Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was a fitting guest to christen the first “Horizon” broadcast in its new downtown Phoenix studio, given that it was her Senate confirmation hearings nearly 30 years ago that served as an informal test-run for the show.
“Horizon,” which is the state’s longest-running public affairs program and airs nightly on KAET, returned from a three-week hiatus Jan. 4 with a new home. In mid-December, it stopped production in order to move from its longtime location on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus to the school’s Cronkite Building in downtown Phoenix, which it shares with ASU’s journalism school.
The guest for the first program in the new studio harkens back to 1981, when “Horizon” was still on the drawing board. The show had been given the green light and was scheduled to begin broadcasting in the fall.
“Then, out of the blue, (President) Ronald Reagan appoints Sandra O’Connor to serve on the Supreme Court,” said Michael Grant, the former host of “Horizon.” “We just thought, jeez, that would be a remarkable way to get started. The timing was sort of serendipitous.”
Chuck Allen, who was KAET’s program director at the time, wanted to broadcast the hearings live, in their entirety. Such a thing was unheard of at the time, and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) brass in Washington, D.C., pooh-poohed the idea. But Allen fought to do it unilaterally, without any funding from the national organization.
“We sent our entire unit – two people – to (Washington) to pull it off,” he said. “It was really a heroic piece of work.”
With the help of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, KAET secured media credentials, a camera crew and the equipment needed to transmit the broadcast back to Arizona.
But when major newspapers started writing about the historic nature of the hearings – O’Connor was set to become the nation’s first woman Supreme Court justice – both PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) became interested. Ultimately, Allen said, CPB financed the entire effort, and KAET reached a deal with PBS to broadcast the hearings to every PBS station in the country.
The Arizona station produced the program and Grant, a relative newcomer to TV, hosted it. His co-anchor was Paul Duke, who hosted “Washington Week in Review” on PBS for 20 years.
“I think it’s one of the more important things the station did,” Allen said. “I’d put it up there with televising the impeachment of Evan Mecham.”
Grant said it was a nice, historic touch to book O’Connor for the first show in the new studio.
“I just thought that was a terrific idea. It was most appropriate, given the way the show started,” he said.
O’Connor said she was “honored” to be asked to appear on the show.
“Horizon” host Ted Simons said the new studio will allow the show greater access to the elected officials it covers.
“Hopefully, we’ll have better access to government figures and reporters by being downtown. Everyone’s based down here – very few people were based in Tempe,” he said.
The state-of-the-art studio will also allow “Horizon” to do things it couldn’t from its old home in Tempe, including live feeds from the Capitol, Simons said. Of course, economic realities may prevent some of the new features from being seen immediately by viewers.
“Like all media organizations, we’re in a budget (crunch) right now,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities for things we can’t do, but we will be able to.”