AETN: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

“Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” For the last five decades, most children have been able to answer this question. They can probably even sing you the song and tell you about Cookie Monster, Elmo and Oscar the Grouch. But did you know you can turn off of Donaghey Avenue onto Sesame Street?

It runs beside the studios of the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN). The original studio was built by Nabholz Construction in 1966 and was about half the size that it is today. KETS Channel 2 went on the air December 4, 1966 transmitting educational programs from its studios in Conway.

For ten years, this was the only educational television channel in Arkansas. It could transmit a signal within an 85-mile radius of its tower in Redfield which is about 45 miles from the studio. The channel operated on UHF (ultra-high frequency) and was in black and white.

AETN was associated with National Educational Television in its early years because the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) was not yet established. The original purpose of the network was to provide instructional programming for use in Arkansas classrooms so broadcasting took place during school hours.

Eventually the broadcast day expanded and the station went to a seven-day week. It began to provide children’s shows from PBS. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” made its debut on public television on February 19, 1968. Created by Fred Rogers, it was aimed at two- to five-year-olds and covered a broad range of topics through visits to the world of “Make Believe.”

The first “Sesame Street” episode aired November 10, 1969. The program used such characters as Big Bird, Oscar, the Cookie Monster and Bert and Ernie to teach the alphabet, colors and numbers to young viewers. My first memory of the show was watching it at “Miss Emily’s”. She kept about a half dozen children in her home on Martin Street during the late 1960s. I would sit on her “divan” and watch the show with the other children.

The Children’s Television Network had such success with “Sesame Street” that it began producing “The Electric Company” on October 21, 1971. The show targeted children aged six to ten. It taught basic reading and grammar skills through skits and songs. The Children’s Television Network published a bi-weekly teachers’ guide for these programs.

AETN moved to color programming by 1975. Three more stations went online at the end of 1976 and early 1977. KETG/Channel 9 in Arkadelphia went online October 29, 1976, providing services to Southwest Arkansas while KAFT/Channel 13 in Fayetteville went online December 9, 1976, providing services to Northwest Arkansas.

KTEJ/Channel 19 began transmitting January 13, 1977, providing services to Northeast Arkansas. The fourth station, KEMV/Channel 6 in Mountain View would not go online until June 21, 1980. When that happened, AETN would finally provide coverage to over 90% of the state. In 1978, AETN began to get its PBS programs from a satellite feed.

The studio in Conway expanded in the 1990s and now has four production studios and a state-of-the-art technical center. AETN converted to digital in the early 2000s and now has three channels, AETN-PBS, AETN-Create and AETN PLUS. It also provides an audio-only reading service on AETN-4 for the blind.

The network also launched “Arkansas IDEAs” (Internet Delivered Education for Arkansas Schools) to provide high-quality, standards-based professional development offerings, online programming and instructional resources to K-12 educators in Arkansas.