 programs, of which five were repeats. In 1976, there were 26 programs, of which six were repeats. Boys and their toys During these years, the Nova staff worried about fulfilling its promise of basic science and science-related public policy — an objective never fully resolved. Popular programs about sleep and the sense of smell — great crowd-pleasers — tended to nudge out “important issues.”

Worries over the proper balance of programs — and Nova‘s general direction — have continued. In a paper reprinted in Current in 1992, Paula Apsell, then and now executive producer of Nova, describes her concern, in 1990, for the series’ diminishing audience and her reappraisal of program content.

“More than 250 past programs were divided into four categories and the average Nielsen rating was computed for each category,” she wrote. Some of what they learned surprised the staff: “Challenging programs did not seem much of a deterrent to viewers,” Apsell reported, ” … clearly the decisive factor was topic choice.”

Topic preference groups were ranked from “death and destruction” (most popular) to pop-science (e.g., ESP and UFOs) to “bones and bodies” (dinosaurs and origins) to “boys and their toys” (aviation and military technology).

“Slowly and cautiously, we began to rethink the way we commissioned and scheduled programs . . . developing a wider variety of storytelling devices to match the broad array of content. “After two years we have reversed the erosion of ratings and we are building audience.”

Of Nova‘s first 50 programs, 19 were made by WGBH, nine coproduced and 27 acquired through purchase. The number of original productions had advanced annually from four to six to eight. The operation had been partly based, of course, upon the advantages of cooperation with the BBC and other production sources. The number of WGBH productions represented 36 percent of the total. It was more than the station had ever attempted or completed before. As Ambrosino noted ruefully in his third-season report: “As hard as it is, raising money is still easier than making good programs about serious subjects. Although more U.S. productions than we promised, it was still less than we hoped. Novas are hard to make.”

In the first three years Nova‘s staff looked at 150 foreign-produced documentaries to purchase 22. They were drawn from four BBC documentary series, from the British companies Yorkshire TV and Granada, and producers in Sweden, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Germany and Canada. A mid-’70s screening session in London confirmed that fewer British films would be on the market as the country’s economic pressures increased — further reason to explore the tentative contacts that had been made with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which eventually became a major source of program material.

Ambrosino’s objective of developing long-term relations with producers outside the U.S. was taking shape. It would prove to be an immensely valuable asset to Nova, to WGBH, and to U.S. public TV at large.

Three treatments were evaluated in these days for every program that Nova agreed to coproduce. In some cases cooperation was largely financial. But in any case it meant more broadcast rights, a cheaper price and, frequently, considerable influence upon a program’s direction. Nova opened its first PBS season on March 3, 1974 with, for those days, considerable advance publicity.

Journalistic response was cordial: enthusiasm tempered by a certain dignity — perhaps befitting the scientific nature of the programs as the news media saw them. Time called attention to Nova “filling the gap between deadly-dull ‘educational’ lecturing and pop-science trivia.” Many papers, such as the Portland’s Oregonian were content with references to “high production values with intellectual curiosity” and the like. Some national publications, TV Guide among them, dodged the problem of writing critiques of what apparently seemed esoteric subjects by hiring writers such as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov to create essays. Sagan wrote about “Life on Mars” in May, when PBS carried Nova‘s “The Search for Life on Earth.” Asimov constructed an essay on chimpanzees (“They’re smart but not smart enough”) to supplement Nova‘s program on attempts to teach primates to communicate. Variety, after a nod to “some magnificent …. breathtaking film moments,” took the it’s-good-for-you approach: “All with an interest in science should watch your TV schedule for Nova.” Of one thing in its review of Nova‘s first program Variety was entirely accurate: “With its scope, Nova should be good for seasons to come.”

Most programs in the initial season seemed to offer journalists more opportunities for rather bland and graceful acceptance than energetic response. One exception was the program “Strange Sleep,” a drama describing the discovery of anesthesia. It brought the Boston Globe to full alert with a piece headlined, “Boston doctors star in Ch. 2 medical film.”

Despite tepid reviews, Nova found its audience. And it grew. At the end of the third season, the Nielsen rating service reported a national average of 2.8 million households, and an audience range of 4 to 7 million viewers for each program.

Ambrosino moves on

“I left Nova in exhaustion,” says Ambrosino. “I never anticipated leaving WGBH for good.”

John Angier became Nova‘s new executive producer while Ambrosino began designing a new series — Odyssey, 27 programs with an emphasis upon anthropology and archeology that was aired on PBS in 1980-81.

Having raised the funds for Odyssey (from the National Endowment for the Humanities), Ambrosino offered to bring it into WGBH. But the station rejected his stipulation that he control the hiring and firing of personnel and the publicity, so he established his own nonprofit production company, Public Broadcasting Associates (PBA), to produce the new series. As Ambrosino describes it, “We built a kitchen right in the center of our production company and never had staff meetings. We just ate together. I put in a shower for the joggers, and we all got healthier and could create an entirely different mood for work and play on the job.” Two-thirds of the Odyssey programs were made by PBA.

After two years, the company was ready to seek support, as Nova had, through the Station Program Cooperative. But the Reagan Administration had cut federal funding for public broadcasting by 40 percent and the stations reduced their cooperative purchasing proportionately. Ironically, Odyssey was forced to compete directly with Nova and, as Ambrosino explains, “Odyssey went down in flames.”

Henry Hampton, president of Blackside, Inc., and producer of the two celebrated Eyes on the Prize series, a history of the civil rights movement in America, is one of Ambrosino’s closest friends. They share a love of flying and for years have co-owned a plane, a Beechcraft Sierra. After Odyssey, Ambrosino worked closely with Hampton on all aspects of Eyes on the Prize, as consulting executive producer. “Eyes is one of my proudest credits,” he says. “Nova was important but Eyes was essential.”

Eyes is one of my proudest credits. Nova was important, but Eyes was essential.

This was followed in the mid-’80s by The Ring of Truth, concerning the nature of scientific evidence. These were made with Phillip Morrison, perhaps America’s most famous teacher of science (at MIT). For these productions Ambrosino reassembled some of the Nova and Odyssey production people. “[My production friends] are a very important part of my life. We keep in touch, have reunions, critique each other’s proposals . . . it’s an extended family of gifted men and women — and now lots of kids!”

His last production found him back on camera after 20 years: a 90-minute special produced with Gillian Barnes, “Journey to the Occupied Lands” for WGBH’s Frontline series. The controversial program, revealing life under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, was, he says, “an unforgettable experience; a long research period, difficult filming, endless editing, a very favorable response to the broadcast, and . . . organized attacks from the far-right Israeli supporters in the U.S.”

Ambrosino, now 67, is closing his production company and, after 42 years in public television, trying to design a new life without TV and film and Lillian, who occupied an office next to his for four decades. He has been helping build a post-and-beam barn in Vermont, walking in the Tetons, sailing in the Virgin Islands, white-water rafting and kayaking, attending open rehearsals of the Boston Symphony, taking courses in music theory and, as always, doing a lot of reading.

Michael Ambrosino is one of a growing number of persons whose professional lives have been spent almost entirely within public television, people whose careers began soon after the first channels were assigned for noncommercial use in 1952. In some sense their talents have advanced in parallel with public television itself. “I am very fortunate that my professional life and the early days of public broadcasting came along together,” he says. “There were opportunities to create programs . . . and institutions that had a real staying power. I am delighted that Nova is having its 25th year and that public broadcasting has become a staple in the intellectual life of Americans.” I recently asked him if he would name some public TV producers he particularly admired.

His response: “I admire Fred Rogers’ honor, Bill Moyers’ sense of mission, Jack Willis’ (The Great American Dream Machine) sense of news and humor, Russ Morash’s (This Old House) competency, David Fanning’s fairness, Fred Barzyk’s (What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?) daring, Jac Venza’s taste, Henry Hampton’s guts, Jonathan Rice’s (KQED’s Newsroom) and Judy Crichton’s (The American Experience) nose for good programs who have put out an astonishing lot of good programs against all odds.” In such company the inventor of Nova would no doubt find a warm welcome.

David Stewart is a contributing editor of Current and a longtime public broadcasting program executive. This article appeared in Current and later in Stewart’s 1999 book The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television.

Creating NOVA (1971-76)

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection
Michael Ambrosino
Michael Ambrosino

I didn’t know what I was doing.

I didn’t know, that I didn’t know, what I was doing.

There are times when it’s a blessing to not know the magnitude of the job ahead. It’s like a road with lots of curves. You can only see so far and at any given moment you’re simply attempting to navigate skillfully to the next curve. If you saw the true length of the road ahead, with all its trials and pitfalls, you might not proceed with that wonderful assurance allowed by ignorance.

How do you go about creating a large national primetime TV project?

Well, I’d created “The 21” Classroom” and been the founding Executive Director of The Eastern Educational Network. I had the resources and prestige of WGBH behind me, and my recent stint at BBC had given me a special status at The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a number of highly placed international contacts. I could produce, manage people, raise funds and think of the big picture. I thought I was ready.

There was little theoretical work to do; a ready model was right there before me in the BBC’s series, “Horizon,” and it was a happy and willing potential partner.

Why create a science project?

Science is a part of our heritage, our present culture, and a major force in determining our future. Its absence from television, our most public medium of communication, spoke to the ignorance of many of its gatekeepers who thought mostly in terms of news and the arts, and too narrowly at that. Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives! They also made for great story telling.

The “science series” was also meant to be a model for the future of public television. “Masterpiece Theater” had just emerged and I saw it as a threat as well as a joy. “Masterpiece” could buy a wonderful drama from the BBC for a tenth of the cost of making it in the United States. Who then could hope to raise the money for US production? By creating a “strand” of programs, some made, some co-produced and some bought, I hoped to show PBS how to create new series that were truly American at a realistic cost.

Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives.

And finally, I hoped the strand approach would help train American producers and directors in the journalistic approach that was so natural to the BBC. By hiring some Brits to produce and filling in the lower positions with bright Americans, in a few years we might have a pool of talented producer-directors for the future.

How to start?

I read books.

I talked to scientists.

First to Phil Morrison, always the best source for anything scientifically worthwhile. Phil promised all the time I needed, as long as I never asked him to waste time in a committee meeting.

I attended scholarly conferences.

The annual session of AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, had lectures and seminars on a wide array of subjects. I found it an inspiration for topics and a good way to meet, and get the support of, scientists from many disciplines.

AAAS had also just received a large grant from the National Science Foundation to interest more people in science. AAAS is the world’s largest federation of scientific organizations and their Committee on the Public Understanding of Science had long been interested in media. It was chaired by Gerard Piel, then publisher of Scientific American. I met with the committee and laid out my ideas. I remember Piel’s head shaking as he murmured. He thought TV and science would never work. The rest of his committee disagreed and in a few days, Jim Butler and his assistant came to Boston to discuss the future.

Science Program Group white paper
Science Program Group white paper

Jim proposed that I write a “White Paper” on how science and TV might get together. I told them that the paper already existed as my science project plan. I asked him how much money he had. “Forty thousand dollars”, was his candid reply. I pointed out that many projects failed because few developers could support themselves through the lengthy period of fundraising. I told him he should give me the forty thousand dollars, that I would give him my project plan to publish as their “White Paper,” and that I’d attach the AAAS name to the TV series when it hit the air.

They agreed!

We went to Legal Sea Food to celebrate.

After shrimp cocktails, lobsters and several rounds of beer, Jim whipped out his American Express card in the lofty manner of a Washington bigwig. Anna, a waitress well known to the Ambrosino clan, eyed him coolly and cracked, “What the hell is that? We take cash here!

I ended up paying for lunch.

It was the first charge I made against my new $40,000 fundraising budget!

Go west young man

A call from California was intriguing. Would I come out to La Jolla and meet with some west coast scientists? The invitation came from William McElroy, Chancellor of The University of California, San Diego, who had until recently been the Director of the National Science Foundation. It was clear they thought I was under the influence of MIT and Harvard and wanted me to know that science flourished among the palm trees as well as the ivy.

I was greeted, toured, feted, and fed. I saw labs, campuses, and scientists. I walked the beautiful grounds of The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and The Salk Institute.

And I had dinner.

Several dozen scientists were gathered at La Jolla to give me a taste of the talent and potential stories west of the Charles River. McElroy had made sure that Jonas Salk, the Nobel Prize winner and developer of a Polio vaccine, was seated near me.

The dinner went well. Many guests outlined recent research that might be of interest, suggested topics for programs, reviewed the resources on the West coast and pledged their strong support.

A special moment occurred when we broke up. Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “Ambrosino, I’ve read your proposal. It’s very interesting. But you have all these advisors. Advisors mean nothing. You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”

Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”

Over the next years, working on NOVA, ODYSSEY, DYING, EYES ON THE PRIZE, THE RING OF TRUTH and JOURNEY TO THE OCCUPIED LANDS, I took strength from “Brunowski’s” faith in me. Whenever I was confronted with confusion or conflict or controversy, I reminded myself that, “I was an honest man, I would do a good job.”

An early opportunity to compromise

Two roadblocks appeared. The first was by David Prowitt of WNET in New York City. He announced the creation of the “WNET Science Program Group.” Sound familiar? That was the exact title I had used in my AAAS “White Paper,” calling for the creation of the “WGBH Science Program Group.”

David was issuing a challenge. He had been doing science programs at WNET for years. They were thirty-minute documentaries on subjects for which he could find funding. That meant a skewed agenda and a possible worrisome incursion of the funder in the decision-making. His new plan was a direct assault on my project. It seemed a desire to defeat it, or horn in somehow.

PBS didn’t want its two biggest stations, already in competition, fighting with each other, and asked me to meet with Prowitt. I did. PBS suggested we work together in some way.

I refused.

My second roadblock came directly from PBS. Not knowing how much money would be in the ‘73 or ‘74 budgets, they suggested that a “pilot” would be the best way for me to start. It would get PBS out of a money bind and might keep me quiet for a year or two.

I refused.

Well, that sounds pretty obstinate for a fella without a project and much in need of friends, money and collaborators.

The way I saw both cases, compromise would have meant defeat.

Working with Prowitt would have reduced the central focus of the new project, dIvided the resources, dispersed the creative staff, gummed up decision-making, increased overhead costs, and would have had me working with David, whose ideas about science programming was vastly different from mine.

In the second case, making a single pilot would have doomed us to criticism by everybody that the pilot was not what the kind of science “they” thought should be done. One program could never stand for the sweeping breadth of programs that was possible, and would eventually prove to be our hallmark. Instead, I insisted that the entire first season of thirteen programs would be my “pilot,” displaying a wide range of ideas, production techniques and program forms.

Refusing to cooperate, however, is dangerous. It can be done only when you’re ready to give up the dream if you are denied. I was trying not to be an obstinate originator. As “an honest man,” in Bronowski’s words, I was sure that I was right, and that compromising now would destroy our one chance of success.

In the end, seeing how far Boston had progressed, WNET pulled out of the running and PBS never mentioned the idea of a pilot again. It was a tense time. I was pleased that we had come through, although both decisions did rob Bostonians of a new season of “Michael Ambrosino’s Show!”

Fundraising, or how to deal with rejection

Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.

Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.

First you need a positive response from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to convince the rest of the funders that the Washington Public TV power brokers have looked you over and approved.

You then need a letter from PBS expressing interest. PBS isn’t going to promise airtime until they see your programs, so they send a letter with the not-so-subtle text that reads something like this:

PBS is delighted to know about your new project. We have tentatively penciled it onto our fall list. Since your proposal and planning up to this date have been carried out with such success, we fully expect to schedule your new series where a large and interested audience will find it.”

Gosh. Where do they find people who can write like that?

OK, now you are ready to grapple with the giants of industry and the foundation world. Well, maybe not the giants. The giants are busy running the store. The giants have minions to run their fundraising departments. These minions are flooded with requests such as mine and, having no staff or time to check them all out. They wait and take their cues from CPB and PBS.

The National Science Foundation was an obvious early target and we aimed at them with several big guns. Ford and Rockefeller were active, but were more interested in politics and the arts.

You quickly learn that some foundations like to be first and some last. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation had a board made up of the relatives of the founder of the Alcoa Aluminum Company; all in their seventies and eighties. What they want to hear is, “I’ve raised all the money except the last quarter of a million. I’m ready to start producing as soon as you decide. Arthur Vining Davis can make this series happen!”

Others, like The Carnegie Corporation, want to be first. In 1972 I got a call from their Vice President, David Robinson, wanting advice on the future of science and television! Imagine my surprise and delight. There I was, having spent a year thinking about the future of science and television, having a proposal in hand, having the imprimatur of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and David Robinson wants to come to Boston to see me!

Now, the end game begins.

My files are filled with letters telling one foundation about a recent meeting expressing the interest of another foundation. Everybody loves a winner, and I kept everybody informed about each meeting, each decision date, each tremor that might shake the money tree.

The companies were another deal altogether. They were in business to make money and only gave it away in rare instances.

That meant you had to find a specific reason for their giving. Surprisingly, many of the “science-based” companies didn’t jump at the chance to fund us. Like everybody else, they liked the arts. You can have fancy cocktail parties when you give to opera and drama. Big stars come to your parties and the bosses loved that.

My most agonizing turndown came from Xerox. Their administrator kept me on a string for months and then said, “You create such wonderful proposals. Your ideas are so refreshing. The next time you’re in Armonk, please drop in for coffee”.

Why would I find myself in Armonk, except to beg money?

The fund-raiser’s best friend is a quick NO. You could then go on to more fruitful places and stop hanging on thinking that “Armonk is interested”.

You may wonder why I did all this. Why not hire a fund-raiser? Well, the resources of the WGBH fundraising department were available, but they were busy raising money for lots of other series and I felt that only the creator could do the real sell. I’d get leads from them, but felt that there was only one person who could get the foundations and corporations excited about the ideas in the project.

And then there was Polaroid.

I’d sent Polaroid a proposal. They were a local company. They’d been generous to WGBH before. They had funded Julia and given hundreds of cameras to every auction. They were run by a small group in Cambridge, and I could easily get a meeting with Ted Voss, their bright, curly-haired Vice President for advertising.

I sat down and nervously started in on my pitch.

Ted interrupted immediately.

“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”

“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”

I mentioned a figure.

“Too much,” said Ted.

We haggled a minute and quickly settled on a new figure.

“How’s Lillian?” he inquired.

You may think that the introduction of Lillian was an extraneous subject, but I understood it totally. “Tell Ted about Lillian and leave. You got your money. Be a good boy and let Ted get back to work!”

That meeting with Ted lasted just about four minutes. They were not all that easy.

Meetings, letters, proposals, negotiations, and trips to Washington ate up much of the next few months. And then there was an extraordinary three days in spring, 1973. It was the kind of week that project creators dream of.

Each day, on May 2, 3, and 4, I received a letter. In order, they notified me that CPB, Carnegie and Polaroid had each agreed to fund the science project. NSF came in shortly after. There was joy, relief, excitement and fear. Now, we had to make good on our promises.

I had to make good on my promises!

The plan of action

I laid out a three-year plan.

We would present thirteen shows the first season, seventeen the second, and twenty on the third. American-produced programs would start at thirty percent and increase to forty and then fifty percent in three years. The first season would begin in March because the commercial television season ended then, and it would be our best chance to get maximum press. We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology. In addition to documentaries, we’d present plays and ethnographic films.

We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology.

I planned to be the Executive Director and run the project. I would hire an experienced Executive Producer and Producers from BBC and bring in Americans to be trained for all the other slots.

I’d taken several trips back to London to interview potential staff and to try to make a mutually beneficial agreement with BBC. I hoped to “borrow” BBC Producers, have them make films with my money and then give those shows free to BBC. The BBC was interested when it was a fledgling project but when I actually had the money, and the series became a reality, they withdrew their cooperation in fear of losing their best people.

Peter Goodchild was running “Horizon” and his cooperation and friendship never flagged but his hands were tied. We could exchange programs and do co-productions, but his best people were out of bounds.

Interviewing people now started in earnest. I was offering experienced Producers the instability of a one year contract in the unknown world of US public television, hoping to lure them away from secure positions in the best broadcasting organization in the world. It was not an easy task.

First things first: Executive Producers. In the end it narrowed to two exceptional candidates; Simon Campbell Jones and Thomas Marquand. They had both made dozens of “Horizons” and each displayed a commanding presence and good sense. They both said no.

The next day, I was to interview and possibly offer jobs to Producers. Only the Executive Producer could do that.

Over a lonely dinner in my hotel room, I realized that I would have to become the Executive Producer. I’d never run a production unit of one-hour science documentaries before. I’d never even made one.

How could I presume to be the Executive Producer?

When you have no options, decision making become easier.

Simon Campbell Jones agreed to come and produce for one year. He was a very senior producer for BBC, had made many films and would be a good mentor. That was one down.

Among the throng I interviewed were Francis Gladstone, a Producer, and John Angier, a Researcher. I hired them both.

Francis was the great-grandson of a former Prime Minister of England. He carried himself with an air of entitlement.

John Angier was bright, organized, thorough, and pugnacious.

It was going to be a bumpy ride.

The staff filled out with Ben Shedd, a fledging filmmaker from California; Cary Lu, a graduate of Cal Tech; Terry Rockefeller, the brightest woman I’d ever met; Elsa Rassbach, an experienced researcher and associate producer; Marian White, an experienced PA who had worked on WGBH news, and Nancy Trolland, a PA who’d been on the WGBH staff for several years.

WGBH staffers Doug Smith and Dudley Palmer joined us as production manager and assistant. I persuaded Graham Chedd, a science journalist, to leave AAAS and join up as my Science Editor helping to research stories and assist in deciding on acquisitions.

We were ready to start.

And so, we began

Memo: Topics under consideration
Memo: Topics under consideration

Everybody started researching program ideas. A memo I wrote on June 14, 1973, listed twenty-eight ideas under consideration for production, thirty films from BBC under consideration for purchase and fourteen possible names for our science series. Michael Rice returned his copy with a generous scrawl of rather negative comments in the margins. I realized that sending out one-paragraph descriptions of incomplete ideas was a mistake.

The next program memo was shorter and was entitled, “Program Ideas Committed for Production.” I decided that if I were to be second-guessed, it would be on finished films and not premature program descriptions.

The title was a ticklish subject. Everybody had a suggestion. Henry Morgenthau always thought producers should come up with a catchy title first and only then design a series to fit. It might have been easier that way.

I circulated a memo of over fifty possible titles and the staff offered more each day, including “The Asymtotic Struggle,” which did not long survive. One day, Michael Rice called me to his office and when I arrived, I found Michael and Sylvia Davis, our Director of Promotion and Publicity, grinning from ear to ear. A bad sign.

“We have your title for you!” Michael chortled.

“You have my title for me?” I replied warily.

“Yes!” he beamed.

I waited.

“EUREKA,” he shouted.

I waited some more.

“Eureka” is what Archimedes, the Greek philosopher, supposedly shouted in his bath when he came up with a workable idea to test the quality of the gold in his King’s crown. He conceived of a scheme to first place the crown, and then an amount of gold of equal weight into a vat of water full to the brim to see if the water displaced was equal. Had the jeweler replaced some of the gold in the crown with less valuable metal, the greater volume of the “lesser” crown would have displaced more water.

‘Eureka” was the bane of science and scientists because it spawned the myth that science worked by instant enlightenment, in the bath or not. Science doesn’t work that way at all.

Science works in tiny steps, by diligent researchers doing their experiments, writing them up for publication in science journals, having other scientists question those findings by trying to duplicate them, and responding in those same science journals. These steps, within the community of science, are essential to the development of good ideas, tested ideas, ideas in which we can have confidence, become the theories that form the basis of our knowledge about how our world works.

Religion is based on faith. Science is based on facts that are hard won by experimentation that is questioned and tested by peers. Modern science is not, and has never been, “Eureka.”

I asked Michael and Sylvia if they’d read any of my memos about the science project and the way we intended to tell our stories.

I told them I would soon come up with a title and left.

I came up with “NOVA.”

A Nova is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.

A Nova, or Supernova, is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.

The title, “NOVA” was also my tiny secret joke. It was a comment on the way public television was funded in those days. New series got support for a few years. They burst onto the program schedule where they shined brightly, and were then shunted aside as the funders went on to other, newer, projects. Just like the celestial Nova, many series, after their brilliant introduction and display, floundered because of lack of funds, faded, fizzled, and disappeared from view.

“NOVA” it would be.

What made a Nova, a NOVA?

NOVA told stories of discovery.

We couldn’t make a documentary film about the how The Crab Nebula works. The audience would never understand it. We could, and Alec Nesbitt did, make a documentary about the men and women who sought out the neutron star that powered The Crab Nebula. About a dozen scientists and graduate students in England and America, carried out experiments over a dozen years, sought out answers, shared research, challenged others to create new experiments, shared those answers, and slowly, slowly, came up with the story. It was a human story about the nature of discovery and an excellent example of the way science works.

It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.

NOVA told stories of discovery, human stories about the nature of discovery and the way science works. It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.

It took time and money.

After two weeks of library and telephone research by a team, I would get an “outline” of about two pages explaining the ideas of the film and the participants.

After four additional weeks of on-location interviewing and scouting, the outline would grow to a “treatment”: about a dozen pages of detailed descriptions of each segment in a suggested order. In Boston, there’s a lot of talk among producers about “Act One, Act Two and Act Three,” realizing that even in a documentary, the dramatic sense of story-telling has to invite, excite, explain, challenge, and satisfy the viewer.

After reviewing and revising the treatment, we could now make up a production schedule and a budget for the film.

I usually allowed a team four weeks of filming and eight to ten weeks for editing, a few more for mix, negative cutting and post production.

We were not in the business of making art films. We had been assigned airdates from PBS and had to fill them without fail. It was not a joke when we said of our work, “Our films are never finished, they are only released.”

We “released” a first season examining how nature films were made; how the water of the Colorado river was used; how whales and dolphins communicate; how life began on Earth; and how a primitive tribe, the Cuiva, lived in the Amazon. We produced a drama about the discovery of anesthesia; examined the mysterious explosion that led to the discovery of the Crab Nebula; explored how birds navigate; questioned medical experimentation on patients; delighted in the unique research with Washoe, a chimpanzee who “spoke” with sign language; questioned Paul Kammerer’s research in a famous case of faked experimentation; looked into fusion, a possible energy source for the future; and sought the mystery of the Anasazi people who, after living in the southwest for eight thousand years, suddenly vanished!

That was our first season. That was my “pilot,” a wide-ranging series of delightful and compelling stories.

NOVA’s audience out rated drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!

The reaction was immediate and it was grand. NOVA’s audience out rated the drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. One of my favorites exclaimed, “I never knew what the hell you were coming up with next week!” A sense of appreciation is to be desired, but to engender a sense of expectation, was beyond our wildest dreams. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!

Another letter praised our programs for their complexity and depth. Attached was a comment that explained that my correspondent was deaf and blind and that she “saw” and “heard” NOVA through the hand signals of her nurse-caretaker playing on her lips! Here, with this agile mind trapped in the prison of her recalcitrant body, was a loyal NOVA supporter.

What did I do?

The conductor of an orchestra plays no instrument. It’s clear, however, that on any given night, the music reflects his wishes and his demands.

The Executive Producer of a major TV series makes no films. But it’s clear that on any given night, the films reflect his vision of what makes a good, clear, exciting science story.

I assigned some topics and accepted others from the producers. I decided which films we would co-produce with BBC and purchase. I set the order of the thirteen-week series, in an orchestrated effort to show us at our best and the range of our talent.

On a day-to-day basis, I tried to keep up with the field; attended scientific meetings; chatted with scientists and took program suggestions from everybody.

Each outline, treatment, schedule and budget was an opportunity to question, revise and help sculpt each film. As much as I might want everything to be made fully to my taste, I had to give each Producer the freedom to do his or her best work. Best work is not done in a stifling atmosphere. I tried to give them the freedom that I would want, within the constraints of time and money that we all shared.

“Rough-cut” screenings were scheduled when enough scenes had been edited to make general sense of the film. A long meeting followed with questions and suggestions coming from the notes all of us had taken. The documentary has few rigid rules. The order of a film is not infinitely malleable, but surprisingly so.

The “fine-cut” screening, about four weeks later, should show a fairly fluid beginning, middle and end, with a rough narration read over scenes by the Producer. This is a recognizable film, with roughness only in animation and narration. It should be only a few minutes over the required length. Another meeting with notes and suggested revisions followed and last minute changes were made.

At a certain point, decided mostly by broadcast schedules and money, we would lock the picture so that the sound work and the negative cutting could begin. This was the last time for suggestions and my input.

It took constant juggling. Once, I remember that we had nine films and revisions going on at one time; all in various stages of filming or editing. I was also going to London three or four times a year to check on the progress of BBC co-productions and look at their recently completed films.

Serendipity takes hold every once in a while too.

On a late Friday afternoon, I received a call from University of Reno Professor, Allen Gardner. He was passing through Boston with his wife and mother-in-law and wanted to know if I would meet him on Saturday to look at a black and white movie that he had made himself. A negative response from an overworked executive producer would have been understandable.

I said I’d be delighted.

Allen Gardner showed me a flawed, badly edited, overly long “documentary” of his work. The technique was flawed but the content was fascinating!

Over ten years, Allen Gardner had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical.

Over ten years, he had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical. I told Allen that I didn’t want to run his film but I did want to buy twenty minutes of it and make a NOVA around the idea of animal/human communication. I assigned Simon, Ben, and Terry to make the quick and beautiful, “The First Signs of Washoe,” a smash success and a delightful addition to our first season.

Often asked to name my favorite NOVA, I had to mention many we made or presented in our first three years.

In “Where did the Colorado Go?” we showed how the Colorado River flow was measured, and its water distributed, based on a 1933 measurement. Science entered the picture when tree ring corings made in the ’70s showed that the 1933 measurement was made during a thirty year wet cycle, and greatly overestimated the flow: a not so gentle warning about measurement and statistics.

