A look back at the visionaries and creativity that made the impossible possible
BY ALLEN YEKIKAN and PAUL CHADERJIAN
LITTLE ARMENIA—Last week marked the 20th anniversary of Horizon Television’s first broadcast on Saturday, May 20, 1989. This revolutionary new media venture at the time was the first to offer breaking news stories from Armenia to the Diaspora. It was also the first television program to chronicle modern Armenian history as it unfolded behind the Iron Curtain and throughout the Diaspora for millions of television viewers in the US.
Horizon was born at a time of great change in Armenia and Armenian communities around the world. The end of the 1980s was a time of unprecedented excitement and hope. It was also a period of great uncertainty and sorrow, as a devastating earthquake had just leveled Armenia’s second largest city, killing some 25,000 people and leaving thousands more homeless and without bare necessities. Months after the catastrophic Gumri earthquake, Horizon went on the air to address the dire needs of the victims of the tragedy.
Simultaneously, Horizon brought to light the heroic Karabakh Movement that was gaining momentum. The threat of renewed massacres against Armenians was also in the air and on the air through Horizon, as Armenians in Baku and Sumgait fell victim to pogroms that would eventually lead to an all out Azeri offensive against the newly independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
This historic time for Armenians also witnessed the fervor of democracy as independence movements were spreading throughout the USSR. Horizon was there to videotape the first of many referendums as Armenia’s government voted for independence and raised the tricolor once again. These images were broadcast in Southern California, Fresno, San Francisco, and Boston, as Horizon set a standard of informing, alerting, and calling the masses in the Diaspora to action.
“The Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Western Region saw this as a watershed moment in the community’s history and took hold of the opportunity,” said Horizon creator and first Executive Producer Garbis Titizian, who was tasked by the ARF to launch this labor-intensive, new media project at a time when access to airtime was nearly impossible and television production equipment were costly and limited.
“The consensus at the time was that television was a powerful tool that could be used to bring the stories, images, and breaking news from the homeland directly to Armenian-American living rooms,” said Titizian. “With that in mind the ARF established a committee to do what it would take to launch a television show.”
Horizon began as an hour-long news program that aired every Saturday evening at 5:30 pm on KSCI TV 18 in Southern California. As the first-of-its-kind television news magazine, it was so popular, powerful, and compelling that it eventually became a 24-hour channel, devoted to all things Armenian, from news to entertainment.
“We used every single one of our personal connections to launch the program,” said Titizian. “To get the latest information, we would be on the phone doing interviews before recording our newscasts. We would ask our friends in Yerevan to take home videos of the news events. When I was in Yerevan, I would hold a home video camera at the mass meetings and bring the tapes back and show them in our shows.”
Beyond the developments in Armenia, this community was also undergoing unprecedented changes and redefining its role as Armenians with an independent homeland. Armenians were craving to see the Homeland on television, because coverage of the earthquake and the independence movement was virtually non-existent on the few Armenian shows on the air at the time, let alone on mainstream media.
“The community back then had no way of getting direct visual access to the news and developments in Armenia aside from print media. There was a genuine desire to see what was happening but the medium for it did not exist,” said Harry Vorperian, Horizon’s General Manager and one of the individuals involved in the founding of the channel. “There weren’t Armenian TV outlets like there are now. Sarky Mouradian’s Armenian Teletime was the only show on the air. It was must-see TV for Armenians, but it didn’t have the vast grassroots resources of the ANC to cover Armenia and the Diaspora.”
The Armenian community in the US was also changing with more immigrants arriving from the Middle East, Iran and Armenia. The sudden influx of newcomers made it even more necessary to create mechanisms that would help introduce them to the local Armenian community, recalled Vorperian.The Armenian Relief Society – like many other organizations that contributed segments to Horizon – featured its own weekly piece that educated and informed newcomers about the US and how to maneuver in a new country.
The committee’s core was headed by Executive Producer Titizian – a visionary who was responsible for not only the content of the shows but also finding sponsors each week that would fund the program. Horizon was commercial-free for the first two years, and each week Titizian would find community members who would foot the $3,000 bill. Airtime alone cost $2,000 an hour at the time.
“Our biggest challenges were that we didn’t know what it would take to produce a television program, and our community didn’t have the talent pool that we have now,” said Titizian. “We didn’t know people who worked in television or were capable of going on the air. So, we had to meticulously search for the handful of Armenians like the late Vartkes Nargizian, Kerop Manoukian, Paul Chaderjian, and Stepan Partamian, among others who were skilled in television production.”
