John Jay Iselin, who led WNET, also known as Channel 13, the nation’s largest public television station, through a period of innovative programming, great popularity and wide influence, died early Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 74 and lived in Manhattan.The cause was pneumonia, said his wife of 51 years, Lea.
Mr. Iselin (pronounced IZZ-lin) was president of Channel 13 from 1973 to 1987, broadening and deepening the station’s offerings in culture, science and news. Among the programs the station originated and produced during his tenure were “Great Performances,” “Live From Lincoln Center,” “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” “Bill Moyers Journal” and “Nature.” In addition, the station either collaborated on or imported dozens of other programs, including “The Brain,” the Patrice Chéreau-Pierre Boulez production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle from Bayreuth and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
“He had the ability to say yes” said Robert Kotlowitz, whom Mr. Iselin hired early on to be the station’s editorial director and who quickly became the director of programming. “Everything I wanted to do, he said ‘Yes, do it.’ Whether we had the money or not.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Kotlowitz said he recalled that in 1981 he approached Mr. Iselin, whom everyone called Jay, with the proposition that the station become partners in a venture with Granada Television of Manchester, England. It was a time when Channel 13, like all of public broadcasting, was facing financial woes. The project was a series based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited,” starring Jeremy Irons.
“I called Jay, and I said, ‘For $500,000, we can be co-producers of this.’ Now, we didn’t have $500,000. It was a huge amount for us. But we did it. And we had one of our biggest successes.”
Mr. Iselin was born on Dec. 8, 1933, in Greenville, S.C., a direct descendant, on the side of his father, William J., of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and on the side of his mother, Fanny Humphreys, of Benjamin Franklin. William J. Iselin had been a New York banker who, during the Depression, moved the family South, where he owned cotton mills.
Mr. Iselin graduated from Harvard, went to Cambridge in England where he studied law and received a master’s degree; he earned a Ph.D. in government, also from Harvard, in 1964. In the early 1960s, Mr. Iselin went to work for Newsweek magazine, first covering Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department, later becoming its national affairs editor. He was briefly publisher of the trade division of Harper & Row and moved over to WNET, as general manager, in 1971.
While he led the station, Channel 13’s annual budget increased to $80 million from $15 million and it became the leading producer of programming for the Public Broadcasting Service, then a consortium of about 300 public stations. It was also under Mr. Iselin that the station pioneered the now-familiar pledge drives that have been equally successful in raising needed funds and irritating viewers. Mr. Iselin also initiated a variety of plans for soliciting corporate financing.
By the mid-1980s, Mr. Iselin’s ambitious vision for the station began to clash with the concerns of the board of trustees, who cited the expensive purchase of a new headquarters in Midtown and the publication of a less-than-successful magazine, “The Dial,” as strains on the station’s stability. Saying, “It’s a good thing for the organization, and for the individual,” he resigned in October 1986, though he did not step down until the board named his successor, Dr. William F. Baker.
In 1988, Mr. Iselin was appointed president of the Cooper Union, the college in the East Village. In his 10 years there, he completed a $50 million capital campaign, created endowed professorships in the schools of art, architecture and engineering and added new trustees and new deans for art and the humanities. In 2000 he became president of the Marconi International Fellowship Foundation, based at Columbia University, which supports innovations in telecommunications.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two brothers, Duane of Mount Desert, Me., and William of Charleston, S.C.; two sisters, Fanny Cromwell of Greenville, S.C., and Lea Rohrbaugh of New York City; five children, William, of Paris, Benjamin, of Brooklyn, Josie, of San Francisco, Fannie Minot of Hamilton, Mass., and Alison Russell of Brooklyn; and 13 grandchildren.
“Jay never said to me, ‘The program has got to be this or has got to be that,’ ” said Robert MacNeil, whom Mr. Iselin persuaded to move from London in 1975 to be anchor of a nightly news show on Channel 13, first called “The Robert MacNeil Report With Jim Lehrer.” “Jay was a very bright man. He knew to let us alone.”