“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate. We even showed that birds have accents and those accents can determine whether some birds are “accepted” by others in the area!

“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate.

In “The Last of the Cuiva” there is a scene that cries out to redefine the term “primitive.” The Cuiva are hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. Their possessions are few, their homes mere protection from the rain, their clothing non-existent. Their culture, however, is complex, sophisticated and carefully tuned to aid their survival. On a fishing expedition, two men each spear a fish. They cut each fish in half and exchange halves. Neither, now, has more than before, but in the mere act of sharing, the statement is made that, in the future, if only one catches a fish, neither family will go hungry. That’s the way people develop and preserve a culture!

John Angier commissioned the design of an atomic bomb. In “The Plutonium Connection,” we showed how missing or stolen plutonium could be fashioned into a crude weapon that had a good chance of exploding. The design was said to be credible by the Scandinavian experts we sought out. It got tremendous press and excellent ratings.

A brief diversion on the merits of arguing from strength

“The Plutonium Connection” was also noticed by the staff of National Science Foundation, who called me to a meeting at their Washington office. Many of those in the Public Understanding of Science office had previously worked at the Atomic Energy Commission, and they were furious that the program had shown, in considerable detail, just how lax the security in the atomic energy field was at that time.

“That was very controversial,” the NSF staff said.

“Yes, and it was very good,” I responded.

“There were many critics of nuclear energy in that film,” they said.

“Yes, I said. “Did you notice that eight out of the ten critics work in the nuclear energy establishment? The criticism was coming from people inside the industry,” I said.

“Well, we have this long memo criticizing the program,” they said, sliding a slim pack of papers across the table toward me.

“Gee,” I said. “Have you noticed how memos attempting to pressure the media have a tendency to fall into the hands of the media?”

“Well”, they said, sliding the memo back to their side of the table. “We think you need an advisory committee inspecting your programs before they’re broadcast.”

“Gee,” I said. “I already have good advisors and we already check our controversial programs before they are broadcast.”

“Suppose,” they said. “Suppose, your next grant would be dependent upon your creating such a committee?”

“Then,” I said. “Then, I would refuse your grant and I’d remove your name from the best science series ever to be broadcast in the United States of America.”

The meeting ended soon after. There was no committee. Their grant was renewed as usual.

That was the only attempt to pressure us in all the time I was at NOVA.

Back to good programs

Memo: NOVA is on the air
Memo: NOVA is on the air

Everybody knows that bombing helps win wars, right? In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

I commissioned a film that would document a year in the Sonora Desert. Deserts may be lonely for humans, but they’re full of life as shown in the dry and wet cycles of “A Desert Place.” This was also a film that had troubles in the editing room and, although concerned about the difficulties, it was a joy to be clear about the reasons for the problem and to step in, and, shot by shot, correct it. It is not how you want to spend every fine-cut screening, but it does help the old Executive Producer ego to become directly involved in a film every so often.

And there was the odd film called “Joey,” the story of fifty-four year old Joey Deacon, a spastic who’d been institutionalized as retarded. When he met Ernie Roberts, also an inmate, he found someone who finally understood his tortured speech. Together they wrote a book about Joey’s life, two sentences per day. Brian Gibson dramatized the story using spastic children and teens as actors and ended up with Joey and Ernie playing themselves as grown-ups. It was an unforgettable gamble to put it into NOVA. It was not really “science,” but it was first class story-telling and no one who saw it, came away unaware of what it meant to be a spastic and to ponder their treatment in society.

In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

And then there were the films that never got made.

John Angier had heard that Howard Hughes was designing and building a new kind of ocean-going factory ship, The Glomar Challenger, to mine manganese nodules from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Always interested in new technology, he tried in vain to make contact, hoping to get permission to join them on their first “mining expedition.” We got nowhere. Twenty years later, when classified information was finally released, we learned that Hughes built the ship for the CIA to retrieve a Russian submarine that had sunk in the deep ocean. It would have been an even better story, but it was one that got away.

I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil.

And then there was “the vacant lot.” If we’d had forward funding, we might have pulled it off. I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil. The idea was to make it impossible for the viewer to think of any natural space as “vacant” ever again.

Day by day

And so the days went by, filled with meetings, screenings, budgets, schedules, problems of space, salaries, fundraising, promotion, advertising and network scheduling. My homework consisted of poring over outlines, treatments and scripts back at 566 Centre Street late into the night.

While working on Season I, it was necessary to plan Season II and make the contacts for it’s funding. That meant trips to Washington and London, meetings with Polaroid and longish memos to the stations telling them how wonderful we were and what a smash the second season would be.

PBS had created The Station Program Cooperative, and after our first two seasons, we, and all the other continuing series, would bid and compete for the too-few millions the stations had pooled for national programming. We laid out our plans for Season III, and with a flashy videotape in hand, I attended the SPC meeting. PBS gave old shows eight minutes to sell their series. In eight minutes, I showed them video reminders of the highlights of the first two years and tempted them with our ideas for the third.

They voted.

Season III would be a reality.

We succeeded because NOVA was not a science series. We used science as our tool to tell stories about discovery and the scientific process; human stories about the scientist’s search for knowledge.

I was curious about how the world worked and was fairly certain I could play on the viewer’s curiosity as well.

Curiosity and knowledge are linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.

I knew intuitively that curiosity and knowledge were linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.

And we were good storytellers. We told stories about how people found out about things in a way that brought the viewer along on the quest. Documentaries, dramas, ethnographic films; all types of techniques were used.

And what about me?

We had introduced NOVA in March of 1974 with thirteen programs. Season II started in November of 1974 with another seventeen programs. It was a gamble. By following up our first season so quickly, I wanted to deeply instill NOVA in the minds of the public and the program managers who would vote on its future. It was exhausting, but it worked!

I remember renting a house for a week in that first summer on Cape Cod. It came without a phone. As the rental agent drove away, I told him that he might get an emergency call or two while we were vacationing. While the family was unpacking, he returned. The emergencies had started.

Playing tennis with John Freedman at the Mount Auburn Club one early winter morning, I quit half-way through the hour because I could not concentrate on the ball, I was too wound up about the nine o’clock meeting I was about to have concerning a bad treatment for an upcoming film.

A final warning came when I was in my office hunkered down over a script, when I saw the face of Ben Shedd in the doorway. Ben did not want to interrupt, and I did not want him to enter! Ben obviously had a problem that he couldn’t solve and I didn’t want to help him solve it!

Something was wrong.

I was running NOVA, supervising DYING, and had stupidly agreed to supervise the presentation of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series, “The Ascent of Man” on PBS. I was exhausted. I did not have the money to hire a Senior Producer to help administer NOVA, and if I had it, I had no qualified candidates in mind in 1976.

Valium had been prescribed and I was using sleeping pills. The normal anxiety sleep pattern is to fall asleep easily, but to awaken about one o’clock to find your mind racing with the problems of the day. That was my pattern.

At a meeting of Executive Producers and WGBH management, I brought up the idea of burnout. My pitch was that folks who created projects, raised money, hired staff, asserted editorial control of each and every film, would soon find themselves in a state of exhaustion and that some method of refreshment was necessary.

I suggested paid leaves of absence for Executive Producers.

David Ives laughed.

Within twenty-four hours, I decided to leave NOVA.

And now what?

I called Steve Rabin, Director of Media at The National Endowment for the Humanities, and asked if he was interested in a “NOVA” of the humanities that examined the world using archaeology and anthropology.

He said yes.

Would he fund a several year research and development period to make it happen?

He said yes.

I spoke with Michael Rice and David Ives and told them of my decision to leave. I had just raised $500,000 from EXXON for Season IV, which would make it easier for the SPC to vote for our fourth year. I told Michael to hire John Angier as the new Executive Producer and that I would leave on March 1, giving John time to begin planning topics for “his” season. I proposed a half-time consultancy to develop two additional science series while I would work on the development of the humanities project.

Michael said yes.

On March 6, 1976, while I was home with the flu, Lillian hosted a party of the NOVA staff just shy of twenty years since I had arrived at WGBH. Although I would be back in the development grind, the familiar activities of research, reading, meeting with academics, etc., would seem like a vacation compared to the actual day-to-day running of a major documentary series.

I determined to run the next project differently.

I would no longer bring work home, especially anything that took critical evaluation and that could produce anxiety. Outlines, treatments and scripts would be dealt with early in the day, in the office! I would go to work early but leave at five o’clock each day.

I would schedule rough cuts and fine cuts at ten o’clock in the morning, leaving lots of time for the review of notes and suggestions for changes. Short screenings of scenes or revisions were OK for afternoons but major screenings required major attention and rested minds.

I would staff bigger. I needed help in management and editorial matters to ease the burden of every decision coming to me.

I would staff better. Hopefully, by time the next project was ready there would be a bigger pool of talented filmmakers. Since NOVA was a success, we might be able to attract more experienced people to come to Boston.

I would continue to trust my intuition. In the past, when I thought I was right, I was most often right. The times when I agreed to something with which I didn’t fully agree, I got in trouble.

What did NOVA mean?

NOVA proved that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.

NOVA proved, against all the trendy current critics in public television circles, that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.

NOVA proved that the strand concept worked and could be replicated. New series like WORLD and FRONTLINE and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and NATURE could hope to be funded, produced and accepted, using NOVA at their model.

NOVA proved that ideas worked. Serious subjects, examined with a journalist’s sensitivity rather than an academic’s, could find a wide and appreciate audience. “If you make them, they will come!” (OK, “Field of Dreams” had not yet been made as a feature film, but the idea is valid.) Good shows will attract large audiences. Exceptional shows will do even better.

All those who thought NOVA would be a worthy addition to the PBS schedule, but would never be really popular, got a big surprise. NOVA did, and does, continue to outdraw most of the drama, dance, music and opera presented on PBS. Each season, when the “top ten” list is published, NOVA programs are in the majority.

We could do it”. With help from the BBC, Americans could come up to their quality, co-produce with them and even sell to them. That was unthinkable only a few years before. NOVA’s survival would now depend on the quality of the staff that had been trained.

Few of us could have predicted that NOVA would have survived for over thirty years nor that it would now be better and stronger and the most viewed science series in the world.

Proposal for The Science Program Group for Public Television (1973)

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection
Science Program Group white paper
Science Program Group white paper

American Association for the Advancement of Science – Office of Communications – Programs for the Public Understanding of Science
1515 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20005

March 1973 – AAAS Miscellaneous Publication 73-3


The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has had since its earliest times a fundamental commitment to the public understanding of science and today considers that function one of its central aims. To that end the Association maintains a Committee on the Public Understanding of Science to oversee the development of communications programs in this area.

In more recent years, the AAAS has considered television broadcasting to be of special utility in advancing the public understanding of science.

The Association’s first significant use of television began in 1967 at the AAAS Annual Meeting and, every year since, the AAAS has financed and broadcast science programs over the public television network.

In October of 1970 the AAAS Committee on the Public Understanding of Science commissioned four special consulting studies. The Committee’s purpose was to seek recommendations on topics of particular interest to it in order to guide its future deliberations. The studies were on the subjects of publishing, science kits, programs of “colleagueship” of scientists with non-scientists, and broadcasting, especially television.

The study on television broadcasting was conducted by David Prowitt, television science producer, under the direction of Lloyd N. Morrisett, President of The John and Mary R. Markle Foundation of New York. Mr. Morrisett is a member of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. Financial support for that study was provided by funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Founda tion of New York.

The Prowitt study (1) surveyed the current status of science programming on radio and television and concluded that science was significantly under represented. The report then recommended that AAAS, through its Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, should play a leadership role in seeking to stimulate more and better science programming on television. The Committee endorsed this posture and instructed the staff to seek the funding necessary to create a definitive operating plan

(1) David Prowitt, Science Programming on Radio and Television (September, 1972), published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science AAAS Misc. Pub. #72-17.

The Rockefeller Foundation of New York made a significant leadership grant to the Association specifically to support this television planning study, and a portion of the funds from a National Science Foundation grant to AAAS were earmarked for this purpose.

It was the Association’s intention to hire an experienced television professional to its staff for a period of time in order to develop the operational plan for science on television. In searching for that person, the Association staff met with Mr. Michael Ambrosino, executive producer with WGBH Educational Foundation, the Boston, Massachusetts public television station widely noted for its innovative contributions to television programming. Mr. Ambrosino, who had recently returned from a year’s leave at the British Broadcasting Corporation where he had been a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Fellow during 1970-71, had initiated planning for the creation of a science programming group which would function from WGBH-TV, but service the entire Public Broadcasting System.

It was clear after initial conversations that the mutuality of interests of both the AAAS and WGBH-TV was remarkable, both philosophically and practically. Consequently, the AAAS elected to invest its planning funds in support of the WGBH-TV project.

Mr. Ambrosino’s final report, published here, outlines the plan for the creation of a science programming group for public television.

If this project can be funded and implemented over a long period of time, the American Association for the Advancement of Science believes it will have significant impact on the level of understanding of science on the part of increasingly large numbers of citizens.

Further, it is hoped that the presence of this undertaking will demonstrate the vitality and importance of science as program content and stimulate increased programming in the sciences throughout television, commercial as well as non-commercial.

The AAAS wishes to thank the Rockefeller Foundation (Dr. Ralph Richardson) and the National Science Foundation (Mr. Clarence Ohlke, Mr. Richard Stephens, Dr. Robert Wilcox*) for grants which supported this study.

March 16, 1973
James C. Butler
Director of Communications Programs for the Public Understanding of Science, AAAS

*Formerly, Head of the Public Understanding of Science Programs, NSF and now Dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs of the University of Colorado.

Objects [of the AAAS]

The objects of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are to further the work of scientists, to facilitate cooperation among them, to improve the effectiveness of science in the promotion of human welfare, and to increase public understanding and appreciation of the importance and promise of the methods of science in human progress.

Edited by Blair Burns. Cover design by Anne D. Holdsworth

The Science Program Group For Public Television in the United States

By Michael Ambrosino

Table of Contents

  • Introduction 1
  • Objectives 2
  • Why a Program Group for Science? 4
  • The First Project 5
    • Criteria for choosing programs 6
    • Presenting science on television 12
    • International cooperation 14
    • Reaching the audience 18
    • Staffing the project 18
    • The advisory staff 19
    • Research 20
    • Publicity and utilization 21
    • Cost 22
    • Funding 22
  • The Second Project 23
  • The Third Project 25
  • The Fourth Project 27
  • The Fifth Project 29
  • The Sixth Project 30
  • A Concluding Note 31
  • Appendix 32


I propose the establishment of a Science program Group for public television in the United States. Its purpose will be to introduce the public, through television, to the ideas and experience of science, to communicate the most significant pursuits in science today. This design for the group has been developed by WGBH-Boston, with the cooperation and assistance of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Given sufficient support, the group will plan and produce a variety of television series, each designed to attract and inform both the adult and the young audience. Once engaged in extended documentary projects, the group will also be able to respond quickly, with special programs, to breaking news of scientific research.

The group will have a national and an international reach. In the United States, it will work closely with scientists and scientific institutions. In its relations abroad, the group will arrange for cooperative production and program exchange with the leading science program production units of broadcasting organizations.

The Science Program Group will be based at WGBH-Boston, taking advantage of the station’s considerable experience in film, television, and radio production for local, national, and international audiences.


We, the Science Program Group, have these aims:

  • We want to show the way the world works.
  • We want to reveal the unfolding relations in life, the earth, and the universe, to present the beauty and order of nature, to examine the conceptual laws that govern our view of the world and of of ourselves, to question the most telling theories and experiments.
  • In all of this, we want to involve the audience as much as possible in the same process and excitement of discovery that impel scientists themselves.
  • We want to show, further, how science changes our everyday lives through technology. And we feel deeply the obligation to show how science bears on the great national issues that are too often seen only in political terms.
  • We want to explain how science views the long-term prospects for the survival on earth of human and other life, the choices that arise from a technological civilization — how the demands for energy, food, plastics, metals collide with ecological and aesthetic values; how major unsolved problems assume their present shape partly because of the very success of technology.
  • At the same time, we want to make people less fearful of technology, to give them the confidence of knowledge in using their new tools and methods to help shape the better civilization they want.

We hold these views:

  • Science is part of our culture — we want to show that.
  • Science is allied to our sense of wonder. We need to keep that sense alive.
  • Science is more than observing facts in nature or experiments and then putting them together, science is the creation of new concepts, new ways of looking at the facts. The great scientist is one whose new approach has overwhelming power to explain and predict phenomena, thus stirring a revolution in the way we understand nature and ourselves.
  • Science is a human enterprise. The impersonal, inexorable “scientific method” endures as a schoolboy myth; actually, the discoverer at the moment of breakthrough is often more artist than scientist.
  • Science is not easy to understand — it is sometimes too difficult even for scientists. But many basic principles and applications can be widely understood if explained with intelligence, artistry, and sprightly irreverence. The right approach can seem like pure entertainment.
  • Scientists are more than a special-interest group. Technically trained people make up a growing fraction of our labor force; they hold an increasing proportion of the key jobs in our society. This trend will continue as our dependence on advanced technology increases.

Because science leaves an ever greater mark on our everyday reality, it cannot be ignored. It deserves to be represented in the chief popular form of discourse in a technological society: television. Most important, it is from television that people should have the chance to learn about science. But consider the 1972-73 network season. Except for the coverage of Apollo 17, fewer than 25 out of 4368 scheduled prime-time network hours are to be devoted to science – about 0.5 percent of the total. With the rare exceptions of five National Geographic specials, four Jacques Cousteau films, and an assortment of other specials, the list plainly shows that network television, including network public television, simply ignores science. There is no certain solution to the difficulties of presenting science on television, but it is wrong not to present science at all.

The record of neglect is especially ironic in view of the last research in 1958 on attitudes toward science and the mass media conducted at the Survey Research Center at Michigan State University. It shows that 28% of respondents said they read all the science news in newspapers, 37% read all medical news, up to 52% of the men wanted more science, and up to 60% of women wanted more medical news. When asked to judge the mass media as sources of science information, the sample rated television more complete, more accurate, more interesting, and more understandable than magazines, radio, or newspapers. That was 15 years ago. What must the figures be now?

We need an organization that will bring science to television. We need a vehicle to help laymen deal with the timeless, fundamental questions of man and science and the impact they have in a swiftly changing society. We need a group whose sole responsibility will be the presentation of science on television, a group capable of understanding science and how best to present it to a lay audience. We need, in short, an effective link between the science community and the public. This does not now exist. I therefore propose the creation of the Science Program Group.

Why a Program Group for Science?

It is important to understand that we are advancing the concept of a group as the best method for ensuring that science be done on television — and done well.

Television can be a bridge between the happenings in the scientific and technological communities and the public’s understanding of the details and implications of those happenings only if the responsibility is clear and continuous. Otherwise, public television can never attract and develop the personnel necessary to do the job; nor can it establish the close associations with the scientific and research communities without which the job cannot be done. For it is this bond between the professional in science and the professional in communications that is a prerequisite for programs that will do justice to the material and to the audience. The scientist will contribute his knowledge of the subject; the communicator, his knowledge of the medium. All this will take time and commitment, since in this relatively unexplored field of science on television no prior assumptions can be made — other than that the public has a right to be exposed to the information. We cannot assume an interest, nor can we assume that one method of approach is the “right” one. We must talk, try and test, and try again.

Because there may not be funds available specifically for the creation of such a group, we are suggesting the underwriting of a specific project as a means of getting it under way. The project itself is of great import, but the group, as a concept, is uppermost.

The First Project

The Science Program Group will be founded on its first project: the development of an imaginative and entertaining science series for the adult and young audience, to awaken an interest in the nature of man and his world and to foster public understanding of science. This popular approach to science will match scientific accuracy with television artistry. In its first year, it would bring to the public a 30-week season of hour-long programs in a variety of styles.

The first project will interpret science in its broadest context. It will produce programs in three major areas: basic science, science and technology’s effect on society, and science’s impact on public policy.

Basic science finds out how the world works. Here we take advantage of man’s curiosity and joy in discovering the processes of life and the universe. Drawing their examples from human life, nature, the small world of bacteria, and that of the immense galaxies, these programs will examine well-known theories and recreate the circumstances leading to their formulation. They will assess and try to make sense of the new, sometimes startling, ideas coming from the various fields of science. They will investigate some current controversies in science in order to show that some of our accepted truths may yet be only hypotheses.

Programs will examine the process of science as well. It is not the neat linear typescript of the journal abstract nor the white coat and bubbling flask of the Hollywood film. We will show it as a human endeavor, complete with tedium, chaos, and failure. In all of this, the project will aim at having the audience feel, “I can understand how science works. I can make sense of the world. I have an insight I didn’t have before.” We want to help dispel some of the mystique that surrounds science.

Certainly these programs will include sophisticated process and detail, and the more one knows about science, the greater his understanding of a given program will be. But the primary audience will be the curious lay public, and the project’s producers will strive above all to meet their needs.

Science and technology affect society in two major ways. First, a new technology changes the economic and political development of people. Whether by stone ax, power loom, automobile, or television, the effect is dramatic and long lasting. Second, new discoveries and theories often revolutionize man’s understanding of the universe and his place in it. Science and technology are the means by which the whole of our civilization is continually and rapidly being transformed.

These changes sometimes result in benefits to mankind, other times in problems, and often in both. For example, wire screen and DDT have suddenly halted malaria in tropical nations. What happened then? What did success breed? What was science’s effect on these societies and its response to the problems induced by its success?

As with all science, the end of one story is merely the beginning of another. In telling these stories, the project will avoid historical romanticism, on the one hand, and hysterical myth-making, on the other.

Science and public policy collide when major national decisions hinge on the applications of science. Remember the debate on the ABM, SST, DDT, phosphates? All the clamor and claims left much of the public frustrated. They knew something had to be done but were often unable to evaluate the information presented.

This project will pursue major national issues with scientific implications which affect millions of lives and involve billions of dollars. The programs will clearly explain the fundamentals of a topic and will subject informed proponents and opponents a scrutiny as rigorous and impartial as the toughest scientific peer review.

Criteria for choosing programs

The objectives and key issues of science will be established by the project’s advisory staff, which will be drawn from the nation’s active scientists and science journalists. Suggestions for individual programs will be made by staff, advisors, scientists, and the public. The topics selected will be developed into program proposals by producers and researchers, and the final choice of ideas will rest with the project’s science editor.

The designation, then, of broad topics and areas will be done by the scientific community, deciding on objectives, key issues, and trends. The choice of specific ideas and their execution is the responsibility of the program group.

Our first standard in choosing specific ideas will be a subject’s importance to the public, to individuals, and to the general world view. Does the idea change or condition daily life?

Does it bear on the important choices we face as a democratic society? Does it challenge our notions about the nature of man and the world? Can the audience relate to the subject on its own terms? Does the approach have a human scale, even if the subject doesn’t?

Next, we have to be convinced of a subject’s importance to science. Does it touch on and give insight into the fundamentals of science? Does it involve us in its process? Will a scientific approach be more significant than simply a good job of journalism? Does science have something to contribute to this subject’s factual basis and its implications?

Third, will the subject make good television? Can it attract an audience large enough to warrant the expenditure it would require, and does it meet the practical requirements of this demanding and expensive medium? Will it make a good show — is there a good story working? Can we make it? Is it realistic? How rigorously can we portray the subject and still keep the audience? Can it be translated into understandable language? Would it make a better book? Are there articulate spokesmen to call on? Are the key people in the field willing to participate in our program?

The following program topics serve as illustrations of our approach and criteria.

At first glance, this list may appear to be an interesting series of disconnected topics. But a closer look will show the main concerns running through these illustrations – an examination of basic science, science and technology’s relation to society, and science’s impact on major public (often political) policy issues. The difficulty we face will be not lack of inspiration for topics, but choice.

The gypsy moth

A summer storm in 1869 blew over some caterpillar cages belonging to a Professor Truvelot at Tufts University. A problem that could have been eliminated in the 20th century with a can of bug killer quickly spread throughout Massachusetts and the Eastern United States, resulting in tens of thousands of square miles of dead trees and wasted woodlands.

Widespread chemical spraying has been tried, but the results are mixed — often there are more moths the year after the spraying than before. What can be done? What research is under way?

We would examine the basic problem of insect control and population dynamics and see how these can be used against the gypsy moth, particularly Knipling’s sterile male technique, the synthetic sex attractant Gyplure, and the use of juvenile insect hormones. These new methods will be contrasted with the effects of wholesale spraying.


Living as they do in the vast stretches of the open ocean, whales communicate by sound. The finback produces a 20-cycle tone with a volume louder than that of a jackhammer breaking up concrete. Right whales, once common along the coasts of North and South America, exist now only as a small herd off the coast of Argentina. Here they mate and raise their young in clear water, where most details of their biology can be photographed. The humpback whales stop off at Bermuda on their northwest migration and sing complex songs on the outlying reefs. These songs probably serve to keep the herd together over hundreds of miles of ocean, but no one knows for sure.

This program will consist of a visit with Payne and his family at the Peninsula Valdaz, Argentina, where he swims with the whales, films them and records their songs. Then the program will move north to Bermuda to present the songs of humpbacks and study their habits, as we examine the largest animal that has ever lived and see how a sensitive scientist pursues his subject.


Born in the warm tropical ocean, hurricane Agnes grew while leisurely meandering towards Florida. She matured while ambling up the East Coast and died a slow but violent death in Pennsylvania. During her short life, Agnes caused billions of dollars in damage and many human lives. How was Agnes born? How did she travel? Why did she die?

We investigate how tropical storms originate, how they are measured, why they move, how this movement is predicted, and the effects of both the storm and the predictions on the human population. Is there any hope of controlling these storms?

The sun

Beyond the sun’s visible disc lies a world that few people have ever seen. Clouds of ionized gas the size of the earth, with temperatures ranging from 10,000 to 1 million degrees kelvin, are catapulted by magnetic fields whose intricate structure astronomers are learning to record in ever-greater detail. This strange world has its closest terrestrial counterparts in laboratories where plasma physicists are attempting to construct devices for producing energy by controlled nuclear fusion.

What is the origin of the vast and complicated magnetic fields that dominate the complex phenomena recorded by our cameras? What is the nature of the vast explosions known as solar flares – the most recent, and one of the most spectacular, of which occurred, completely unexpectedly, in August 1972? How do these explosions accelerate charged particles to energies of a billion or more volts? And how do they produce the great noise storms recorded by special radio telescopes, which this program will show in operation?

We will meet the scientists who are trying to find the answers to these questions — with optical, ultraviolet, infrared, and x-ray telescopes mounted on artificial satellites, in balloons, and on mountaintops or with less elaborate equipment, such as the pencil, paper, and blackboard of the theoretical astrophysicist.

Bird navigation

Fish swim and birds fly, yet how they navigate to get where they’re going is still a mystery. Immense journeys are involved: for example, the arctic tern flies over 20,000 miles per year. Recent experiments disclose that different birds use different techniques and some use a variety of strategies.

We will observe the experiments at Cornell’s vast pigeon loft and planetarium, watch the migration of birds on tracking radar, and follow Walcott on foot and in the air in pursuit of the answer.

Power and energy

Delays in the completion of new power plants have accumulated in the past year — nuclear plants were 56% behind schedule, hydropower units 35%. One of the major causes of these delays has been court battles with ecological groups seeking to block construction.

The annual U.S. demand for energy in all forms is expected to double in the next ten years. Between now and the year 2000, we will consume more energy than we have in our entire history. This program will analyze the scientific questions involved in power technology and pose alternatives involving the philosophy of energy use.

Populations and stress

Ecologists predict disaster as the world’s population continues to increase. In part, they cite the change in the quality of life as the number of people per unit area increases. Indeed, animal studies have shown that all sorts of behavioral abnormalities occur in dense populations. The pioneering work of Calhoun on rats showed that the adrenal glands were enlarged by population stress and that the social structure of rats is radically altered as the population increases in a confined area.

This program will explore the effects of population density on human behavior. It will draw on the work of Milgram and of other investigators who have studied the behavior and social pathology of urban and rural populations. The issue is one of quality and preference, not just of survival — and, in that, the ecologists may well be right.

The automobile

The issue is not just how to control automobile exhaust, but the place of the automobile in our civilization. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco was supposed to save that area from asphyxiation. It is now expected to account for only one percent of all the vehicle miles traveled in that nine-county region. The cost: well over $1.4 billion.

Was it worth it? What would be the effect of banning all further interstate highway construction near big cities? How pleasant or cost effective is an extended urban area based completely on automotive transport? Should we really strive for an alternative? What answer has BART given us in San Francisco?

The immune reaction

Tissue transplanted from one animal to another may flourish briefly, but ultimately it will wither and die. There are exceptions: corneas may be freely transplanted, and identical twins will accept skin grafts or organ transplants from each other. But, in general, we react to tissue from another individual in the same way we react to disease germs: it is the immune reaction.

Understanding this process is the key to understanding not only how the body fights disease, but also why it rejects skin grafts and organ transplants — and why it sometimes fails to respond to invasion by “foreign” tissue. Some medical scientists believe that such a failure is at the root of cancer. They reason that, if the body recognized cancerous tissue as foreign, it would mobilize the Immune reaction to isolate and starve out the cancerous cells. Thus, an understanding of the immune reaction is basic to medical problems that are not only of fundamental scientific importance, but of fundamental human importance as well.

We will show how medical scientists devise and carry out experiments that have already illuminated much about the immune reaction and that will one day lay bare its last secrets.