The first wave of volunteers helping Titizian was Koko Balian, Sako Berberian, Zaven Kassabian, Mher Tavitian, Harry Vorperian, and filmmakers Nigol Bezjian and Ara Madzounian. Bay Area ABC News Producer Roxanne Makasdjian coordinated coverage and broadcasts of Horizon in the San Francisco Bay Area, Garo Istanboulian and Yerevan Ohanessian manned the Fresno broadcasts, fundraisers and interviews, and current Asbarez English section Editor Ara Khatchatourian ran the Boston region broadcasts and reporting duties.
These dedicated individuals across the US and in Armenia brought their personal connections, their time, and their individual expertise to the table, with the Southern California team meeting every Tuesday night so that Horizon offered its audience the most interesting and informative hour of commercial-free news and information programming.
“These were truly historic times for our people,” said Chaderjian, who was hired by Titizian as Horizon’s first fulltime producer. “We felt fortunate to be allowed to participate in the creation of a new Armenian institution – a new medium that would inform, empower, and validate our existence in the 20th century. We were passionate about the work, and our audiences were equally eager to see what we would produce every week. Everyone involved was extremely excited and proud.”
The Horizon team also consisted of a host of other volunteers that included anchors, field reporters, editors and production staff. They were the faces of Horizon. Their credible and trustworthy personalities were what tens of thousands invited into their living rooms every Saturday.
“Working at Horizon, almost 24 hours a day, and covering the latest news from Armenia and the Diaspora were unforgettable two years for me,” said Grace Andonian. “I can never forget the endless last minute recordings and edits, the interviews… The excitement of creating beautiful segments and presenting them to our community… I feel humbled and proud to have been part of such an exceptional team of great artists, producers, directors, cameramen and editors.”
The newscasters that researched, wrote, and delivered the weekly headlines during the first two years included Garo Momjian, Sonig Avedikian, Ani Hovanissian, Tamar Mahshigian, Nareg Keshishian, Arshalouys Darbinian and Chaderjian. Contributing as news writers and editors were Ara Avedikian and Serj Samoniantz. Weekly editorials came courtesy of commentators Lorig Titizian, JD, and Dr. Rubina Peroomian.
For Ani Hovanissian, working at Horizon was like being at home. “Every Friday evening, I would leave my daily job in television and rush to Horizon, where with news wire and other news sources in hand, I would write the newscast, recapping the week’s Armenian happenings and affairs, using a thick black marker and a roll of computer paper,” she recalled. “It was a place where a group of eager people with fresh ideas and far-reaching vision came together and in the simplest of surroundings and with the barest of necessities created a program that became a connector and a lifeline for us and I would venture to say for much of the world’s Armenian community.” For the first two years, Manoukian, Partamian and Chaderjian served as the core group of fulltime employees working at Horizon. Ara Madzounian, Nigol Bezjian, Grace Andonian, and Nareg Keshishian later joined as fulltime employees; and supporting them were countless volunteers, community members, supporters, and ARF members and benefactors, who graciously paid for the expensive air time and costs of production.
With a team in place, Horizon set up shop and began broadcasting throughout the whole of Southern California including Riverside and San Diego. Soon the show was also airing in
Fresno, San Francisco, and Boston. Audiences around the country were able to watch news coverage of developments in Armenia and the Diaspora. Viewers were so passionate and involved in the show that they would call the Horizon offices throughout the broadcast hour, commenting and praising every report and even criticizing stylistic decisions like the use of all-lower case fonts.
The first few years of Horizon might have only been an hour long, but behind the scenes, dozens of people were jumping through hurdles, working sleepless nights and doing the impossible to produce that one hour segment. With a limited budget, the crew was forced to be creative in how it produced its shows.
Broadcast quality cameras and television production were quite costly and not readily available to the community at the time. “That was one of the big hurdles for this upstart show, and we relied on folks at the Arab-American television hour for studio space and television producer Vartkes Nargizian for editing equipment,” explained Chaderjian.
Partamian recalled how the group made their own makeshift teleprompter using a broom, paper and other miscellaneous parts you would find at Radio Shack and the Home Depot. “That was until the ‘Kerop-prompter,’ was built,” Partamian said, laughing as he described how Manoukian built them a new teleprompter from metal parts. “We eventually bought the real thing, once they became more affordable.”
According to Partamian, the first six months of Horizon were produced in Nargizian’s apartment. “Vartkes had editing equipment so I, who was the editor at the time, would work out of his apartment,” Partamian recalled. “The apartment on Louise in Glendale would turn into a frat house, with people smoking and working all throughout the night.”t
“It would be utter chaos and also a very thrilling place to be during those late hours,” he added. “Although it was almost like a hobby for us, we all knew we were doing important work for the community and for Armenia.”
Partamian and Manoukian would work with a group of a dozen other volunteers from the ARF every Friday night into Saturday afternoon to produce and edit the show’s segments. Sometimes resolving ideas and artistic input from every vocal volunteer participant would be tough to maneuver but added to the magic of each episode.
