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When Television Almost Became All-UHF

by K.M. Richards

When television in the United States converted from analog to digital broadcasting, much of it ended up on the UHF band because higher frequencies are less susceptible to electrical interference and -- unlike analog signals, where that simply created noise in the picture -- said interference causes a complete loss of decodable signal. But did you know that fifty years earlier, there was a point at which the FCC contemplated moving all analog television to UHF?

The story begins with the start of UHF television itself. In July of 1952, the FCC issued the first construction permits since freezing the list of authorized television stations in 1948 to almost completely rewrite the table of channel allocations to include UHF. That itself turned into a battle over which cities should get channels ... and how many; most communities received only one or two channels, usually UHF, and larger cities received a mixture of VHF and UHF channels, many with only one of their channels on the VHF band.

Everyone had high hopes for UHF to bring television to an eager nation. It had become obvious before the 1948 freeze that VHF alone could not do the job, because the required separation between stations transmitting on the same or adjacent channels created large areas where the number of possible new stations ranged between few and none. There was an even bigger headache in creating the separation mileages for UHF television, because everything that could interfere with the allocated frequencies of two transmitters did, given the technology available for analog broadcasting. As an example, if a community was allocated channel 34, then the following "taboos" existed:

  • Channels 26 and 42 could not be assigned within a 20-mile radius due to the television receiver's intermediate tuning frequency's relationship for those channels to channel 34's;
  • Channels 29 through 32 and 36 through 39 also could not be assigned within a 20-mile radius because of the potential for intermodulation from the transmitting frequencies relative to each other and channel 34;
  • Channels 33 and 35 could not be assigned within a 55-mile radius, due to being immediately adjacent (similar to the adjacent channel separation distance already imposed on VHF channels);
  • Channels 27 and 41 could not be assigned within a 60-mile radius because oscillator frequencies between transmitters on all three channels could cause interference similar to the second point;
  • Channels 20 and 48 could not be assigned within a 60-mile radius because the audio portion of the transmission had the potential for interference with channel 34 at that distance; and
  • Channels 19 and 49 could not be assigned within a 75-mile radius due to the same interference potential from the video portion of the channel 34 transmission.

(Thankfully, digital television transmission and reception processes are completely different from those of analog television and the above minimum separation distances are no longer a factor. In fact, many large markets now have stations transmitting on adjacent channels without interference.)

What the above meant was that UHF channels had to be six channels apart in the same community. To take Los Angeles as an example: Channels 22, 28 and 34 were the original three allocations. So, using the example above, with channel 34 allocated to Los Angeles, channel 20 was allocated to Santa Barbara CA (86 miles away) and then, because that allocation had taboos of its own, could not be allocated again until San Francisco CA (272 miles from Santa Barbara). That distance was greater because channel 21 was allocated to Hanford CA, near Fresno (174 miles from Los Angeles but only 131 miles from Santa Barbara and 180 miles from San Francisco). The Hanford allocation was close to that of channel 24 in Fresno itself, at 32 miles ... and the channel 21 and 24 allocations prevented everything else between channels 18 and 24 from being used anywhere nearby. You get the idea.

Nevertheless, the table (flaws and all) was used to accept applications for the first time in over four years, construction permits issued, and new stations took to the air. Because UHF channels had been allocated literally everywhere in the then-48 states due to the inability to fit VHF channels everywhere, a large number of the new stations were on the channels above 14 (the highest channel that was ever used for a full-power station was channel 74, WMGT Adams MA, which operated from February 5, 1954 to December 20, 1954 before moving to channel 19 and then going dark February 25, 1956 after an ice storm toppled its tower; it resumed operation a year later as a repeater for channel 10 in Albany NY and continues operation on that basis today).

The reader will note in the preceding paragraph that WMGT lasted just over two years before going dark. As it turned out, that was better than a lot of UHF stations did. The first two stations to wave the white flag of surrender were WROV-TV Roanoke VA on channel 27 (which lasted five months on the air) and WBES-TV Buffalo NY on channel 59 (which operated for three months). Both came -- and went -- in 1953. Many permittees, seeing early stations struggle, surrendered their construction permits rather than go to the expense of building a station which had the odds against survival. On April 15, 1954, the FCC announced that, having issued 305 permits on UHF, only 41 actual stations had gone on the air (and eight of those had subsequently gone dark), 53 unbuilt permits had surrendered, and the remaining 211 permittees were still somewhere in limbo. By comparison, only 12 of 232 VHF permits issued in the same period were surrendered.

