The Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) in some ways seems like an odd footnote in the history of American television. Like many educational broadcasters of the 1950s and 1960s, the founders of the MPATI imagined in television an extraordinary educational tool that could remedy a perceived crisis in education, in which there were far too few qualified teachers in classrooms and far too many pupils enrolled for educational systems to handle coupled with a profound fear of the superiority of the Soviet educational system (accelerated after the launch of Sputnik). The goal of the MPATI was to bring high quality instructional programming to thousands of students in an economical and efficient way. To do so, it would need airplanes. Utilizing Stratovision, a broadcast distribution system developed by Westinghouse in the 1940s, the MPATI equipped two DC-6 airplanes with transmission equipment that broadcasted over two UHF channels. The planes flew over Montpelier, Indiana, and the telecasts reached schools within a 200 mile radius of the planes. Schools in six states—Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—could be reached by the signals and formed the core of the MPATI’s audience. Continually burdened by financial difficulties, the MPATI broadcasted from 1961-1968, after which it ceased its telecasts and became a tape library for instructional programming.
The MPATI officially dissolved in 1971. What distinguished the MPATI from other experiments in educational television, aside from the use of the airplanes, was its regional—rather than local or state-based—scope. In planning the curricula, the MPATI sought the counsel of school superintendents from all six states and devised at least one program, Your State Today, which addressed the particularities of the region in which it was broadcasting. The regional nature of the MPATI was crucial to its mission and to the way it promoted itself to schools, potential donors, and other broadcasters. It was also a factor in why many educational broadcasting groups disapproved of the MPATI, believing that educational broadcasting—like school curricula--should be the purview of individual states. In addition, national circulation of its own programming was a consistent priority for the MPATI, as was the poaching of effective instructional materials from schools and states outside of the Midwest region. So what defined the MPATI as regional television was its distribution, not its programming; the reach of the planes was regional, while the shows circulated to educational stations across the country. But the reach of the planes was really important.
The images in the slideshow here are taken from MPATI promotional materials, which emphasize not only the benefits of instructional television to students but also the technical capabilities of the airplanes and the geographic area these “flying classrooms” could broadcast to. Stratovision liberated the MPATI from the comparatively limited reach of the ground-based television station, not only expanding the size of the audience but also reimagining the relationship between broadcaster and community. Indeed, the MPATI was not a regional network, but a regional broadcaster. If it had flourished, the MPATI was to become a prototype for similar regional educational broadcasting systems that would supplement—and possibly displace--local ETV stations. In the process, they would substitute regional communities for local ones as the primary audience of educational broadcasting. I’ll admit that what first attracted me to the MPATI was that it struck me as a quirky moment in the history of educational television, a history—much like that of regional or local television— that largely gets ignored, or is quickly dismissed as the less interesting and less financially tenable precursor to public broadcasting. I have become increasingly interested in the ways that the MPATI experiment encourages us to rethink the taken-for-grantedness of the local television station/ national network dyad, and the central role of television distribution technologies—both adopted and failed—in shaping the parameters of how we understand the spaces of television and the communities which it is to address.