The genetic code

The Watson-Crick model of DNA, put forward in 1953, has been called the most important scientific discovery of the century. It revealed for the first time the physical basis of heredity in plants and animals, and it initiated a decade of research without parallel in the history of biology. Within a few short years, an international coterie of brilliant scientists — sometimes working together, but more often in fierce competition — succeeded in answering virtually all of the fundamental questions concerning the nature of life. An enormous amount remains to be done, but the basis for all future work has now been firmly established.

The story is a fascinating one, both in its human and its scientific dimensions. It is like a complex jigsaw puzzle in which the individual pieces themselves represent the solutions of intricate puzzles. The sheer intellectual beauty of these scientific achievements forms one main theme of the program. A contrapuntal theme is provided by the sociology of an international community of scientists divided into intensely competitive teams, each striving to reach the same goal and each determined to get there first.

The green revolution

Far from being an overnight sensation, the recent revolution in the growing of food grains is the result of three decades of hard work. The new high-yield varieties of wheat, rice, and corn began with the determination of Wallace, the money of Rockefeller, and the skill and political insight of Bradfield, Stakeman, Mangelsdorf, and Nobel Laureate Borlaug.

How does one “grow” a revolution such that in 25 years impoverished Mexico is transformed into an exporter of food and food technology? How is that peaceful revolution spread, and what are the problems bred of its success? Are we creating vast, single variety crops, thereby inviting disaster from blight or insects?

This program would trace the scientific and historical background of this revolution through the eyes of scientists, farmers, and ecologists.

The new planetology

Mariner has explored Mars, Apollo the moon, and the Glomar Challenger the floor of the seas of the earth. Their combined data suggest a new theory about the evolution of planets.

We will explore this new science of planets, as scientists look forward to further information from the Pioneer that will pass by Jupiter in December 1973 and the Mariner that will go by Venus and Mercury in 1974.

Presenting science on television

How will this project be different from previous efforts?

First, science programs too often presuppose an interest in and possible knowledge of the subject. This project makes no such assumptions. Our task is to awaken interest, to lead the viewer to the insights and inspirations of men and ideas. The programs will deal more with specific topics than with general areas or issues — real examples in human scale best illustrate general themes.

Producers should take the time necessary to place the audience squarely in the process of discovery. Understanding science involves more than learning the results of things. These programs must thrust the viewer into the guts of science: the development of experiments, the nature of evidence, the clamor, the chaos, the tedium of investigation, and the quiet, glowing elegance of a small discovery.

Films don’t always start at the beginning. And that is the way it should be. Many times a nonlinear approach will be used to create more excitement and take advantage of the audience’s immediate interest. That, however, is no excuse for slighting fundamental questions of science. The films will show how a storm works if it deals with weather, or why Leakey chose Africa in his search for ancient man.

Time should also be spent getting acquainted with the men and women of science. It would help eliminate myths and mistakes, destroy cliches, and bring us closer to our talented neighbors.

The project will show a willingness to reach out and experiment in form as well as content. The producers should:

  1. create the human experiences involved in natural, dramatic events.
  2. document how scientists conduct basic research — their promising leads, some false; their choices along the way; and their ultimate success or failure.
  3. dramatize moments involving historical personalities or issues in science. (How would you cast Copernicus debating Ptolemy?)
  4. deal with scientific disputes by establishing a court in which advocates of a particular view attempt to convince a jury of their fellow scientists of the validity of that view.
  5. create magazine formats in which several related topics might form a review of one subject area. At times, one subject might be analyzed by a number of different investigators.

In addition, the producers would take advantage of the techniques that television offers:

  1. Macrophotography – uses tubes and bellows to fill the screen with a small animal such as an ant.
  2. Microphotography – substitutes the microscope for the naked eye.
  3. Electron microscopy – employs the highest magnification available to allow the observation of nature’s smallest creatures and objects.
  4. Telescopic photography – catches a subject miles away and allows the most subtle filming of nature.
  5. Infrared photography – is one of a number of techniques employing films sensitive to other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum (using infrared, we can film heat).
  6. Time-lapse photography – speeds up movement that cannot normally be seen.
  7. High-speed cinematography – slows down movement and allows us to observe and analyze actions that are normally too
    fast to be seen.
  8. Optical techniques – such as stop action (freezes the motion), step printing (repeats selected frames to accentuate a movement for analysis), and multiple images (allows a ready comparison or a montage of impressions) can be used.
  9. Animation – employs drawings to display actions that are beyond the reach of cameras.
  10. Computer animation – can speed up or slow down a process, extend the possibilities of a design to infinity, or rotate an image so that the many dimensions of an object can be seen.

The programs should delight in irreverence and humor. These productions aim not at uplifting science or scientism, but at engaging the mind of the curious viewer in an active, dramatic, and entertaining experience.

As producers experiment with a variety of forms for individual shows, the series as a whole should display an identifiable style. Style is essential to building a regular and enthusiastic viewership. First, this would include a permanent host, a well-known and friendly explainer whose scientific credentials match his poise and personality.

Second, scientists working in nature are constantly coming across beautiful and dramatic images: photographs of the earth, the moon, the galaxies; x-rays of the hand; electron scan microscope images of minute living things; the famous Edgerton milk drops; the mundane rotting peach; and the spectacular, time-lapse film of a thunderstorm in Canada. We would integrate these images into programs (and occasionally produce brief features around them to fill the air time remaining after short programs purchased from abroad.)

The project will develop techniques to help the audience do something after viewing. Each program will test methods of offering book follow-ups and especially prepared book lists – perhaps an argument between contradictory books, each “saying” a sentence in combat with the other, or a rapid-sequence, page-by-page video audit of an entire book or set of books. Some programs might follow closely the argument of a newly published book. In these cases, special low-price editions will be offered in conjunction with the network release of programs. Experiments with joint advertising campaigns of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and publishers might also prove valuable. Science news, games, and puzzles should be tried as well, all in the bright, nonelite, energetic style that typifies the best commercial art.

International cooperation

Since science has no national boundaries, the project will develop extensive international working ties.

Europe and Japan have several network science program units.

These units feature articulate spokesmen, immense stores of information and knowledge of research projects, and coverage of expeditions, and explorations. They send teams to many nations to research and film stories, but they are particularly interested in the United States because, they maintain, “the U.S. is where science happens.” A science program group in this country would be an asset to them.

These networks now cooperate among themselves, and the result is a more comprehensive coverage of the world’s science, a more efficient use of staff and funds, and a healthy competitive challenge for ideas, methods, and styles. This cooperation does not represent a major portion of any unit’s output, but its results notably affect the overall quality and scope of each network.

With this in mind, then, our project will consider three methods of program development: (i) productions – made by science group production teams and filmed mostly in the United States; (ii) coproductions – cooperative international productions filmed in the United States and around the world; and (iii) acquisitions – productions purchased from international networks and their distributors, with universal topics in international locales. These arrangements involve compromises. An original production is expensive, but the project retains complete editorial control and ownership. Coproduction increases the project’s scope at a reduced cost per program, but results in shared ownership and alternate editorial control. Acquisition involves a finished product the cheapest and least risky procedure, but it allows no editorial control and possession is limited to short-term rental with recharge for reuse. The trade-offs, however, make sense. Once underway and dealing with specific topics in known locations, we can weigh control versus expense and develop a healthy and interesting balance of original works, coproductions, and purchases.

The first and foremost resource is the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Features Group in London — 100 producers making over 600 programs each year and spending the American equivalent of 20 million dollars to do them. Ten of their 32 series involve science, and three in particular are uniquely set up to provide programs and program assistance to us: “Horizon,” a weekly series examining the whole spectrum of science and technology, “Chronicle,” a monthly program exploring archaeology and history, and “World About Us,” a weekly series documenting the world of nature and exploration.

This reservoir of talent and unrivaled energy is available to us. In July, BBC executives in London again expressed their eagerness to cooperate with the science program group and to engage in coproductions of topics that we originate. They are encouraging a two-way flow of programs and information and look forward to a long-term association with a continuing science production unit on this side of the Atlantic. Such a cooperative enterprise will greatly increase the horizons of this project and vastly improve its potential for success.

Granada Television in England and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have also developed active units dealing with anthropology and natural history. Both of these English language resources are available to us, as well as ORTF in France, RAI in Italy, and NHK in Japan.

The project will search for films already produced by acknowledged experts and international networks. The following small selection of those immediately available illustrates their range and interest.

The crab nebula

In the study of this one object in the sky, we see reflected the whole of modern astronomy: the story of how a worldwide fraternity of scientists go about the business of discovery and their joy in tackling, stage-by-stage, a never-ending puzzle.

The story begins in the year 1054, when a Chinese astronomer saw a “guest star” – almost certainly the cataclysmic destruction of a star whose remains are now the Crab. It ends with a crucial experiment that asks if this explosion is the origin of us, is this the death that makes life possible?

The total war machine

On the night of February 13, 1945, 3000 tons of high explosives and 750,000 incendiaries destroyed the city of Dresden so completely that the number of people killed can only be guessed at. It was the greatest single act of destruction in the history of mankind, greater even than Hiroshima, and the ultimate expression of a policy of total war that had begun with the tentative development of the bomber 30 years before.

Nowhere have science and technology had more impact on military policy than in the use of the airplane in war – and few policies have generated more controversy than the bombing of civilians in World War II, in the 50 wars since, and in the war in Vietnam.

Critics have claimed that this policy of total war gained acceptance not because it is effective, but because it is possible. This program examines just how effective the bomber has been as an instrument of war and what sort of role it will play in the future.

The billion-dollar marsh

Stretching for more than 2,000 miles along the eastern seaboard of the United States is one of the world’s largest marshlands, renowned for its wild life. Yet looking at its flat, unending landscape, it is easy to understand why many people regard it as a wasteland fit only for development and industry.

Recently, however, scientists at two marine institutes in Georgia and Virginia have been demonstrating that the marshes are a far more valuable source of food than even the best agricultural land and that they are essential not only for the survival of the wildlife, but of the whole multimillion- dollar offshore fishing industry.


Kuru is a disease that affects only one small tribe in the remote highlands of New Guinea. It starts with a slight trembling of the hands and finally leaves the victim a helpless shaking jelly, unable to control any movement, unable to live.

What makes it more bizarre and fascinating to E. F. Field is its link with cannibalism. It has been suggested that, to contract Kuru, one has to have eaten someone who has died of the disease. For Field, it is this seemingly irrelevant information that makes Kuru more than an isolated curiosity. It helps to link Kuru with multiple sclerosis, with schizophrenia, even with the process of aging, in a new group of diseases all thought to be caused by slow-acting viruses.

Nefertiti and the computer

Nefertiti was the most beautiful and famous queen of ancient Egypt. Was she also one of the most powerful? A remarkable new research project strongly suggests this was so. At Karnak, Egypt, 3300 years ago, the heretic pharoah Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti, built a vast and brightly painted temple for his new religion.

After his death, the priests of the old religion hastened to destroy it, leaving only some 45,000 carved stone blocks scattered in the core of the later monuments as witness to its short-lived glory. During the last five years, Ray Winfield Smith, former U.S. diplomat and general, has been directing the project, which, with the use of a computer, has been rediscovering for the first time the nature and shape of Akhenaten’s temple complex. In addition, the project has produced a new assessment of Nefertiti’s status and importance.

Reaching the audience

The prime method of distribution would be the 223-station network of the PBS. The PBS now covers 72% of the nation and is fast expanding. It offers a coast-to-coast, simultaneous network transmission to most of its stations, with the rest served by video tape on a slightly delayed basis.

Film distribution to schools and colleges will be developed to extend the usefulness of these materials.

Staffing the project

In the final analysis, programs are not planned, they are made. And they are made by people.

The principal stages in the production of a program are (i) a period of research in which the producer collects material, discusses its content with those familiar with the subject, and attempts to assess suitable situations and participants; (ii) a period of filming or recording of material and interviews; (iii) a period of editing, in which his film or tape is juxtaposed in sequences that he considers best suit his subject; and (iv) a period in which his program is, if necessary, viewed by advisors who can correct errors and offer suggestions, and by an executive producer who has been familiar with the program since its inception and who must be satisfied when questions of balance and taste arise.

A producer is rarely an expert in the subject matter of his program. The range of subjects he must cover in any year is so wide it effectively prevents this. A producer of science programs has usually had several years of experience in the techniques of science productions and is usually a college graduate, but not always with a degree in science. These are by no means his only qualifications. He has to have proved his facility for making a satisfactory end product. This includes the ability to maintain truth and accuracy, to edit his material and marshal it into a comprehensive and artistic form.

Executive producers and science editors are chosen and paid to make responsible decisions about a producer’s program: about his sources of information, the way material has been collected and assembled, and the final balance or imbalance. The executive producer can and will call in advisors for independent opinions before the final decision is made to offer a program for transmission. Nonetheless, these advisors have no editorial control; that remains with the executive producer and his staff, who, in turn, are accountable to the station management.

This project will require a staff of slightly more than 20 professionals. Four teams of three each will produce original films and the coproductions. Each team, led by a producer, will have an associate producer and a researcher and will be responsible for approximately three programs per year, the exact number to vary depending upon topic, scope, and locale.

Three resident guest producers will augment the main staff each year, each doing one film. In this way the project will be enriched by calling upon individuals such as John Marshall, Roger Payne, Bill Eddy, and Alan Root, respected cinematographers in their respective fields of anthropology, natural history, and conservation. A small executive staff will lead the project, headed by an executive producer, a science editor, and individuals to manage production, research, and publicity.

Thus the project will combine generalists, continuing and growing with the project, with specialists of unique talents who join for specific tasks. The pattern of continuity and outside contributions is deliberate. The ambiance should be one of creation mixed with increasing professional sophistication – both of which are vital to the success of the individual programs and the growth of the science program group itself.

The small size of the proposed staff is feasible because of the supporting role of WGBH. The project need concentrate only on staffing its immediate creative assignments; the rest of the necessary services are provided at standard costs by WGBH. It would be wasteful to duplicate the administrative, production, film, art, financial, legal, and public relations staff and facilities already available at this national television production center.

The BBC would also be of help in building the staff. Together, in London, we developed a “short list” of BBC contract and guest producers who have the qualities we seek. The BBC Features Group has also agreed to receive American staff members into the “Horizon” production teams for training.

The advisory staff

The term “advisor” suggests a relationship that is occasional and peripheral. This is not the role planned for the project’s advisors. The science advisors to this project will be expected to function as though they were members of staff. This is exactly as Joan Cooney described the Children’s Television Workshop:

We never wanted our board of advisors to be an “outside independent board.” They were not meant to pass judgement on what we were doing. They were meant to come in and grub with us, and we pay them to do that …

Sometimes our lawyers will say to us, “Gee, you don’t have an outside independent board of advisors,” and I can say, “No, we learned that from PBL … that they weren’t to come in and tell you what to do. They were to come in and live your problems with you and then give you their best advice. And we’re free to take it or reject it.”

They are part of the staff as far as we are concerned. They’re part-time staff; we’re full-time staff.

The advisory staff will contribute substantially to the design and implementation of the project, advise on goals and methods, and act as an initial point of contact with American science. They are to help attack the inevitable problems of content and priority. As individuals, they will often be called on for advice and guidance by executives and producers in the midst of developing new program ideas and proposals.

They will be drawn from the articulate, knowledgeable men and women of American science and communications. A partial list of potential members is included in the Appendix. These individuals were consulted during the research phase of this proposal, and, knowingly or unknowingly, they were being considered as potential advisors as well.


The staff will want to know how many people watch its programs. Local and national ratings are relatively inexpensive, and public broadcasting now obtains fairly accurate data on its audience size. Of much more interest, however, is knowing who watches and to what effect. For that reason, the project will create its own small research department to measure intensively the effect of its programs on the audience.

Research will also be used as a program-building tool to test the understanding of certain segments and programs in order to improve their effectiveness in communicating to a wide range of people. We want to examine:

  1. Appeal – Did viewers like the program? Which parts? Is it what they expected? Will they watch again?
  2. Comprehensibility – Did they understand it? Which segments didn’t they understand? Do they have a sense of the whole? Can they relate the information to their lives? To society?
  3. Information, attitude, and value changes – What did they learn? Do they see the world in a new way? Do they see science in a new way?
  4. Activity-eliciting potential – Did this program make them do something? Read a book? Examine weeds? Look up at the sky at night? Take more notice of science in the magazines?

A less rigorous but equally important function of this department will be to develop professional feedback. Using science institutions and organizations, specialist and popular science magazines, clubs and museum associations, the researcher would establish and maintain a continuing dialogue with the professional scientific community.

Publicity and utilization

It is also very much our task to build a large and informed audience for the project’s programs. For that reason, we will include an expert in publicity as part of the basic staff. His first job will be to plan and prepare accurate and interesting information for PBS member stations, major magazines and newspapers, and commercial news and conversation programs. He will prepare and promotional materials for both general and specialized media.

He should also develop a variety of joint media projects to develop broader uses for these programs. This might involve simultaneous scheduling of television programs and book publication, as well as special magazine supplements in popular and youth publications to preview or augment programs.

In addition to helping attract the audience, he must work to intensify their use of each program. We want the audience to be moved to thought and action by these programs, and we aim to make it inviting for them to take that next step into self-guided discovery and investigation.


The final project, as presented (an annual 30-week season, with 12 productions, 4 coproductions, 12 purchases, and 6 repeats), would cost an estimated $2 million per year.


In the spring of 1972, this project was presented to the PBS and to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for funding. In their final list of new series to be supported, none, we were told, rated a higher priority than did the Science Program Group.

When public broadcasting legislation at the $65-million level, and subsequently at the $45 million level, failed to become law, all new series in the 1972-73 season were postponed.

The need for the projects proposed by the science program group has not diminished, and the recognition of its value among those in science and television continues to grow. We therefore are developing a funding consortium made up of agencies representing public television, public science, private philanthropy, and private industry.

We expect this first project to begin, as a pilot series, in the spring of 1974 and to begin its annual 30-week season that fall.

The Second Project

Once the first project is launched and underway, it is our intention to develop additional projects in science. Certainly the proposal just described does not exhaust the possibilities — it merely opens up areas and techniques, some of which deserve further development.

The science program group would also develop a program series devoted exclusively to sociology, psychology, anthropology, and education. It is far more difficult for man to learn about himself and society than it is to find out about the stars. First, man the observer is also the observed. Second, human society is more than the sum of the individuals under study. Third, although normal scientific study involves isolating phenomena, social science by its very nature concerns the interrelationships among people. A difficult job, then, but not impossible.

This project would examine man and his society in the midst of change, seeking out specific, authentic, personal examples that illustrate general theses and theories.

Dealing with work and its meaning, for example, we might explore the automobile assembly line at Lordstown, Ohio, where men recently struck, not for more wages, but against what they termed “the degrading and demeaning act of tightening a bolt every 23 seconds.” These workers asked General Motors to investigate the Volvo works in Goteborg, Sweden, where experimental work teams assembled Volvos from the wheels up – a more involving and satisfying experience. Volvo has redesigned its two plants under construction in Kalmar and Skode, replacing the planned assembly lines with bays for work teams.

The project might also deal with Charles Levy’s recent re search into violence among returning Marines who live in a proud and patriotic Irish neighborhood in Boston. The connection with Vietnam may be camouflaged when the victim is a veteran’s mother and his weapon is a hurled television set, but the underlying parallels remain. Levy continues his research, while calling for a “boot camp” to rehabilitate returning veterans.

Arthur Jensen’s theory about the heritability of IQ, which attracted popular attention after Richard Herrnstein’s article in The Atlantic, Nov. 1971, continues to be the subject of heated debate. A recently published attack on Jensen’s methodology and research techniques, in the new journal Cognition, might provide an opportunity to examine the relationship between IQ and inheritance, while at the same time questioning the quality of social science’s instruments for measurement.

These examples would make interesting programs. They would also allow us to examine and assess the fundamental forces at work in forming and changing our society.

Other programs would seek out the variety and excitement of society as it is often portrayed in the small unfoldings of life: how individuals are alike and different; ties that bind as well as divide; joy and pain; happiness and grief. In this continuous study of man, we would examine individuals, groups, clubs, unions, friends, and neighbors; birth and growing up; marriage and divorce; death and grief; success and failure; freedom and imprisonment; work, leisure, and sport — in short, the experience of men and women in 20th century society.

A production system of teams and guest producers would be used to produce 30 half-hour programs per year at an estimated annual cost of $1.5 million.

The Third Project

Television should also return reality to children. The group’s third project will give children an alternative to just watching television. Using the process of discovery, we will stir youngsters to conduct experiments and create projects.

These programs will stimulate children to explore their environment in a safe and constructive fashion and will impart the sense, “I can do that with a little help and some planning.” We would climb a mountain, build a flying machine, predict the weather, construct a log cabin, study a cubic yard of dirt, make a pot, excavate a site, plant a garden.

Besides fresh air and sunshine, the children will also meet with scientific investigation. The child will be led to:

  1. Inquire – What questions do I ask? In what order? How do I check my answers? Can I measure it?
  2. Observe – What happened? Did I really see that? Can I describe it as well as measure it?
  3. Investigate – What worked? What didn’t? Why? What is an experiment?
  4. Analyze – What did I find out? Can I duplicate it? Is it significant? What new questions arise?

In order to climb a mountain, one must prepare; in order to build a flying machine, one must design. Each experience will balance these components of science and action to open up new ways of thinking and problem-solving for youngsters.

Special follow-up materials will be created for each program to help support the youngster. The project will also arrange cooperative ventures with organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Sierra Club, and the Explorer’s Club of New York.

These films will be made in a variety of locations throughout the United States and in cooperation with individual public tele vision stations whenever possible. The 20-program annual series will cost an estimated $840,000 per year.

We will also explore additional services for children. The group will make available its raw materials and staff at cost to children’s television production units such as “Sesame Street,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Zoom.” The object will be help them incorporate science into their series, too. Thus the value and reach of science presented to children on television will extend far beyond the audience of a single series.

The Fourth Project

Most educated Americans have been exposed at least to the history of Greece and Rome, the wars of Caesar, and the wives of Henry VIII. But these same people are almost totally ignorant of the origins of the first Americans or how they lived. Many people carry with them the image of the Hollywood Indian — wearing war paint and feathers, astride a pinto, and attacking the wagon train.

North America was home to thousands of tribes and alive to the babble of 500 tongues. Some Indians wandered in the dust in small groups with few possessions and no shelter, while others built complex governments and cultures rich in art, music, dance, poetry, and oratory.

The Science Program Group proposes a fourth project, relying heavily on archaeology, which would, over a period of years, pre sent a continuing television document of the people of North America.

The project will reconstruct the older cultures, such as the Hohokam, the Anasazi, and the Adena. The Hohokam’s extensive irrigation system dates back 2000 years. They built dams on Arizona’s major rivers to feed large canals, some of them 30 feet wide in places and more than 25 miles long. The Hohokam were known for being receptive to new ideas, making excellent jewelry and distinctive pottery, building pyramids and ball courts, and, apparently, using astronomy to calculate planting dates.

The Anasazi created the most distinctive architecture. Their huge apartment houses at Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico, contained 800 rooms. The Anasazi culture came to an abrupt end about 1300 A.D., perhaps because of the great drought that began in 1276 and lasted until 1299.

A remarkable fact about the Adena culture, in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, is that it achieved political complexity, social classes, a large population, rich pottery, and elaborate ornamentation – all without the influence of agriculture.

Hardly a collection of savages!

We would use archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and history to recreate Indian culture immediately before and during contact with white civilization: for example, Iroquois, Algonkian, Cheyenne, Zuni. Our recreations will not lean solely on myth and legend.

The sources are varied and extensive, including DeSoto, Jefferson, and deTocqueville. The project will show the variety of contact, including the resistance of the Seminole and the attempted assimilation by the Cherokee, resulting in a trial of blood for one and tears for the other.

The project would also document Indian life today, studying acculturation and assimilation – or more to the point, acculturation without assimilation. Many Indians use U.S. currency and banks, speak English to whites, furnish modern-style homes with canned goods and television sets, and yet, like the Shawnee, with steady intransigence maintain their own identity in the face of a white majority. In contrast, the tribal council of the Navaho recently installed a computer to keep track of its million-dollar-monthly income from oil and mineral leases.

This living document of North American societies would introduce the viewer to disciplines of social science as it examined the rise and fall of civilizations.

A pilot film in this area will be produced by WGBH in the spring of 1973 with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The cost of the total project will be an estimated $1.1 million for 12 programs per year.

The Fifth Project

From time to time, the public’s attitudes become confused, distorted, and even dangerous because scientific understanding is so poorly communicated to the average man. This leads to contradictory statements, a confusion of claims and counterclaims, and, often, unnecessary alarm. At such times, the public needs good, clear, reasonable, objective explanation and analysis. It is not now available anywhere on television in this country.

Most harassed newsmen plainly do a bad job when they tackle complex science issues. Their reports, often sensational, rarely, go beyond the surface to deal with the basic science involved. One has only to remember the recent crises involving mercury in swordfish, phosphates in detergents, the 1975 auto emission legislation, the SST boom and the DDT ban, the Atomic Energy Commission’s emergency core-cooling system, the power crisis in New York, and New England’s Red Tide to appreciate the need for a capable source of cool, understandable television programming in moments like these.

The science program group will, on such occasions, have the expert knowledge to deal with such issues, either as specials or as inserts into weekly and daily public affairs programming. The existence of such a group would provide an important new communications asset for the nation as a whole.

The Sixth Project

There are available, from all over the world, exciting series involving natural history, archaeology, anthropology, and explorations. These series are not seen in the United States. There are also excellent U.S. materials that have not been shown on television.

We propose that the group make an annual choice from among these series for purchase and framing for U.S. distribution. For example, the following are available immediately:

  1. “The Glory That Remains” – Robert Erskine surveys the surviving monuments and ancient archaeological sites in India, Persia, the Middle East, and North Africa; 13 programs, 30 minutes, colore
  2. “Great Zoos of the World” – Zoologist Anthony Smith discovers how the world’s most famous zoos are keeping up with changed conditions of the late 20th century in San Diego, Antwerp, Tuscon, West Berlin, London, Basel, and Frankfurt; 8 programs, 30 minutes, color.
  3. “Wild New World” – Heinz Seilman makes a naturalist’s voyage through Canada and America; 5 programs, 25 minutes, color.
  4. “Private Lives” – Studies of birds, animals, insects, and fish filmed in great detail (for example, the kingfisher, starling, large white butterfly, wandering albatross, robin, great-chested grebe, and the Siamese fighting fish); 7 programs, 24 minutes, color.
  5. “The Family of Man” – A social comparison of five different communities, in England, India, New Guinea, and Botswana, concerning married life, children, teenagers, weddings, birth, old age, and death; 7 programs, 50 minutes, color.
  6. “The Netsilik” – A rare glimpse of the Netsilik eskimo at home, on the hunt, in their spring ice camp, hunting for trout, caribou, and seal; 21 programs, averaging 30 minutes, color.

Although prices of purchase and framing vary, it is estimated that a 20-week series of half-hour programs might be compiled for $300,000 each year.

A Concluding Note

The group would evolve a policy for publishing books, television cassettes, and records. We also envisage a parallel radio group, which would share resources and provide National Public Radio with feature inserts to “All Things Considered,” as well as special series and services.

Those are in the future. The first priority is to establish the Science Program Group as a first-rate television production unit and to get its first series before the American public.


Our thanks to those who gave generously their ideas, suggestions, and comments.

  • Yale Altman – Science Editor, M.I.T. Press
  • Spyros Andropoulos – Information Officer, Stanford Medical Center
  • Olle Berglund – Deputy Director, TV II, Swedish Broadcasting Corporation
  • Frank Blakaby – Economist, National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London
  • Jacob Bronowski – Resident Fellow, The Salk Institute
  • Harvey Brooks – Dean, Division of Engineering and Applied Physics, Harvard
  • James Butler – Director of Communications Programs for the Public Understanding of Science, American Association For the Advancement of Science
  • Robert Byers – Director, M.I.T. News Office
  • Joan Cooney – President, Children’s Television Workshop
  • Robert Davidson – Director of Institutional Relations, Children’s Television Workshop
  • David Davis – Program Officer in Charge, Office of Television, The Ford Foundation
  • Pierre Fraley – President, Council For the Advancement of Science Writing
  • Walter Gilbert – Professor of Molecular Biology, Harvard
  • Peter Goodchild – Editor, “Horizon,” British Broadcasting Corporation
  • Robert Grant – Director, Office of Public Affairs, Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology
  • Gene Gray – Principal, Mason-Rice School, Newton, Massachusetts
  • Gerald Holton – Professor of Physics, Harvard
  • Franz Inglefinger – Editor, New England Journal of Medicine
  • Philip James – Executive Assistant to the Chancellor, University of California, San Diego
  • Paul Johnstone – Editor, “Chronicle,” British Broadcasting Corporation
  • Jacques deJouffroy – Associate Director, La Service de la Recherche, Office de la Radio Television Francaise
  • James Karayn – President, National Public Affairs Center for Television
  • Henry Kendall – Professor of Physics, M.I.T.
  • Jonathan King – Assistant Professor of Biology, M.I.T.
  • George Kistiakowsky – Professor Emeritus, Harvard
  • John Lannan – Special Assistant to the President’s Science Advisor, U.S. Office of Science and Technology
  • Carl Larsen – Director of Public Affairs, Smithsonian Institution
  • David Layzer – Professor of Astronomy, Harvard
  • Gerald Lesser – Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology, Harvard
  • Jerome Lettvin – Professor of Biology and Electrical Engineering, M.I.T.
  • Howard Lewis – Director, Office of Information, National Academy of Sciences
  • Adam Leys – Head of Television Programs, Central Office of Information, London
  • Robert Livingston – Professor of Neurosciences, University of California, San Diego
  • John Mattill – Editor, M.I.T. Technology Review
  • Victor McElheny – Science Editor, The Boston Globe
  • Everett Mendelsohn – Chairman, Department of History of Science, Harvard
  • Phillip Morrison – Professor of Physics, M.I.T.
  • Leonard Nash – Professor of Chemistry, Harvard
  • William Nierenberg  – Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  • Clarence Ohlke – Head, Office of Government and Public Programs, National Science Foundation
  • Hannes Oljelund – Head of Planning, TV 2, Swedish Broad casting Corporation
  • Edward Palmer – Vice-president for Research, Children’s Television Workshop
  • Gerard Piel – Publisher, Scientific American
  • Robert Potter – Associate Director of Communications Programs for the Public Understanding of Science, American Association For the Advancement of Science
  • Don Price – Dean, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard
  • David Prowitt – Executive Producer, WNET/13
  • Donald Quayle – President, National Public Radio
  • Norman Ramsey – Professor of Physics, Harvard
  • Robert Reid – Head, Science Features, British Broadcasting Corporation
  • David Robinson – Vice-president, The Carnegie Corporation
  • David Ryer – Assistant Chancellor, University of California, San Diego
  • Jonas Salk – Resident Fellow, The Salk Institute
  • Paul Saltman – Vice-Chancellor, University of California, San Diego
  • Pierre Schaeffer – Directeur, La Service de la Recherche, Office de la Radio Television Francaise
  • Alan Segal – Producer, “Horizon,” British Broadcasting Corporation
  • Benjamin Shen – Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Pennsylvania
  • Aubrey Singer – Head, Features Group, British Broadcasting Corporation
  • Parker Small – Professor of Immunology, University of Florida
  • Richard Stephens – Program Manager, Office of the Public Understanding of Science, National Science Foundation
  • Werner Svendsen – Controller, Danish Television
  • Basil Thornton – International Director, WNET/13
  • Lawrence Wade – Editor, “Tomorrow’s World,” British Broadcasting Corporation
  • Charles Walcott – Chairman, Department of Cellular and Comparative Biology, State University of New York at Stony Brook
  • Howard Webber – Director, M.I.T. Press
  • Robert Wilcox – Head, Office of the Public Understanding of Science, National Science Foundation
  • Fred Wheeler – Managing Editor, M.I.T. Technology Review
  • Jerrold Zacharias – Director of Education and Research Center, M.I.T.

