Don’t Touch That Dial

This past Friday, NH1 News, an upstart television news source, quietly went off the air. The details go far beyond pulling the plug; local media magnate and WBIN-TV owner Binnie Media sold the broadcast rights for WBIN-TV to the FCC. Closing down NH1 News is the first step in winding down operations for the TV network.

I openly admit that my wife and I are “cord-cutters.” We stream a few things, but we haven’t had cable TV in years. While I don’t miss it, for the most part, I miss the idea of it. And Friday’s announcement leaves us with one fewer TV station that New Hampshire can call its own.

This is a dubious milestone in a world of broadband and streaming content. And for those of us who grew up in a world of “cable-ready” television sets and plentiful channels, it’s hard to imagine. My parents’ first apartment in 1980 was on the Auburn side of the Manchester city line. For want of a few feet, they could not get cable television. Their image of the outside world was shaped by whatever signals they could pick up off a wobbly pair of antennae. At the least, we always had a cable box.

And despite being a small state, New Hampshire always had a few local television channels to offer.

Old WMUR

Today, this mill building houses a restaurant called The Foundry. In the late ’80s, the white structure on the roof was the home of WMUR-TV.

The oldest and most-entrenched channel in the state is easily the most familiar, WMUR-TV out of Manchester. Founded in 1954 as New Hampshire’s first television station, WMUR took its call letters from its founder, former governor Francis P. Murphy. Out of the gate, WMUR was an affiliate for the American Broadcasting Company, carrying ABC programming alongside its own news broadcasts and original shows. The station changed hands shortly after Murphy’s death in 1958, and ran for years on a shoestring budget. WMUR broadcast in black-and-white into the 1970s and was forced to do away with most of their own programming, save for the news and a few local shows like “The Uncle Gus Show” (a long-lived kids’ show, where my dad once celebrated his sixth birthday on live local TV).

What was once a retail warehouse became WMUR’s new studio in 1996.

Better days were ahead for WMUR; another change of ownership in the 1980s brought an influx of funding to make improvements. In 1987 the station moved from its aging Elm Street studio to Manchester’s Millyard. In 1996, the station moved again, this time creating a state-of-the-art studio in downtown Manchester in what had once been a Service Merchandise catalog warehouse. WMUR changed hands again in late 2000, becoming part of Hearst Television. Today, WMUR remains New Hampshire’s only major network affiliate station. It’s an important distinction every four years as WMUR becomes the broadcast media hub of the state’s election activities.

For many years, New Hampshire had only one other full-power station in the state: WENH-TV, the call letters of New Hampshire Public Television’s flagship station. Founded in 1959, NHPTV broadcasts from a building on the edge of the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham. In 1970, NHPTV became a PBS affiliate, but with a major PBS affiliate an hour south in Boston, NHPTV opted to balance PBS programming with its own productions (including coverage of UNH hockey games from 1972 to 2008). In 2012, NHPTV split from the University System of New Hampshire to become its own independent nonprofit, while aligning its programming with that of the national PBS schedule.

Before WBIN-TV occupied the space known as Channel 50, there was WNDS-TV, “The Winds of New England.” The Derry-based independent station went online in 1983 with a schedule of cartoons, second-run sitcoms and movies. They incorporated local programming into the mix as well, from infomercials to candlepin bowling to current affairs. WNDS had its own news programming too, probably most recognized for longtime meteorologist Al Kaprielian, known for his distinctive and eccentric delivery. After experimenting with a shopping network in 1996 and 1997, WNDS returned to an independent format until 2005, when they became an affiliate for a new network named MyNetworkTV. The new affiliation lasted until 2011, when Binnie Media purchased the station and rechristened it WBIN. WNDS was particularly relevant to me for one reason: on local cable, WNDS was assigned to channel 3, the channel the TV needed to be set on to use the VCR or a video game system. When the tape was rewinding or the Nintendo powered off, WNDS was always there in the background.

Another local independent station was Merrimack’s WGOT-TV, which went online in 1987. After failed attempts at becoming a Fox affiliate, the station rotated through several formats, first carrying infomercials, then programming from the Pax Network, and later a shopping channel. Now named WNEU-TV, the former independent station serves as the local affiliate for Spanish-language network Telemundo.

Look closely on a clear day, and you’ll see the array of WMUR’s transmission antennas atop the left peak of Goffstown’s Mount Uncanoonuc.

New Hampshire even briefly had its own CBS affiliate, WNHT-TV in Concord. Signing on in 1984, WNHT was an independent competitor to WNDS, slowly building a viewer base. In February 1988, WNHT became a CBS affiliate, but with two established CBS affiliates already broadcasting in the region, they were never able to build an audience of their own. There was no return to an independent format for WNHT. The station went off the air in March of 1989, cutting out in the middle of a talk show.

Why does this all fascinate me? Back in 1989, song parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic released his feature film debut, “UHF.” The film starred Yankovic as a daydreamer left to manage a failing TV station his uncle won in a game of cards. Against all odds, with an eclectic mix of programming from “Conan the Librarian” to “Wheel of Fish,” U-62 becomes the highest-rated station in town. The film was panned at the time; I admit I only discovered it in college. It’s a cult classic now with some surprising star power.

And there’s something romantic about the world of independent, local television. It may not be the untamed Wild, Wild West of Al’s U-62, but you feel as if it might be more sincere. It’s like comparing a DJ-driven radio station from the 1990s to the computer-moderated stations of today. And it’s only now, in a media world that delivers whatever we want on demand, that we have the perspective to appreciate it.

As WBIN prepares to wind down, to become whatever its next iteration will be, think of what it was like when there were all those voices shouting over the airwaves, hiding behind a button on a remote or a slider on the cable box, imploring for us not to touch that dial.

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