Monday, December 10

Did I? Did He? Did We?

It’s another crummy December morning in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania. Snow, sleet and freezing rain have delayed or canceled classes in dozens of school districts. All over the area people are tuning to WNEP-TV to see if the “Winterwatch” computer has their kids’ school on the list; although these days you can also check the “Winterwatch” on your PC or even have closings and delays sent straight to your cell phone. We’ve come a long way, baby!

I don’t have children, but I always check for the status of “S. Wilson Tech.”

When I took over as News Director at WNEP, back in 1983, morning anchor Frank Andrews would sit at the anchor desk with slips of paper—a pile of slips of paper—and read off the closings and delays. During commercials and the weather forecast he did his best to alphabetize the mess. God, it was boring, reading them over…and over…and over. It was rotten TV, but what could be more important than keeping little Johnny from freezing to death at the bus stop, or little Suzy from getting killed when her school bus slides on a patch of “black ice” and winds up on its side in a ditch?

One year later the slips of paper were gone and Frank was back to anchoring. The school closings were displayed on the screen—in alphabetical order—on something we named the “Winterwatch Computer.” We were "Newswatch 16," and we had the "Spotrtswatch" and the "Weatherwatch." Creative, huh?

A case can be made that WNEP was the first station in America to computerize school closings, and that I was the one behind it.

I’m not sure about either claim, but here’s what I know.

Then-WNEP VP and GM Elden Hale was/is a genius. When he was EP at KXAS in Dallas, he hooked up with a computer programmer by the name of Frank Ivan. Ivan wrote one of the first TV station master control automation programs in the industry.

At WNEP, Elden had Frank Ivan design a vote tabulation program that hooked up to a CG (“character generator”) to compute and display vote totals on election night. Similar programs were cropping up around the country, but Frank's was a winner!

But election night came only twice a year. Was there any way we could jigger the program to put it to other uses?

Elden says that I came up with the idea of computerizing the school closings. I say it was Elden. Either way, it was child’s play (seemingly) for Frank Ivan, and by October, 1983 we were up and running. We were the first in the market.

But were we the first in the country? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that word of Frank’s programming prowess spread. In November, 1986, the folks behind one of the first newsroom computer systems, “NewStar” came from Madison, Wisconsin to WNEP to watch Frank’s election program in use. The idea was that if it worked and worked well during a real, live election, they’d put Frank on retainer and take his vote tabulation program nationwide.

Of course it worked, and they came up with a deal for Frank. They got Frank Ivan, his expertise, his vote tabulation program , and—as an extra added attraction—his school closing program. Next thing you know, anyone who had “NewStar” computers had access to a school closing program. In cold-weather markets, lots of stations started using it.

Now, remember: Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But so did Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis and Elisha Gray, among others. Lots of people were working on the same idea at the same time. Bell gets the credit.

I can’t say who might have been working on a school closing program at the same time Frank Ivan was working on his for WNEP. I can’t say if WNEP was first. Maybe someone else had a similar program in 1983: I hadn’t heard of any commercially available.

I can tell you who wasn’t first. It sure as hell wasn’t WDAU-TV (now called WYOU-TV), our Scranton competitor. But within a year of WNEP’s “Winterwatch,” WDAU had school closings and delays displayed on its screen.

Funny thing, though: in the beginning, they weren’t in alphabetical order (something Frank Ivan’s program did automatically). And WDAU’s closing information seemed to be running 15-20 minutes (or more) behind ours. Then I noticed WDAU had every closing we had—well after we had it—but none we didn’t have.


WNEP has a wonderful engineer, Stu Wilson. Wonderful tech, wonderful guy! I went up to him and said, “Stu, you’re a ‘tech,’ right?” Yes. “Bad weather this morning, right?” Horrible. “Bad driving conditions?” The worst. “Have trouble making it in to work.” Yes. “Were you late?” About a half-hour.

So I went to the Winterwatch computer and entered, “S. Wilson Tech, Half-Hour Delay.” Hey, it harmed no one, and it was accurate—sort of.

And sure enough, about a half-hour later “S. Wilson Tech” showed up on WDAU’s screen.

Now, I’m not the one who tipped off the newspaper. Swear to God. I know who did (and I’ll take his name and his secret to the grave). I swear it wasn't me (I?). But I certainly wasn’t unhappy to get a call from the paper asking for a comment, and I certainly wasn’t unhappy to see a front-page article the next day in which WDAU admitted its thievery. The station’s excuse: once WNEP had broadcast it, it was in the public domain, and it was in the public interest.

Darn right it benefitted the public. And if WNEP wasn’t first in the country, we were first in the region and put our viewers first. And that’s one reason WNEP is still #1 today, and WDAU (now as WYOU) is still #3.

And this morning, judging from the “Winterwatch” display, apparently “S. Wilson Tech” was on time. At least, I didn't see"it" listed as closed or delayed.