'Pioneers of THIRTEEN' review: memory lane

Children's series "Sesame Street" debuted in the fall

Children's series "Sesame Street" debuted in the fall of 1969. (Credit: Sesame Workshop / Richard Termine)

THE SHOW "Pioneers of THIRTEEN, The '60s -- Experimental Days"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 8 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Fifty years ago Sunday, at 7:59 a.m., a New York and, in fact, national institution was born as Edward R. Murrow proclaimed the launch of "something rather different." Yes, rather different.


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The new Ch. 13 (it had been WNTA, a commercial station based in New Jersey) would have neither sitcoms nor Westerns, nor -- for that matter -- much money. The new WNDT (for New Dimensions in Television) had its call letters changed to WNET, for National Educational Television, in 1970. Though not quite a foundling, the station felt like one at first as it sought to attract contributors, donors and attention. "We did do shows on a shoestring," says Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the founders of Children's Television Workshop, which launched "Sesame Street" in 1969. She began her career at Ch. 13 as a producer.

"Commercial TV was too narrow an artery for the scholar, the artist, the writer, the teacher, the poet -- for all those people who were not having access to commercial television," says Bill Moyers. Ch. 13 would open its doors and arms to many of them, and a glorious history began. This four-parter covers the station's history through the '90s and beyond.

MY SAY Expect a long and mostly happy walk down memory lane tonight, but also expect a bit of a revelation. Ch. 13 really did clarify the mission of public television during those early, tumultuous -- and often penniless -- days. As some of the clips (and there are lots of them) demonstrate, some byways taken were indulgent ones. Or, as Alvin Perlmutter, the director of the Independent Production Fund and a longtime producer ("The Great American Dream Machine"), explains, "We were given the opportunity to fail, and at times we did."

After all, Ch. 13 was a child of the '60s. But then there was everything else -- the trailblazers that changed television for the better: "Black Journal," Joseph Louw's "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Special," Frederick Wiseman documentaries (like "Titicut Follies"), many music programs (like "Jazz Casual") and, of course, "Sesame Street."

BOTTOM LINE What's needed tonight is more perspective, fewer clips. There are so many that the hour passes in a blur. Still, many of them -- from B.B. King, to the Doors, to a John and Yoko "happening" -- are priceless.

GRADE B+

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