Of the just under 100 UHF stations that were on the air, the majority were struggling because they were in competition for viewers with established (or in some markets, brand new) VHF stations. At the time, UHF was at a distinct disadvantage because television receivers were VHF-only, for the most part, and a viewer who wanted to watch one of these new channels above 13 either had to have the tuner on their set modified so that one or more of the "blank" VHF channels would instead tune a UHF channel operating in their area, or purchase a converter to separately tune the UHF band and then convert it to a VHF channel for the set to tune. Since CBS and NBC only affiliated with UHFs when there was no VHF channel available in a market (ABC and DuMont were hungry for affiliates and didn't care what channel you were using, as long as you were on the air) and the "big two" had the most popular programming, there was little incentive for households to spend the money on set conversion. There was even less incentive when the newcomer UHF had no network affiliation and was dependent on local programs mixed in on the schedule with the handful of available syndicated fare (if their well-heeled VHF cousins hadn't already snapped up the latter).

The aforementioned WROV-TV was a case in point: The station operated at a disadvantage against WSLS-TV on channel 10 from day one and was facing the eventuality of a second competitor on channel 7 ... this despite the fact that they already owned a successful radio station in Roanoke. In fact, they had originally filed for channel 7 and changed their application to channel 27 only because they feared the delay while competing applications were sorted out would prevent them from getting on the air quickly. (As it turned out, delivery of their transmitter did not come until after channel 10 got on the air, its path ironically cleared because WROV's decision to drop out of the channel 7 battle caused one of the two competing applicants for channel 10 to modify their application to channel 7.) In those three months, WSLS-TV's presence had been responsible for the sale of more than 40,000 television sets in the region ... virtually all of them VHF-only. WSLS-TV received a full affiliation with NBC and filled in much of the remaining time with CBS programs, while WROV-TV was able only to affiliate with ABC (which had so few programs that attracted viewers that it wasn't even programming a full prime-time schedule at that point) and CBS wouldn't allow them to pick up the programs WSLS-TV didn't. Needless to say, WROV-TV was awash in red ink after only the first few months.


They went on the air on UHF anyway: KSTM-TV/36 ad,
targeted at agencies, less than two weeks after filing
with the FCC to operate on them channel 11 instead.
(Note the non-mention of channel number.)

If you owned a UHF station at that time, and read about WROV-TV, what would you conclude? In the case of KSTM-TV/36 in St. Louis MO, the conclusion was obvious ... and on October 15, 1953 (a mere five days before commencing operation) their Washington attorney, Franklin C. Salisbury, delivered a petition to the FCC proposing to replace the two remaining VHF allocations, which had seven applicants between them, with four additional UHF allocations. The petition argued that the competition for those two remaining V's would "deprive the people of prompt additional service" and that removing the VHF channels would prevent "unfair competitive advantages" by those channels over the U's. It also suggested that the Commission reconsider its channel allocation plan to avoid intermixture of the two bands "in all other communities similarly affected". The following week, KSTM-TV filed to move to channel 11; within the month the FCC told them that if they wanted to compete for that VHF channel they would have to surrender the channel 36 construction permit. Their response was a refiling for channel 11 in "East St. Louis" so that they would not be applying in the same community in which they were presently operating; it was returned by year's end. For its trouble, the FCC became the recipient of a court order staying the channel 11 hearings until they heard KSTM-TV's arguments, upon which -- you guessed it -- the application went back in.

Many other licensees were also coming to the conclusion that UHF was never going to work with VHF as a direct competitor, and in four markets stations made that known to the FCC by filing petitions for changes that would make their markets' stations be either all-VHF or all-UHF. Those petitions were all summarily denied, and they subsequently filed for reconsideration, which led to a full comments process on proposed deintermixture of their four markets: Hartford CT, Peoria IL, Evansville IN and Madison WI. None of those four cities had VHF stations operating in them at the time, and the proposals for all four were based on moving the reserved non-commercial allocation from UHF to VHF, leaving all of the commercial stations on UHF channels. The FCC received comments and replies in April and May of 1955. Not surprisingly, the UHFs supported deintermixture while VHFs (or those competing for new VHFs) opposed it. Specifically:

