by Kyle Bookholz
Channel 18 first went on the air -- after close to two months of airing nothing but a test pattern -- on September 25, 1954 as WGTH-TV, a DuMont/ABC affiliate jointly owned by the Hartford Times newspaper and General Teleradio (both of whom had filed individually for the channel and created a merged entity called "General-Times TV Corporation" to win the license).
The station was sold to the CBS Television Network and became WHCT (for "Hartford CBS Television", contrary to some local folklore that it signified "Hartford, CT" or "Hartford Christian Television") September 16, 1956. WHCT swapped network affiliations with WNHC-TV/8 in New Haven, CT to become the CBS owned and operated station for the Hartford market, but CBS' ownership and affiliation did not last long, for two reasons: One was the lack of signal parity with early UHF transmitters and converters, and the other was WTIC-TV/3, owned by the Travelers Insurance Corporation, which signed on in 1957 as an independent station. It did not take long for William Paley, shrewd network head that he was, to realize it made good business sense to have his product on a powerful VHF station (albeit one that CBS did not own) than a weak, money-bleeding UHF station; WHCT went dark November 15, 1958 and WTIC-TV took the CBS affiliation.
WHCT was then sold to Capital Broadcasting and resumed operation January 24, 1959. It was subsequently approached by Phonevision, a partnership of RKO General (which was owned by General Tire & Rubber Company, which had been the "General" in the original WGTH-TV ownership) and Zenith. They wanted to use channel 18 for an experiment which turned out to be a couple of decades ahead of its time: Pay Television.
It took until January 23, 1961 for the FCC to approve the Phonevision experiment, and another year and a half before it began operation. (The experimental authorization was for a three-year period and was subsequently extended). In the meantime, RKO General moved to formally purchase the station, which the FCC approved June 1, 1960.
Not unlike HBO, WHCT would show movies that had recently completed their theatre runs, as well as sporting events from Madison Square Garden (such N.Y. Rangers hockey, and boxing). The station's signal would be scrambled, and subscribers would need a box on top of their set to descramble the channel 18 signal and convert the result to a VHF channel for feeding to their set.
Phonevision began operation June 29, 1962 during the evening hours of WHCT's broadcast day (it was pointed out in a Broadcasting article four days prior to the launch that channel 18 continued to operate as a commercial station during hours the pay-TV experiment was not in operation). Subscribers -- RKO said 300 had signed up at the time of the service launch -- paid $10 for installation of the descrambler/converter and 75-cents per week for the rental of same; programming was priced between 25-cents (for children's educational programs) and $3.50 (for major sporting events). Feature films were in the $1.25 range, and subscribers got a rebate for high usage; a subscriber who spent $8 or more in a month was credited with $2 in the next billing cycle, and $3 was credited for spending $10 on programming purchases.
(It may be of interest to some to note that, under his given name of Charles O. Wood, the now-famous CBS commentator Charles Osgood was station manager of WHCT during the first nine months of the Phonevision experiment.)
A few months into the experiment, RKO got a morale boost when a lawsuit filed against the FCC by a group of Connecticut theatre owners was refused to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding a U.S. Appeals Court decision in March that the FCC did have the authority to grant subscription television operation. Meanwhile, subscriber numbers grew to 1,800 by the beginning of 1963, by which time the service operated seven days a week, beginning at 7:00pm and continuing until late in the evening, with afternoon matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays (typically along the lines of a Three Stooges short priced at 50-cents). Movies shown in January, 1963 included "It Started In Naples" starring Clark Gable and Sophia Loren, "A Place In The Sun" starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, and "The War Lover" starring Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner. (Broadcasting reported that only Universal and 20th Century Fox refused to release films to Phonevision.) Other programming included a filmed concert by the Kingston Trio, the Bolshoi Ballet and both football and hockey games from New York and Boston.
The one major problem with Phonevision was that the scrambling system did not work in color. Aside from that limitation, early subscribers appeared to be happy with the service, with a low cancellation rate and an average of $9 per month being spent per household. An early success was marked when the September 25, 1962 boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, carried live, drew 81% of subscribers at $3 each; when Liston took on Muhammad Ali a year and a half later, on February 25, 1964, 86% anted up to watch.