Michael Ambrosino is an executive producer at WGBH-TV, Boston. His experience includes 17 years of production and administration of television and film programming in public affairs, the humanities, the arts and science. He developed and administered “The 21-inch Classroom,” the State of Massachusetts’ instructional television service, and the Eastern Educational Network, the nation’s first and largest regional cooperative public television network. In 1969 he created the weekly series, “Michael Ambrosino’s Show,” which was both an attempt to celebrate life in the city of Boston and a demonstration of experimental possibilities concerning local on- location film and video tape programming.

Mr. Ambrosino spent 1970-71 in London as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Fellow attached to BBC. During that year he produced, wrote and travelled, experiencing at first hand the practice and philosophy of the worlds largest and most experienced broadcasting enterprise. He returned to WGBH with the expressed purpose of developing an autonomous program group within public television for exploring man and his world patterned after the BBC example, but tailored to American needs and opportunities.

That development has been aided since May 1972 by the cooperation and financial support of AAAS, through its committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

AAAS Committee on the Public Understanding of Science

  • Gerard Piel, Chairman
  • Ralph Bolgiano, Jr.
  • Herman R. Branson
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • William T. Golden
  • Edie Goldenberg
  • Gerald HoIton
  • Robert B. Livingston
  • Lloyd N. Morrisett
  • David Perlman
  • Kenneth V. Thimann
  • William Bevan (ex officio)
  • James C. Butler (staff representative)

Going Public (1964-1970)

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

WGBH: The Early Years

Programming for the public

I’ve never considered myself an intellectual; my memory and thought processes are just not good enough for true intellectual work. I do, however, have an insatiable curiosity and enjoy the world of ideas. A public TV station, even in the ’60s, was certainly interested in ideas.

One of my jobs was to manage the on-air schedule; to help determine the time slots for each program. Remember, there were only three commercial networks at that time; no cable, no satellite TV, and very few remote controls! Programmers around the world worked on the assumption that if we could get a viewer to tune into our station early, they’d be prone to stay with us at the end of one program to see what else was on. In that way, we all programmed to attract and to keep the audience for the evening.

Some public TV scheduling theories said we should offer an interesting variety of shows each night; others suggested “drama night”, and “science night” and so on, in a seven-day range of specific topics. Some programmers took account of certain smash commercial shows while others realized that all other shows were the competition since over 90% of the audience was watching commercial TV rather than public television.

Some program managers created huge wall schedulers with a 3×5 card for each half-hour. After a few months of watching them fall out of date very quickly, most opted for good old pen and paper. I used colored pen and paper. Jonathan Rice of KQED gave me some Japanese coloring pens with bamboo nibs. On a long sheet that displayed spaces from 6am to midnight, I’d put in live shows in red, film in blue and tape in green. Each individual program had a number and from each week’s sheet, the traffic staff could make up the daily broadcast log and pull the necessary films and tapes from storage shelves and bring them to the control room.

In an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel.

I worked a few months ahead but, in an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel. I sat in Control Room C for days, working the incoming network feed I’d arranged from CBS, while producing short analysis segments using international specialists to give helpful insight during the translations.

Bob Larsen and I divided up the supervision of local news, public affairs, TV courses, and special telecourse production for the US Navy. We were doing relatively little national production in those days and Dave Davis or Greg Harney usually looked after them.

A lot of time was spent looking at tapes and films of new series or specials to decide what we wanted to air. At this time, WGBH was commissioned to make some of the earliest anti-smoking commercials and since I was supervising their production, I quit smoking thinking my hypocrisy could only go so far.

Many shows from abroad were made to fit a 50-minute standard length and we always had a need for short programs. A local Newton poet, Anne Sexton, was nationally known, and after seeing a reading, we asked her to make a number of fills reading her poetry. Sexton had a problem with depression and her openness in her poetry was startling. Her most striking poem was a long apology to her daughter for her “madness.” After several attempts, she succeeded in suicide and a fascinating lyric voice was lost.

One of our weekly local programs, “Performance,” presented the vocal or instrumental recitals of music majors from Boston University and The New England Conservatory of Music. There was only so much you could do with an hour-long piano recital. After many attempts to shoot keys, fingers on keys, faces looking at fingers on keys, faces under the sound board, strings, hammers hitting strings, faces superimposed on strings, and dollying slowly around the studio to show the piano from every angle imaginable, a change was needed. David Sloss, then the series’ producer, suggested we turn our ideas around and show the rehearsal of the recital, instead of its finished performance.

“Rehearsal” was born and we showed students being coached to perfect their material. The series was more successful because watching people working on material was often far more interesting than the finished product. This was not yet the birth of the “process approach” in my mind, that came later with NOVA, but it was a good example of how ideas evolve and how a good mind, in this case, David Sloss’s, could adapt an idea to serve this new medium of television.

No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell [“The French Chef”] to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them.

Meanwhile, Julia Child and “The French Chef” were becoming local sensations. Broadcast on Sundays at 8pm, Julia was well known in town and the ratings were high. But, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell the idea to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them. Hartford Gunn went so far as to invite the wives of the top four NET executives to Boston for a taping and a special dinner with Julia, without success. Frustrated, WGBH started to sell the “The French Chef” to other local public stations for $50 a show; first Dallas and then San Francisco. Word picked up, the press was good, and after long years of rejection, it finally became a proud staple of the NET distribution schedule. The rest is history.

NET cultural programming in those days was very, very, very, highbrow. At a NET national meeting, Hill Bermont, the program manager from Athens, Georgia, ended a long litany of complaints to Curtis Davis, then Director of Cultural Programming, about the precious nature of NET offerings by shouting, “Curtis. When? When? When, will you stoop to Swan Lake?”

The answer was never. Ballets as popular as Swan Lake came to NET only after Curtis left.

And it wasn’t only ballet. The avant-garde opera “Intoleranza” was set to open in Boston. In it, singers roamed about the stage amongst scenery made mostly of empty cardboard boxes. They sang to off-stage characters who were projected onto a giant projection screen set up on stage left. Greg Harney proposed taping it for NET distribution and it was accepted. After two acts of singing, screaming and screeching among the boxes and the TV screens, the opera ended to unenthusiastic applause.

We hung around the auditorium to say goodnight to Greg. Singers wandered about on stage wiping off makeup and yelling to their waiting friends about plans for dinner and drinks. Kenny Anderson, the TV floor manager, a man with a keen sense of humor, sidled up to Lillian and me. He surveyed the scene, pointed to the singers on stage and whispered immortal words, “Only those in the know realize that this is the third act!”

It could have been so!

A collegial interlude

When a producer suddenly had to leave WGBH, Dave Davis asked me to step in and take over the producing of two video documentaries to be made at Yale. Russ Morash would be directing, and working with him would be a delight. The new School of Art and Architecture had attempted to bring a different type of student to Yale and these two documentaries were to explore what it was like learning to be an artist in a university setting. The specific question was, “Did Yale change the artists and did the artists change Yale?”

It was soon clear that neither affected the other. The students all felt that having a gallery in New Haven meant failure. Only New York mattered. Yale, having built a grand new building to house artists, made its own statement by where they chose to house them. The print makers and their noxious acid baths were placed one floor below ground level without air conditioning. The sculptors were quartered two floors below ground level, requiring the removal of large plate glass windows to a pit-like courtyard to bring in large blocks of wood and stone, and again to remove their completed sculptures.

On the other hand, the building’s architect, Paul Rudolph, in charge of teaching architecture at Yale, housed the student architects in the bright and airy high-ceilinged upper floors.

It’s little wonder that several years after the taping, students set fire to the building and only fast work saved it.

Several things stand out in my memory from making those programs.

I was amazed to watch these artist/teachers handle their materials. Gabor Peterdi, a print maker, touched paper with hands that seemed to understand paper itself. He did so with a grace that I found mystical. He knew paper and just to see him slide new paper or completed prints from one pile to another gave me a totally new appreciation of the way artists handled their tools.

So too with sculptor James Rosati, and the way his hands grasped his chisels and his hammer. When he passed a palm over a slab of un-worked marble, it was as if he were stroking a living thing; a living thing that he loved!

With his eyes blazing, Rosati exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”

Jim Rosati was a gem. He was sculpting abstract forms in stone. Mostly self taught, he delighted in coming up from New York two days a week to teach at Yale. Short, strong, and tough, he spoke roughly to his students who were unwilling to try. On the last night of the shoot, we bought several cases of beer for an informal taping session, and with his eyes blazing, he exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”

Tears came to his eyes as he told me of his first Italian trip to Cararra to buy marble. As you approach Cararra by the mountain road, you can see the white scar of the quarry up ahead. White dust covers everything as workmen wrench the crystalline blocks from the mountain wall. James Rosati was on his way to select the same pure white stone as the great Michaelangelo had done centuries before. James Rosati and Michaelangelo; brother sculptors! It was a high point in his life and he spoke of it with almost religious reverence.

A more down-to-earth Rosati discovered that his sculptures, although all abstract forms, sold better when they had names. He would have preferred to call them “Work #1, Work #2” and so on, but the market prevailed, and after so many years in the steel mills, Jim enjoyed his new celebrity, the high prices his work commanded, and the better quality of his table wines.

What to do? He was not a man of words.

Well, his neighbor was!

Each time he accumulated a body of work, Jim would invite his neighbor and friend, poet Stanley Kunitz, to his New York studio. Opening a bottle of well-aged single malt scotch, he would wait a sociable period, and point to one of his new works. Glass in hand, Kunitz would think a moment or two and, with a warm smile, would say something like, “Nature coalesced!” or some such poetic incomprehension. Jim would scribble down “Nature coalesced”, and proceed to the next. Thus, Jim Rosati’s master abstractions would become word-christened for the waiting art market.

I was impressed with Rosati and enjoyed his success in his later years as he reverted to his native steel, creating large, finely burnished stainless abstracts in major commissions around the world. He loved his work and felt privileged to have been lifted from poverty by his artistry. Giving back to the students was his way of thanking all the artists who went before him.

No. Yale did not much affect the art students, but Jim Rosati did.

Back to the hustings

When it came to the news, WGBH had a continuing problem. There was never enough money to compete openly with the three local commercial stations. What should we do? The decision seemed to be “waver.” For several years we did no news. Then we experimented with a fifteen-minute show at sign-off that mostly gave John Henning the on-air experience he needed so he could go to WBZ and do it for real.

Then the thinking would shift to harnessing all our resources behind one big documentary per week. After a bit of that, the decision would be made that, once again, WGBH had to have an every night presence, and shows like ”The Reporters” would be born.

“The Reporters” included young newspapermen and women and some TV wannabees who went out into the neighborhoods with the new mini-cams to do stand-ups and short documentary stories. Alan Lupo, a large, cigar-smoking Globe reporter, covered the city and the big stories. We also had Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein, and Howard Spergel. (Joe Klein became famous a few years back with his blockbuster novel and film, “Primary Colors,” about a fictional sleazy US President with a loose zipper.)

Howard Spergel was such a good reporter that he was soon an embarrassment. Howard’s beat was education. He was so efficient that he often had two or three stories to any other reporter’s one. Some nights, the show was mostly Howard. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor well before his time. I told his story a few years ago at a speech to students at Emerson College and was approached at the end by a pretty coed in tears. She was Howard’s daughter, and told me that she had not known that about her dad and thanked me.

The Democratic State Convention that year was at the Hynes Convention Center and we covered it completely. Reporters on the floor gave insightful reports and, unlike the other stations, we stuck it out until the bitter end, broadcasting the final vote for Endicott Peabody’s nomination for Governor well after midnight. It was 2:30am when “Chubb” Peabody made the long climb to our booth for his victory interview. After a bit of sharing the glory, Chubb looked sheepishly at the interviewer and asked, “Do you really think anyone is still up watching us”? “No”, the interviewer admitted.

We said goodnight and shut down our coverage!

WGBH at this time was trying hard to break into national production. NET, which had been formed to choose national productions, had started to produce most of the big series themselves and there was not enough money to go around. We did get them to buy “Science Reporter,” and each year got money for a documentary or two. For that reason, on a regular basis, the program staff and producers would meet to discuss the problems of the nation and the world and to propose documentaries that would examine these serious issues.

At one such meeting we were going at it full bore. The table was littered with spent passion and virtue when Hartford walked in to introduce the program manager of the Globe’s new UHF station, Channel 56. Polite handshakes went all around the table and one of us asked him what he was going to put on his new station. He laid out a litany of old and tired re-runs, tawdry talk shows and cheap old movies. Don Fouser, a tough, moralistic, and fearless producer, whose mouth had gotten h
im in trouble more than once, piped up in horror, “That’s God-damned air pollution!”

A crimson-faced Hartford, newly elected to the Globe station’s Board of Directors, rushed the Channel 56 program manager out of the room. We did not see either for the rest of the day.

About the same time, the national meeting of stations was held in New York City. WNET, Channel 13, the host station, had a grand hotel suite full of food and booze, and we naturally gravitated there in the late evenings. The meeting coincided with WNET’s annual fundraising pledge night and they wanted to have us all see how grandly they could do things. On went the huge TV set and, to pay for our free booze, we were supposed to sit there and watch “Thirteen Stars for Thirteen!” Big stars they were too. Well-known Broadway and Hollywood singers and dancers did their thing and in between, WNET staff made pitches for money. Every so often, a WNET executive would place a call, ask how things were going, and announce in a whisper we could all hear, how much money they had made in that last “Star” pitch.

“Star” Tom Lehrer came up next. Everybody who went to college in the 50s knew him. Lehrer, a Harvard math instructor, made up hilarious songs whose lyrics usually scorched some sacred cow. Everybody enjoyed his records and his pointed roasting of the military, the government, big business, and the church. For whatever reason, Tom decided that night to sing his caustic “Vatican Rag”, poking fun at the Roman Catholic Church, which had as its refrain:

“First you get down on your knees.
Fiddle with your rosaries.
Bow your head with great respect, and …
genuflect … genuflect … genuflect!”

New York is heavily Roman Catholic.

After a moment, the phone rang in the suite and the NET executive answering it went ashen. Slowly, he hung up. No whispered money totals this time. In a rush, he gathered up all the other WNET executives and they stormed into a bedroom and closed the door.

The flood of complaints about “The Vatican Rag” was so great that no money pledges could get through!

Now, the fundraising gimmick for the evening was that the “Thirteen Stars” would do their thing, and the taped “Star bits” would be repeated over and over. While we all ate and drank and sniggered at their problem, the WNET executives remained locked in debate.

WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by

WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by.

What do you think happened?

Yup. Before they could react, Tom Lehrer’s taped bit was on the air again and the phones were jammed even worse this time.

“Thirteen Stars for Thirteen” continued for the rest of the evening, but except for the mathematically challenged, only twelve stars could be noted performing thereafter.

Begging in low style for high stakes

WGBH continued to edge from “educational television” to “public television”, exactly paralleling the change of its financial dependence from Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council dues to general public donations. That meant we had to use our own airtime for begging and that led to the WGBH auction!

Hundreds, and later thousands, of volunteers formed an army of “go-getters” that begged free stuff from willing businessmen. Clothes, food, art work, china, tires, week-end retreats, homemade quilts (from Mr. Harrington’s mother), all funneled into studio B, which, each day, looked more like a department store warehouse. In those days, when most of the staff worked on in-studio local programming, the auction became an eight-day holiday from work. Both studios were totally occupied, and there was nothing we could do but work on the auction. We rotated through directing, running tables, greeting celebrity auctioneers, confirming sales, handling paperwork and money, and on-air selling. My specialty was “sign-on” and “cross-over;” starting the auction, explaining how it worked and moving the action from table to table for several hours at a time. As the auction moved to color, I did too, buying a Madras plaid sport jacket from the preppy Harvard Square store, J. Press, which gave me a rainbow glow.

Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced.

Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced. The auction was held early in June before the wealthy lady volunteers headed to Maine or the Cape for summer holidays. In the first few years, a contingent of Chestnut Hill neighbors settled into the function of “confirmation,” calling the high bidders to tell them that they should come in to “pick-up-and-pay.” Guzzling from large thermos containers of martinis, this group often confirmed more than one high bidder, causing more than one irate “winner” to show up expecting their prized item.

Very soon, confirmation became a WGBH staff function.

Auction time also meant extreme heat in Studio A and lots of free Coca Cola. I didn’t recognize the effects of addiction until Monday morning after auction, when I found myself drifting down to the cafeteria early for a coke. I was in need of a caffeine fix! Now I use Coke only to keep awake on long driving trips.

The history of the auction takes us back to KQED. Founded by Jim Day and Jonathan Rice, the San Francisco station went on the air with very little money and in very Spartan quarters. I remember the “soundproofing” in their main studio consisted of egg crate partitions that had been nailed to the walls!

In less than a year, their Board of Directors discovered they were out of money and decided to close down. “Horrors,” cried Jim and Jon. “If we close, we may never reopen! Say, if we raise $20,000 in the next two weeks, can we stay on the air ‘til we figure out how to raise more?”

With a Board OK, Jim called a bunch of his friends and raised $10,000.

Jon Rice called his mother!

With the $20,000 in hand, Jon Rice set about to create a money raising scheme that promised a continuing return. He concocted a plan to sell donated stuff on KQED air and the auction movement was born. One of the items donated to that first auction was a set of purple bed sheets from a leading San Francisco hotel that had just been slept in by the sultry Hollywood actress, Kim Novak. A clever clothing manufacturer bought the sheets, made them into several dozen purple ties, and donated them to the KQED auction to be sold for even more money.

A monster was born!

Many stations hated the idea of doing something that crass and commercial, until it became clear that hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised. The auction continues at WGBH and at many stations, although in the greater scheme of things, it’s no longer a significant portion of fundraising. The mere fact that thousands of volunteers are still interested, and the auction brings them into an intimate contact with, and loyalty to, the station, makes it worthwhile.

WGBH 1967 to 1970

In 1967, Public Television was changing.

For a decade, our major financial backer ha
d been the Ford Foundation. Ford had invested two hundred and fifty million dollars in helping to equip and program the stations. The “network,” a video distribution system by mail, was supported by them. NET, the commissioning (and later the producing) arm of the system, was their creation. Their hand was not very heavy but it was definite. Many waggish stories included, “Does anyone love the Ford Foundation?” The answer depended upon whether they had funded you. For every grant they made, many were denied.

Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.

With a push from WGBH’s Hartford Gunn and Ralph Lowell and funding from the Carnegie Foundation, the Carnegie Commission was formed, made up of leaders in American communications and intellectual thought. Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.

Out of it all came annual federal funding and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the disbursing agent. The Commission called for a board made up of distinguished Americans. When President Johnson appointed the manager of his own Texas TV station, we all understood the Washington interpretation of “distinguished.”

Back at home, the station and our lives were more and more concerned with war. International politics caused almost every action to be examined on the premise, “Are you with us or are you with Russia?” Even the Middle East war found the US on one side and Russia on the other. In Asia, Vietnam was in the headlines daily. Instead of seeing that as a struggle to evict a foreign power — Vietnam had been under the French and the Chinese for over 700 years — many in The United States saw another fight between “Democracy” and “Communism.”

Taking advantage of the close connection between Washington and Cambridge, we made many programs on these subjects, using the same academics that were advising various government agencies. One thing they did was to play “War Games.”

Former military and political officials, with a goodly mix of academic wannabees, would role-play various American and Russian officials. A crisis would be dumped in their laps and the viewer would watch as action by one nation would be met with reaction by the other. We would televise these deliberations and show charts and graphs of the results in each side’s “war rooms.” How dispiriting it was to see how many times the dispute ended in war! No one wanted to give in or mediate.

It’s interesting that in real life the big war between the Soviet Union and the United States never happened. So much for the difference between a game and real life. In real life, the consequences of childish posturing includes results too horrible to contemplate.

Election coverage

When it came time for the ‘68 elections, we invited the major candidates for the House of Representatives to come in and be interviewed live by me and answer questions from callers. It went well until the night I interviewed “Tip” O’Neill, later to be the powerful Speaker of the House. I felt I’d handled everything with care and efficiency until a live caller asked, “Tip, how about that woman you’re having an affair with in Fall River?”

Too poor, too inexperienced, and too stupid, we had assumed that a producer screening calls would obviate the need for a seven-second delay on the phone line. Well, the caller outfoxed us, Tip was furious, tearing off his headset after we left the air. It seems that this fellow had been dogging Tip at every speech. Tip was a devoted husband and well known in Washington as a man who went home to “Millie” for dinner each and every night.

A fierce election fight for Attorney General was in the works between Frank Bellotti, a tough Italian lawyer and pol from Quincy, and Elliot Richardson a Brahmin lawyer from the best of Boston law firms. Richardson, went on to fame as the principled Republican Attorney General in the Nixon administration who refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, the man who was investigating Watergate and demanding the Nixon tapes. Here, Richardson had made a less principled accusation in the local campaign.

Richardson had suggested that “Providence money” was behind the Bellotti organization. To any Bostonian over twelve, he was accusing Bellotti of receiving money from the Mafia. Bellotti was rightly furious and announced that he would not appear with Richardson on any stage in the future. That was fine, except that he was scheduled to debate Richardson on WGBH in a few nights and I was the producer!

I sat down, figured out all the possibilities, and created a number of different scripts for the evening:

1. Bellotti fails to appear. We announce the fact, show Richardson being present, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program. (We could not give Richardson airtime because Bellotti could then demand a free show under the “equal time” provision.

2. Bellotti appears. We start the debate. Bellotti denounces Richardson and stalks off. We announce the off-stalking, give Richardson five minutes to reply, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program.

3. Bellotti appears, all is OK, we use the long script and run the debate.

I know I prepared five scripts in all, but for the life of me can’t remember the circumstances of the other two. I think one had the debate start and have a blow up in the middle and Bellotti or Richardson stalk off. This is just a small indication of how you prepare for the unforeseeable when your airtime is at stake

The Vietnam War and WGBH

I also remember how we wiped out our evening schedule for several days during the Vietnam era when the protesting students took over Harvard. The first day of the takeover, Middlesex County Sheriff John Buckley, a good family friend, was being installed in a formal ceremony. Resplendent in top hat and tails, he was handed an Army helmet, led to an armored vehicle and told, “Students have just taken over Harvard Square and it’s your job to get them out!” John used to joke that it was the quickest on-the-job training he ever had.

WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.

Harvard President Pusey refused to talk to the students while they occupied Harvard buildings, so WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.

During the bombing of Cambodia, Studio B was set up as a newsroom and several of us went on camera to read lists of protest sites for the next day, thus clearly encouraging civilian dissent to the war effort. It’s hard to remember just how strong the anti-war sentiment was in Massachusetts, and these actions remind me how deeply it reached into our program decisions.

Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation was trying one last big push to get Public Television noticed more. To do that, they underwrote a major production unit in New York City. It was also to be our first live national network feed for an experiment called “The Public Broadcasting Laboratory”, or “PBL.” Shows ran on Sunday nights and featured a mix of public affairs and culture, an update on the old “Omnibus&
rdquo; ideas of the 50s.

Controversy began with the very first broadcast. Short documentary segments examining race in America preceded a play, “Day of Absence.” The play’s premise was fascinating: everyone in America wakes up one day to find all the negroes have gone. The performance was made more powerful because the cast was made up of black actors in “white face”.

Many stations complained. But many stations complained about everything. Managers resented any trouble brewed up by their viewers in response to programming over which they had no control. The national NET meetings were filled with griping sessions and now PBL comes along with ”CONTROVERSY!” “Gracious,” you could almost hear them thinking. “If only those New York liberal types would stop stirring up the pot!”

Greg directed … Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession … for TV

Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

Later in the year, Lewis Freedman, in charge of Culture for PBL, asked Greg Harney to check out the production of a new Pinter play and Greg asked me to join him at the performance. David Wheeler, an old friend, was directing Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession. Greg and I both thought it was great. PBL bought the idea and Greg directed it for TV.

Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

PBL lasted three seasons and was replaced by a Boston production, “The Advocates;” court room style debates about major issues with leading figures arguing each side. Mike Dukakis was moderator for awhile. It stopped the criticism from conservatives because it was so clearly “fair and balanced!”

Also at that time, EEN had some production money and I proposed to make a one-hour Christmas program that dealt with humanist truths not based on religion. Pete Seeger agreed to come and we invited Tony Saletan, Bernice Reagon, and a dozen other musicians to a party in an old barn for “A Circle of Light.” Pete would not accept any fee larger than any other singer and to try to make up for it, I added his wife, Toshi, to the talent list. Pete thought about the smallest details and even brought some extra-dry firewood from his home on the Hudson, so that there were no crackles and sputters when it burned in the fireplace.

My introduction to Rock and Roll

With the assassination of John Kennedy, America lost its innocence. The death of Martin Luther King was a body blow that rocked the nation. City after city erupted in anger with blacks marching through the streets, burning businesses and buildings, and engaging in general looting.

The day after King’s death in 1968, the famous entertainer, James Brown, was to play a concert in the old Boston Garden. Thirteen thousand young fans, mostly black, were to be there. Since the concert would end after mass transit stopped for the night, the audience would walk back to Roxbury through the center of Boston. Boston had avoided violence following King’s death, and the city government was terrified that would end that night.

Mayor Kevin White’s first answer was to cancel the concert.

His counselors argued that mayhem would result. Mayor White changed his mind and he and his staff concocted a plan to have WGBH broadcast the concert live! All the media were asked to tell folks to stay home and watch it. In that way, Boston might be spared the terror experienced by other American cities.

I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 pm, and told of the circumstances. He asked me if I could set up a live, multi-camera broadcast from the Boston Garden by 8:30 pm! At that point, the room erupted in an argument as to the wisdom of getting involved at all. I stood up, said they could continue arguing if they wanted, but I had only three hours to do my job and if I was to meet the deadline, I had to get to work.

I called together the three most experienced staffers with remote broadcasts; Greg Harney, Russ Morash, and David Atwood. If anybody could do it, they could. We assembled a staff, drove the mobile unit to the Garden and went to work.

I had Greg come with me to meet James Brown when he arrived. And arrive he did. Short, compact, buoyant, wearing dark shades, hair high in a black glistening pompadour, white cashmere overcoat lying carelessly over his shoulders, burly bodyguards on both sides, James Brown entered the stage door of the Boston Garden.

“Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”

“What television?” he barked.


Walking up, hand extended, I introduced myself and said, “Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”

“What television?” he barked.


Mayor White’s idea had not yet reached the most important player, James Brown. A closeted meeting quickly followed with Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant. Brown agreed to TV only when the City of Boston said it would “buy the house” and pay him what he would have made from a sold-out Boston Garden.

We returned to the task of getting on the air and did so by 9:30pm.

What a concert!

I’d never attended a rock concert before and certainly never roamed about back stage at one. The sound was ear-splitting. A big stage band, with two drummers and four lovely back-up singers in white form-fitting evening gowns, filled the night with music and joy. The several thousand who sneaked into the auditorium all rushed close to the stage and danced and cheered and gawked.

Brown’s shtick was to sing till “exhausted” and fall to his knees on stage. Several of his bodyguards would rush out to cover him with a velvet cloak. He would “revive,” throw off the cloak and have another go. This went on endlessly with cloaks of different glowing colors. The crowd loved it.

Brown soothed the grieving audience by dedicating the show to the memory of Martin Luther King and invited Mayor White on stage for mutual hugs. Brown and White urged Boston to “be cool.” They said that Boston was a great city and destroying parts of it would not avenge the death of Martin Luther King. It worked. Those at the concert walked home without incident.

Boston was not a great city for blacks. Countless years were spent fighting bussing and it’s still one of the most segregated cities in America.

Later, I learned that James Brown never got paid! He did get the tapes and I recently saw them for sale on-line.