  • In Hartford, channel 18 was on the air as WGTH-TV and non-commercial channel 24 was pending operation by the Connecticut State Board of Education, with two applicants competing for channel 3. It was further complicated by a request by WNET on channel 16 in Providence RI requesting that channel 3 be moved to that city for their use (WNET went dark a few months later, anyway) and the replacement (channel 61) was opposed by another nearby UHF station (WELI-TV in New Haven CT) because even though it still had not built its channel 59 facilities authorized in 1953 it would have had to move to the even higher channel 75.
  • In Peoria, channels 19 (WTVH-TV) and 43 (WEEK-TV) were on the air and there was an initial decision on the competing applications for channel 8 which had been frozen pending the deintermixture petitions. WICS channel 20 in Springfield IL piggybacked onto that proposal their own suggestion that channel 2 -- also with an initial decision pending between two competing applicants -- be the educational allocation there.
  • In Evansville, there was a three-way battle for channel 7 and WEHT (channel 50, in nearby Henderson KY) and WFIE (channel 62) were on the air. That proposal included replacing the allocation for channel 9 -- which was also the target of two competing applications -- in nearby Hatfield with channel 14 from Henderson.
  • In Madison, there were two competing applicants for channel 3, with channel 21 operating as educational WHA-TV and channels 27 (WKOW-TV) and 33 (WMTV) in commercial operation. Similar to the Hartford proposal, an additional monkeywrench was thrown in during the comments period by WTVO channel 39 in Rockford IL, which requested that channel 3 be moved to nearby Beloit WI.

Further complicating matters, stations in five additional markets -- Lexington KY, Baton Rouge and New Orleans LA, Albany-Schenectady-Troy NY and Corpus Christi TX -- filed similar deintermixture petitions while the comments period on the original four was in process.

Meanwhile, FCC Commissioner Frieda Hennock -- the same Commissioner who fought for channels to be reserved for non-commercial, educational use (and was possibly beginning to regret it, given the way the deintermixture petitions all involved the jockeying of those channel allocations) -- was already calling for all-UHF television operation as early as May of 1954, and formally proposed same in March of 1955, along with another freeze on VHF grants. In response, Commissioner Robert E. Lee two months later proposed a 47-channel VHF band, which died within a year when the military refused to give up its portion of the proposed band. (Just as well, actually: Lee's proposal would have moved FM up to 342-362 MHz, just as it was finally recovering from having been moved from 42-46 MHz to 88-108 MHz less than a decade earlier.)


What FM tuning dials would have looked like if Commissioner Lee had gotten his
way in 1955. As a point of reference, 342-362 MHz is approximately where cable
television channels 44 through 47 operate today.

After all the comments were considered, the FCC denied all of the petitions (a list was published in the November 12, 1955 issue of Television Digest), including ones filed for Fresno CA, Jacksonville and Miami FL, Hutchinson KS, Louisville KY, Raleigh NC, Toledo OH, Philadelphia PA, Spartanburg SC and Newport News VA. All of those either proposed deletion of the sole VHF allocation or that it be made educational; those petitions were summarily denied as well. At the time, the FCC said that acting on individual petitions would result in a "piecemeal" approach to the problem creating only "isolated solutions" but paradoxically added VHF channel 10 to the Albany market (in nearby Vail Mills NY) even as they denied the deintermixture petition there.

By this time, with four possible courses of action possible -- deintermixture, either selective or national; additional VHF assignments; moving all television to UHF; or maintaining the status quo -- the television networks began weighing in on the issue. CBS proposed adding VHF channels in those top-100 markets with less than 3 VHFs and ABC proposed deintermixing by dropping ungranted VHFs from markets where UHFs were already operating, adding VHF allocations where feasible and swapping ungranted VHF educational allocations for UHF channels. One engineer offered the opinion that as many as 234 VHF channels could be "dropped-in" if the FCC considered changes to the co-channel separation rules; the net effect was that the FCC began to consider a revision of the table of channel allocations (which didn't happen for another ten years, as it turned out), prompting the Washington DC law firm Scharfeld and Baron to suggest retiring the table and instead allow applications to specify channels with engineering exhibits to support their grant.

