Still from the second series of the program

Dr. Alexander Shevlin, the program's host

(Click on the images to see a larger version)

In 1961, "Operation Alphabet" premiered on WFIL-TV, Channel 6 in Philadelphia. It was considered to be a new approach to help adults learn to read and write. Some sources have reported that the show was two years "in the making."

Alexander Shevlin of the Board of Education of Philadelphia hosted the program in cooperation with the Philadelphia Junior Chamber of Commerce. Shevlin, previous to this venture, was no stranger to broadcasting. In the fifties, he produced and sometimes hosted weekly broadcasts on WFIL Radio (including the WFIL Studio Schoolhouse) aimed at Philadelphia school children. Communications students from Temple University also participated.

This first series of "Operation Alphabet" had 100 half-hour episodes. They were television lessons and were recorded on videotape. One episode was shown each day (Monday through Friday) and it took 20 weeks to work the way through all one hundred shows. The series was for adult "illiterates" who wanted to learn. Each learner had a "Home Study Book" to reinforce and supplement what was learned from the television lessons. To promote the series, posters were displayed throughout each community.

The series' creators had three basic educational considerations during the developmental stages. The show has to be sound educationally. Cost to viewers (for books, etc.) had to be kept to a minimal amount. Finally, the material had to be age appropriate.

Airing stations (it originated in Philadelphia at WFIL-TV) received the tapes free of charge, as long as they returned them after airing. The cost of the workbook was only $2.00 and was published by the Civic Adult Education Project. Many of the stations broadcasting the show were educational outlets (now called public TV) like WNDT (now WNET-TV), Channel 13 in New York City.

The age appropriateness was important. Most of the written lower-level educational material of the early sixties was written for grade school students. They talked about dolls, toys and other child-like topics.

This series gave adults a chance to learn in their own homes without anyone outside the house being aware of what was going on. "Operation Alphabet" taught educational reading skills on an individual basis but on a large scale. By being done in the privacy of their home, there was no stigma or embarrassment.

No one need know that the learner was "illiterate." Participants could also receive free tutoring, if needed and desired. Providing the assistance was "The Clubwomen Across America." Their members viewed the program so that they could teach materials covered in the series.

In October of 1964, Roger Clipp, General Manager of the WFIL stations (owned by Walter Annenberg) wrote:

In 1961 we taped a series of about 100 half-hour programs entitled "Operation Alphabet" to teach illiterates to read and write to the fourth grade level. These ran in more than sixty cities in the United States. The second series upcoming - approximately 90 half-hour programs - teaches people to read and write to approximately the eighth grade level. Much interest nationwide was engendered by the first series among telecasters, educators, and the public. At the moment, the first series is being considered for telecasting in Japan.

Broadcast Pioneers member Lew Klein who was Executive Producer of American Bandstand while it was based in Philadelphia and who was a mainstay at WFIL-TV for many years said that the second series was, indeed, produced and aired.

There were 90 shows in the second series and took 18 weeks to air. Lew believes the second series was produced at WFIL-TV in the late part of 1964 or the early months of 1965. After that, there were no new shows. There were 190 episodes all together. When the second series finished, both series went into re-runs and continued to June of 1971 on WFIL-TV. At that point, Channel 6 was sold to Cap Cities. They retitled the station, WPVI-TV, and kept on running the program.

Klein said that while most of the educational programs produced and aired by WFIL-TV were aired a time period where most people could watch (usually between 9 am and 12 noon), Operation Alphabet aired at 6 am. He said that the reason for this was not that the station was trying to "bury" it in the Channel 6 schedule but that most of the adults who could benefit from the show, had to be at work early because of the type of work they did.

Remember that there were no home video tape recorders during the entire time that Operation Alphabet was aired. The viewer had to watch it in real time. That is, at the time the television station was airing it.

Operation Alphabet was mainly aimed at adults (many in the military), prisoners and immigrants with only a small portion of the viewers being children. The program was distributed nationally by Triangle Publication's broadcast division (owner of WFIL-TV) and by the National Association for Public School Adult Education.

Lisa Quinn, a visitor to our website e-mailed:

As a little girl my Mother would turn on Operation Alphabet every morning for me to watch. It kept me occupied for half an hour while she got ready for work. I watched every weekday, for how long I do not know. I learned how to write by watching that show. One day I asked my Mom how to spell a word, I think it was hospital. As Mom spelled it, I wrote it out on my blackboard. She was amazed because I hadn't had any school yet, and (she) made me write out words 'til I filled up the blackboard. And that's the story of how "Operation Alphabet" taught a little girl how to write her letters.

Louis A. Tarone II, a visitor to our website e-mailed:

I remember Operation Alphabet well. Though I was an young kid who was getting good marks in school, I found something about it intriguing and used to get up early in the morning to watch it on Channel 6, which was carried on Service Electric Cable up here (in Hazelton). I even began recording the audio to it on my portable cassette. I still have those tapes.

Despite the fact that it was obviously not aimed at me – I was a ten year old kid at the time – I got a kick of out it and started getting up to watch it. Soon, I started laying the microphone from my portable Channel Master cassette in front of the TV speaker and recording a few of them. I dated each tape. After seeing your page, I dug those old tapes out. They were recorded between December 1971 and June 1974. Some of the subtitles are “Lesson 24 Rooms In The House,” “OA2 Lesson 69 Angels of Mercy,” “OA2 Jack Baker Looks For A Job,”  etc.

Years later, I was a student at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. One morning, as I got up to go do my morning show on my college radio station, I turned on TV. This was 1980, just before CNN, MTV, et. al. There wasn’t much early morning TV. But again, I found Operation Alphabet still on Channel 6! I made a mental note to get up and watch it occasionally. But, as you can imagine, college kids don’t often get up before 6 a.m. – so I only saw it a few more times.

WPVI-TV finally deemed the content dated (for example, an address in one lesson was ‘Philadelphia 44, Penna.”) and stopped running it. It was either 1981 or 1982 when it was pulled from the air. I have a few old TV Guides from early 1980 and it is still listed as airing at 6 a.m. on Channel 6.

Operation Alphabet was dated 1962 in the program’s closing credits, while Operation Alphabet II was dated 1964.

My questions are, do you know whether the films of the 190 lessons are still in existence, or were they tossed out as “debris?” Sadly, that has happened to many films of local television.

In fact, the first time I remember seeing it was Thanksgiving morning 1971. There was a major snowstorm up here which began the night before. I remember a bunch of us being outside in it Thanksgiving Eve throwing snowballs. I got up early Thanksgiving morning – just before 6 a.m. – to see how much snow we’d actually gotten. While awake, I turned on the TV. In those days, there wasn’t much early morning TV. But as I surfed the dial, I saw Operation Alphabet for the first time. Here was this guy teaching people how to read and write!

JC Jackson, a visitor to our website, e-mailed:

I remember my dad watching this show everyday while I was getting ready for school. I never understood why he watched this show, until I found he dropped out of school and went to the Army when he was very young. My father was an intelligent man and always wanted to learn. But he was very proud and I do not think he wanted to go back to school at his age, I guess that is why he was so hard on me about school.

From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Stills supplied by and used with permission of WPVI which used to be WFIL-TV
Written and compiled by Broadcast Pioneers historian Gerry Wilkinson
© 2009, Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
All Rights Reserved

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