In July of that year, Phonevision got its first taste of competition when a cable-delivered service called Subscription Television, Inc. started operation with three channels in Los Angeles. Opening night featured a taped Broadway production on one channel, a baseball home game between the Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs, and a surfing film titled "Gung Ho". All were in color and priced at $1.50 for the baseball game and $1.00 for the other programs. However, encouraged by the fact that WHCT now had 4,800 subscribers, RKO bet that over-the-air pay would outbill wired and announced their intent to expand the experiment to other cities; at first it seemed they were right, as California voters drove the wired Los Angeles system out of business by passing an anti-pay television ballot measure, sponsored by theater owners fearing competition (it was later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional). However, RKO was unwilling to use its VHF stations in other cities and no other station owners appeared willing to take the risk on a still-experimental technology, although Kaiser Broadcasting did take out an option for KMTW/52 in Corona (Los Angeles) when it signed on in 1966 if the FCC authorized it "as a supplementary service" in the future. (More than a decade later, as KBSC-TV, that station became the flagship for Oak Industries' ON TV subscription service.)
Anti-pay television propaganda announcement which played in many California
Meanwhile, Broadcasting took a poke at pay-TV with the cartoon shown at right, which appeared in their August 30, 1965 issue.
The FCC continued to debate whether to allow over-the-air subscription television on a regular basis, even as it granted an extension of WHCT's experimental operation. Congress weighed in with a resolution in November 1967 calling the experiment thus far "inconclusive" and questioning whether the Communications Act of 1934 gave the FCC authority to license subscription television operations. Finally, RKO General called it quits, abandoning the Phonevision experiment on January 31, 1969; in a statement, RKO General President John B. Poor said "the major purposes of the test have now been fulfilled" and said they would consider restarting pay operation once a standard for color transmission of same was approved by the FCC. Left unsaid by Mr. Poor was the fact that they were down to 4,500 subscribers at the time after reaching a peak of 7,000 in 1967.
RKO continued to operate the station as a limited hour (on the air in the late afternoon, off the air by late night) independent, with programming that included New York Yankees Baseball from WPIX, Celtics & Bruins telecasts from WSMW & WSBK as well as reruns of Lassie, My Favorite Martian, and other off-network programs, old movies, and cartoons. However, RKO was finding that their troubles were only beginning.
The FCC and the Justice Department began investigating claims that RKO General had repeatedly violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, through reciprocal trade arrangements in which customers of General Tire were given special discounts on advertising rates at RKO radio and television stations. (Without going into details, this sparked challenges to the license renewals of RKO's stations, the last of which was not settled until 1989, when KHJ-TV/9 Los Angeles changed hands and became KCAL-TV.) In May of 1971, trying to maneuver their way out of their problems, RKO donated WHCT to Faith Center, the Los Angeles religious organization which had put KHOF-TV/30 on the air only two years earlier; the transfer was delayed as various parties filed objections to the deal (mostly Hartford civic organizations which claimed Faith Center had failed to propose programming that addressed community needs ... one petition bluntly stated "RKO has not been an ideal broadcaster wedded to public service, but Faith Center would be worse") but was finally approved a year later. (The "-TV" suffix was added to the call letters when the ownership transferred.)
Initially, the change was not readily apparent, as the station continued pumping out the requisite Yankee telecasts, reruns, old movies, plus World Football League games in 1974 and the road games of the WHA's New England Whalers in 1977. But eventually, Dr. W. Eugene Scott (who became Faith Center's pastor in 1975) became the omnipresent image on channel 18 as the 70s faded into the 80s, just as Channel 18 faded from screens in the Hartford-New Haven Springfield area. The WHCT-TV transmitter was vandalized in 1979, requiring the station to transmit as a low-power station in its final years under Faith Center's ownership, just as they were undergoing an FCC investigation of their own fitness as a licensee.
In 1978, Dr. Scott refused to turn over financial records for Faith Center's stations during their investigation of allegations that KHOF-TV had engaged in fraudulent over-the-air fundraising in violation of federal wire fraud statutes; the FCC stated its intent to strip Faith Center of all their licenses (WHCT-TV, KHOF-TV, KHOF-FM/99.5 and KVOF-TV/38 in San Francisco) if the requested records were not provided. After an attempt to sell all three television stations to a corporation owned by The East Los Angeles Community Union for $15 million, which was denied because an Administrative Law Judge upheld the FCC decision dismissing KHOF-TV's license renewal the year before, Faith Center filed for "distress sales" of WHCT-TV by itself, first to Television Corporation of Hartford, then to Interstate Media Corporation, and finally -- after those two sales fell through -- to Astroline Communications, which took WHCT-TV dark again for most of 1985 "to strengthen its signal, purchase new equipment, and move into new studios in downtown Hartford" before returning to the air Thanksgiving weekend with a prime-time lineup that consisted of Knots Landing, McMillan and Wife, Mission: Impossible and SCTV (according to the Hartford Courant).