Of course, Congress couldn't resist meddling, even though the hearings on allocations that the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee held in early 1956 showed that -- as Television Digest put it -- "Senators ask questions, don't know enough about [the] subject to follow up ... a spirit of good-natured futility pervades the proceedings." It didn't help that some members of said committee came into the hearings with their own intended outcome, such as Sen. John O. Pastore (D-RI), who didn't care what the outcome was, as long as it deintermixed his home state capital of Providence and gave same three VHF allocations. Even FCC staff was divided on what the "right" answer was: If an all-UHF plan didn't stand a chance when there were only a few stations and a few million sets, what chance did it have in 1956? "Squeezed-in" VHFs risked the danger of creeping interference that could gradually degrade the whole service. New V channels, on frequencies wrestled from the military, would have had the same problems of conversion that plagued UHF. Directional antennas? Cross-polarization? Similar innovations? No one had yet come forth with technical data to show they'd actually work the way proponents say they will. And exactly what did "deintermixture" mean? How far would you go? Keep VHF permits -- even only the ungranted VHF channels -- from starting? Move VHF stations in markets where they were the only one not on UHF? What about two-VHF markets? Where would you stop, and how would you justify it? And would the legal challenges from the Vs who would resist moving allow you to do it in time to do any good? Senator Pastore, of course, stuck to his guns, at one point asking "aren't we actually kidding ourselves by at least maintaining a hope that UHF is going to survive?"

Ultimately, the Senate hearings moved on to the issue of the networks' recalcitrance in affiliating with UHF stations, subscription television, and by mid-year they had pretty much left the FCC to work it out without specific legislation to guide the outcome. The committee's interim report, issued on July 20, 1956, called selective deintermixture "the only major action being taken by the Commission at this time which holds promise of furnishing prompt assistance and encouragement to UHF broadcasting and of promoting the preservation of the UHF band. In what could have been interpreted as putting the naysayers on notice, the report went on to say that deintermixture "should be effected on as broad a basis as possible in order to make clear to the broadcasting industry, to advertisers and advertising agencies, and to the public that UHF is not only going to be maintained but expanded to assume its necessary place in our over-all TV system." That last statement did not prevent one committee member, Sen. William A. Purtell (R-CT) from issuing his own statement opposing deintermixture until the FCC could show whether UHF channels would ever be comparable to VHF ... which directly contradicted the committee's directive to set in motion a plan to shift all television to UHF "as soon as it can be determined that performance can be improved to the point" that no major white areas would be created by such a plan. (As we know, it took the conversion of television transmission from analog to digital in the 21st Century to finally achieve even part of that goal.)

In any event, by the time the interim report from the committee was released, the FCC had already decided to attempt moving forward on selective deintermixture and had tentatively decided the communities to deintermix to UHF-only (Fresno CA, Hartford CT, Peoria IL, Springfield IL, Evansville IN, New Orleans LA, Albany-Schenectady-Troy NY, Elmira NY and Madison WI) and to primarily VHF (Mobile AL, Miami FL, Duluth MN, St. Louis MO, Providence RI, Charleston SC and Norfolk VA) ... but the numbers had grown in the interim: Up to mid-1956 363 UHF CPs had been issued, 151 of those had ever been on the air (56 had gone dark), 111 had been returned, and 101 were "in suspense" pending the result of the deintermixture matter. When the Commission issued the Report & Order on the rulemaking for deintermixture on June 25, they included studying moving all television to UHF and requested public comments on that proposal at the same time.


What WISC-TV (on the air June 24, 1956) feared,
literally one day after beginning operation.

Not surprisingly, within a month of the R&O being released, the three stations which stood to lose the most (defined in their eyes as "a VHF channel allocation") -- WISC-TV/3 Madison, WTIC/3 Hartford, and WIRL-TV/8 Peoria -- had filed petitions for reconsideration; the Madison station (which was already on the air; the other two were "frozen" CPs) called the deintermixture proposal "illegal and improper" because its purpose was to "insulate existing UHF stations against competition from local VHF stations" ... all three specifically wanted the proposals involving them removed from the process. For his part, Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-WA), who had chaired the Commerce Committee hearings, sent the FCC a long letter in September with his "personal views" on the matters at hand; his underlying theme, much to the dismay of VHF operators nationwide, was that the Commission wasn't going "far enough or fast enough" with deintermixture, and the letter closed with his hopes for the "eventual shift to UHF" of all television.

As November drew to a close, the FCC denied a flock of Petitions for Reconsideration from practically everyone who had a stake in the Madison, Hartford, Peoria, St. Louis-Springfield and Elmira markets, asking for the proposals to be withdrawn. The Commission rationalized that, since they would be holding hearings beginning on December 3, any arguments could be made at that time and given consideration. Typical of the passions involved was the filing of a petition by the "Wisconsin Committee to Save Existing Rural TV Service," headed by a Madison attorney who delivered 20,147 signatures of rural and and small-town residents asserting that without channel 3 in Madison they'd get little or no service because the UHF signals were not receivable at their residences. ABC, meanwhile, submitted a detailed plan in which the use of power and height limits, coupled with directional transmitting antennas, would allow 67 of the top 200 markets to have four or more VHF stations, 74 to have three, and 52 all-UHF.