The killing didn’t stop. Bobby Kennedy, then running for President against Lyndon Johnson, was shot while campaigning. Once again all programming ceased and images of death and mourning swept the airways. Sensing that this was the worst thing for kids, I commissioned two programs; on one a poet read children’s poems about loss and on the other, I asked Tony Saletan to sing songs about those ideals and values Kennedy fought for.

One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.

I called Pittsburgh and suggested to Fred Rogers that he also make a special program for kids. ”Haven’t you heard?”, he said. “I’m in the studio right now making a half hour.”

Thus, Fred’s famous program about the death of the gold fish
was made. Together with our two shows, the PBS network had at least ninety-minutes for kids that was not filled with crying and caskets.

One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.

Building a Network: EEN (1961-64)

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

WGBH: The Early Years

Ed: This is the second of three excerpts from Michael Ambrosino’s autobiography. In the first part, Skating Around the Rink, he described the early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

Glimpses of interconnection

We were all local in those days. Few people thought that any school series made for one city could be useful in another. On the other hand, many of us were duplicating the same topics and few of us had the cash to make really exciting programs with sophisticated experiments and expensive location filming. Perhaps it was time for change.

In the fall of 1959, Hartford set up a regional meeting of organizations in the Northeast to discuss the future. Held at the idyllic and pastoral Mittersill Inn in New Hampshire, the meeting was to discuss station building, program exchange, and the future interconnection of our stations into a network.

In those days, exchange was done by mail. Master copies were sent to the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Copies were struck, mailed to the top stations that ran the shows, who then mailed them to smaller stations who used them and then mailed them to still smaller stations

In those days, exchange was done by mail. Master copies were sent to the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Copies were struck, mailed to the top stations that ran the shows, who then mailed them to smaller stations who used them and then mailed them to still smaller stations. No national advertising was possible because no program was run the same week, the same day or the same hour. Few if any school programs were distributed. Organized chaos was our chosen lot.

Graham Winslow and his wife were at the conference. He ran the Massachusetts Council for the Humanities and was a sweet elder Boston Brahmin. On the last day, he invited Lillian and me to join him and his wife for dinner even though nine-month old Julie was with us. As we sat down, he was shocked to learn that it was our second anniversary. He immediately ordered two bottles of chilled Pouilly Fuisse.

Two bottles for four meant that fairly soon I was telling his wife my entire life story. We had a very merry time of it.

The meeting went well. It wasn’t just that cooperation meant an easier life for all of us. In those days, raising the money to start a public station and keep it on the air was daunting. The thought that we all might fail was never far from us. Daring to conceive of plans to help stations survive was a start. But it was going to be a hard job.

Once again, it was a phone call from Hartford that changed my life.

I was at home with the flu.

“It’s time to push hard for a regional network and we need a full time staff.”

“You’re right,” I groggily agreed.

“Interested in the job?”

“You bet!

Building a network

There are many Polaroid photos of me with my desk covered with sheets of yellow paper with major parts covered in correction tape. I’m dressed casually, looking up at the camera and smiling.

I’m writing a proposal!

The plan called for Ford funds covering our needs for the first year, the stations picking up one-third in year two, two-thirds in year three and, if all went well, we’d be self supporting in year four!

He said yes. This time it was $14,950!

I’ve written proposals all my life. To start the Eastern Educational Network, we needed money and that meant going back to the Ford Foundation. We went to Jim Armsey for a development grant to develop the regional network and I had to come up with a way to make it self supporting. The plan called for Ford funds covering our needs for the first year, the stations picking up one-third in year two, two-thirds in year three and, if all went well, we’d be self supporting in year four!

He said yes. This time it was $14,950! (Remember, the dollar went a lot further then.)

We had stations in Boston, New Hampshire, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. We were helping stations start in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

In some cities, the commercial stations “helped” by buying out their competitor and giving that license to the local university. In that way, some stations ensured their own market dominance and greedy future and the local ETV group got a turnkey operation for a start. In areas like Burlington, however, any competition in the market was fought fiercely by the Burlington TV owner who, sadly, also had the lease to the best mountaintop.

Groups fighting valiantly for years with little help and less hope were not always the best equipped. For every technically trained, legally sophisticated group there was someone like Mrs. Campbell, the wonderful benefactress of the Washington group who had drawn up the budget for the construction and operation of WETA. Since I was the cheapest expert nearby, it was one of my jobs to “shape it up for her Board” before it was presented.

The following chat really happened…

“Mrs. Campbell, there’s no line item for electricity.”

“Oh, that will come out of ‘Miscellaneous’, my dear.”

“Mrs. Campbell, there’s no item for network fees.”

“Oh, that will come out of ‘Miscellaneous’, too.”

So, I drew up a new budget for WETA and it increased about 30% to take into account all the things obvious to someone close to station operation, but not so clear to the leader of a citizen’s group. That was the kind of thing I did almost daily for states in the area trying to get their stations on the air.

While planning for future interconnection, we began to distribute shows by having New Hampshire pick up WGBH’s off-air signal and rebroadcast it. We also set up our own videotape distribution to exchange local shows. “MIT Science Reporter” was the first series and we used it to teach us how.

It is hard to realize now that, of course, we were “bicycling” master videotapes, shipping them from station to station. Constant replaying wore down the oxide coating. We were destroying our precious masters.

More heat than we cared for

Things were moving along rather well. The 21” Classroom was growing in size and quality. WGBH programs were getting more sophisticated and reaching greater numbers. The infant regional network was becoming the center of our attention and the whole region was cooperating.

On October 14, 1961 I was in Chicago giving a speech before a Ford Foundation Workshop of school television folks. I was pointing out how cooperative programming was possible and something they should encourage. Ted Conant introduced me and I got a heartwarming response. It was rewarding and I felt wonderful.

When I sat down, Ted congratulated me and then leaned close to say that he had not wanted to upset me before my speech, but he had learned that WGBH had been consumed in a fire that morning!

I was now upset.

My immediate plan was to return as soon as possible, but this was the time of the Cold War. Once, every year, for 24 hours, all air travel was suspended while SAC played war games with its B52 bombers flying multiple sorties in the United States. I was grounded in Chicago until noon on Saturday! When I reached Dave Davis by phone, he told me that many tapes, including those of the 21” Classroom, had been thrown out the window as the fire progressed. The station, including my EEN office, was in ruins. There was nothing I could do. We went out for Chinese.

WGBH was a brick shell. Walking up a rubble-strewn stairway I could keep my balance only by holding tight to the sooty handrail.

I returned on October 16th. WGBH was a brick shell. Walking up a rubble-strewn stairway I could keep my balance only by holding tight to the sooty handrail. Turning right I walked into Studio A, blackened and flooded. The former skating rink oak flooring was twisted in rivulets as each board swelled in the pools of standing water. Glass had shattered from the heat, and in the projection room, tape machines and projection equipment were covered with soot and debris and dripping with water. It made you want to get a big broom and push it all into the dumpster.

Turning left I walked into my own office. The four walls were there. My desk was there. Everything seemed unusually low. Suddenly I realized my desk was not low, I was high. I was walking on several feet of rubble since the entire roof had collapsed. My office was open to the sky! A black blob sat where my phone had been. Lifting it, I discovered two-thirds of a charred check due EEN from a member station. My desk drawers were filled with char and water.

Bolted to my back wall was a heavy pine table that was a useful place for my TV and other technical gear. Fire had raged under it and the ensuing water had warped it over like a huge blunt, black claw. I pulled up on it to view what remained of years of school TV research that I had carefully collected. With a roar, I realized that the table was not giving way, but that the entire back wall of my office had come loose and was now crashing into Studio B below.

“I’d better get out of here,” was my first thought.

“I’d better think of what to do next,” was my second.

Can you imagine losing everything you need for professional life: all the letters you received, all the copies of letters you sent, minutes of Board meetings, decisions, the accounting of dues paid and bills due?

Can you imagine losing everything you need for professional life: all the letters you received, all the copies of letters you sent, minutes of Board meetings, decisions, the accounting of dues paid and bills due? Typewriters and phones could be easily replaced but the documented early history of the EEN was gone.

I went to the Harvard Coop and bought an address book and tried to rebuild my list of contacts from memory. I also made up a list of those to call and tell them that the EEN was still alive and that our plans for development would continue. That meant a trip on October 17th to the Maine Legislature to testify that WGBH would still give programming free of charge as soon as Maine ETV went on the air, and on October 25th to Washington, DC, where a large grant was pending.

Meanwhile, Dave Davis and the Junior League of Boston worked out a complex plan of delivering school program videotapes to available tape recorders at the commercial stations. School programs were sent by microwave directly to our undamaged transmitter on Great Blue Hill. WGBH radio was on the air by Sunday. The 21” Classroom was back on Monday morning. WGBH television took a week.

Soon WGBH was operating out of seven different locations. At the Museum of Science, they set up a tiny studio with a glass wall and a walkway for museum goers to peek in. They became just one more museum exhibit. The programming staff worked in “the red frame building,” formerly used for storage at the museum. WGBH management, PR, fundraising and EEN were in rented space in Kendall Square. Scenery was built and stored at Northeastern University, and the Archdiocese of Boston TV studio was put at our disposal during the week. (If you dollied back too far you got to see the crystal chandelier in every shot!) This diaspora lasted for three whole years while money was raised for a new building, land found, plans drawn, and construction completed.

WGBH’s first mobile unit, a million-mile Greyhound bus converted into a control room on wheels, had been parked outside the station during the fire with its new tape recorder and three new cameras. It escaped without a scratch. By using a Boston Gas demonstration kitchen in a Cambridge warehouse, the station could begin taping Julia Child’s soon-to-be famous series, “The French Chef”.

On the very first taping [of “The French Chef,”] the bell for the freight elevator rang insistently and Julia, right in step, merely said, “Well, the phone is ringing but I’m just too busy to answer it now!” Julia Child was never an amateur.

Julia was a bright spot during these difficult times. Often told, the story is true, that on the very first taping, the bell for the freight elevator rang insistently and Julia, right in step, merely said, “Well, the phone is ringing but I’m just too busy to answer it now!” Julia Child was never an amateur.

As we designed the new WGBH production center and ordered equipment, we faced the problem of what to do with two video tape recorders that had come through the fire and now sat soot-encrusted and water logged in temporary storage. A company specializing in fire-damaged electronic equipment estimated $15,000 to restore each of them. We’d received two new recorders with the insurance money, and shelling out $30,000 we did not have was just too much to bear.

Suddenly, one of the technicians remembered that we were “that educational station that burned in Boston.” Swearing us to secrecy, he told us to remove all the components from the recorders, mix one part Vel and one part water, paint all surfaces with the solution, hose everything down, and dry it completely with heat and fans. We were then told to plug in each component in sequence and see if they shorted out. If so, we were to replace them, reassemble the old and new components and turn it on.

For that they usually charged $15,000!

WGBH did as it was told and soon had four videotape recorders!

The EEN grows and prospers

My days continued with meetings, helping stations get on the air, interconnect, and develop shows to exchange with others.

No day was typical, but August 28, 1963, stands out as memorable.

I rose at 5:30 to catch an 8:00 flight to Chicago for a 10:00 meeting with the Central and Pacific Regional Network executives at O’Hare Airport. A 2:00pm flight got me back to Logan in time for my secretary to meet me and drive to New Hampshire in time to dress and chair the evening dinner meeting of the Eastern Educational Network annual conference in Concord and introduce the evening’s speaker, CBS’s national correspondent, Sander Vanocur.

We did a fair amount of talking to commercial networks in those days. They did interesting programs on Sundays, few of which were broadcast in Boston. We received permission to run them on WGBH and distributed many through EEN. I also combed local commercial stations for good programs and found a small, but compelling documentary, “Block-Busting, Atlanta Style,” about unscrupulous real estate brokers who went door to door warning whites that blacks had just moved in nearby, offering to buy their houses before their value dropped!

The soft-spoken, talented reporter was George Page, whom I later recommended to Hartford as a documentary maker for WGBH. George spent several years in Boston and went on to WNET in New York where, he created the wonderful weekly PBS series, “Nature.”

The power of words

The Sixties were also the time for “enlightenment” and that often took the form of ingesting large amounts of exotic stimulants to aid in this search for self-awareness. That leads me to the story of “Lettvin Vs. Leary.”

Timothy Leary, a former Harvard professor, experimented with a wide variety of drugs in the 60s and specialized in LSD. Preaching often about its virtues, he was invited to speak at MIT. Illuminated by the light of one candle, a bedraggled, rather hairy Tim Leary sat in the lotus position on the stage of Kresge Auditorium before hundreds of adoring MIT students. Hearing of the event, astute WGBH producer Austin Hoyt grabbed Boyd Estus and set out to film it.

“Turn on, tune in and drop out,” intoned Tim in a chant-like singsong. Condemning normal schooling, he told the MIT students to begin using drugs to tune into their inner selves and drop out of the regimented student life. Drugs were good, and LSD was prime, went the message.

This went on for about 20 minutes and the wildly cheering audience loved it, as much for its audacity and theatricality as for its wayward message.

Timothy Leary beamed!

Then Jerry Lettvin was introduced.

Jerry, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, researcher in brain and mind, was an all around guru to the student body. Sixty pounds overweight, chain smoker, rough in appearance and manner, it was Jerry to whom you went if you were an MIT student in trouble. Even those who knew nothing of his academic life knew him to be a straight shooter.

Lettvin stared down from the lectern at the still seated Leary and began to speak softly.

“Tim, we’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve worked together, done research together.”

“Tim, you are the devil!”

“Tell me Tim … as a clinician … what would you call it when, two weeks after taking LSD, someone sees sounds and hears sights?”

Leary shifted slightly, looked up and beamed.

“I’d call him a visionary mystic,” Tim crowed.

The crowd roared with delight.

As quiet returned, Lettvin leveled a fierce glare, leaned toward the microphone, and in a coarse, guttural growl, spoke.


“Its a sub-dural hematoma and you know God-damn well it is!”.

For the next 20 minutes, Jerry Lettvin gave a meticulous and damning lecture on the effects of LSD on brain function and the losses that occurred with repeated use. It was cold and brutal and the previously joyful and boisterous audience fell silent.

Tim Leary physically withered under the assault.

Austin and Boyd could hardly wait to have the film developed and begin editing. A one-hour slot was cleared for local air and NET was alerted to see if they wanted to buy the show for their stations.

NET agreed and all was made ready.

As I’ve already explained, many copies were made from the master tape and sent to the stations. After the network distributed its first batch of tapes to the major stations, NET contacted WGBH.

“We have a problem.”

“Many stations object to the word, ‘Bullshit’. We’d like you to edit out that word and we will send out new tapes.”

“Never,” said the proud WGBH. “The word “Bullshit” is integral to the content.”

“Okay,” said NET, “we will do it ourselves.”

Several days went by and another call came from the network.

“Help,” said NET, “The stations object to the new tapes. The show now says, “Bullsh…”

“Okay,” said WGBH, we will edit a master for you, But using our new and exciting regional network, EEN, we will offer the original, uncut show to every station and let them decide which to air.”

At EEN, I received lots of staunch messages about “first amendment rights” and “program integrity” and how they all would certainly choose to run the original and uncut version.

And then, slowly, I began to receive messages about how the previous commitments had been overruled by amorphous “program committees” or “management decisions.”

In the end, only two stations planned to run the uncut version, KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston.

Astonishingly, no station complained that we broadcast a twenty-minute speech encouraging students to fry their brains.

Astonishingly, no station complained that we allowed Lettvin to savage Leary for twenty minutes with no rebuttal.

Astonishingly, the complaints all referred to the use of the word, “Bullshit”.

Such is the power of words over ideas!

Can you scare the phone company?

The EEN was still a network in name only. New Hampshire and Maine picked up WGBH programs off the air and microwaved them to their transmitter sites. The region was organized, but we were exchanging most of our shows by tape. The fact that we existed, however, inspired action for a New York State network and a Pennsylvania State network. It was time to interconnect it all.

I hired an MIT geology student to study the region’s geodetic charts and scribe the high elevations that might be in line of sight to each other.

Thus, a signal could go from station, to mountaintop, to mountaintop, to station, all the way from Montreal to Washington and from Boston to Pittsburgh.

To that end, I hired an MIT geology student to study the region’s geodetic charts and scribe the high elevations that might be in line of sight to each other. Thus, a signal could go from station, to mountaintop, to mountaintop, to station, all the way from Montreal to Washington and from Boston to Pittsburgh. With the student’s data, I could determine if the high elevations had roads and power and whether there was a real chance of buying or leasing space for a relay tower.

All went well except for the congested area just north of New York City. The survey maps were new but the data was dated 1954. Since it couldn’t be trusted, I set out in my trusty Volkswagen to scout the sites myself armed with maps and the specifications for several hilltops in the Pound Ridge, New York area. The first few hills flunked out. The last and best hilltop had a road that wound up through the trees. At last I came to the top and found a well-built stone wall and an elaborate fence and gate. A large circular gravel drive introduced a lordly manor house, and although I am a scant esthete, I did recognize the sculpture in the front garden as Smith, Moore and Calder. Obviously, a relay tower would clash!

What to do?

I drove to Danbury Airport, a few miles north of Pound Ridge, ready to pay any price to rent a plane and pilot to finish the survey before dark.

Twenty dollars later, I was crammed into a Cessna 150 two-seater with a youngish pilot flying south to begin our aerial survey. It took only a half hour to find several possible hills, with roads and farmhouses that looked far more accessible and convenient.

“OK, you fly it back!,” shouted my pilot over the din of the engine.

“OK, I got it!,” I said in my normal manner of thinking that I can do anything. That was my first flight in a small plane and it set in motion thirty years of flying!

We made sure the phone company “found out” about our design of a private microwave system for EEN. It was only later that the interconnection became a reality and it was the monopoly of Ma Bell that did it, by offering lower rates for ETV. Maybe our ploy of designing a system we had little hope of building really worked.

EEN, which had started with one station, now had thirty-five members. Some of those were in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Miami. I created a special “out of region” membership to forestall Hartford’s plan to pull together just the big eight stations and forget about the rest. We were becoming a real clan and cooperation was working.

An unexpected opportunity to make music

About that time, an unusual opportunity appeared. Ed Gilday, a dear friend from 21” Classroom days, was the conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society, and, with 100 voices and a full orchestra, he was planning to present the entire uncut version of Handel’s Messiah in Symphony Hall just before Christmas. We prepared it as an EEN special with me producing and Dave Davis directing. The program, over three hours long, with 405 shots from 5 cameras, was recorded simultaneously on 7 video tape recorders; 3 in Boston and 4 in New York fed by an AT&T long line.

Can you imagine the difficulty of planning over 400 shots for a musical experience? So many open mouths! Dave did a masterful job of visually exploring the construction of the music itself. Surprisingly, the longish uncut version of Messiah made much more sense than the often-produced truncated presentation. This Messiah had a flow and rhythm to it. Of course, when you listen to any piece thirty or forty times, as I had to do for preparation, it comes alive to you in a wholly new way.

One shot was kept in reserve for the really dramatic musical moments. It came from a camera in the back of the hall and it showed the entire chorus and orchestra. It was used when the music and singing swelled to a climax.

Another was the close up of Ed Gilday conducting. A choral conductor uses his entire body, but it’s the face that communicates most. Often, in this piece, Ed’s face was radiant! A glow suffused his whole being and he willed beautiful music out of his singers by the majesty of his smile.

The camera taking that shot was tucked into the massive organ behind the back wall of the Boston Symphony Hall stage and peeked out of a small opening built into the wall itself. … The camera actually vibrated!

The camera taking that shot was tucked into the massive organ behind the back wall of the Boston Symphony Hall stage and peeked out of a small opening built into the wall itself. Several times, the organ swelled up in a resounding crescendo from the huge 32 foot pipes directly above the camera. The camera actually vibrated! I remember Dave Davis shouting to Greg MacDonald, the camera operator, “Greg, how do you like them apples?”

That Christmas season, Messiah played long and often and was a grand success.

It was good to be producing again.

It was good to be involved in content and presentation, rather than equipment and organization; working with ideas and musicians, rather than balky program managers; writing narration scripts rather than proposals and reports.

I called Bob Larsen, then Program Manager of WGBH, and told him he was overworked and needed an assistant.

I told him he needed me.

I had learned that clearly outlining a problem and then helpfully providing the solution usually worked.

Bob checked with Hartford and called me with an offer.

Don Quayle went on to lead EEN to true interconection and a major force in the east and the nation.

In the end, returning to WGBH was one of my better decisions and began a trend of taking more control of my own life plans and taking the direct personal risks that I had previously avoided.

Risk never became my friend. I have too much of my mother’s personality in me to really enjoy it, but I discovered that only through risk could I achieve real happiness.

Skating Around the Rink (1956-60)

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino Ed: In 2006, WGBH pioneer Michael Ambrosino completed an autobiography for his family. Last month, he made a gracious offer for us to publish some of his early-WGBH stories on this Web site.

In this, the first of three excerpts, Michael describes the early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

Stay tuned for future installments covering the creation of the Eastern Educational Network from 1960-64 and the transformation of WGBH from educational to public television from 1964-70.

The photo, right, is from Michael’s collection. He wrote, “September 1956. The obligatory photo made of new employees in those days. It was run by the Westhampton Beach Chronicle, circulation 3000. My mother loved it.

WGBH in 1956

WGBH: The Early Years

WGBH was then at 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, directly across from the main entrance of MIT in a small, unassuming brick building with shops and a drug store at the street level. The building housed a surprise when you walked upstairs: an ancient roller skating rink, complete with a bumpy wooden floor and a balcony running around three sides. WGBH occupied one half, and a start-up electronics firm the other half.

Fifty years ago, we thought of this make-do facility as state-of-the-art. Studio A, 30×50 feet, occupied the entire floor of the skating rink rented by the station. Three second-hand cameras, with hand-me-down image-orthicon tubes, sat in the studio, along with a microphone boom, a lighting grid, and what few scenery flats were at hand. Under the balcony had been tucked the radio studio and control room for WGBH-FM, Studio A TV control, and the engineering facilities. Also tucked in were simple dressing rooms and a “green room” for talent waiting to go on the air.

84 Mass. Ave.

Above (via Don Hallock): This is one of the few existing photos of the 84 Massachusetts Avenue building. It was taken in 1958 by Brooks Leffler with his trusty Leica, from just across the street on the sidewalk in front of the steps of MIT. (More photos.)

On the balcony above were three small offices for the top executives, one big open office for the rest of the staff, a radio editing room, and storage.

The scale of operations and the financial picture of WGBH in the ’50s can be illustrated by what happened when the start-up electronics firm next door moved to greener pastures. In the middle of their now empty floor, they left three garbage cans full of partially built circuit boards. This electronic “trash” was taken into the WGBH shop where each resistor and transistor was carefully unsoldered, ends straightened, and placed into storage bins for reuse.

We had little to spend and nothing to spare.

The early days of “educational television”

To think in terms of the “early days of television”, you have to forget about today’s several hundred color channels beaming twenty-four hours a day showing golf from Scotland, war from Afghanistan, typhoon damage from Japan.

Think small. Think live. Think black and white and no money.

WGBH’s transmitter was … almost 40 degrees in another direction . The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”

WGBH went on the air only a few hours each evening. A test pattern was broadcast in the morning and afternoon so that television installers could adjust sets and aim rooftop antennas. WBZ and WNAC broadcast from towers on the Needham hills and sadly, WGBH’s transmitter was on Great Blue Hill, almost 40 degrees in another direction. The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”

The day started with a children’s program featuring Tony Saletan. The brief four or five hour schedule usually alternated live programs and films, so a few times each evening we could have a half hour to move things around in the single studio. Producer/directors (we all directed our own shows in those days) rehearsed in the afternoon and our shows went out live that evening. Each show’s scenery occupied various corners of Studio A, and often one cast would sidle out in the one minute break between programs so that another group could sidle in, get into position, and “hit it” on the clock

My first lesson as a new director was how to set one fanny cheek on the director’s chair, as the director of the previous live show slid over to the right. He would finish his show, punch up the WGBH ID, and cue the live announcer in the booth. The silky-voiced Bill Pierce would read the station ID and tell about upcoming programs. I would slide over to take control of the chair and the switcher (we also switched our own shows), settle my coffee on the director’s desk, light up my cigarette, adjust my headset and microphone, give final directions to my floor manager, and, on the clock, switch on the necessary slides or film to introduce my program.

We had one switcher for the entire station. … One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.

We had one TK5 switcher for the entire station. It had five inputs for cameras, slides and film, a fader for dissolves, and fades to black. One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.

Our second lesson was to direct “Around the Town.” Every day, Quindara Dodge would type up 3X5 cards describing events around Boston. These were stapled in two rows around a large, cloth-covered, vertical drum. Coordinating the music background, the slow and precise rotation of the drum, and the single camera panning left and right to view the two rows in sequence constituted a 15-minute program.

Not quite a NOVA!

Our third lesson was to plan our show so that our camera movements moved in line with the boards in the wooden floor. To do otherwise meant a camera bumping and jiggling about. We could reposition a camera across the wooden grain, but only when it was not “on line”, or on the air.

One Saturday, the entire male staff came in with hammers to nail down the floor every four inches in an attempt to even out the bumps. We must have been quite a sight; hammer-wielding yuppies, shoulder to shoulder, fannies high, inching our way backwards and pounding specially hardened screw/nails into the hard oak skating rink boards. Don Hallock reminds me that if not hit just right, these nails would shoot out to the side like a bullet, stabbing a yuppie/nailer nearby.

Local programs in the ’50s

Producers rarely got money to spend. We got “services” instead. A show would be assigned so much rehearsal time, and so many crew hours. The art department and the scenery shop would do all we asked until they complained.

Tony Saletan did a daily studio show for pre-school kiddies; mostly Tony, his guitar, and some visuals.

Mary Lela Grimes tried her best to spark interest in “Discovery,” a live nature program that featured stuffed animals and photos from the Audubon Society. A young Harvard grad student, Charlie Walcott, complained that it was a pale substitute for a real outdoor experience and got a sharp reply of, “Oh, yeah. Well, why don’t you do something about it?” Charlie, a nephew of Ralph Lowell, the famous Boston banker, philanthropist, and WGBH Board Chairman, bought an $18,000 Aeriflex camera and built special close-up lenses to shoot outdoor nature footage for the second season. He did something.

Later, I hired Charlie to produce a nature series for the 21” Classroom and he was great. He is the former Chairman of the Department of Ornithology at Cornell and lives in Ithaca on Sapsucker Lane. Really!

I remember Russ … carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.

Russ Morash, (of Julia Child and “This Old House” fame) produced and directed a children’s program called, “Ruth Ann’s Camp.” On one occasion, I remember Russ and his floor manager carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.

“Images” appeared every week, produced by The Museum of Fine Arts. Drawing on their vast collection of slides, an art historian from the museum, Thalia Kennedy, would create stories about artists, periods, or styles. She combined music, narration, and pictures to tell an interesting story. The slides were projected on a large screen and our studio cameras would move about on them to increase visual interest. These were the years before zoom lenses. You had four fixed lenses that you could change by rotating a large drum in the center of the camera. If you wanted the effect of a “zoom in”, you had to choose the appropriate lens and move the heavy camera forward. You did this slowly with your left hand while constantly changing focus with your right. If some of these shows looked a bit static, it was because just about everything we did was so damn hard!

Every Friday night, however, we had the joint jumpin’. Father Norman J. O’Connor, a Jesuit priest and jazz enthusiast, would invite the featured band that had come to play that week at “Storyville.” We would have a half hour of jazz mixed with interviews of the key stars and players. Everybody came to “Storyville” and America’s best singers and musicians appeared. The local union let us do this free since it built up publicity for the artists’ weekend gig.

Each producer/director tried to outdo all others in creative camerawork on the show. When Don Hallock was directing, he hit his high point one evening when two of his three cameras died suddenly in the opening minute of the show. Flinging off his headset, Don flew into Studio A, took control of the remaining camera and directed the rest of the show from the floor, covering all the action expertly.

“Louis Lyons and the News” was unique. The news was whatever Louis Lyons thought should be the news. Louis was an old newsman who tended the flock of Nieman Fellows at Harvard. His job was to choose a dozen Fellows each year from the best journalists in the world and help them spend that year at Harvard. He also planned a Wednesday gathering with a thoughtful and often controversial guest and enough beer to keep the conversation flowing.

Scanning the AP “A” wire, Louis would present news stories with the added perspective of forty years of following world events. Guests came in after the “News” for in-depth interviews on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for “Backgrounds.” They included visiting dignitaries, professors, political figures, and even me on one occasion. David McCord, the genial Cambridge poet who wrote “Every Time I Climb a Tree,” would come every Christmas and read his new poems. Each year Robert Frost would visit as well. Louis’ first question to Frost was always, “Well, what are you working on now?”

Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air —“Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.

Louis licked his lips, rarely looked at the camera, never seemed quite pressed or combed and was very much a law unto himself. Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air — “Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.

“Museum Open House” appeared each week. A gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts would be hung with several dozen specially chosen masterpieces and an MFA TV curator would walk us through this special exhibition of subjects such as, “Van Gogh at Arles” or “Landscapes of the Flemish School” or “Religious paintings of Michaelangelo.” Three cameras would move about the paintings in the gallery while the host or hostess gave the lecture.

Working with genuine masterpieces was a considerable responsibility. All cameras in those days needed lots of light and that meant lots of heat. Months before, WGBH and the MFA had tested just how much heat would cause a fourteenth century oil painting to “run.” I assume a “lesser work” was used as the test painting. It ran. We now knew what temperature to avoid.