The new, revamped WHCT-TV was off to an inauspicious start. Although, as indicated above, some of the program schedule was probably worth watching, much if it consisted of movies, reruns, and bottom-of-the-barrel syndicated programs not wanted by the other stations in the market. This included Julia, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and the soon-to-be-put-out-to-pasture Merv Griffin Show. The response by the viewers was underwhelming. The entire station was housed in a single garage-like room that became the station's main studio when building renovations were completed. One part of the room contained temporary wooden shelves which housed the station's tape library; in one corner was the production area, which housed a switcher, Chyron machine, 16-track audio board, and a computerized special effects editor; and next to that was a small master control area with a crude switcher, three videotape decks for program playback, several small monochrome monitors and related equipment. Spread out along the remainder of the room were long tables and chairs holding dubbing stations.
Amid the mountains of start-up debt, the new WHCT-TV nearly went dark again, but received an unlikely stay of execution by signing a three year agreement to televise 20 road games per season of the NHL's Hartford Whalers. At the time, the Whalers were enjoying their greatest bout of success, having taken the eventual Stanley Cup winning Montreal Canadiens through a grueling seven-game quarterfinal series which they missed winning by a single goal. WHCT-TV thought that burgeoning Whalermania would be their ticket to the promised land. Instead, the station wound up floundering on the beach, as the Whalers never lived up to the promise shown by their 1986 playoff run, taking an early playoff exit in 1987 and first round playoff defeats the next two years. The ratings reflected the disappointment of the fans.
Despite this, the Whalers identification brought the station some needed local ad revenue, and when they opened their facilities at minimum cost to advertisers to produce local spots that could be aired not only on channel 18, but other local outlets as well, they were able to generate enough revenue to produce some local programming. This included a daily live Catholic mass, weekly job search program Classified 18, telecasts of selected University of Hartford Hawks NCAA Basketball games, and a live, in-studio, call-in post-game show for Hartford Whalers telecasts, hosted by local rock DJ and sports expert Irv Goldfarb.
The station was still ailing financially, though, and the station began regularly airing paid programming for whatever and whoever would pony up, including Jim & Tammy Bakker's PTL Club twice a day. In 1990, Astroline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, forcing the station into a schedule with only a few hours at night of Columbo and Kojak reruns, a movie or a Whalers game (and when that contract was not renewed in 1990 the station started carrying Boston Celtics games from WFXT instead) and the remaining schedule filled with paid programming and the Home Shopping Network. Unfortunately, debt repayment didn't happen fast enough to satisfy the creditors or the Federal Bankruptcy court, which ordered WHCT-TV off the air in April, 1991 and the equipment repossessed to satisfy creditors' demands.
Through it all, Astroline pursued a sale of the station to Two If By Sea Broadcasting Corporation, announced in October of 1993, only to be stymied by Alan Shurberg, who had filed against Faith Center's license renewal for WHCT-TV just before the sale in 1983 but was denied because of the FCC's distress sale policy (which allows the sale of a station at 75% of its market value if the buyer is a minority-controlled entity) and who was, as a result, challenging the FCC policy at the time the subsequent sale was announced. Shurberg fought all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC and won, only to have Astroline and the FCC appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court; eventually, the matter was remanded to the FCC, which in 1997 announced that they would hold a hearing before an administrative law judge to determine if Astroline had indeed misrepresented itself as a minority broadcaster in order to obtain the license from Faith Center. Meanwhile, on February 5, 1997, to avoid a deadline four days later which would have seen the license being automatically canceled by the FCC, the bankruptcy trustee for Astroline put the station back on the air with programming provided by Paxson Communications' inTV service.
The ALJ ruled in favor of the sale moving forward in 1999, at which point Shurberg, having lost the battle to disqualify the seller, filed a new opposition questioning the minority status of buyer Two If By Sea! It looked like it would be another several years of hearings and court decisions before channel 18 would emerge from the battle, but Spanish-language broadcaster Entravision (whose minority qualifications had already been established in other station purchases) approached the ALJ with a proposal to purchase WHCT-TV itself, with the proceeds split three ways among the warring parties (To If By Sea got $9.52 million, Shurberg walked away with $7.48 million, and Astroline ended up with a mere $1 million). Entravision changed the call letters to WUVN on December 15, 2000, and became the Hartford market's Univision affiliate in April of the following year.
And thus it has remained, but to quote the Grateful Dead: "What a long, strange trip it's been."
This article originally appeared in Peter Q. George's "UHF Morgue" at his former RadioDXer site and is republished here with his permission. Some of the information on the change of ownership to Entravision was provided by Marc Bramhall. Reformatting, editing, many misstatements corrected, and the histories of Phonevision and Faith Center added by K.M. Richards.
Site concept © Clarke Ingram. Site design by K.M. Richards.