Reproduction of the proposed channel reallocations as reported by Broadcasting in its July 2, 1956 issue.

By early 1957, with the comments on the 1956 R&O having been taken into consideration, the FCC was preparing to move forward with the first round of deintermixtures to all-UHF. After discussion at every Commission meeting that month, on February 26 they voted to make six markets all-UHF ... Springfield by moving channel 36 from St. Louis and deleting channel 2; Peoria, by adding channels 25 and 31 and deleting channel 8; Fresno, by moving channel 30 from nearby Madera and deleting channel 12; Evansville, by adding 31 and deleting 7; Elmira NY, by adding 30 and deleting 9; and Albany-Schenectady-Troy, by deleting channel 6 and the previously "dropped-in" 10 and adding channel 47. This resulted in three existing VHF stations being given new UHF allocations: KFRE-TV Fresno, WRGB Schenectady and WTVW Evansville. All three, naturally, petitioned for reconsideration; the FCC reversed its decision on deintermixing Albany-Schenectady-Troy four months later -- although it took until year's end to effect changes, which included moving WCDA/41 to channel 10 and WTRI/35 to channel 13 until "commencement of regular operations by a permittee so authorized by final action of the Commission on any application or applications for such regular operation" (WCDA at the beginning of December of that year, WTRI on New Year's Day 1959) -- and WTVW endured seven years of hearings before the "all-channel" television set legislation took effect in 1964 and caused the FCC to finally drop deintermixture in Evansville. (KFRE-TV was a more convoluted situation, as we shall explain a few paragraphs farther down.)

At the same time, the channels were deleted from the CPs already issued for WMAY-TV Springfield and WIRL-TV Peoria pending new UHF channel assignments. Adding to WMAY-TV's dilemma, the FCC gave KTVI St. Louis MO, which had been using channel 36 there, a STA (Special Temporary Authority) to operate on the channel 2 allocation originally assigned to Springfield, pending comparative hearings for a final licensee; the Commission's logic was that since channel 36 was being deleted, there was nowhere else for the station to operate from, in the interest of continuing to provide service to the public. The Peoria deintermixture also had a twist added when WMBD, which had lost to WIRL in the original channel 8 comparative hearing, offered an either-or petition to the Commission: Either reverse the original grant and give it channel 8, or grant the channel to both them and WIRL, whereupon they would file for channel 31 and build there. (The FCC said no to both suggestions.) Without going into a blow-by-blow discussion in those two cities, suffice it to say that both WMAY-TV and WIRL-TV lost their final challenges to being moved from VHF in 1958, when appeals courts issued decisions within 60 days of each other upholding the all-UHF deintermixture plans for those two cities; neither station bothered to build their newly authorized UHF facilities, although WIRL-TV held on to its channel 25 CP until 1965.

The FCC also decided not to deintermix Hartford CT (clearing WTIC to begin construction there) and Madison WI, saying that deletion of the channels would deprive people of existing or potential service, that out-of-market VHFs would be receivable anyway, and that those allocations couldn't be used efficiently elsewhere. VHF channels were subsequently added in March in the New Orleans-Houma LA, Lake Charles-Lafayette LA and Beaumont-Port Arthur TX markets, leaving them as VHF-UHF intermixed with three commercial VHF channels in each. However, three existing UHFs (one in each market) which apparently expected to be automatically moved to the new allocations, like KTVI had been in St. Louis, were disappointed to be told they would not be, because their present UHF channels had not been removed from the allocations table as part of the adds.

And even the KTVI move to VHF in St. Louis was not without objection: In mid-March a competing applicant announced it intended to file for channel 2, operating from the site of dark KACY/14 in nearby Festus MO; it was quickly denied a stay by the Court of Appeals to block the move in the interim. (The new applicant eventually bought stock in KTVI and the channel 2 allocation was made permanent in April 1958.) Meanwhile, by month's end VHF channels were proposed to be added in Miami (channel 6), Charleston SC (channel 4) Norfolk (channel 13, by means of subsituting channel 12 in relatively close-by New Bern NC), and Duluth (moving channel 10 from Hibbing MN); all of those had been finalized by FCC vote by the end of the following month. (One of the original losing applicants for channel 2 in Springfield tried to get the rulemaking overturned, but after additional hearings in 1959 and 1960 their challenge was dismissed.)