One evening a small fourth century BC Egyptian sandstone statue was sitting on a pedestal, just where a quick swinging camera lens would smack it and return it to particles of fine Egyptian sand. In one music program I was producing at the MFA, I heard a large “crack” to see a musician mooning over the back of a Medieval lute she’d just snapped while tightening the strings. Most days, we got by with less excitement.

Of course, taking three cameras to the Museum on Tuesdays meant no cameras for anything else. Few other live shows were planned for Tuesdays, but all of them, including “Louis Lyons and the News” had to originate from the museum!

Each winter, the World Affairs Council and WGBH would produce six discussion programs on the big subjects of world peace and justice. “Decisions” would have a host/moderator and at least four pundits drawn from government and academia. In the days of The Cold War, conflict seemed quite possible and these matters really concerned us.

A little known Harvard professor was a regular. He spoke cogently, if too long, and with a thick European accent. One year we decided that he should be the moderator and he was a disaster, never allowing anyone else to finish sentences and hogging the center of every discussion. We called that hogging syndrome, “The Kissinger Syndrome,” and never invited Henry to moderate again.

“MIT Science Reporter” was a weekly studio show, with Volta Torrey as host. Studio demonstrations were mixed in with interviews about the latest big science happenings. This was the first time I saw a flexible glass rope transmit light even if the rope was tied into a knot. No one on the program proposed any uses for the rope; it was just a clever new invention. Of course, miles of fibre optic cable are being laid each day as you read this.

Another e

arly series was “The Facts of Medicine” with Dr. David Rutstein. I remember little about this series except that in one program, Rutstein directly tied smoking to cancer. This was 1956! No one in the media was talking about that. Of course the tobacco companies continued to prosper by saying ”nothing had been proved,” and that “more research was necessary”. Sound familiar?

Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs.

Many of our programs were courses such as “Poetry” with Professor A. I. Richards; a thin, pale, intense, squeaky-voiced English import to Harvard. Another was “Psychology One,” by a delightful bustling bundle of flesh with the unfortunate name of Professor Edwin G. Boring. Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs. The sight of the distinguished Professor Boring doing this on camera was a delight to us all.

Many of these courses were made and recorded for the United States Navy for submarine sailors who submerged for six months at a time and got quickly bored with magazines and comic books.

And so?

We all thought of ourselves as being on a mission to educate and inform our city. Perhaps a bit holier than thou, we earnestly thought that folks enjoyed, or would enjoy, learning neat things if we presented them with style and excitement. A major problem was that we were mostly using the academic model rather the journalistic model for program planning and production. Mostly this was due to our lack of money, and because we were tied to the studio. None of us had seen a clear model to emulate or the money to put it into practice. For me, that would come later when I spent the year at BBC.

We also had a healthy case of inferiority. Daily, we saw program models that were new and vital on the commercial networks. Often the research and the content were shoddy but the forms were impressive. Commercial TV was real TV and it took a few decades and many millions of dollars for that to change. At the time of this writing (2004), nothing on the commercial networks equals NOVA, NATURE, FRONTLINE, GREAT PERFORMANCES and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

But back to the past.

My job

I was hired as Assistant to the Assistant General Manager and Director of Operations and my first task was to redesign the main office to include four new employees; David Davis, Bill Cavness, Lillian Akel, and me. I moved things around on a paper scale model, and after Hartford’s approval, moved the desks themselves. It’s true that Lillian’s desk was placed next to mine, separated only by a portable partition, but in my truest memory, it was not a plan to get to know her. (She was cute, though)

I often accompanied Hartford in testifying before Legislative committees in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, providing them with helpful information as they were in the act of voting on bills to build ETV stations and networks.

Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered … hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.

In my “spare time,” I produced and directed thirteen programs on Antarctic Exploration with Father Daniel Linehan of the Weston Observatory. Father Dan was a Jesuit geologist with an explorer’s itch. He’d go to various US companies needing things tested in extremely cold climates, take their gear to Antarctica, spend a few hours testing them, and then spend the rest of the summer doing his own research. Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, he stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered it wound into a round copper mess with all the neoprene insulation missing. Hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.

His report said the wire fared well but that the insulation made the product unsuitable for cold climates!

I also produced and hosted a weekly chat show, “Youth Speaks its Mind” dealing with many subjects … except sex and things that really mattered to kids. A group of teachers and I would pick the topics and each week a different school would supply the kids. As host, I would start the ball rolling and ask questions to keep it moving. The show also ran on radio and the radio producer was Lillian Akel.

The Boston Children’s Theater performed four or five plays each year with Adele Thane as Playwright/Director. Whenever they did a good show, Adele would produce a thirty-minute adaptation and I would direct it for TV. We did “Tom Sawyer” quite well, and I still have a mental image of a petite young lady attending all the rehearsals and watching it go out live on the air from the control room. Her name was Lillian Akel.

The 21-inch Classroom

Hartford did not hire me to be his assistant. He hired me to start in-school television for the State of Massachusetts. Parker Wheately, the Manager, however, was not too enthused and so for several months I did other things. In 1957, an eruption in the WGBH staff occurred and Hartford became General Manager.

The eruption consisted of Hartford’s going to Mr. Lowell, the Chairman of the Board, and saying that the top half dozen executives of the station would leave if Parker was not fired. Mr. Lowell gave Parker Wheately a year’s salary and he was gone.

The city of Newton figured largely in the creation of in-school TV. Grace Whitamore, the head of the Newton School Committee, and Bernard Everett, the Director of Curriculum, came to WGBH asking for help to get it started. Hartford and I met with them and he said, “Michael is just the person for you”. Over the next year the three of us spent many hours together as we planned the organization of a voluntary group of school systems in the WGBH coverage area. That meant meetings. And meetings meant speeches. I must have met with, and spoken to, over a hundred PTAs and school committees. I became an expert in the cookies and punch often served at these sessions. Lillian even came to some.

This was also my introduction to Jim Armsey and the world of fund raising. In those days, The Ford Foundation allowed senior program officers to give grants of less than $15,000 on their own signature. In 1957, that was real money. I created a plan for a regional program service to schools run by WGBH and financed by voluntary contributions. We told Jim we intended to use his $15,000 for start-up and showed him how the project would soon be self-supporting. Jim always needed to hear that. He called in his secretary, asked her how much was in a certain account, turned to us and said, “OK, send me a proposal for $14,500 and its yours!”

Future fundraising was rarely that easy.

Just as we were ready to proceed, we discovered a problem that threatened to scuttle the whole venture. A well-meaning fifth grade Cambridge teacher had set in motion a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature to allow cities and towns to voluntarily give money for just such a collective school television project. We thought this was unnecessary. More importantly, if the bill failed, it would be considered that cities and towns did not have the right to do so! I spent most of the summer on Beacon Hill persuading legislators to

back the bill. Cambridge Representative Mary Newman, was a big help, but all the while we kept getting the feeling of the presence of invisible obstacles.

One turned out to be the State Department of Education, jealous that they were not to be involved. Thought to be a lumbering elephant, none of us wanted their bureaucracy to weigh us down. We persuaded them to hold off and they agreed. But still, a resisting fog kept many legislators undecided.

Finally the elephant stuck his trunk out. It turned out that the Boston Archdiocese was opposing the bill unless Catholic schools got the programs FREE! In those days in Boston, the Church got what it wanted. They were written into the bill.

The bill finally passed and we could proceed.

We prepared a short science series in the spring of 1958 to show teachers what our shows might be like. I chose Gene Gray, who had been a star pupil in the class I‘d taught the previous year. The Science Museum’s chief science demonstrator, Norman Harris, was added over my objection. The Museum of Science was a member of WGBH and they insisted. On the first show, Harris spilled acid on his hand, cried out in pain and shouted for the help of his assistant, all live on the air! I insisted that Gene do the rest of the shows solo, and Harris never appeared again!

That week, it so happened that Lillian’s cousin, Tony Khair, was visiting Boston. On the subway to Logan to pick him up, I noticed a headline and familiar picture on the Boston Evening Globe front page being read by a man across the aisle. Our test show had hit the press with a glowing front page review! A nice way to start.

The 21" Classroom

“The 21” Classroom: Hartford Gunn; the author; Bill Kiernan, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education; Gene Gray, everybody’s favorite science teacher on TV; and Norman Harris, Science Director, Boston Museum of Science.

On the air

The 21” Classroom hit the air in earnest in the fall of 1958 with five series broadcast to about 35 school systems.

Two stories from those first series tell a lot about Boston in the 50s. Tony Saletan had been a musician and children’s performer in the Boston area for years. I had him do a supplemental series teaching songs and dances. We used Paul and Marianne Taylor as the folk dancers and it soon became clear that the slight bulge in Marianne’s figure was an impending new family member. HORRORS!

Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.

Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.

Boston teachers were women. They were Irish women. They were mostly unmarried Irish women. Boston even had its own teacher’s college, so that they perpetuated the clan of local, Irish, unmarried teachers in the school system. A more conservative group of biddies you have never seen.

They were also angry. Working hard in their crowded classrooms, day after day, they answered to a cadre of younger, less experienced, higher-paid men! In meeting after meeting, I could feel the resentment and since it had nowhere to go, resentment often was manifested upon the easier targets: ergo, my lovely folk dancer, Marianne Taylor.

I kept her on the series into her ninth month!

Eager to get kids reading, we did a storytelling series using new books so we could incorporate living authors. (Yes, I really did get to meet Robert McCloskey, the author of “Make Way for Ducklings”, and yes, he really looked just like that little kid in the book on the tricycle running down the ducklings.)

Interviewing many storytelling-teachers, I finally chose Beryl Robinson, who turned out to be a Newton Corner neighbor. Beryl was short, warm, and wonderfully cuddly. Her rapport was instantaneous with kids and adults alike. An employee of the Boston Public Library, I was surprised that, with her acknowledged excellence, she was not working at the Main Library but at the Egleston Square branch.

In conversations with other librarians, I always sensed a uncertain hesitancy about their support for Beryl. Was there a controversy or a hidden body somewhere? Beryl was an excellent and cooperative talent. Her set was minimal; a comfortable chair, a small bookcase, and a spread of eager kiddies to sit at her feet to hear and respond to her stories. On the small bookcase at her side, I insisted we have a five-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers every week.

There are times when you do something just for the effect on the talent. Silk flowers would have done as well, but Beryl knew that they were fresh! After each taping, the bouquet was given to Beryl and her astonishment that we would buy fresh flowers and then lavish them on her personally, alerted me to the fact that life had not always been easy for her.

Later, when I met her husband, Judge Bruce Robinson, all became clear. Bruce was tall, thin, Republican, and very black! Beryl was light skinned. I guess I expected that she was Italian or Greek.

So, I had a pregnant folk dancer and “Negro” storyteller in my first set of series. I can take credit for keeping on the pregnant dancer, but I chose Beryl simply because she was the best of the bunch. Isn’t that the way America is supposed to work?

Other series included history, French with Madame Anne Slack, and science with Gene Gray.

Dear Gene Gray. That bright spark plug of a man with that quick mind and all the energy of an enthusiast. We became fast friends, spent many weekends with Gene and Ruth at the farm, made pottery, helped build a foundation underneath the house, ate freshly picked corn, and planted hundreds of pine trees.

One weekend we faced a particularly difficult problem. A large elm with three main trunks sat at the corner of their house. One of the trunks arched dangerously over the house itself. With a chain saw, Gene expertly felled two trunks away from the structure. Then tying a stout rope high on the trunk of the third, we ran it out into the field to a pulley system attached to another tree in his little forest. Back and forth the rope ran through the pulleys to give me the leverage that a pulley system is noted for. I pulled four feet, the tree top leaned over one foot. Steadily, I moved the remaining trunk out of danger of falling on the house as Gene, standing precariously on the two stumps, worked on cutting a wedge out of the third so the tree would fall free of the house corner.

Suddenly a scream. “Damn!”

The chain saw went one way, Gene went the other.

I let go of the rope, the tree sprung back into shape, and I rushed up to find out just where he’d injured himself.

“Damn,” he said again. “We should be filming this! Look. Here we are creating advantage of power with pulleys, using angles to help the tree fall properly. It would have made a fine TV lesson!”

That was Gene Gray.

Several more seasons of “The 21” Classroom” went well. Our teachers were happy, and I was learning how to be a boss of a large project and manage the work of other producer-directors. The number of member schools grew steadily from 35 to 150 and I was beginning to travel to regional and national meetings to share our knowledge about school programming and to learn what other

cities were doing.

A world of song

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

I’ve finally completed an autobiography for my kids. Not surprisingly, it ended up telling a lot about the early days of WGBH and life in Boston. (It went 500 pages with 119 photos!)

Lynn and I continue to sing with choruses that give concerts locally and tour overseas. So far on our foreign tours, we’ve sung in Prague, Wroclaw, Krackow, Budapest, Vienna, Seoul, Suwon, Kyongju, Saigon, Hue, Hanoi, Moscow, Zelenograd, Yaroslavl, St. Petersburg, Talinn, Johannesburg, Durban and Soweto. Two trips within the States found us singing with the Gullah, in the sea islands and the Houma Indian Nation in the deep Mississippi Delta.

The audience in Prague was much smaller than our chorus, but the combined international chorus that performed at the 24th Song Festival in Talinn, was an astounding 21,000 singers  with an audience of 250,000 spreading up the field of an immense outdoor amphitheater.

We look forward to seeing the new WGBH. When you think how public broadcasting has changed over our last 50 years, it seems impossible to imagine what will be happening in that new facility in 2057!

WGBH Pioneers: Michael Ambrosino – Part 2 (1998)

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino — the creator of NOVA — describes his early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

Watch Video — Part 2 (57 minutes)

Transcript — Part 2

INTERVIEWER: June 18, 1998, the second hour of a conversion with Michael Ambrosino.

Michael we were talking about the fire at WGBH in 1961.

Do you remember any great stories about the fire?

MICHAEL AMBROSINO: Well, we were very lucky because several days before the fire, two cameras had been moved into a million mile Greyhound Bus that was sitting out back.

It was going to be the big mobile unit for ‘GBH.

And the day before the fire I think two black and white videotape recorders were moved in and that equipment plus loaned equipment from the Catholic TV Center allowed us to go back on the air the next Monday.

But after the insurance money came in and we bought new equipment and that was put to use,

we still had those two ancient black and white videotape recorders and Hartford had, or I guess the chief engineer had, contacted a company that specialized in the repair of damaged videotape.

And of course, you forget that when you have a fire, there’s water everywhere.

And there was soot, and there was muck, and there were pieces of charred paper and wood and pieces of the roof…

and this was all sitting in sodden masses on all the very delicate electronic gear.

And the company proposed something like $15,000 to repair each recorder and there was no way the station could pay that as well as, but we had the other two recorders and that would be fine.

And they said, oh, you’re the Boston station that burned down, the educational station?

Oh well, that’s different.

We’ll tell you what we do and you do that and you see if it works.

You take all the stuff out of the videotape recorders and you mix one part Vel and one part water, and you paint everything with it.

And then you hose it down and then you plug it in.

If it blows up, you replace it.

And this is what they were going to do for $15,000.

And that’s what the engineers did and most of the stuff had dried out sufficiently in the week with fans and with heaters.

And stuff they plugged in, blew up, and they replaced that.

And so we had four black and white tape recorders.

But if you’ve ever wondered how some commercial companies make their money that’s one of them.

It was no fun for three years operating out of seven or eight different locations.

The inner cohesiveness of the station really fell apart for awhile: management in one place and studios in another.

It meant very long days and great difficulty of moving things back and forth.

It was hard.

INT: So, you had mentioned the Eastern Educational Television Network.

Can you explain it a little bit more?

You had moved from the in-school programming now to the EEN?

MA: I was at home with the flu one day and Hartford Gunn called me at home and said,

I want you to help start a regional network of public educational TV stations in the Northeast.

There were two at the time, New Hampshire and Boston.

And we got together at Mittersill, and we actually planned with what were Boston and a bunch of committee Heads — Vermont ETV Commission, university presidents, League of Women voters — groups that had been for years testifying to committees trying to raise money to do this.

And, step by step, we actually put together a network which transmitted programs off the air to other people’s transmitters and kept relaying these signals from station to station and instituted videotape exchange.

We’d get together every three or four months and figure out what else we could exchange.

We had a huge staff, a secretary and me.

And the first job was to help get stations on the air and to exchange programs with them,

to start to build what eventually became the country’s first interconnected educational TV network …

which ranged from Boston up through Maine and up through Vermont through New Hampshire out to Western Mass, down to New York and Washington.

INT: When was that Michael?

MA: These were in the ’60s.

I joined in ’60 and left in ’64.

In that time, we had not only become an interconnected entity, but had invited places like San Francisco and other stations around the country to join us in the tape network in an informal way.

And that was good because it was the beginning of what has become the American Program Service which is a sort of public television secondary network and is now doing a lot of origination and commissioning rather than just distributing programs.

INT: Just to rehash, when you first came it was a local station broadcasting live for a very few hours a day and then eventually went to kinescope and tape and from then it went to a rotation of tapes and broadcasting on a small regional network.

MA: Remember this was not all the day.

We were signing on at about 5:00 and going off the air at 10:00 everyday, every weekday, and then Saturday was added and then School Broadcasting was added in the morning and then we go dark from 12:00 to 2:00 and School Broadcasting would come back on for an hour or so and then we’d go dark.

It was a lot of what was called test pattern.

You kept your test pattern up because when the man came to your house with the TV set, and he put it in your living room, and he plugged it in and connected to the antenna, he wanted to see a test pattern because that’s what he used to make sure that the tube gave you a real circle.

And the test pattern and music filled much of the air in those days.

And then we expanded to Sunday and then the hours groped up to 11:00 and at 11:00 we all went to bed.

INT: Did we have an audience in those early days?

MA: Yes we had an audience in those days.

It was always more than the little old gray- haired ladies in Cambridge, which we were always accused of broadcasting to.

And even in those days, I remember discovering that people loved to learn — they hate to be taught, but they love to learn — and the proverbial cab driver would, if they knew you were from ‘GBH, would start telling you of programs that they had seen.

It wasn’t a big audience, but it was a very devoted one.

It’s not a big audience now, if you measure it up against the top 20 commercial shows, but I invite everybody to do a little experiment once a year.

If the newspapers ever print not just the top 20 shows, but the next 70 shows so all those programs that get cancelled over a season, that pulls 2’s and 3’s and 4’s, you realize that the programs on public broadcasting outdraw many of the programs that are 30 ranked and 40 ranked and 50 ranked on commercial television.

It’s just that we always hold ourselves up to those shows that are the blockbusters.

The audience is a genuinely connected one.

INT: So up to ’64 you were kind of deeply involved in the setup of the Eastern Educational Network?

MA: I was a suit, yeah.

INT: What happened in’64?

MA: Well, let me tell you one story about what happened before that because it was fun.

Those were the druggie days and Tim Leary was coming to MIT to give a lecture.

It was going to be difficult to film because it was going to be a lecture by candlelight.

A very enterprising Austin Hoyt grabbed Bloyd Estes and they went and shot this lecture and came home and started to edit it and it was going to be a wonderful local program.

The network heard about it and wanted it ready for the network and it was made for the network.

It consisted of Tim Leary with one candle glowing on the stage, sitting cross- legged at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium basically telling the kids they were fools.

They should not go to MIT.

They should dropout.

They should drop acid and they should really learn about themselves.

And for 20 minutes he held the kids spellbound.

And then Jerry Letvin stood up.

Jerry Letvin, Professor Letvin, is a physicist and a psychologist, M.D. doctor.

Not only was he very learned and had done a lot of research, some of it with Tim Leary, but he was the MIT guru.

When you were in trouble you went to Jerry, and Jerry, between smoking all his cigarettes, would tell you how he could help you.

And so he stood up and said to, directly to Tim Leary, who was still seated cross-legged by his feet, “Tim, we’re friends, we’ve done work together.

“Tell me as a clinician, what is it when a person hears smells and sees sounds, two weeks after dropping acid.”

And Tim looked up at him and said, “Oh I’d called him a visionary mystic!”

Oh, and the crowd went wild.

That was a nice put down.

And Letvin said, “Bullshit.

“It’s a … hematoma and you know God damn well it is”.

And for the next 20 minutes he sabotaged Tim Leary and told the kids what happens when they dropped acid to the chemicals in their brain.

This was a wonderful program, it was offered to the network.

In those days, you made 40 tapes, sent it to the top 40 stations, they played them a week, dropped them to the next 40 stations, they played them and on it ran.

And the stations complained.

Not that Tim Leary for 20 minutes was given an audience to tell the kids to drop acid, burn their brains, not that Jerry Letvin had savaged another human being without being chastised for 20 minutes, in the cruelest possible fashion.

But that Jerry Letvin had said, “bullshit.”

And they asked the program to be edited.

‘GBH refused.

So they edited themselves, sent out 40 new tapes to 40 stations.

The stations complained.

Why did they complain? Because Jerry Letvin now said “bullsh…”. because in those days, you edited by taking the tape on the two inch reels and moving it over the sound head.

So, WGBH finally decided it would edit it.

A third set of 40 tapes was sent out to the network.

But as Director of the Eastern Educational Network, I informed my stations that they would have, if they wished, the unexpurgated feed from WGBH.

And of course, they all said yes.

First amendment!We will stand by our rights! We will say the dirty word! And then the telephone calls started coming in.

Well, we’ve had a meeting of our Advisory Committee and we….

so in the end, as with most stupid or brave things, only San Francisco and ‘GBH were going to run the offending word.

That is why my son Jonathan is named for John Rice who was then Program Manager, KQED San Francisco.

And that evening, only those two stations were to broadcast the offense … except the microwave linked north failed about one minute before 9:00.

A very astute transmitter engineer at WENH decided, I know what I’ll do I’ll save the day, I will pick up the off air feed from ‘GBH.

So in the end New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine with their managers knowing full well the offending word would not be there.

It says something about broadcasting then and now that the offense was a word rather than a thought.

It says something about public broadcasting, something about commercial television and I always remember it as sort of a pivotal idea that certain things really bring offense that big ideas don’t and it’s a big shame

INT: Terrific story, terrific story.

MA: It was true.

INT: So at the end of’64 where were you at that particular moment?

MA: Tired of being a suit.

I realized that my future in public broadcasting was probably going to take over the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

You know that just seemed like more administration, I didn’t want to run a station.

And I told Bob Larson that he was overworked.

What he really needed was an assistant program manager and I knew somebody who could fill the job.

I then left the network and became Assistant Program Manager to Bob Larsen and suggested Don Quayle, who had radio experience and television experience and had been radio manager here at WGBH and he took over as my replacement at EEN and built it into the empire that it is today.

He ran it for four years and then John Porter took over and ran it for 20 years.

INT: Well, what did you do when you were Assistant Program Manager?

What are your great accomplishments?

MA: Oh yes, I scheduled the station.

I decided what programs went where, you know, obviously with Bob’s concurrence and changes.

I helped oversee local programming and national programming and continued doing that up until 1969.

INT: What was in your early years of Assistant Program Manager, what was a day like?

How would a ‘GBH programming day run?

What would you see on the air?

MA: Where’s my list?

INT: Well sort of, I mean, you don’t have to have it exact.

MA: Well it was interesting.

We were then really expanding what we were doing.

There were a lot of arts programs.

It was usually high arts.

I mean if it was music, it was classical music.

Too, there was a jazz program.

But it would be…

instead of the one or two camera with one piano, it would be the symphony broadcast or it would be music in rehearsal, it would be opera.

There would be dance.

There was dance early, even in 84 Mass Avenue, we made the national program “A Time to Dance” that Greg Harney directed, Jac Venza produced, and it had all of the great names of dance.

I mean, it is a treasure trove for the dance historian.

Julia Child had started by then because we had the mobile unit in the post fire days.

Those programs were recorded in Cambridge.

You forget that it was very hard.

Dave Stuart, just did a recent piece in “Current” about Julia and he left out an essential point, I thought.

Hartford could not sell Julia to public broadcasting.

It wasn’t serious enough, it wasn’t high art enough.

There was a meeting of the television stations of the nation in Denver.

We all met in a bar in one of the ghost towns out in the woods in Denver, and Hill Bermont, the program manager of Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia, made a very impassioned speech that it was all too high art and he ended by screaming at Curt Davis, “When, when will we stoop to Swan Lake?”

And the answer was never!

It was only after Curt Davis left as being head of “Culture” did we “stoop” to something that was as prominent a ballet as Swan Lake.

The stations were now starting to do what were real political programs, documentaries about the way the nation worked and about the way the nation didn’t work.

So that “NET Journal” and you know we would try to feed programs into that.

I had seen a fellow called George Page who had done a documentary in Georgia called “Blockbusting Atlanta Style” — a wonderful program about how white real estate operators would try to introduce a black family into certain neighborhoods, the rest of the families would flee, the real estate operators would buy the houses up very cheap, sell them dear to black families.

And Hartford was looking for a documentary producer and I suggested he look at George.

George was working here several weeks later and he and Don Fauser and Austin Hoyt started making many of those early series and programs that tried to analyze the way this country was working at the time.

INT: And George Page then went on to WNET?

MA: WNET did more documentaries and then became the person in charge of “Nature” and ran that series into the great series that it is today.

INT: And George Page’s voice is well associated I think with public television.

What are some of the other important things that you were doing?

MA: “The Reporters”.

I was fascinated with the uproar at this station some years ago when the “Nightly News” went off the air because I had lived through several uproars like that in the past.

An educational station just doesn’t have enough resources to have a real news presence in the community.

The first news programs were basically talk with Louie Lyons and they never really progressed much further than that: a 15-minute reading of AP wire copy.

There were a variety of strikes that went on in the newspaper industry, and KQED, probably the most resourceful of the educational stations at the time, created something called “Newsroom” in which they brought all the reporters in and basically looked as if they were having an editorial meeting and they would say, Fred, what’s the story on your page today?

And Fred would say what the important news happened in his area and then he would be questioned by the other people as they would in an editorial meeting.

WGBH did one of those as well and out of that grew the idea that well maybe we could have a nightly news presence and I forget what the first one was called.

I’ve got it written down here as the “Reporters.”

INT: I think you’re right.

It started from a Globe newspaper strike and then it led to the “Reporters.” Wasn’t Allan Lupo one of the first….

MA: Alan Lupo was on it, Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein who’s now known as the Mr. Anonymous from “Primary Colors.”

These were ‘GBH reporters going out and finding stories.

Howard Spurgle was a member.

Howard was the most professional of the group and he had the education beat and the problem was, was at the editorial meetings, Howard would present five, six, seven, ten stories on education and the executive producer had to be very careful that you know education didn’t carry the whole night, but Howard was right there with his stuff and the rest of the people were running around, trying to found out what was going on.

We also did the conventions, and I remember the convention when Chub Peabody was nominated in the Hines Auditorium.

Sharon Rivo was directing and all the reporters were covering the floor and at 2:30 in the morning Chub Peabody, who had just been nominated by the convention, turned to the reporter who was interviewing him and said, do you think anybody’s really up and listening to us?

And the reporter sort of looked out into this vast empty scene and no, I guess we’d better call it a night.

And that’s how we went off the air.

‘GBH was doing an auction then, of course, and in those days they were a bit less hectic than they are now.

We would stop and dance for a half hour.

I remember Olivia doing jitter bugs on the stage.

We would raise, I guess, a $100,000 a year and think that was great.

I don’t know if auctions are cost efficient these days, but in those days they certainly did bring the community together.

Thousands of men and women, mostly women, went out into the community and scoured things and really found out that people did really feel that they belonged to the station.

INT: Do you think that the fire and the auction were the two major catalysts of really bringing WGBH into predominance in this awesome community or do you think it was the other programming like Julia Child and “The Reporters?”

MA: I think it was the other programs.

I think the fire and the auction just reminded people that we were here.

INT: We were a local station, weren’t we? I mean, when did we become national? When did it really start happening?

MA: From the earliest days it sought national.

I think “Discovery” was distributed nationally.

“Science Reporter” was distributed nationally.

We had one of the first kinescope machines and we would record programs.

In those days, national programming meant local programs that were recorded and sent out. And then you’d get maybe a $100 to do better visuals and then the program facilitators at the Educational Television and Radio Center would make some suggestions and then they would make some suggestions as to the kind of series that they could use looking for a balance in their schedule and then they made the programs themselves.

Stations like WGBH and the rest had to sort of fight to get their nose in.

And they assembled producer staffs in New York to do “NET Journal” and, you know, Fauser and Austin and George Page would have to fight their way into those series.

It’s the natural progression.

INT: The emergence of WNET or NET as it was a division, became kind of an important part of the structure of the network in those days where ‘GBH was a supplier, but it was really a network operation called NET that was really functioning as the kind of major distributor of programming, am I right?

MA: Well there was a station called WNDT, New Dimensions in Television, that went on the air, of course, it was struck by the union and I hate to say this guys, but I and a bunch of people from ‘GBH scabbed, went down, put them on the air, they went off the air right after that opening program, it was with Ed Morrow, and then for two weeks negotiated and it went back on the air with a union contract.

It thought itself the most important station in the world.

It had as its manager, Dick Heffner, a very self-important man.

That station sort of made us all feel as if we were just hicks, but I don’t think they ever came up to the job in terms of doing the really great things.

The Ford Foundation demanded that NET in New York and WNDT merge because they were tired of funding the two groups.

And then of course they became the national producer and it even became harder for other stations, including WGBH, to get in to the documentary area or the cultural series because they had the facilities, they had the staff, they had the commissioners, they had the producers and they became a real necessary and vibrant part of public broadcasting and probably that’s where the more daring programs were made.

INT: Such as’?

MA: “The NET Journals.”

INT: The series the “Dream Machine.”

MA: What was the name of that program?

INT: “Great American Dream Machine.” Did you have anything to do with it?

MA: Minuscule.

Some of the real fun things came too.

A sense of humor was to be brought…

INT: “The American Family”

MA: “The American Family” by Gilbert?

