Bill Cosby admitted he hadn't seen any of the programming on Howard University's WHMM, the country's only black-owned public television station. But that didn't matter, Cosby said as he took the helm of the live broadcast celebrating the station's first anniversary.
"We have our own TV," boasted Cosby to the 1,000 people gathered in black tie at Howard's Cramton Auditorium last night. The cheers that followed Cosby's remark were ones of collective pride, a bellicose swagger that matched Cosby's own playfulness. "Soon I can do anything I want. This is my own TV."
The festivities for Channel 32's anniversary went more smoothly than parts of WHMM's first year. In the upbeat hour-long broadcast, which ran about 20 minutes over its allotted time, Cosby puffed on his signature cigar; Greg Cooper, a younger comedian, imitated Howard Cosell and James Brown; dancers kicked up their crinolines in a 1950s skit; and a succession of speakers reminded everyone of the station's successes. "We face a more challenging and rewarding future, but in the words of a popular song -- we've only just begun," said the university's president, James E. Cheek.
This year the station has made some distinctive news programs, including a special on the Congressional Black Caucus weekend, Vernon Jordan's State of the Black Nation Address and Stevie Wonder's march for the King holiday. The station also broadcasts regular public television features including William Buckley's "Firing Line" and the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report."
"Reel One," a regularly featured catalog of classical movies, has drawn some criticism for its inclusion of old "Amos and Andy" shows. Though the Black Media Coalition supports the station's overall efforts, coalition president Pluria Marshall sent a letter yesterday criticizing that programming. "I don't know where these people were when the NAACP was fighting to get 'Amos and Andy' off. It's not about history but lousy stereotypes thought up by white folks," said Marshall at a WHMM's reception last night.
After six years of planning, the station was hampered in its early months by a bad antenna, on-the-air personality changes and the hardship of training production staff on the job. "One predictable dilemma was the absence of trained black professionals in the market," said Arnold Wallace, WHMM's general manager. Even with a relatively small budget of $3.5 million and a staff of 60 professionals and 40 students, WHMM produces four original programs and plans to increase its broadcasting schedule to 12 hours a day in January.
"My goal with the new building that we will move into early next year is to become the premiere production center for the entire nation and the third world," said Wallace. But last night's energies were spent more on celebrations than projections.
Watching all the interviewing and congratulations, talk show host Charlie Rose said WHMM was definitely part of the future. "The more television the better," he said. "One of the most exciting things about the future is choice, with cable, with stations like Howard's. We will have plenty of choice."