Meanwhile, Walla Walla WA was added to the deintermixed market list in April 1957 when two unused VHF allocations were replaced by UHF channels. And in August 1958 William J. Putnam, who was having great success operating multiple UHF stations in New England, proposed a gradual shift to all-UHF by a three-part process (immediately halting the grant of new VHF stations, denying VHF stations renewals unless they agreed to initiate UHF stations and simulcast, and increased granting of UHF translators to fill-in shadow areas of stations). Putnam found a sympathetic ear in Commissioner Robert E. Lee (who had moved past his 1955 proposal for 47-channel VHF service), who put a similar proposal forward for discussion; the major differences between the two was that Lee allowed for no simulcast period, required every VHF to move to UHF at the end of their three-year license period beginning in 1964, and increased the ownership limits to ten as an incentive for well-heeled broadcasters to acquire more UHF stations. While the rest of the commissioners applauded Lee for his thinking, the proposal -- like so many others -- quietly went nowhere. Lee's original 1955 proposal did become part of the FCC's official position, along with advocating for all-channel television receivers, when they again addressed the Senate Commerce Committee in April 1959. (The idea of "all-VHF" ultimately died the following year when the military said it would only vacate the VHF band if Congress covered the costs -- a multimillion dollar proposition -- and give it a decade to shift.)


What KBAK-TV asked for in
1956 in order to gain parity with
KERO-TV/10, who supported it
rather than move to UHF.
In California, KBAK-TV Bakersfield, which operated on channel 29 in competition with KERO-TV on channel 10 in the next market south of Fresno, wanted the channel 12 allocation from that city moved to their city for their use, instead of to Santa Barbara (the Mexican government also opposed the move because they had allocated channel 12 in Tijuana, a straight shot over the Pacific Ocean from Santa Barbara). KERO-TV, surprisingly, supported its UHF competitor's petition; KFRE-TV, hoping to stay on channel 12, had previously petitioned the FCC to instead add channel 17 in Bakersfield. The FCC's response, in 1958, was to add both channels 17 and 39 -- but not channel 12 -- in Bakersfield. KBAK-TV's petition for reconsideration of that decision was summarily denied, as was their 1958 proposal to add channel 8 in Bakersfield for their use and the one in 1959 to move channel 10 to Santa Barbara and KERO-TV to channel 45. (A CP for channel 39 was issued in December 1958 for KBFL but when it cited the uncertainty of the allocation due to the deintermixture proceedings the FCC set the matter for a separate hearing and KBFL surrendered the CP in September 1960 before the hearing could commence.)

And speaking of KFRE-TV: At first glance, they likely thought the deintermixture process would leave them untouched when the FCC gave them authority to go on the air May 10, 1956 on channel 12. In fact, Broadcasting opined at the time that allowing KFRE-TV to begin operations meant the Commission would not deintermix markets with operating stations. As we have seen, that was not the case ... but it did bring joy to UHF competitors KMJ-TV on channel 24 and KJEO on channel 47, who had been pushing for Fresno to be all-UHF since talk of deintermixture had begun. Thus it came as a great surprise when within a couple of weeks of each other both KJEO and KMJ-TV suddenly filed petitions to make Fresno an all-VHF market by assigning channels 2, 5, 7 and 9 to themselves and dark KBID-TV to those channels. (Channels 5 and 9 were to be reassigned from small communities in Nevada.) The FCC took a year to act on the petitions, proposing in April 1959 an "interim" allocations plan moving KJEO to channel 2, KMJ-TV to channel 5 and KFRE-TV to channel 9, with channels 8 and 12 added to Bakersfield and channel 7 made the non-commercial allocation for Fresno. (KJEO immediately filed for temporary authority to operate on channel 2 and was almost as immediately denied.) The proposal didn't stay under consideration for long; by February 1960 several legal, engineering and international snags had killed it. In comments that had to have elicited muffled laughs at the FCC Broadcast Bureau, KERO-TV even filed an objection, stating that it would "[doom] without recall, once and for all, now & forever, the future of UHF TV broadcasting service throughout the nation."