INT: I forget.

MA: “The American Family” was a program about the Loud’s … cameramen living and a husband and wife living with them for months …

Over the objections of the head of documentaries at the time.

Jim Day merely took $80- or $100,000 out of the budget and gave it to these independent producers.

“The Great American Dream Machine” was segmented pieces that allowed a lot of creative people, including somebody who’s sitting on the dias, to make segments for that program.

Mickey Lenley…

INT: Mickey Lenley, oh my.

MA: You …

INT: … and the animator, Fouser’s dear friend…

MA: Yeah.

MA: He did all the openings for the Boston Pops, all the animated openings.

I can’t remember…

INT: It sounded as if the culture in the high arts was now moving into a news program, into documentaries, into coverage of local conventions.

It sounded like the very quality of the kind of programs and the very subject matter of the programs of WGBH was changing radically in the early days of the ’60’s?

MA: Yes, we were moving from the educational TV station to the public television station.

We were moving from seeing ourselves as the extension of the Harvard University extension classes to a station that actually look into how the nation worked.

I was doing a lot of stuff that dealt with the coverage of the UN.

In ’67 the Arab-Israeli war broke out.

We were covering the United Nations when there was no morning programming right up until 5:00 when we would go into our regular stuff.

And in those days you just bumped the schedule.

I mean we never thought that the schedule was filled with such wonderful programs that we couldn’t wipe it out for a moment’s notice for coverage of important events.

There were war and anti-war protests and the station was involved in those.

KQED was doing a lot of stuff out on the streets.

I remember at one point when the students at Harvard took over buildings and President Pusey would not speak to them.

And Studio A was emptied and a huge table built and the students and some of the board of overseers or the Board of Directors of Harvard sat in that room and basically talked to Nathan Pusey via WGBH’s transmitter.

I remember being in this studio, myself on camera, after the bombing of Cambodia and for two or three nights in a row broadcasting what people in the City of Boston could do to protest the bombing in Cambodia.

I remember, in the death of Robert Kennedy, commissioning programs on poetry and music that influenced Robert Kennedy and calling Fred Rogers saying …

“I’ve commissioned two or three half hours.

“If you could do a half hour we’d then have two hours of programming for children … because all they’re going to see is dead bodies going past Capitol steps.”

And Fred said, “Oh, we’re already making that one.”

And so, you know, we used the Eastern Educational Network and the stations had something for children during that time.

PBL was created by the Ford Foundation to be an experiment on Sundays, two and a-half hours of interconnection, you know, a rental of big telephone lines and the whole country was pulled together, a new staff was pulled together.

And again, the fight as to whether WGBH would get into that kind of program.

I remember going to a little play with Greg Harney, in a little theater directed by David Wheeler, watching a very tall guy and a very short guy in a play called “The Dwarfs” by Pinter.

The tall guy turned out to be John Voight, the short guy was Dustin Hoffman and the decision was should we televise that as part of PBL.

Greg directed it.

INT: The acronym was Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

MA: Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

It was to show what we could do if somebody would give us enough money and in those days, of course, the funder was the Ford Foundation, they did everything.

INT: Was Dave Davis at the Ford Foundation at that time?

MA: After ’67 he was.

There was the “James Brown Show.”

Martin Luther King was murdered and the cities burned.

Boston did not burn.

James Brown was doing a concert the day after King died, and the Mayor suddenly realized that 12- or 13,000 black youngsters would be let out of the Boston Garden at about midnight and probably would walk through town on their way to Roxbury because there were no buses or the T wasn’t operating and decided that was not to be done.

He got in touch with WGBH.

I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 and asked if we could go on the air from Boston Garden by 8:30 because the Mayor was going to buy the house and every TV station in town was going to tell kids not to come.

An argument ensued among the executives at WGBH whether this was a good idea.

At which point I said, “You continue talking. If you want me on the air by 8:30 I’m now leaving.”

I got in touch with three men, the four men that I knew could get us on the air by 8:30 — Greg Harney, Russ Morash, David Atwood and Al Potter — and we screamed down to the Boston Garden.

We laid out the cameras, and about two hours later I met Mr. Brown and his bodyguards and with an alpaca coat on his shoulders.

I thanked him very much for allowing us to televise the concert and he said, “What television?”

At which point, he and Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant, got together and talked about it and an hour later they came out and agreed, yes we could televise.

And we broadcast that program once and twice and I think three times that night.

About 1,000 people had come and were allowed in to the concert.

Brown brought Mayor White onto the stage.

The two of them basically said to the City of Boston,

“This city is different from other cities and this city should not burn.”

And the major conflagrations that were happening all over the country did not happen here.

Interesting use of media at the time and interesting that WGBH was asked to do it.

INT: I remember Louis Lyons crying on the air when Martin Luther King died.

MA: No, when Bobby Kennedy.

INT: Was it Bobby?

MA: Yes.

Bobby Kennedy was shot after Martin Luther King.

Louis Lyons arrived.

I arrived at the station, Louis arrived at the station, Fauser arrived at the stage.

Louis demanded to go on the air immediately.

He was in an absolute rage.

I was the only executive at the station.

I cancelled the program at the time.

Louis went into the studio, Fouser directed, and he basically said, “This nation is rotten,” and gave a four or five minute editorial, a statement, about his thoughts of the depths that we had descended to.

We faded to black, came up with reports of the death and then went back into regular program.

All of broadcasting was sort of held in abeyance over the next couple of days except for the funeral.

INT: Quite a moment.

MA: Yes.

MA: Louis Lyons was quite a man.

INT: Well Louis was, by nature, a very, how should we say, conservative journalist.

He was a reader of copy, he did not express in any emotional way of how he felt, his words were always very carefully selected, and in this one he really just was in an outrage.

MA: Not exactly.

Louis was a man of great passion.

He may have read his copy in a mild way, but his idea of the news was to tell you what the news was, and then with his 40, 50 years of knowledge, was to tell you what it meant and it was his own perspective and it was quite strong at times.

He was the news presence of the station for many years.

He and Bob Barram did Regional New England News.

He was head of the Nieman Fellowships and ran that with great distinction for a number of years.

And everyday he would come and the smallest of the trees in front of WGBH — the one that is dying because it gets the least water — would be picked over by him as he walked in.

He never forgot that he started life as a agricultural reporter and would always tell you what was happening in the agricultural fields.

INT: I don’t want to make too short of a period of time up, you know, when you were Assistant Program Manager, but when did you go on camera Michael?

I mean you had your own show there for awhile?

MA: I had been on camera before.

I did a lot of stuff on the auction.

I was the only person I think at WGBH who still had a working actors equity card, I mean, I was professional theater background.

I had interviewed all of the candidates….

I had done a lot of stuff in the ’50s … on-camera interviews.

I had interviewed, in the ’60s, all the people running for Congress.

And in 1969 we were going to do a program that dealt with the high arts and it was to be a critical evaluation of opera, music, dance, theater in Boston.

And I said, gee, we do that all the time.

Why don’t we do something that’s really on the streets.

Let’s get out and do something.

There had been only one series that had ever done that in our lives and what was the name of that program?

It was called “What’s Happening Mr. Silver” produced by you.

I thought we should really be doing that.

That’s where we are, that’s where the studio, but this piece should be out there.

And Michael Rice, who was then Program Manager, said, “Well, what would it be like?” And I said, “I’ll tell you Monday.”

Monday I came in with a proposal, he said, “Oh that’s interesting, who will do it?”

I said, “I’ll do it.”

He said, “But you’re assistant, associate then, director of programs.”

I said, “I’ll do both jobs.”

He said, “Who will appear as host?” because in those days every show had to have a host.

I said, “I will be the host.”

The only person with professional theater training.

We started out to make a series and I forget who the first director was…

The first director was Fred Barzyk and the first couple of shows were shot out the side of the mobile unit because that was as mobile as we could be.

You then designed a rig for the back of the bus and we could shoot 270 degrees off that.

And I remember Greg McDonald, god bless him, driving the truck, no it was on camera, Greg was driving, somebody was on camera …

We were on the Mystic River Bridge at about 8:00 in the morning at the head of rush hour and you were talking in the headsets to the truck driver, to the cameraman, and I was listening in and you said, “Slower, slower, stop”.

And you were then directing, we were doing a program about the environment of the city, you were shooting smoke stacks.

And Greg said, “Fred we’re parked on the Mystic River Bridge in the middle of rush hour”.

And your response was, quote, “We’ve paid our toll.”

INT: That’s true.

We got the shot and moved on.

MA: We paid a Boston policeman with a motorcycle $27.00 and we could go anywhere.

Lee Polk and Jerry Slater from WNET came up to see us do ” Michael Ambrosino’s Show” and they couldn’t believe what we were doing because the City of New York and its regulations and the unions…

There’s no way you could run a cable on the sidewalk.

No way you could stop, as we did, in the middle of Harvard Square and put me on the top of a chair for a half an hour, stopping direct traffic in all directions to do a lead-in.

We quickly discovered in that series that we could either do a studio show with studio segments or we could do exterior segments, but we didn’t have enough money to do both and you, god bless you, said, we’ll do it all outside.

And so we did credits, and everything.

And we did in those days 18 programs in 28 weeks.

About half were videotaped and half were film.

Boy, that’s with just reversal film.

There would be a day for shooting, a morning for videotape editing or a day or a day and a half of film editing.

Dick Bartlett cut most of those.

And it was my attempt to remind myself … a primer of what could be done outside.

Some were interviews, some were little documentaries.

There was a program about Inman Square, there were programs about pollution, there were programs about dawn.

We showed little rock concerts, we showed what autumn was like, we showed what flying was like.

We did a program about Boston Harbor.

And I remember we finally were getting it right, I think Dave Atwood was directing at that time, and we had … you were directing, Inman Square?

INT: Inman Square.

MA: You directed that one, and I remember we came in, the show went out on Tuesday nights so we came in probably on a Monday morning and Ralph Schuetz walked up to us, with tears streaming down his face and holding two, two-inch cans of tape and said …

“I have tapes two and three of ‘Michael Ambrosino’s Show’,” and we said, “Where’s tape number one?”

And he said, “We recorded Governor Furcoloon over it last night.”

So, we made a show of tapes two and three.

Luckily, you had said that the six to eight minute intro that we had shot on tape one was no good and we should do it over and that was on tape three and that was the Inman Square program.

INT: An important factor, at least the Boston history, was that was the first time that a little seafood place had been showcased on camera has gone on to become probably Boston’s number one seafood restaurant, Legal Seafoods.

MA: Legal Seafoods.

George Burkowitz gave me a lesson on how to buy fish.

He stuck a fish in my face and said, “Smell that, smell anything?”

I said, “No I don’t smell anything.”

He said, “Ah, it’s fresh fish.”

INT: We have to get to this point …

You and WGBH went separate ways there for awhile….

MA: Yep.

There had been a putsch in 1967, there was a change in management, and having been told I would be program manager, I wasn’t.

I resigned.

I ran around the country for three months.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington flew me out.

I came back to the station and said, you know I don’t want to go anywhere.

I’m going, the terrible, you know, all the macho stuff is I should quit now, you choose Michael Rice instead of me.

No station around the country for the next five or ten years is going to make the kind of programs that this place can make.

So, I stayed.

In the middle of making that series “Michael Ambrosino’s Show,” I guess I said to myself, you are the programmer you thought you were.

Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was that I was not made the program manager.

I think Michael made a better program manager than me.

I think he gave more freedom to people like you than I would have given you in “What’s Happening Mr. Silver.”

And he gave me that freedom in “Michael Ambrosino’s Show.”

In the middle of that, I told the station to fill my job.

That if I came back, I would come back to do something else and Mark Stevens was made Associate Director of Programs.

It was also a sort of a personal thing.

I was going to be 40 in June and I had literally been working since the age of five, when my mother made my first apron in the store and I felt the 40th year was mine, nobody else could have it.

I quickly discovered that Fulbright gave a pittance and you had to teach somewhere.

Guggenheim gave less and the Ford Foundation was not interested in giving me a grant to sit on my duff in Northern Italy and contemplate what I do next.

And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a fellowship, but the previous year it had been at Nippon Hoso Kyoki , NHK in Japan, and although I still spoke some Japanese from 18 months in the service there, I knew that I would go to a foreign network in a fellowship and be an observer and that wasn’t for me.

And about two months later it was announced that the 1970, ’71 fellowship would be in London at the BBC and I said, that’s mine.

And I applied for it and went after it and four days before I was 40, in which I would be ineligible to receive it, I got the grant and that really changed my life and changed my ideas about programming forever.

INT: So, how did it change and what were those ideas?

MA: Well, the BBC said, we have a wonderful plan for you.

We’re going to set you up in nine different divisions, you know, one month at a time.

The first month you’re going to eat with everybody and I said, you know if I were 21 that would be great, but I’m 40.

I didn’t come here to look at all of your different divisions.

I came here to work.

You’ve got a very pugnacious program that goes out 45 minutes every night, BBC One, called “24 Hours” it was news and current affairs, had three production teams that worked in rotation.

If I’m any good and I get assigned to that, I’m going to actually work there and get the kind of experience that I want.

And the BBC being the BBC said, “Oh, you’ve got your own ideas, that’s fine.”

So for the first month, I did eat with everybody from Hugh Whelden to David Attenborough, to the heads of radio, to the heads of all the major divisions, the drama, music, opera, etc.

In radio in overseas and then in television.

And then I went to work.

Monday, I observed.

Tuesday, I was given an assignment.

I was given an assignment which I later learned had been given to two other people and it had been rejected.

A young associate producer on the program had proposed an interview by a well-known British rock star and the executive producer of the program was so entranced in getting to meet him that he directed it himself.

A filmed interview, 45 minutes long, without one cut away, no pictures of the apartment, no pictures of his bedroom, the socks, the books in the bookcase.

And so the other people had cut it and it you know had butchered it.

Coming out of “Michael Ambrosino’s Show,” we had done video editing, snap editing.

We’d done a lot of it and I was not an expert, but certainly was more expert than they were.

I had found a piece of music that this fellow had done, in a recent film, and edited the interview to the beat of the music he had been performing.

So that everything had a cadence and Thursday night of that week, an 18 minute piece on a little known rock star called Mick Jagger went out on BBC One and I was no longer an observer, I was then a member of the staff.

It’s interesting that I owe my whole future in programming to him.

I worked on that program, a dear man left his position as an associate director of the program and allowed me to take over because the American elections were on and so I was directing teams of film makers in America to cover Rockefeller, to cover Bob Drinan’s run for Congressman, the first Jesuit to go to Congress.

We had satellite feeds and that was a rather glorious four or five months.

And I wrote that up hoping that public broadcasting would do something like that instead of the sort of newsroom approach that we were following.

I then spent about four months watching something strange called “Features Group” make documentaries out of programs that we normally would have thought of as educational television or further instruction.

Programs about music, about dance, about the arts, about science and technology and religion and these were very popular documentaries on BBC Two.

At that time in England commercial television had come in and BBC One was reorganized to give them a real fight for their money because BBC One had been losing its ratings and all the educative kinds of shows went to BBC Two.

And about a month before I was to come back to America, Bob Larsen came over and we took a seven hour walk talking about if I came back, what would I come back to do?

And he asked me what I would like to do?

And I said, I want to take over Channel 2.

I think we should separate local and national programming.

Local programming is going to be screwed by the impetuous for national and he said, “No ‘GBH will never separate the two.”

“What else would you like to do?”

I said, “Well I think I would like to start a science series.”

And May the first, 1971, I wrote a five page letter to Michael Rice outlining basically what a science program for public broadcasting would be like.

INT: And of course we all know that’s “NOVA” that came out of that five-page letter.

MA: Yes, I came back to WGBH on a Rockefeller Grant for a couple of months to develop a science project.

Actually Michael’s letter welcoming me back, welcomed me back to do “Michael Ambrosino’s Show” and maybe to create a science series.

I also was developing a project called “Dying” because one of the Michael Ambrosino programs was going to be about leukemia kids at Childrens Hospital.

And another project which failed.

Development took a year, raising the money took another year and a half and we actually went on the air in 1974 in March with the first 13 programs in the “NOVA” series.

INT: And the BBC and all that connection at BBC and WGBH were co-producers, am I right in saying that?

MA: Not co-producers as much as, it would not have happened had we not taken on the strand technique that BBC had created.

INT: The strand technique?

MA: Well there was no way in hell anybody was going to give me the millions necessary to do 13 new science programs and we were not equipped to make 13 new science programs in a series.

If we would make three or four ourselves with BBC producers that I brought over, with American associate producers and PAs who could then be trained to do this, and we co-produced one or two with BBC, and we bought some of their best award winners that they made in the last 10 years.

We could spread that money out and get more programs for a few dollars and actually create a TV series that meant that the programs we made had to come up in quality to the award winners that we were buying because I had 150 programs to choose from for the first series.

So, we were off and running.

INT: In that first year or two of “NOVA,” which of the shows are you most pleased with?

What are the ones that really stand out in your mind?

MA: “Why Do Birds Sing”.

Typical I think of “NOVA” is that it would take a subject that you’ve never even thought you’d be interested in, and show you something that was just so stunning and so beautiful that it made you look at the world a little differently.

Recently, the National Science Foundation gave an award to “NOVA” in its 25th year and I told a little story that I thought the perfect “NOVA” was a film about a lot, a vacant lot, done by a “NOVA” producer in such a way that you would never think of a lot as ever being vacant again.

And I think that is the charm of a series like that.

That, yes, it could deal with things like the “Plutonium Connection” by John Angier, in which we showed that stolen or lost plutonium could be made into a terrorist weapon and had it checked with scientists in Scandinavia.

We dealt with the issues of bombing and whether bombing was effective for the First World War up through Vietnam and showed that indeed it wasn’t effective and did not destroy the morale of any population, it only galvanized it.

Along with the public policy questions of whether there was enough water in the country to feed Los Angeles.

There were these films that took place, you know, infinite delight of beauty, that just looked at a desert and shows what happens in a desert in a course of a year …

That dealt with bird migrations and how they can travel thousands of miles and come back to the same place.

The inner beauty of finding out how the world worked.

It was never meant to be a science series.

I think it is not a science series, it uses science to show how the world works.

Excellent tool, as film-making is an excellent tool.

INT: Well from a viewer whose benefitted much from “NOVA,” thank you for writing that five page memo.

I’m glad you came back.

The end of our second hour.

June 18, 1998 with Michael Ambrosino.

Thank you.

WGBH Pioneers: Michael Ambrosino – Part 1 (1998)

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino — the creator of NOVA — describes his early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

This series presents authorized interviews with early producers and directors for Boston’s innovative public television and radio stations. He was interviewed on June 19, 1998 by Fred Barzyk.

Watch Video — Part 1 (56 minutes)

Transcript — Part 1

INTERVIEWER: This is June 18, 1998 and I’m having a conversation with Michael Ambrosino. Thank you Michael for joining us.

Can you give us a little bit of your personal history, where you were born and where you went to school and how you came to television?

MICHAEL AMBROSINO: I was born in Brooklyn, spent half the year there, half the year in West Hampton Beach where Dad had another store.

[I] grew up being fascinated with science and did a lot of theater, music.

I was a jazz musician when I was 14, had the nicest set of drums on Long Island, and because the war was going on, I got mickey gigs and played every gin mill and polka palace on Long Island.

I changed majors the first day at the university.

I had been admitted as a BS in physics and changed to a BS in drama, because I didn’t want to wake up being an old man of 35 not having had given that creative side of me a chance.

It was a very romantic death wish because, in those days, there was one regional theater east of the Mississippi — it was called the Brattle Theater.

Of course in 1949, when I was a freshman it became a movie theater, so I was preparing myself for a profession that didn’t exist.

After the service I came back and did a Masters in television and that was very helpful because in those days commercial radio stations never thought they wanted to go into TV … it was 20, 30 times the capital.

At Syracuse, we produced directed a whole bunch of programs that went on the commercial station.

As a graduate student I did a series of 13 half-hour shows myself.

A tremendous kind of experience that you can’t get today, but today you can pick up a little camera and make a video all by yourself and edit it on your Macintosh.

The second job was for the Ford Foundation doing a research project in Schenectady, New York.

It was one of the first high schools in the United States to use closed circuit television to expand teaching.

In those days, there was a tremendous teaching shortage: they had 27 physics classes and 1 physics teacher and we would try to multiply his use to see if we could work out, technically, question and answering sessions from multiple classrooms.

We did French with Madam Ann Slack and we did Social Studies and we did a bunch of things.

I was invited along with a bunch of other people from Ford cities to come to Harvard and give a speech and somebody from WGBH heard this speech and I was working here two weeks later.

INT: Had you heard of WGBH?

MA: Yes. While at my first job at the University of Connecticut, I’d actually taken the tour of the station.

I couldn’t find it, drove up Mass Avenue looking for a TV station, drove right past it, and didn’t realize that it was a defunct roller skating rink above a drug store.

I had to work my way all the way back from Harvard to finally find it.

INT: Who was the person that heard your speech?

MA: Hartford Gunn. He was then the Controller of WGBH. He was in charge of money, dispersing it — we never raised money in those days — and he asked me to come and start school broadcasting for the state of Massachusetts.

INT: So, you were in charge of developing school broadcasting for the station?

MA: Yes.

INT: Based upon your experience with your in-school experience?

MA: Based on six months experience, because I was an “expert”.

INT: I see. This was educational television….

MA: Yes it was. It was very educational.

In those days, programs consisted of a series of things. It was an extension of the educational system of Massachusetts.

If you remember, people came back from the Army — Navy and the Marines — and told Conant that Harvard should start a radio station.

Conant, being very wise, said that [it would] always be a Harvard station, we shouldn’t do that.

So, he got Ralph Lowell to get a bunch of other institutions in Boston together and they formed the nascent Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.

For the most part, they made radio series on poetry, on music, on everything except art, I guess, it’s non-visual, and put those on commercial stations around town.

It quickly became a real pain in the neck to get bumped off every time the commercial station really sold something, or to be allotted Saturday mornings at 7:00 or 6:00 time.

In ’51, the LICBC put on its own FM station. In those days, there were no FM receivers.

Later on, became the provost of MIT, himself had recorded for Lomax, many of the recordings that are in the Library of Congress of folk singers in the South.

went to General Armstrong and had him give WGBH its first transmitter, which was the prototype Armstrong frequency modulation transmitter. I think it probably had a number one on it.

INT: LICBC, what is that?

MA: Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. I think everyday on WGBH David Ives talks about it turn the station on at 6:00 am.

INT: What was it exactly? What was the function?

MA: It was a coop. First of all, they charged themselves money. I mean the major budget for the station came from Harvard, MIT, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and second from these groups came programs.

So that Edwin G. Boring would do a series of 15 programs on psychology. The Museum of Fine Arts would do programs about art.

There were no children’s programs, or news and current affairs. It was an extension of the educational process of adult education.

The Lowell Institute was created by the Lowells for those people who had interest, but no cash, to further their education.

They could take courses at night at Harvard and if they worked long enough get an Associate Arts degree.

If you go to the Harvard Commencement, at any year as I did this year, because a friend was getting a PhD., the loudest applause are for the Associate Arts because they know that these people worked long and hard to get their degrees.

INT: When you first came to WGBH, can you kind of describe the place? How many people were employed there and what was the place like?

MA: Dinky. You walked in the door with two dark columns on either side and strapped to one of them was a big bronze plaque, that is in the front of this building today, announcing the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.

You went up a flight of dark green stairs, turned left, and realized that there was a telephone operator next to a big telephone answering machine.

It was one-half of a defunct roller skating rink. Under the balcony were the radio studios and what was .. Control A for A studio, there was only one studio. and a telecine room, engineering offices.

Above the balcony were the offices for the radio and television staff and audio editing for the radio producers.

The floor was made of wood. And one day all the males at WGBH were invited in on a Saturday to nail the studio floor down, because it squeaked and if you dollied a certain way the cameras kept bumping up and down and you couldn’t move.

There was in the other half of the roller skating rink an engineering company.

When it went out of business it donated to WGBH three brand new galvanized garbage cans full of old bread boards.

WGBH enjoyed that so much, the engineers unsoldered every resistor from those bread boards and straightened out the prongs and put them in the proper cabinet.

It was a different world.

It had two cameras. old tubes that had been donated from commercial stations so that if you sat anywhere very long you burn in a shot.

You could do anything with two cameras that you could do with two cameras.

When we got the third camera everything was really great.

On Thursday night, we did a live half-hour program from the Museum of Fine Arts.

All three cameras went there which meant that any other program that night had to also originate from the Museum of Fine Arts.

Programs consisted of relatively small things.

We ran from something called “What’s Going on Around Boston” which was a drum on which were listed, on little three-by-four cards pinned to the drum, events coming up.

You played music and roll the drum and then pan left to the other card, and then they would roll the drum and then you pan right, and this was one of the first directing jobs that you had to do.

On the other hand, from the beginning days, the station did children’s programming.

Tony Saletan did music, natural history programs with Mary Lela Grimes, programs that dealt with world affairs, politics— but, for the most part, long series of programs on poetry, music, psychology, science. “Science Reporter” was one of the first programs.

But these were interview programs. Basically staged as we doing this little bit right now. Not inconsequential though.

In 1955, the first mention, in television that I know of, of the effect of tobacco and cigarettes on cancer was done by a doctor in a series called “The Facts of Medicine,” which is tremendous when you think of it and that’s what it was like.

INT: How many people Michael?

MA: I remember about 30 or 35.

I remember, I kept thinking I was the 35th or the 36th employee and we all had to cram into one office on the second floor.

INT: I take it money for shows was scarce and hard to come by?

MA: You didn’t get money for shows, you got things.

You got so many hours of studio time.

You got whatever the scenery people could build, whatever the art department could draw.

We all would rehearse our programs in the afternoon and then do them live.

One of the first jobs that you were taught was how to replace the director of the previous live programs.

There were film and kinescope and live and that was it, with one switcher and one control room. This was a juggling act.

INT: So when we started off we were almost like radio shows being put on camera.

two black and white and then we got a third camera which then opened up the horizon.

All the shows were live at that particular moment.

MA: Yes, with the exception of those programs that had been made from other places, and kinescoped and sent to us, or actual half-hour or 15 minute films.

But not all just discussion. The children’s programs were quite active. Children in the studio, dancing, music, etc.

The natural history program was quite active itself. A young Harvard senior, however, complained to Mary Lela Grimes that she had no film.

Mary Leia said, stop bitching and do something about it.

And the senior went out and bought himself an Aeroflex in 1956 for $9,000, bought lenses and designed his own lenses and shot, free of charge for her, for an entire year, beavers and butterflies and all kinds of the most marvelous film.

Suddenly the second year of “Discovery” directed by Bob Larsen was an amazing program because it had the natural history captured, instead of bringing a beaver into a studio and hoping it didn’t eat up all the scenery.

Charlie went onto produce children’s programs here, got his PhD. and he now is in charge of Ornithology, Cornell University, which is the big job for anybody who knows anything about birds. He’s a specialist in bird navigation.

INT: And his full name is?

MA: Charles Wolcott. He was either the grandnephew or great-grandnephew or had some relation to — Ralph Lowell, himself.

So, Charlie, although he had many frayed shirts, had a Mercedes and could well afford to buy an Aeroflex, but he decided to do it. He was an amazing human being.

INT. You started mentioning some names, I think we should go into them a little bit from your prospective.

Robert Larsen, Bob Larson as we called him.

Can you tell us a little bit of what he did, what his influence was on the station, his contribution?

MA: I think he was the only person from Boston who worked at WGBH, he was the local boy.

He worked at the Christian Science Monitor, came to WGBH as a producer. In 1957, when there was a major shakeout, he became Program Manager of the station.

He moved up through the ranks as Program Manager, became, I think, Vice President, when Dave Ives took over as President in ’70.

He was a gentleman, a learned man, a person who, like many of the staff, would spend days attending courses at Harvard, looking for good talent to be on programs.

He had a profound effect on me, on the future of the station.

INT: What would you say was his most lasting –?

MA: The sense that WGBH did things in an honorable manner. That ideas mattered.

This is a great town for an idea. People don’t laugh at you if you’re serious.

And he allowed many of us to do things over the last forty years that had some fun about them because they went deeply into the substance of ideas.

INT: Dave Davis?

MA: Dave Davis came two or three days before I did in 1956.

He’d been teaching at Temple. He had a sense of expertise because he’d worked in commercial television.

He was one of the guys like yourself or Potter, Al Potter, Russ Morash, David Atwood, who can just do anything.

You go into a stadium and you say, “Okay we put the cameras here, there, there, get the lines, do this,” and be on the air in a couple of hours.

Dave had done sports and music and all kinds of stuff. He was a trumpet player and he had his own fake book. He played in jazz bands.

He did a lot of the music programs. He directed the first symphonies before Bill Cosel did. In the I guess you’d call it a putsch in… 1957, he was asked to take over television .

Bob was his Program Manager and they were the two people who formed the station from then until 1967.

They were the two minds that moved the station forward in terms of television.

INT. Hartford Gunn?

MA: Hartford Gunn. Probably the first real strategic mind in public broadcasting. Always thinking ahead.

The story I often use about him whenever giving a talk is that my first task at WGBH, in which I spent two weeks at a drafting board, was to design the University of New Hampshire Television Studio.

Because Hartford was trying to help stations start all over New England, because he knew that ‘GBH would never survive alone, and that public television had to become more than local, had to become regional, and then national.

We’re talking about a time when there was 12 public stations on the air, when the closest one was Pittsburgh and the next closest was Iowa or Georgia or Houston, Texas, or Denver.

There was no station in Los Angeles, none in Washington, none in New York … this was a different time of life.

Hartford wanted me to design that so he could bring that design to the University of New Hampshire’s President …

so that if and when they ever raised enough money to put up an educational TV station, the President, that week, could be persuaded to excavate the cellar of a student union that was under construction …

so that there would be a place that the money could go.

