Betty Cope, General Manager, WVIZ-TV Channel 25


In the early 1960s, the content of commercial television in the United States was so egregiously puerile that Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minnow was moved to refer to the nation's airwaves as a “vast wasteland.” Yet even as the wasteland expanded and grew more desolate over the years, an oasis of intelligence, taste and sophistication thrived as a singular refuge for Cleveland audiences.

WVIZ-TV Channel 25 signed on the air in February 1965 and quickly became more than merely a purveyor of what was often dismissed as “educational” television. WVIZ would also serve as a forum for local opinion-makers and personalities, a window on the life of the community and a kaleidoscopic carnival of uniquely informative entertainment.

And in its first two decades, the person most responsible for the health and welfare of the fledgling station was Betty Cope.

The Geauga County native had been bitten by the broadcasting bug as a young woman, making her initial foray into television in the 1940s at WEWS, Cleveland's first commercial station. She started there as a receptionist, but before long became the station's first woman producer and program director. Eventually she left to found and operate her own production firm.

With so much experience in the world of broadcasting, it was easy for Cope to recognize the fragility of the newborn WVIZ when she was named its first programming chief and general manager. Knowing that the station's charter as a public broadcaster precluded it from selling commercial time, her primary concern from the start was to keep the place afloat in its most vulnerable first years. To that end she made a crucial strategic decision: to focus most of Channel 25's meager resources on creating instructional programming that could be sold to school systems nationwide. That decision proved prescient, as classroom programming became a fundamental long-term source of revenue and secured the station's future.

But what of a mass audience? Stuck in the hard-to-find depths of the UHF dial, WVIZ was also modestly equippedto put it charitably: The station's first studio, for example, was the stage in Max S. Hays Vocational High School on Cleveland's West Side. So it faced a distinct disadvantage when competing for viewership with the big boys of Cleveland television.

Yet compete it did, thanks to Cope's programming acumen. WVIZ's locally produced offerings complemented the dramas, music specials and public affairs shows that were beginning to be syndicated through the Public Broadcasting Service. In some cases, local programs actually pre-dated shows that would later become PBS favorites. Before Charlie Rose, for example, there was the talk show Robertson at Large, with author and popular Cleveland Press newspaper columnist Don Robertson. Long before C-SPAN's weekend Book TV programming, Cope was airing one of the country's first shows devoted to the appreciation of literature, hosted by local book reviewer Eugenia Thornton. And Know Your Antiques with local experts Ralph and Terry Kovel was a precursor of the BBC's hugely popular Antiques Roadshow series.

Usually working behind the scenes, Cope would become an on-air personality in her own right during the station's annual membership drives and the fund-raising auctions she initiated in 1968. Year after year she stood in front of the camera, making the case for supporting the only station in town that provided discerning audiences with something a bit more worthwhile than westerns, game shows and cops and robbers dramas. And it worked. WVIZ recorded only three deficits during the 27 years she was at the helm, and by the time she retired in 1993 the station had 50,000 paid members and was broadcasting from fully equipped professional studios in its own building on Brookpark Road.

More than anyone else, Betty Cope sustained WVIZ through its infancy and demonstrated that the harsh realities of broadcasting did not have to negate a mission to bring quality fare to a community. Today, with the wasteland bigger than ever, it's comforting for Clevelanders to know that, thanks to her, their oasis is still out there.

—Mark Gottlieb

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •