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Family-founded underdog WTTV hits broadcasting pinnacle

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WTTV's television legacy started with a converted drugstore, Herman B Wells and a puppet show.

And now, after nearly 65 years on the air, Bloomington's former homegrown station will be the host of some marquee TV moments, including David Letterman's final "Late Show," with its new network affiliation.

Tribune Broadcasting Indianapolis LLC announced Aug. 11 that its formerly Bloomington-based station—and Indiana's second-ever TV station—will replace WISH-TV as the CBS affiliate in Indianapolis as of Jan. 1, 2015. It will show longtime favorites such as "60 Minutes" and "The Price is Right" on a daily basis, as well as CBS' presentation of Super Bowl 50.

The programming move for the current CW affiliate, however, is just the latest in WTTV's curvy, yet wholesome, history.

It all started in the careful hands of engineer Sarkes Tarzian, an immigrant from Turkish Armenia, and his wife, Mary, in the late 1940s, The Herald-Times reported.

As electronics began to capture the attention of postwar America, Sarkes Tarzian, the chief engineer of Bloomington's RCA plant, manufactured table-model and car radios.

Together, the ambitious couple had saved $50,000 at a time when many Americans were seeking normalcy and long-term direction. Mary was pushing Sarkes to start his own business.

By the end of the decade, the young couple would own a TV station, an AM radio station and businesses manufacturing semiconductors, TV tuners and broadcast equipment.

"It's amazing that two people who weren't so well-off were able to save that much money," said son Tom Tarzian, current president and CEO of Sarkes Tarzian Inc.

Tom, born in 1946, essentially grew up alongside WTTV. He and sister Patricia were raised by parents who also were attempting to curate an entire TV station. They saw the struggle firsthand.

"They had to be thrifty with money they didn't really have," Tom said.

The decision was sudden, but decisive: Sarkes came home one day and told Mary it was time for their mutual dream to become a reality.

"Let's talk about it," Mary said—but Sarkes had already quit his position at RCA.

They would set up base camp in an empty storefront with Sarkes as a special consulting engineer. He manufactured switch-type tuners to keep up with video's broadcast boom, and became responsible for an estimated 35 percent of output of electrical equipment, such as selenium rectifiers, in the U.S.

His ingenuity kept overhead low en route to building the family TV station. Vintage television blog "Faded Signals" estimates that Sarkes Tarzian was able to re-create a $300 microphone boom for a tenth of the price.

The original transmitting antenna for WTTV, Tom Tarzian says, was at least partly made from household guttering. Whatever did the trick, Sarkes Tarzian's crew of 10 do-it-alls was up for the challenge.

"To these engineers," Sarkes Tarzian told The Herald-Telephone newspaper upon the channel's debut, "I have only the highest of praise, since they made most of the major equipment to be used in the operation of WTTV."

On Nov. 11, 1949, WTTV—"Tarzian TeleVision"—broadcast its inaugural show from a converted drugstore at 535 S. Walnut St., according to H-T archives. Today, that's the street address of an Arby's fast-food restaurant.

Bloomingtonians tuned in to Channel 10 promptly at 7:30 p.m. to see the new sensation. H-T records indicate that 96 residents bought their first TV set that week.

Viewers were welcomed by Indiana's U.S. Sen. Homer E. Capehart, legendary Indiana University President Herman B Wells, Bloomington Mayor Thomas L. Lemon, the city school superintendent H.E. Binford, and station owners Sarkes and Mary Tarzian, all in the studio to dedicate the channel, according to H-T archives.

And then, at 8 p.m., NBC's nationally syndicated puppet show, "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," promptly took over.

The pioneer Armistice Day broadcast lasted from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., rounding out with Big Ten football highlights and a feature on the lumber industry — then promptly signed off for the night.

WTTV had reached the two-hour broadcast minimum established by the FCC for that era, and the station would continue this broadcast minimum in its early years, operating from 7 to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, with extended hours for sports.

The station also used coverage of Bloomington High School and University High School basketball games as a dynamic selling point. Families could see a Hoosier tradition in their own homes for the first time. The game between UHS and Ellettsville, on Nov. 22, 1949, became the first local sports match shown on Bloomington TV.

"I'm sure it was very exciting for Bloomington in those days," Tom Tarzian said.

Even the NCAA got in on the action, when a road game for IU's men's basketball team against Illinois further developed the station's capabilities. WTTV used microwave hops to get the signal from Champaign to Chicago, to two or three locations in Ohio, then Cincinnati, and finally back to Bloomington for the Hoosier Nation.

The same ingenuity was used in local broadcasts: A cable strung across the street to the nearby high school would later transmit local sports games, student plays and more. "Meet Your Teacher," where students interviewed their instructors, became a city favorite.

Tom Tarzian, only 3 years old when the station was founded, recalls being a so-called "plant rat."