He was thinking seven steps — I hope he played chess, I never knew if he did play chess —but he had that kind of a mind.

Whereas the rest of us would possibly decry the ability of New Hampshire to set [up] a station for itself.

He was working all the angles, trying to figure out how to actual help them.

In the end WGBH offered all of its programming live to WENH to help them get on the air . They built that station in that basement much the way it was designed.

There was no stronger strategic voice for many years than Hartford Gunn. He hired me on a ruse to be his assistant controller, but really it was to start school broadcasting for the State of Massachusetts.

He knew that that was not in the cards, and so, this was the way — either persuading Mr. Lowell or the-then manager to do it.

INT: Now, Michael I know that not only were you planning, but you also had other responsibilities — with only 35 people there — to also produce and direct, correct?

Tell us about some of your shows, the early shows, that Michael Ambrosino did

MA: Well we did some talk shows, some that went out on radio and television simultaneously.

“Youth Speaks Its Mind” was a weekly program which kids would come in and talk about everything except sex, thank god, because the teachers would not want them to talk about such things as sex.

We did a series called “The Ends of the Earth,” which was an Antarctic research with Father Dan Linahan, who was called the “Arctic Priest.”

He was out at the Weston Observatory in Weston, he was a seismologist.

Dan — Father Dan I guess I should call him — would get thousands of dollars from companies to test their equipment on the South Pole.

He’d get some wire from some wire company and he would stretch out the wire and he’d work, do his seismology, and or when his time was up he’d come look for the wire, bend it to see if it was okay, and write a report for the company and that money could pay for his seismological work.

One day, he did not find the wire. All he found was a ball of copper.

It seems that the Skua gulls had eaten whatever neoprene lining was on the wire and he reported that, true it was very flexible after a month in the Arctic, but that they should find some less palatable substance to put around the wire.

We did a lot of plays. A wonderful woman named Adele Thane — who’s probably now known as the person who taught Julie Taymor of “Lion King” fame how to be a good child actress — she ran the Boston Children’s Theater.

and every time they would do a play, Adele and I would adapt it for television and bring it in to do a half-hour version of “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn” and a variety of things. Some of those guys are in Hollywood, Michael Tiger .

In those days you could do whatever you wanted as long as you didn’t spend money. You were doing plays by Brecht … as long as you could get volunteers and paint the sets yourself and do all that other stuff. It was a different world.

People said, you know, wasn’t it the golden times, and the answer is no.

I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and let me tell you, I prefer having money to do research and proper television and film technique.

INT: You also did a lot of science shows even in the early days, didn’t you Michael?

MA: When school broadcasting started.

INT: When was that’?

MA: That was in March the 4th in 1958.

I had to make a couple of hundred speeches and persuaded about 35 school systems to voluntarily contribute money and we did a series with Gene Nichols called “Science Six.”

INT: Gene Gray.

MA: I’m sorry, right. Gene Gray, Gene Nichols directed.

We did a music program with Tony Saletan, a social studies program, and a French program with Anne Slack.

That was the first year.

Then we hired a larger staff and did programs that were complimentary to the curriculum to the schools, broadcasting to a significantly enlarged number of schools each year.

When I left in 1960 there were 135 school systems that had voluntarily come together.

That system is no more.

It’s now called Massachusetts Educational Television and they do satellite programs with their own facilities.

They don’t do that in cooperation with ‘GBH anymore.

INT: A major event took place at WGBH when videotape arrived.

Can you kind of tell us what was the difference at WGBH from the live black and white broadcast to that of when videotape arrived?

MA: Not much. Hartford Gunn would go to all the national meetings . He came back from an NAB meeting and he said to us all, two things.

“I have seen the future and it is videotape,” and the second thing he said was, “Buy Ampex.”

He was paying us our salaries out of public broadcasting salaries, none of us could buy Ampex except Henry Morgenthau and he bought Ampex.

INT: Basically tape meant that instead of rehearsing six or seven programs in an afternoon and doing six or seven programs in an evening, you would rehearse a program in the morning and tape it, and rehearse a program in the afternoon and tape it, and that evening there would be some live programs and some pretaped programs.

All school broadcast programs were pretaped and allowed repeats.

The word editing was not something that we knew about. You made a half-hour program and you shot it all the way through and if there was a glitch you had to live with it.

Even much later there was no such thing as redoing.

I’m talking about ’58, ’59.

Hartford had persuaded someone to give WGBH its first Ampex and he was always the crusader and then demanded that public television, or educational television in those days, get off the kinescope routine and make videotape programs because the quality was so significantly better.

The Ford Foundation finally was persuaded to give all public television stations — not already equipped — a videotape recorder .

Hartford screamed bloody murder and eventually he won and so, WGBH was the first station that had two videotape recorders.

Both of them were badly hit by the famous fire.

INT: I do remember one show in which you were doing a science show and Gene Gray was taking some hydrochloric acid I believe, may be you might recall it….

MA: It wasn’t Gene Gray it was . …the Chief Scientist at the Museum of Science, who he was doing the program with, spilled acid on himself.

INT: It wasn’t that, I was thinking about there was a Styrofoam cup.

MA: Oh, oh, oh, no, that was not acid, I think that was carbon tetrachloride.

INT: Why don’t you give us a little background because that exists on tape.

MA: Oh it does?

INT: Yes.

MA: Oh wonderful. Cut it in …

Gene was pouring carbon tetrachloride in a Styrofoam cup that was on a scale to do some very special weighing — not knowing obviously that carbon tetrachloride dissolves Styrofoam cups — and it just all, you know, started….

INT: … In a live show…

MA: Yeah, in a live show … to spill all over the place.

But the famous stories of live television were there.

Mary Lela Grimes did let some bats loose in her 5:30 children’s program and they were still flying around the studio at 6:30 when Louie Lyons was doing his news program and they were going in and out of the shot.

We just did things like that. Things fell down or cameras fell over, or you heard strange noises and you just went right ahead.

INT: You want to recall the jingling johnny for me?

MA: You know the jingling johnny story better than I.

INT: You were doing a music show and I think it was a school show, it was about various instruments of various. ..

MA: 13 programs, one included a symphonic orchestra….

INT: And your stage manager was….

MA: … John Henning who is now the newsman, senior newsman at WBZ .

I instructed John to hand in the jingling johnny quietly.

This is a brass pole with about 9,000 bells on it that jingled.

It was an ancient instrument. We were doing a program on ancient instruments with the Museum of Fine Arts instruments, something called a … serpent, a very deep bass horn.

At the rehearsal, several nights before, someone was tightening .. the strings of a 14th century lute and the back broke in two.

I’m just glad that didn’t happen on camera.

It wasn’t that you were particularly attuned to things going awry, but you knew that they would and you dealt with them just like Johnny Carson does and all of the live talk shows do now.

INT: Do you remember the famous incident at the MFA when the scoop was placed a little bit too closely to the…

MA: Well ,WGBH had done previous research, quite literally, to see how much light would destroy a painting.

Some fakes and maybe even some paintings of lesser known artists were used for these tests.

We were talking about three and four hundred foot candles and then when color came in it was five-, six-, seven-hundred foot candles to get a shot and the paint would just slowly drip off the canvas.

INT: It was a Renoir.

MA: It was a Renoir. I don’t remember that…

I do remember — because the cameras had relatively long single lenses — the camera sort of panning across and hitting a priceless Egyptian statute, which ended up as a bunch of sandstone on the studio floor.

INT: The MFA had a department of television for awhile I think that ceased to exist.

MA: They did many wonderful programs. They’d bring a whole bunch of art into a studio and a variety of different MFA people — producer/writer/talent — would do “The Age of Cezanne” or “Van Gogh’s Early Days” and use all of the paintings to illustrate these things.

INT: My favorite story was Brian O’Doherty who was one of the very first of the on-camera hosts and actually in many ways public television’s first star, because it was his kinescopes that got shown on many stations.

He would have everything that he had to say on little pieces of paper hidden everywhere inside the Museum of Fine Arts, so as he walked from one to the next, his eyes would scan to read the next section.

Of course, those were all live.

And another thing that’s not known that the MFA is totally wired for television then and not a lot of people know that.

MA: The Museum of Fine Arts was wired for television.

Kresge Auditorium in back of WGBH was wired for television.

Sanders Theater was wired for television and had a microwave dish in its tower which burned down, I think, two nights after I came to WGBH.

We used to use these as adjunct studios.

There was no place big enough to do a symphony orchestra, so the first time I used a symphony orchestra I put it in Kresge and had Dave Davis direct it for me that day.

INT: So we had a Studio A and then when this other company went out there was actually a Studio B and then we had a bus which had the remote equipment in it.

MA: That was rather late in our life.

That was in 1961. It was a million-mile Greyhound Bus that new brakes, new tires, and they were equipping it.

They put the cameras in on, I think, a Tuesday and put the two tape recorders in on a Wednesday and, I think, Thursday we burned to the ground.

INT; Yes.

MA: October 14, 1961.1 have charred papers in my archive file at home.

INT: Where were you?

MA: I was in Chicago. I was giving a speech for the Ford Foundation.

You may not remember, but in those days ,every year or so, there were national air alerts in which all flights would be suspended for 24 hours and the Air Force would play war games.

I got a call from Dave Davis saying that we burned to the ground.

This was about 11 o’clock and about 12 o’clock the air alert went on.

I had to sit for 24 hours in Chicago without being able to get home, worried to death whether or not the tapes from the 21-inch classroom had been saved or not. Indeed they had.

They were thrown out of a window by Bob Mascone and were caught by firemen and volunteers .

At least we could go on the air with school broadcasting.

INT: Before we go beyond the fire, let me go back to … What was the atmosphere like at WGBH in those days, before the fire?

What would you say … the 35 probably grew to what 75 by the time the fire happened? 50? 60?

MA: We thought we were doing pioneering work. I think we thought we were doing God’s work.

Nobody was watching us, but by god, we were doing good work. We were trying very hard.

Most of us had backgrounds that thought ideas were fun.

Most of us would rather attend a good lecture than a bad movie .

Maybe we were a little smug that the rest of the world who would think that was fun, too, because what we were basically doing was presenting lectures on television and radio.

We were trying to advance the medium, but we had such damn few aids to help us. The equipment was old and outmoded.

We were bound into the studio.

You could do anything you wanted as long as you brought it to the studio.

Garden programs were done with a huge vat of dirt You would plant in that and then you had to clean the studio.

You had to make sure you didn’t it up because there was a program coming later and the dirt would have to be picked up.

It was a nice place to be. We all would eat lunch together.

I had one of the few cars so we’d all pile in and go swimming on the North Shore.

After awhile I stopped inviting everybody except for one person.

INT: You mean there was a significant other in the early days at WGBH?

MA: Lillian Akel was a marvelous .. former journalist who was working as a radio producer at the station .

When I reorganized the office plan, I accidentally put her desk next to mine.

We, and many people at the station, did a lot of things together and we became fast friends and the next thing you know we became man and wife.

INT: Terrific. That’s a happy story.

MA: Yes it is. We had almost 40 wonderful years.

INT: I remember that it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between work and play in the early days at WGBH.

MA: It’s interesting because, after Lillian died, I went through a lot other diaries.

We were here on Saturdays and Sundays, we would be doing desk work and editing and rehearsing and doing all kinds of things.

We were all, for the most part, single and we had no children and we had nowhere else to go and we just were here.

Most of us lived fairly close-by. We lived on Marlborough Street. We just walked across the river and be here.

INT: There was some interesting people that wondered through WGBH at that time.

Bob Squire was one of them,. Maybe you can give us a little history of Mr. Squire?

MA: Bob was a torrent. He was a BU scholar.

He produced and directed, stayed on after that, did some programs.

He did some consulting in Saudi Arabia, came back and did programs here.

He’s now one of the country’s best political consultants.

Just a torrent, he moved very quickly.

INT: Added a certain kind of significance to the editorial staff of WGBH.

I remember he was the one that really established the snappy, the snapping of the fingers.

Somebody else who had an impact I think in the directing part was Paul Noble.

MA: Yes, Paul did a lot of the Mrs. Roosevelt programs, did all of them with Henry Morgenthau.

INT: Paul was also part of the BU scholars, wasn’t he?

MA: In those days the crew — the people who ran camera and did the lights and stage managed — were graduate students at BU who were on a two year rather than a one year program.

They’d go to school a semester and come work for us a semester.

So ,there were two groups: those in school would then be replaced.

That lasted a number of years until the complexity of the programs made it necessary for us to have full time people, so that we were teaching them camera work while we were trying to do very complicated programs.

That’s when we went to a full crew, and then the second crew, and I remember the possibilities of a third crew, because everything was studio-based film.

WGBH was doing a film project in the earliest days and the first one was an absolute disaster in 1957 because — except for Paul Rader, who was brought in to do the project — all of us grew up in live-TV terms.

We knew that you did all of your research, and you did all your work, and you did it Thursday night and it either went on tape or it went out.

But with film, you could always play a little bit, a little bit, a little bit and you could never finish.

‘GBH got a contract — in hindsight, a very silly contract — to make programs about existing scientific projects going on around the world in the International Geophysical Year 1957.

You can’t make a film about something that’s going on, because you go out with a group of scientists, into the ocean, and you watch them drop things into the ocean, and that’s exciting, …

and then you watch them look at dials, and that’s very exciting.

Then they say to you, “We won’t know what the results were for about another six months. If you can come back and interview us then we can tell you some more.”

And so, WGBH had been given money for three programs, had finished one and the other two were relative shambles.

The money came for the second three and Hartford wisely at that point said, “We really don’t know the film business.”

He had a meeting with the entire film staff.

This was the first time that I’ve come across a situation in which honorable people can leave a meeting thinking that two different things occurred.

The head of the film department and his assistant came out and said to Jack Hurley,

“Hartford is such a thoughtful man He’s so concerned about our problems. He really appreciates the trouble we’re having.”

And Jack Hurley had to say to them, “Excuse me, don’t you realize that you’ve just been fired?

The film department is being closed. The money is being given back to the National Science Foundation and this place will never do another film.”

That’s not the story they took out of the meeting. It really was a “Rashomon”.

This building, that we’re sitting in, was built without any film facilities in it at all because we didn’t know film.

It was a long time before we did film again.

INT: We snuck it in. MA: We snuck it in.

INT: If there was one moment out of that early period before the fire which really kind of sticks in your mind as being one of the happier moments for you — be it at work and not Lillian— but is there one kind of moment that really kind of said to you, this is why I got involved in television in the first place?

MA: During one of these programs — “Music for Grade Six” that I was directing myself — the folk dancers were late and I couldn’t understand why they were late.

They finally all arrived and they told me that they had met the nicest man on the steps of MIT and folk danced with him for 20 or 30 minutes.

When they described him, it was clear that this was the world’s leading mathematician of the time, who frequented the steps of MIT and the soda joint downstairs — and I’m blanking on his name, Norbert Weiner — who lived in Belmont, I guess, with his mother….

INT: Lived in another world.

MA: Yeah, lived in another world, and was folk dancing with my students.

I guess that would be one of the joyful things. We were doing things with our hands. We were involved in everything that we did.

We produced, directed, wrote, whatever we did.

We built the scenery, determined where the basic lighting patterns would be. It was in our hands.

It was not as much fun as I think we all came to do later when we actually had huge resources at our command.

Then, we were working up to the level of our incompetency — where we were not curtailed by outside influences, but only our own knowledge, creativity, and persistence.

INT: Was there one major disappointment in those early years that you wished you could have changed or something that could have happened that would have made everything….

MA: Not in those… that came later.

INT: All right, so the fire, WGBH and Boston kind of got married pretty tight together at the time of the fire because we went off the air, we were on the air very shortly after that.

Maybe you might kind of recall, after you’ve returned from Chicago, what you found.

What was going on in Boston as WGBH had been burned to the ground?

MA: Well I walk up those stairs into my office and I suddenly realized…. INT: This is at 84 Mass Ave., after the fire….

MA: Yes, I suddenly realized I was not walking on the floor of my office, I was walking on what was left of the ceiling.

The roof of the station had collapsed. I, with a shovel, dug away enough stuff to find what was left of my desk.

The telephone had melted over an uncancelled check that had come in, good gracious, for school broadcasting, no, for the Eastern Educational Network that we were creating at the time.

I had left WGBH and was the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network with offices at WGBH.

I had in the back of my office a huge oak table that had been built into the wall — it was the former dressing green room table — and it had charred underneath and the water hit it and it bent over.

As I lifted it up, that portion was attached to the wall.

The entire wall of my office fell into what was the remaining of Studio B and I thought I’d better back up and get the hell out of here.

There were a few documents, but everything — all of the research that I had amassed on School of Broadcasting, all of the work that we had put together in developing the Eastern Educational Network — was gone.

The first thing I did was to sit down and try to reconstitute my telephone list because I had to call foundations and stations and tell them that we were still in business, that the development of the network would go ahead.

Two days after the fire Hartford Gund and I left Boston and drove to Maine to testify before the legislature of Maine as to whether or not they should start educational television.

Coming from a station whose fire had been in the front pages of every Maine paper, we had to tell them that we were still in business.

The third day after the fire, I flew to Washington D.C., to do the same thing to government agencies that we were looking for grants.

But we all survived — we are the station, the human beings involved. We’ll be back in business.

We were fairly soon in seven different locations around Boston.

A live TV studio was at the Museum of Science.

You paid a quarter and watch the animals make television.

The Roman Catholic Television Center had a little studio with a chandelier in the middle, so that if you pulled back too far the chandelier came in every shot.

The scenery was built for us at Northeastern University.

There was what was called the Red Shack or the Red Building at the Museum of Science where there was staff.

Management was in Kendall Square in the Eastern Educational Network, we moved the headquarters there.

Headquarters of the Eastern Education Network was two desks, two 1930s-style desks given to us by the Christian Science Monitor.

I think the Christian Science Monitor took every piece of old furniture they had — I think this looks like some of them — and gave it to us and that’s what we used.

Old Underwood typewriters, etc. And we survived like that.

I immediately started designing the place to use for fundraising. That design never got built, but later a group went up to Dartmouth and really designed this place.

This place I think was designed with nine or 10 live TV studios.

Not one film editing room, because the whole idea of live TV and needing many places to make it was still very much in our minds.

INT: That’s some change though and ended up I think with three studios. Studio A, Studio B and little Studio C.

MA: A little Studio C which is a radio studio that parroted the studio we had at 84 Mass Avenue.

A radio studio with glass sides in certain places so that Louie Lyons and the news could come out of there and we could shot through the glass.

INT: We were on the air, very shortly after the fire, broadcasting.

MA: Yes I think the School Broadcasting went on the next Monday. TV was off maybe a night or two.

The Junior League of Boston marshaled every woman with a car. Dave Davis got every commercial station in town, both of them — this was ’61, so maybe there were three…

INT: There were three.

MA: Channel 5 had gone on the air and the engineers brought the schedule of when they needed their own tape recorders for their own programs .

School Broadcasting went on the air with tapes being shuttled from station to station to station where a tape recorder was available at 8:30, at 9:00, at 9:30, at 10:00, etc., and Dave Davis organized all of that.

Sometimes tapes would have to be transferred back two or three times. The stations were wonderful.

An immediate cry went up as to how we would need a million or so dollars to put ‘GBH back on the air.

It’s necessary to talk about Ralph Lowell because I think his beautiful picture down in Cahners makes us think of him as a nice, cuddly man who had the money, and that’s what he gave to ‘GBH.

Ralph Lowell had guts.

I remember many occasions when WGBH was about to risk editorially, or with cash, and it was Ralph Lowell who always gave the support to Hartford to do it.

Many of us have been in many positions where we’ve had board of directors or presidents of corporations over us and it is not inconsiderable to have somebody who stands behind you and says,

“Yeah, do it. You’ve presented the case well. Go ahead and do it.”

And that’s what Ralph gave to this station.

Second, he had command of the names and the bodies of this town. So if he asked you to do something it was hard to say no. He had that much respect.

It was more than just raising money. It was ideas and people, a significant guy.

INT: I remember for a period of time, I was one of the BU scholars who was asked to go down to his bank on payday because Jack Hurley, who was then head of finance, was having trouble making the payroll and Daddy Lowell, as we called him, always able to come forward to make sure that we all got paid.

MA: We had a drawing account at the bank.

On the second day I was at WGBH in 1956 I, too, was asked to present myself to Ralph Lowell.

At the same time, I been reading John Marquand’s book — and I forget the title of it now — but he was about a Lowell type person.

He described how you walk in the bank and there was all the marble and then there were people behind the cages and then there were people behind the balustrade and some of them had desks and some didn’t.

And some had desks on rugs and some didn’t and then some had offices and then there was the office.

I walked into the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, and I saw John P. Marquand’s bank and I was ushered into meet “The Mr. Lowell” in the office as he had so described.

I’m certain he had known Ralph Lowell and had been to the bank many times.

INT: Is there anybody else that was as significant to the ‘GBH and who it is now in those days?

MA: Dozens of people at the universities. The people who gave of their time.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ralph Lowell sat down and had a meeting with Petrillo and got us the permission to do the Boston Symphony Orchestra live .

If any money ever came about it would go to the pension funds, but we never paid them a penny to do concerts.

The idea of a live TV concert of this an entire symphony was just unknown in those days.

INT: The history that exists on those tapes downstairs in archives is quite amazing.

MA: Yeah, Charles Munch…Leinsdorf

I remember we did concerts … one of the last concerts Stravinsky came and conducted himself and now it is a history.

INT: MIT’s “Science Reporter,” just as we end off this hour, maybe you should give us just a little bit more history of that….

MA: It was a studio program that was basically a lot of talk and a little showing.

T hen it became a little talk and a lot of showing.

It then found resourcefulness in a man named Russ Morash, in which it became a lot of showing and on the road, so that you didn’t have to bring things into the studio.

It started out with Volta Torrey as the MIT on-camera host, and then John Fitch did that.

I think those programs were instrumental in reminding us that the studio was out there in the world. Russ and Al Potter and Pete Downey just took us everywhere that we could move.

It was one of the first programs that I distributed to the rest of the stations as the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network .

It was one of the proofs we used that programs that we made locally could be distributed by our network by videotape — because we were not interconnected in those days — and that the Eastern Educational Network had a useful thing to do in addition to the national network, which didn’t want “Science Reporter” at the time and later, of course, picked it up and it became a big national show.

INT: Thank you. End of first hour.

40 years with ‘GBH

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection
September 1956. The obligatory photo made of new employees in those days. It was run by the Westhampton Beach Chronicle, circulation 3000. My mother loved it.

My first visit to WGBH was in the fall of 1955, just after TV had gone on the air at 84 Mass Ave. in Cambridge. I was at work developing a TV master plan for the University of Connecticut at the time, and wanted a tour of one of the few (12) “educational” stations on the air.

Several drives up and down Mass Ave. from the river to Harvard Square showed nothing remotely resembling a TV station. Finally locating an oddly shaped small brick building, with a row of stores and a soda fountain on the street, I entered a small doorway between two round pillars.

A dark green flight of stairs led up to one of the smallest reception rooms ever seen, mostly taken up by the huge telephone switchboard. Behind it sat, at lunch time, one of the WGBH secretaries affording the regular operator a lunch break. On this day, it turned out to be a beautiful and familiar face, a former classmate from Syracuse University, Bernice Goldberg. Many of you will remember her in later life as “Bunny” Chesler, the gifted author and one of the spark plugs of the ZOOM staff.

While waiting for my tour, three identically clad men, all in charcoal gray suits, white button-down shirts and black knit ties left for lunch. “Gracious,” I thought. “They’ve all brought their Harvard uniforms with them!” I suspect that was my first view of Hartford Gunn, Larry Creshkoff, and Ted Sherburne. In such a way are first memories born.

In the Spring of ‘56, I gave a short talk at Harvard, describing the Ford Foundation school TV project I was then directing in Schenectady, New York. Hartford heard it and a few weeks later asked me to start in-school TV for Massachusetts. Arriving at WGBH the same week as Dave Davis, Bill Cavness, and Lillian Akel, my first job was to redesign the small office to make room for all the new bodies. I “accidentally” moved Lillian Akel’s desk next to mine.

My second task was to design a TV production facility to fit into the yet unexcavated basement of the University of New Hampshire. This was Hartford Gunn at his best, part visionary, part schemer, but all action. Give the President of UNH the plan, ask him to excavate the space so that when money is raised for such a facility, there will be someplace to put it! Working with Hartford was an experience to remember.

The 21’ Classroom went on the air in 1958 with series in French, Music, Literature, Social Studies, and Science. Gene Nichols, Jean Brady, and I produced and directed and I remember John Henning as my floor manager. (I called him Mr. Henning in those days)

"The 21" Classroom: Hartford Gunn; the author; Bill Kiernan, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education; Gene Gray, everybody's favorite science teacher on TV; and Norman Harris, Science Director, Boston Museum of Science.

I left in 1960 to help Hartford create the Eastern Educational Network. It’s hard to think of a time when so few stations were on the air, but Hartford knew that if the educational communities did not activate their licenses they would get swallowed up by the commercial interests. He also knew that many stations would ensure our success as we grew and shared our resources.

I helped groups plan facilities and budget for them. I testified before Legislatures. WGBH offered free programs. All these steps were necessary to insure new stations in New England and the East. The EEN began with an off-air interconnection between WGBH and WUNH, became a useful adjunct to NET, and soon, under Don Quayle’s effective guidance, became the nations first interconnected public television network.

I returned to WGBH in 1964 as Assistant and then Associate Program Manager to Bob Larsen and then Michael Rice. In 1969-70 I also produced and appeared in an 18-program local documentary series immodestly titled Michael Ambrosino’s Show with Freddie Barzyk, Dave Atwood, and Peter Downey as my directors. More and more I realized that making programs was where I wished to be and told Michael to fill my job for I was taking my 40th year off! If I came back to WGBH it would be to do something else.

That 40th year was spent at the BBC as CPB’s “American Fellow Abroad” working on a nightly BBC1 news and current affairs program, 24 Hours. The whole family enjoyed our year in London. I strongly recommend taking time for everyone. Time is our most precious commodity and we seem to squander it or leave it to others to manage.

I did return to WGBH in 1971, and developed and was the Executive Producer for the first three seasons of NOVA.

Leaving again in 1976, I developed and executive produced two seasons of Odyssey, which was meant to be a continuing series like NOVA, but this time about human beings as seen in the past (archaeology) and present (anthropology). Nixon cut the PTV funding 40%. The stations bought 40% fewer series in the SPC choosing NOVA rather than Odyssey. So went my first experience as a freelance production company.

A side venture caught me up about this time as well. In the late 60’s, The Unitarian Church asked me to help a new black production company that had just started and assist with their efforts as I could. That began a 30 year professional and personal relationship with Henry Hampton and his company, Blackside. I went on to help Henry turn his dream Eyes on the Prize into a reality for PBS and was the Consulting Executive Producer for series I and II. (Henry and I also flew together for 20 years and owned a plane together for 10.)

Lillian and MJA in front of Sierra 162, the Beechcraft owned by Michael and Henry Hampton.

In the mid 80s, Phil Morrison of MIT, the first NOVA consultant, came to me with his idea for a series on the nature of scientific evidence. The next years were spent developing and Executive Producing, The Ring of Truth, broadcast in 1987. It was a great chance to bring together many of the NOVA and Odyssey staff again. Working with Terry Rockefeller, Ann Peck, Sam Low, Marian White, Boyd Estus, Eric Handley, etc., has always made filmmaking in Boston such a rich experience.

As a natural arc of my life, I ended my career in the early 90s as writer/producer/on-camera correspondent for a 90-minute Frontline called “Journey to the Occupied Lands,” an investigation of the issues of land and justice in the 27th year of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It was good to be intimately involved in production again after years of supervising.

All this time was spent in a marriage to the woman some of you knew as Lillian Akel. One of the worlds great romances, our life together ended sadly after an 8-year battle with cancer in 1995. Lillian was a reporter, a radio producer, a teacher, and spent her last and most happy years as an attorney with a clientele that included many of the independent film producers of Boston. Evelyn Sarson, Judy Chalfen, Peggy Charren and Lillian were the founders of Action for Children’s Television.

I am now pleasantly retired having discovered the joys of reading American History (1740-1820), helping to build a post and beam barn in Vermont, blue water sailing and white water rafting.

“BFB” Big F’ing Barn, designed by Bob Slattery and built by Bob, several paid Vermonters and several volunteers. I spent 55 days over the summer and fall of ’98 to work through bereavement and bang home the joy of creating something that big and complex. What is it for? Well, Marian White of the news staff and NOVA now raises prize Churro sheep in Vermont and they need a home.

Another way to deal with grief is white water rafting and kayaking. It is very hard to think of anything else except survival in good company miles from the nearest phone in the Idaho wilderness.

Daughter Julie, after life in TV in Boston and LA, is a happy mommy for a while in Los Angeles. Michael, after years of college and cooking, designed, built and runs the art and animation computer labs for the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Jonathan, who has been restoring and building organs here and on the coast, is living in Philadelphia, but can be found on the road most months voicing organs and writing about them. We will all get together with the grandkiddies for a sailing trip in the BVI to celebrate my 70th this summer.

I’m looking forward to the reunion and introducing you to my new love and best friend Lynn Cooper. Lynn is a clinical Psychologist who has heard about some of you and not heard all your stories about the “goode olde days.” She is a good listener and we hope to have a grand time.

We’ve moved five blocks away from the busy Centre Street home in Newton the family had lived in for 37 years. The new house is on a cliff side overlooking a 70 acre back yard called the Newton Commonwealth Golf Course. Our companions are ducks, geese, one swan, many song birds, a red fox and just last Saturday, a wild turkey.