KFRE-TV, meanwhile, had been challenging the channel 30 allocation in federal court, to no avail (they also objected to being moved to channel 9 due to the FCC-identified need for them to change transmitter sites in the process, saying it already had a "highly satisfactory" site), but then announced they were selling channel 12 to Triangle Publications. Shortly after taking control in early 1960, Triangle announced they would "acquiesce in the creation of the new all-UHF area of Fresno" by moving to channel 30. The move on February 8, 1961 made KFRE-TV the first station to voluntarily move from VHF to UHF; the FCC allowed them to operate on both channels until April 15, over the objections of KJEO & KMJ-TV. (That authorization was later extended to June 1 in order to install a channel 71 translator in a small community in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that was able to receive channel 12 but not channel 30.) Apparently the outcome soured KJEO on the entire business of television; it changed hands on May 17, 1961 for $3 million, which was the highest price paid for a standalone UHF station up to that time.

The delay in beginning operation on channel 30, even though it was officially authorized by the FCC on July 7, 1960, was caused by two factors. First, a petition by the City of Fresno, the County of Fresno and the Fresno City Unified School District -- apparently oblivious to the aforementioned legal, engineering, and international difficulties that had prevented all-VHF implementation -- requested that the July decision be reconsidered. The municipal entities were led by Paul Bartlett, who had been KFRE-TV's owner during all the arguments, who told the Fresno City Council that all-UHF for the area was a mistake; he was promptly rebutted by Triangle's general manager who said Bartlett's comments "indicate he has little knowledge of technical & practical considerations." (One had to wonder why Bartlett even cared anymore at that point.) The Fresno County Board of Supervisors opted not to comment, on the advice of KFRE-TV and KJEO. When the petition didn't work, Congressman B.F. Sisk proposed his own allocation table for both Fresno and Bakersfield, apparently also without consulting any engineers beforehand, which was rejected due to replacement channels 5 and 13 at San Luis Obispo not meeting minimum mileage separations to the San Francisco area.


KERO-TV logo, after it moved to channel 23 and was sold by
Transcontinent Television to Time-Life Broadcasting in 1964.
Transcontinent acquired KERO-TV in 1959, the year after the FCC
denied a petition by competitor KBAK-TV to move KFRE-TV's VHF
channel 12 allocation from Fresno to Bakersfield for its use.

Having finally moved KFRE-TV to its new home on the UHF dial, the Commission turned its attention back to Bakersfield, where KBAK-TV had petitioned for reconsideration of the previous addition of two more UHF channels instead of a VHF one. The FCC, apparently weary of the two stations fighting a "battle of petitions", decided to instead add Bakersfield to the list of deintermixed markets by adding two more UHF channels (23 and 51, making 39 a non-commercial allocation), deleting channel 10, and ordering KERO-TV to move from there to channel 23 by the end of 1962. In the process, they also satisfied the Mexican government by moving the former channel 12 Fresno allocation to Santa Maria, north of Santa Barbara (which was similar to the proposal made by Santa Barbara's KEYT, on channel 3, when commenting on the 1960 KBAK-TV petition to move channel 10 there from Bakersfield); that was part of a negotiation with Mexico for 14 VHF assignments within 200 miles of the shared border along California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas which was ratified in 1961 (KCOY-TV began operating on that channel March 16, 1964 ... less than three years after static replaced KFRE-TV's use of that channel on the other side of the Santa Lucia and Diablo Mountains). KERO-TV, of course, took the Commission to court over the matter, and things went downhill for them from there. While a hearing examiner sided with them that urgency had not been demonstrated by the FCC in ordering the move to channel 23, they also said the Commission had the right to delete channel 10 at the end of the current license term. When the appellate court agreed that KERO-TV had no right to its VHF channel past its license expiration, the FCC decided not to force the issue and leave KERO-TV where it was until then; KERO-TV's response was to file a license renewal specifying channel 10, while requesting a stay on the appellate court decision. When the stay request was denied, KERO-TV threw in the towel and amended their renewal application to specify channel 23; they began operation there on July 1, 1963 and were allowed to continue on channel 10 (similar to KFRE-TV's dual channel operation two years earlier) until September 23.

Thus KFRE-TV and KERO-TV became the only two stations in the original analog television era to begin operations on VHF and move to UHF. In a small bit of irony, when broadcast television converted to digital, KERO-TV ended up transmitting their "virtual" channel 23 signal on ... you guessed it, channel 10!