"If you found some people around today, they'd tell you I was a real pest," Tom said. "You'd see the tuners and smell the solder. You'd go hang out in one of the broadcast studios, especially for the radio stations, and try to be quiet."

WTTV, a station on the move, was anything but quiet. WTTV created and fostered its own distinct newscast in 1950, which would last four decades.

The station became an independent juggernaut, adopting a buffet of programming from CBS, ABC, NBC and the former "DuMont" network, which ceased broadcasting in 1956. Today, the norm of TV broadcasting is brand exclusivity — reflected in Tribune's current decision to transfer WTTV to CBS in 2015.

In 1954, WTTV moved to its longtime Bloomington home at Highland Avenue and East Davis Street, where it got a proper 1,000-foot broadcast tower. Its signal was strong enough to reach Indianapolis and Terre Haute, pivotal TV markets.

A short time later, WTTV changed its frequency from Channel 10 to Channel 4, which remains its current channel number today, and opened an official station in Indianapolis, becoming a two-city broadcast operation from the 3900 block of Bluff Road.

And then, there were the glory years folks in Indiana grew to love with cult fervor: Bob Carter played "Sammy Terry," a ghoulish figure who hosted campy horror movies for WTTV-4 on Saturday nights from 1962 through the late 1980s.

"Cowboy Bob" Glaze joined the mix for a Western-themed program starting in the 1970s, earning the hearts of kids and adults alike.

And "Janie" Woods Hodge, the ukulele-playing woman who hosted cartoon segments—thus, the titular "Popeye and Janie"—received her own variety show simply called "Janie," appearing every weekday from 1963 to 1986, according to the websites "Hoosier History Live" and IMDB.com.

The regional achievements came rolling in, too, for the young station: WTTV became the first Indiana station to broadcast a show in color, and made a full-color transition in 1965. It was the first Indiana station to extend its broadcast day to 24 hours, in 1979.

But by the late 1970s, the Tarzian family was finished with WTTV. According to David J. Bodenhammer's book "Encyclopedia of Indianapolis," Sarkes Tarzian sold WTTV-4 to the Teleco Media company for more than $26 million in 1978, the most of any nonmajor network in the United States at the time.

WTTV would be subject to constant repackaging, including ownership from the Tele-Am Corporation in 1984, Warner Brothers in 1998 and current parent Tribune Broadcasting since 2002.

Sarkes Tarzian Inc. continues to operate as a radio and TV company from 205 N. College Ave. in Bloomington. Its child, WTTV, is almost completely an Indianapolis station these days: It operates adjacent to sister Tribune station WXIN, near West 71st Street and I-465, under Tribune's FCC license permit issued to Bloomington.

WTTV's closest relation to Bloomington today is its massive broadcasting antenna signal near Trafalgar — the largest structure in the state at 1,132 feet — built in 1957.

Under the FCC's power rules, that location is the closest spot to Indianapolis where Bloomington can still consistently get a city-grade signal.

And although the WTTV station has gone from a simple two-hour-a-day operation into a national affiliate within the span of a lifetime, its early history is truly Hoosier: Created with saved money, built with callused hands and managed by local folks.

However, Tom Tarzian remembers vividly what made Sarkes Tarzian Inc.'s affiliation with the channel a homespun Bloomington success for nearly 30 years:

"Dad came home every night for dinner and stayed," he said. "He traveled a lot, but he made time for the thing he considered to be more important—his family."
 

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  • Channel 4 has been gone for a long tomem
    The Channel 4 that we grew up with that featured, in addition to those mentioned in the story, championship wrestling with Sam Menacker, IU Basketball with Chuck Marlowe, news with Frank Edwards, sports with Chuck Workman and so many others, has been gone for a long time. It was a local channel with local personalities and personality. Once it dropped local programming, it was over. This story much more about channel 8 than channel 4, whose story ended long ago.
  • CBS has the power now
    I doubt Tribune had any interest in dumping CBS in the other markets, but was anxious to hold on to CBS. They may have told CBS they'd give them the % they were asking for in those markets and in Indy though.
  • No longer a mom and pop station
    It is a great story but one has to remember that WTTV is no longer a mom and pop station - heck, I used to have a Sarkes Tarzian AM-FM radio! Most radio and TV stations started that way. The one thing missing rom this article is a section on corporate bullying. I have heard that the sticking point was not retransmission rights but apparently Tribune told CBS give us Indianapolis and we will renew the other 5 stations (such as Memphis). SO, if that is true, LIN Media/WISH coulda offered the moon and it would not have mattered
  • WTTV memories
    Great story! WTTV was the first station I ever watched and at nearly 70 years old is the station I have watched more than any other. The scale is weighted heavily towards WTTV due to watching it exclusively in my youth. I remember going to the Bluff Rd studio and appearing on TV at least 6 times. Thanks for the story and the memories

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