by Fred Weber and Blair Thron
Neptune Broadcasting, the owners of WFPG/1450 and WFPG-FM/98.5 applied for channel 46 as soon as the freeze was lifted, and we were granted our construction permit on October 29, 1952. Working quickly (literally starting construction the morning we received the CP), we put South Jersey's first television station -- WFPG-TV -- on the air a mere 51 days later. We were the second UHF to go on the air in the U.S. (after KPTV/27 Portland OR) and the first to operate with a commercial UHF transmitter (a 1kw RCA TTU-1B) and antenna (a RCA TFU-24B).
The eyes of many in the industry were focused upon WFPG-TV since it was a "pioneer" station. It was pioneering for several reasons: There was obviously no previous background of operating experience with commercially-built UHF television transmitters to draw on. Nevertheless, early transmitter problems were quickly brought under control once all technical and engineering adjustments were completed. One early consideration was shunt feeding the channel 46 antenna, since it was mounted on the existing tower (replacing the antenna for WFPG-FM, which was taken silent within a couple of weeks of the TV grant) and the AM remained on the air during construction.
Construction included a cinderblock and concrete addition to the original AM-FM building, rearrangement of existing equipment to accommodate the TV gear, installation of wire ducts in the old concrete floor of the original building, increased power load requirements, and, of course, the complete installation of the new transmitter, control room console and film chain, and five racks of associated audio-video gear. The new building also housed the film room, announcer studio, general office for programs and film handling, engineering office, film store room and heater room. A large hall was built, used for our disc and tape recording facilities, which were moved from the old building.
But the potential audience in Atlantic City had already invested generously in VHF receivers and super deluxe antenna systems in order to receive barely perceptible pictures from distant metropolitan areas, primarily Philadelphia's WPTZ/3, WFIL-TV/6 and WCAU-TV/10. Local dealers and nearby distributors with inventories of VHF receivers and very few UHF receivers were not prone at first to give UHF its deserved measure of enthusiasm, and this led to VHF receiver owners and dealers not being thoroughly educated in advance as to exactly what they should do to properly "pick-up" WFPG-TV's UHF signal, The question of what kind of an antenna to use and how to orient the antenna should have been completely answered ahead of time in all UHF markets. Such antenna equipment was, in many cases, simpler and less expensive than some complex, high gain VHF antennas, and where good installations were made, owners of older VHF receivers and newer UHF sets were enjoying better television than before.
Another reason the industry was watching was that WFPG was engaged in an unofficial race to be the second UHF to light up, with WSBA-TV/43 York PA also aiming to take to the air by year's end and having had a head start by receiving their construction permit in the first batch of UHF grants on July 9, 1952. We had announced a December 20 start to Television Digest in early November, and only missed it by one day (WSBA "lit up" the day after us, putting them in a tie for third with WSBT-TV/34 South Bend IN).
The visual test pattern and aural tone went on the air at 8:15pm on December 21, and at 10:45 the same evening a one hour commercial film was run, with regular programming including shows from all four TV networks ... NBC, CBS, ABC and DuMont -- requiring five microwave "hops" to get to Atlantic City from Philadelphia -- scheduled to begin the following day. After only three months of operation WFPG-TV was on the air 91 hours a week, including 58 hours of programming (of which 37¼ hours were network), with the remaining 33 hours being of test-pattern transmission; only 90 minutes per week of the nightly (post 7:30pm) schedule was not filled by network programming. Full daytime programming was planned to begin in May, and was to include a complete schedule of baseball games.
The WFPG-TV schedule in late February 1953 was a mix of all the network feeds we had at our disposal, both via microwave and some kinescopes: Programming from our primary NBC affiliation included Mr. Wizard, Your Hit Parade, the Goodyear/Philco Television Playhouse, Voice of Firestone, Robert Montgomery Presents, Buick Circus Hour, Two For The Money, the Mindy Carson and Bob Considine programs, This Is Your Life, Dennis Day's RCA Victor Show, The Life Of Riley, the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports and a cut-down version of the weekday late-afternoon Kate Smith Hour. From secondary network CBS came Jackie Gleason, Omnibus, What In The World, You Are There, the Jack Benny Program, The Web, Burns And Allen, Arthur Godfrey, Biff Baker U.S.A. and the Monday/Wednesday/Friday night news discussion program Chronoscope. ABC contributed What's Your Bid, Saturday night boxing, Billy Graham's Hour Of Decision and Racket Squad, and even the by-then crumbling DuMont network still provided Bishop Fulton Sheen's weekly Life Is Worth Living. The remaining hours were filled with old movies and syndicated features. Due to the lack of studio facilities (we lacked even as much as a camera other than the one for the film chain) local news consisted of WFPG radio announcer Ed Davis reading copy from the booth while slides displayed.
Unfortunately, UHF conversion in Atlantic City did not happen quickly. A C.E. Hooper survey commissioned by WFPG and reported in Billboard's March 14, 1953 issue showed that although 68.5% of homes in the area had a TV set, only 11% were "available" to the channel 46 signal with 6.2% having installed a UHF antenna and another 3.8% having ordered converters which were not yet installed. Hooper estimated that only 8,200 homes in the area could be reached by the relatively new UHF signal.
Perhaps that survey was what emboldened the Philadelphia stations to assert that their signals gave better coverage for network advertisers to viewers in Atlantic City than WFPG-TV. Since in those days, many network programs were ordered station-by-station by their sponsors, in the ensuing months channel 46 lost network orders, a few programs at a time, until virtually nothing remained of that schedule.
Channel 46 went dark May 17, 1954, after publishing a letter two weeks earlier citing "the loss of its network and other peak programs" as making it increasingly impossible for us to present a full schedule. WCAU-TV began operation with a taller tower, still on channel 10, on one of the highest mountaintops in the Roxborough area less than two months later (July 7) and WFIL-TV soon moved to that area as well; channel 6 later joined channel 3 (by then under NBC ownership as WRCV-TV) in building a tall shared tower which went into service December 15, 1957. The moves enabled the Philadelphia V's to provide a clear signal to all of South Jersey, and not long afterward Atlantic City was officially made part of the Philadelphia market.
The demise of WFPG-TV apparently had a sobering effect on the permit holders for WOCN/52, which was granted January 7, 1953 but was never constructed. They survived the 1957 "purge" of unbuilt permits -- mostly by the filing of a petition to move the channel 3 allocation to Atlantic City, which had the effect of a legal "hold" on action against their existing grant -- but the CP was eventually cancelled, in a subsequent purge three years later; channel 46 (which changed call letters to WHTO-TV in 1956, not long after Fred resigned to take charge of WHTN-TV/13 Huntington WV; Blair remained with WFPG until it was sold in 1961, then retired) also survived the 1957 purge and was skipped over in 1960, only to have the CP cancelled in the 1965 purge (on June 17 of that year).
(Fred Weber was the original President, and Blair Thron the original Vice-President and Director of Operations, of WFPG-TV. Much of this article is taken from one that appeared in the March/April 1953 issue of RCA Broadcast News which also previously appeared on Peter Q. George's "UHF Morgue" site; it has been edited and expanded by K.M. Richards. Most of the more technical details of the station's construction have been omitted.)
Site concept © Clarke Ingram. Site design by K.M. Richards.