The story of deintermixture didn't end there, however. In July, 1961 the FCC proposed to deintermix eight more markets (two of which were familiar to those following the process) -- Montgomery AL, Hartford CT, Champaign IL, Rockford IL, Binghamton NY, Erie PA, Columbia SC, and Madison WI -- to all-UHF by deleting their single VHF allocation; those markets were selected because all were top-75 markets with two commercial stations already in operation. Needless to say, existing VHF stations in those markets were not happy at the proposal, but the least happy were WTIC-TV and WISC, because they owed their very existence to being removed from the original list of 13 markets to be deintermixed. (They must have felt the same way KFRE-TV did four years earlier.) At the same time, the Commission proposed adding VHF channels in Birmingham AL, Jacksonville FL, Charlotte NC, Dayton OH, Oklahoma City OK, Johnstown PA and Knoxville TN, while finalizing previously proposed drop-in channels in Grand Rapids MI and Rochester NY (both channel 13) and Syracuse NY (channel 9) which forced existing stations in each market to switch channels while remaining on VHF. (Those ten markets were on a list of 20 markets within the top 75 officially considered in June 1959, which had been pared down from the original list of 37 in the top 103 markets; Baton Rouge LA had been on the first list but was granted a channel 9 "drop-in" the same month the shorter list was released. Ironically, both Bakersfield and Fresno had been on the original lists.) At the time, the FCC made it clear that these were the only markets where they were prepared to consider VHF drop-ins "now and in the future" (yeah, right).

In Rockford, WREX-TV was sufficiently upset at the possibility of being moved to channel 17 that they tried to mobilize their audience into writing letters of opposition via a full-page newspaper ad in the Rockford Morning Star that included a map with shading of the area which would lose grade-A contour service (what was conveniently omitted was that in an area with their terrain, grade-B service would be perfectly receivable, even on UHF). Of course, the ad did include every possible disadvantage to viewers, including a cost as high as "$202.70" to convert one's television receiver and antenna to receive channel 17, ignoring the fact that there had to be some UHF viewing in Rockford already ... to WTVO/39, which had been operating for nearly 8½ years at that time. (Ironically, the map included the service contours of WTVO, which moved to that same channel 17 a few years later, in 1967. WTVO is still on the air today, transmitting its digital signal one channel lower, on channel 16.)

Without going into a lot of detail on the battles waged for and against the 1961 proposals at the FCC -- we will direct the reader to the Broadcasting archives at the American Radio History website, where a search for "deintermixture" will provide a list of 666 (!) pages with articles on the subject -- two things happened to prevent any of the proposals from being implemented. The first was Congress passing legislation in September 1962 requiring that television sets shipped interstate be all-channel, in return for which the FCC declared a moratorium on the all-UHF deintermixture; the second was a May 1963 decision to not add the proposed VHF drop-ins, which they reinforced six months later by denying petitions for reconsideration filed by would-be applicants for the new channels.

After April 30, 1964 all new television sets sold in the United States were capable of tuning both VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-83, although the initial UHF tuners were more like radio tuners (continuous dial rather than click-tuning) and it wasn't until 1975 that further legislation mandated that tuners for both television bands be "more accurate click-stop".

As for that 1961 statement by the FCC that no further VHF drop-ins would ever be considered? The idea was floated again in 1975 -- at one point the Office of Telecommunications Policy said 83 channels could be dropped-in, nationwide, with changes to the mileage separation standards -- only to be effectively killed by concerted lobbying efforts by the broadcast industry against it; ultimately only four VHF channels were added -- in Johnstown PA, Knoxville TN, Salt Lake City UT and Charleston WV -- in 1980 ... and three of those were used by existing UHFs to move to the "better" band. It wasn't long afterwards that the FCC started to consider high-definition digital broadcasting, the implementation of which finally rendered the entire concept of deintermixture moot.


The last four VHF "drop-in" channels: WWCP/8 Johnstown PA, WVLT-TV/8 Knoxville TN
(originally WTVK/26), WVAH-TV/11 Charleston WV (originally on channel 23) and
KSTU/13 Salt Lake City (originally on channel 20).

And as the late Paul Harvey would have said ... now you know the rest of the story.


EXTERNAL LINKS

  • The Darkened Channels - 1962 Harvard Law Review article on UHF channel allocations, via JSTOR (free registration required)
  • Broadcasting special section in April 14, 1952 issue on the original allocation of UHF channels
  • Broadcasting July 13, 1953 article on WROV-TV

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