For Kerop Manoukian, working at Horizon wasn’t a job, but a community service and a fun one at that. “I remember I would start working on Thursday nights and go back home Saturdays,” Manoukian recalled, adding that the Horizon team would put in hundreds of collective work hours a week to prepare the show.
“We didn’t do it for the pay; it was very satisfying knowing that Armenian families across the country were watching something you had a hand in making every week.”
“The main goal of Horizon wasn’t business it was the message and the community service, so we did everything we could to make sure our show was professional, balanced and the best quality it could be,” Manoukian added.
“The Horizon team took over Vartkes’ apartment in those days, but he was always glad to oblige and would often fire up the Manghal (barbeque) on his balcony to feed us,” Partamian said. It was this sort of camaraderie and dedication that allowed the team to produce and deliver its shows from Glendale to KSCI in West Los Angeles by five o’clock–just a half-hour before broadcast.
“We used to have people in Armenia record the video reports and then go to the airport and hand it off to a pilot who would bring it with him to LAX airport,” Vorperian explained.
The Road to Armenia
Titizian and other volunteers from the ARF would make regular trips to Armenia and bring back television reports they produced in Yerevan. Soon, Horizon had its own reporter and camera man, who would file several reports a week. In addition to covering the hard news stories, Horizon’s team in Armenia would also offer its Diaspora audiences exclusive performances by up-and-coming performers like Nune Yesayan and Hrant Tokhatyan, and exclusive interviews with legendary actors and leaders like Sos Sarkisyan, Alvart Petrosian and others.
Horizon had exclusive on-the-ground footage of the earthquake region, graphic videotapes of the victims of the Azeri campaigns against Armenians and video of the first airlifts of humanitarian assistance being sent to Gumri thanks in part to the United Armenian Fund. These stories were brought to life through interviews and special features.
Horizon was perhaps the most ground-breaking and revolutionary tool that the community was using at the time to get everyone one the same page.
While Horizon was documenting Armenia’s difficult road to independence, its cameras were also inside community schools, at the Prelacy, and the Armenian centers in Hollywood and Montebello, where collection centers had been set up to gather clothing and desperately needed supplies for the victims of the earthquake and the refugees from Azerbaijan.
Of course, during the course of those hour-long shows, Horizon also showed the community what was happening here at home. The Horizon team went to Hamazkayin and AGBU cultural events, interviewed writers, broadcast messages from the clergy, had historic vignettes about Armenian heroes, and the nation’s rich four-thousand year history.
“Horizon became a reflection of what was happening to us, our people in the Homeland, inside our communities, and in the psyche of the modern-day Armenian,” Chaderjian said.
Horizon crew also videotaped local performers and community stars, had cooking segments, and even chronicled the lives of young people, athletes, and the activities of Armenian clubs in the colleges and universities. Young filmmakers also made short films and music videos for singers like Araxia Varteressian and bands like Forever Young and Gookan LA.
By Any Means Necessary
About two months into the collective effort, this new television show had done something that had never been done in Armenian media. Using director Mark Mardoyan’s multi-camera production truck, Horizon covered the entire 1989 Navasartian Games closing ceremonies, from start to finish, bringing the festivities and games into every Armenian-American living room.
One year into its founding, Horizon was already telling the stories of Armenian communities across the world. In April of 1990, the most complete and unprecedented coverage of Genocide memorial observances ever presented in Armenian media aired on Horizon’s airwaves. ARF members from Europe, the Middle East, South America, the Homeland, and from communities all over the US sent in videotapes of local memorials via DHL and FedEx to help create a video collage that expressed the Armenian experience across continents and oceans.
That coverage created the interest in communities and a desire to watch the show, which soon began broadcasting in Boston and Fresno, and sending tapes to faraway places like Australia. It was unprecedented, many involved with Horizon agreed.
This phenomenon that was Horizon not only piqued the interest of Armenians around the world, but it began to attract a whole new type of Armenian — young Armenians who were interested in media. High school students like Christ Guldalian, college students like Greg Tufenkian, Berj Beramian and Albert Kodagolian, were all showing up and volunteering to put together Horizon shows.
As the community rallied around Horizon to ensure its efforts continued, Titizian organized the show’s first fundraiser — a spectacular banquet that featured a who’s who of the Armenian community. Titizian’s fundraising efforts to fund the weekly shows had led him to benefactor Vatche Manoukian, who had pledged $50,000 to be used to purchase Horizon’s own camera and video equipment. Manookian had upped the ante pledging another $50,000 if Titizian was able to lure superstar Charles Aznavour to Horizon’s first banquet.
