Today, UNC-TV is the 12-station statewide public television network for North Carolina, reaching all 100 counties with four channels of national and local program content, as well as parts of Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. A lot has changed since WUNC-TV in Chapel Hill signed on as the nation’s tenth “educational television” station on January 8, 1955, largely due to the efforts of three visionary leaders. William C. “Billy” Carmichael, the University of North Carolina’s vice president for finance, University alumnus and famous band lead Kay Kyser, and eventual university president William Friday – then the assistant to the university’s president, Gordon Gray – spearheaded an effort to use the burgeoning power of television to bring non-commercial educational content to the citizens of the state. This group recognized the unique opportunity when the Federal Communications Commission offered eight channels in North Carolina for non-commercial uses in 1952. They traveled the state marshaling contributions and support for both public and private funding, and so UNC-TV was born.
William Friday became president of the university system in 1957, and during his legendary 30 year tenure in that position, he continued to be a powerful and effective advocate for the importance and value of public television. Gradually, it transitioned from an operation run primarily by students and faculty members to a fully professional broadcasting organization. With the advent of PBS in 1968, UNC-TV was transformed from the old educational television model to being a source for mission-driven programming for general audiences. In the meantime, UNC-TV continued to expand its reach, gradually adding transmitter sites to cover more of the state. In 1979, the University of North Carolina Center for Public Television was established by the university’s board of governors, and 10 years later operations were finally consolidated in one location, the network’s current headquarters and studios in Research Triangle Park.
In many ways, the much-beloved William Friday was the face of UNC-TV. In addition to his advocacy and leadership as university president, he was also the host of the longest-running program in UNC-TV history, North Carolina People with William Friday. The program went on the air in 1971 and continued its weekly run until President Friday passed away at the age of 92 in October, 2012. In a warm and informal one-on-one interview format, Friday engaged North Carolinians from all walks of life, from the exalted to the humble, coaxing out the stories that make every life interesting, and his viewing audience remained loyal throughout his life. In 2014 the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Nashville/Midsouth Chapter, honored William Friday with posthumous induction as the inaugural member of its Gold Circle for his exceptional service to the advancement of public television. At the same time, the chapter also presented UNC-TV with its Governor’s Award in recognition of the network’s history of exemplary service to the state of North Carolina.
Today, UNC-TV not only brings programming from PBS, the BBC and other sources to the entire state, it produces more than 300 hours of original programming each year for and about North Carolina. Looking to the future, UNC-TV continues extending its content into the ever-growing array of digital platforms, and expanding its mission to include even more opportunities for public service.