“I lobbied with Charles for months and impressed upon him the importance of the work we were doing, and he agreed to participate,” said Titizian. Aznavour’s commitment to the fundraiser lured many more donors, and the unprecedented March 1990 fundraiser brought in Mr. Manoukian’s $100,000 donation and raised a second $100,000 from generous community members who believed and wanted to ensure Horizon continued its broadcasts long into the future.
With the purchase of its own editing equipment, Horizon was grounded and would go on to become a powerful medium of communication for not only the Southern California Armenian community but communities around the US via its satellite and Internet distribution channels. What was then a one-hour television program, being produced in a second floor backroom of the Salpi Mardirossian Armenian Center on Colorado Street in Glendale, became a 24 hour television station on Marcus Cable–now Charter Communications.
Around the Clock Coverage
“The community in Glendale really boomed in the early 90s, so the move from our one-hour slot on KSCI to a four-hour slot on cable and then to 24-hour coverage was essential,” said Vorperian. “With thanks to many dedicated managers over the years, we expanded our programming until we were on the air with our own programming around the clock, seven days a week.”
Under John Kossakian’s leadership the weekly hour-long show became a 24 hour station with Saro Nazarian heading the News department. “Before the expansion, we were producing hour-long live interviews and 30-minute-long news segments, and we were still considered the most widely viewed and influential TV program in the community,” Kossakian, who served as the General Manager from 1997-2001, explained. “But our goal was to expand the programming.”
At first, Horizon had hoped to increase its programming so that it could become a three-hour long news-variety show. “Much to our surprise Marcus Cable, which covered Glendale, Burbank and La Crescenta, offered us the management of a 24-hour Armenian Channel,” he said.
“We were given a two week deadline to launch the channel,” he said. “Despite the time crunch, we launched the channel successfully and with a high level of quality that has been maintained over the years thanks to the hard work of our journalists and the generosity and foresight of our sponsors.”
Horizon’s leap to 24-hour broadcasting was a monumental achievement and therefore faced many challenges. Such a large scale TV operation would have been a liability for the ANC Media Network and its newspaper publications had business managers not approached high television production costs with thriftiness and creativity.
Fortunately, he added, Horizon was blessed with grass roots community support, extensive and ever-growing archives, an international network of sister stations in Armenia, Canada, and the Middle East and, most importantly, dedicated personnel.
Bianca Manoukian, who served as Horizon’s general manager from 2002-2007, recalled how much of a challenge it was running the television station during her tenure. “The diversity of our audience required a lot of creativity on our part,” she said. “Our demographics consisted of Armenians from across the world, ranging across a number of generations.”
“Looking back at the rich history of this venerable establishment through my own lens, I can’t help but be humbled at the monumental role it plays in serving our community and bringing all its forces together. This distinguishes Horizon from other commercial broadcasts that have since been established, as it continues to remain true to its mission of catering to and becoming the voice of a diverse population that throughout the years has grown and matured due, in large part, to what Horizon has captured through its lens,” said Ara Khachatourian who served as General Manager for one year and hosted an English-language talk-show for six years on the channel.
The New Horizon
Last year, Horizon (and Asbarez) moved to a new state-of-the-art media headquarters in the heart of Little Armenia on Vermont Avenue. The new building, plus a new donation of $150,000 from Raffy Manoukian for the latest in studio equipment, has opened new horizons for this 20 year old station, which now broadcasts live on webcast, 24 hours a day at www.horizonarmeniantv.com.
Earlier this year, Horizon premiered a new innovative news and information show covering Armenian, international, and community news, called “Horizon 180.” Featuring CNN-style commentary and discussion on political, social and cultural issues of the day, Horizon 180 is a three-hour daily reminder of the legacy of this channel’s founding generation and their vision to build the infrastructure that would connect a community in a new age.
The programming lineup this year is new, but it’s still the same Horizon, stressed Horizon News Director Alisa Petrossian, who has been translating, anchoring and directing the news programming since 1999. “From the very beginning we recognized our responsibility to our viewers,” she said. “We steer clear from the typical sensationalist type of reporting common in modern media and instead seek to raise the bar for discourse and dialogue; to entertain, but always educate.”
Twenty years ago Horizon had three staff members. Today it has a 13 person crew backed up by dozens of community volunteers, who dedicate their time as commentators, analysts, and reporters.
A one hour television show fueled by the sweat of its volunteers set in motion what has now become a mass media organization accessible by anyone in the world via the Internet. It’s now up to the citizen journalists to upload their stories to Horizon and make it the core focus of Armenians around the world, where stories are told that create a new virtual Armenia, beyond borders.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The individuals who have helped shape Horizon and shepherded its advancement number in the hundreds. We have not forgotten any of them and will publish intermittent stories in upcoming editions featuring the myriad personalities that have shaped this important medium.