by Peter Q. George
Channel 16 in Providence began formal commercial operation April 5, 1954 after two full weeks of test pattern transmission. Like many other UHF stations at the time, it was highly under-capitalized, and according to many people I have talked to over the years, the signal from 33 Pine Street in Rehoboth, Massachusetts was marginal at best. In spite of a very good low dial position, the UHF converters at the time were the weak link in the chain. WNET was an affiliate of both the ABC and DuMont Television Networks but was "third" in a market of two stations, the other being WJAR-TV/10, owned by the Outlet Company (a local retailer in the area). Crosstown competing retailer Cherry and Webb joined with two other applicants to get the Construction Permit for WPRO-TV/12, in 1953 and for lowly channel 16, that meant the death knell. Even though it filed a formal complaint with the FCC that the grant was improper because the Commission "signed off too quickly on the three-way merger" it had not yet built out its own construction permit, which became a major part of WPRO-TV's counter-argument.
The battle by WNET against WPRO-TV took two sets of oral arguments to resolve, because the first time the Commission voted on the matter, it ended in a tie. WNET tried every argument it could, at one point charging "premature construcion of facilities" because the WPRO-FM building and tower had been designed to later accommodate television equipment. The complaint took until the end of 1954 to resolve and WNET appealed the decision, to no avail; WPRO-TV was granted special temporary authority to begin commercial operations in March of the following year. (WNET, for its part, then involved itself in the discussions on deintermixture, proposing that channel 3 be moved from Hartford, CT to nearby Westerly, RI. That was denied as well.) A year later, in January, 1956 the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the FCC to reopen the hearing because the Commission had ordered the hearing examiner to submit findings of fact only, and not an initial decision. When the FCC subsequently refused that September to terminate WPRO-TV's authority to operate, even though it had reopened the hearing, WNET went back to the Appeals Court charging the Commission with "flouting the law". The appelate court dismissed the appeal in November, saying that WNET had filed its complaint under the wrong section of the Communications Act, and the FCC reaffirmed the WPRO-TV grant almost immediately. (WPRO-TV paid WNET $10,000 to withdraw its complaint in April, 1957 to prevent the matter from going any further.) Meanwhile ...
WPRO-TV's start-up date was delayed for over a year due to some local legal disputes with some Rehoboth, MA town officials; Rehoboth was the original designated site for channel 12's transmitter and antenna, but WPRO-TV's first transmitter site was in Johnston, RI. It never operated from there, however, as 1954's Hurricane Carol blew the original tower down, prolonging the sign-on of channel 12 further. Eventually the disputes were settled and WPRO-TV got the OK to move to Rehoboth.
WPRO-TV signed-on with the very popular CBS programming line-up ... and then some. Even though WNET was still the designated ABC affiliate for Providence, the network allowed channel 12 to "cherry-pick" some of ABC's more popular shows like The Mickey Mouse Club, Disneyland and Lawrence Welk. In essence, channel 16 was given the cold-shoulder by its own network, and without the more popular ABC programs to sustain itself and the lack of any quality "off-the-shelf" programming available, channel 16 died a painful death and signed off July 10, 1955. Apparently, nobody even noticed.
But the story did not end there. The license for channel 16 was maintained for nearly 25 years; by 1968 a highly influential Providence court judge named Harold C. Arcaro -- who also owned the controlling interest in Providence radio stations WHIM-AM/FM -- owned 92% of WNET's dark construction permit (he was originally a minority percentage owner), and he apparently had no intention to give up on the station's potential for viablity. The FCC also did not like to delete silent UHF TV stations or construction permits and would accept any reasonable excuse to extend the time to complete construction. Thus the FCC allowed the channel 16 permit to be reissued multiple times over the years. However, on July 31, 1968 the Commission told WNET to give notice to proceed with construction within 30 days or its application for changed facilities would be dismissed, construction permit cancelled, and call letters deleted. WNET's response was unusual, to say the least: it claimed that the "uncertainty" of a proposal by Vision Cable of Rhode Island to carry stations from Boston and Worcester on its system in Providence and surrounding communities prevented it from formulating its future plans. (WPRO-TV joined with WNET in opposing the proposal, and the FCC denied it on December 13, 1968.)
With that delaying tactic complete, WNET received a new hearing on its request for what was to be the second extension of its recently-modified CP. However, after that hearing the FCC cancelled the CP on April 2, 1969. WNET's petition for reconsideration was also denied, on July 15 of the same year, and back to the U.S. Appeals Court went the Hon. Judge Arcaro's attorneys. (The judge divested his interest in the radio stations shortly thereafter.) The court reversed the FCC order denying the channel 16 CP extension on February 19, 1971; however, in September of that year the Commission reassigned channels 14-20 to "two-way" radio use anywhere they were not home to operating stations and the WNET CP was reallocated channel 64.
Meanwhile, public television station WNDT/13 Newark NJ-New York City applied for, and received, the WNET call letters in October, 1970. This required channel 64 to request new calls before returning to the air, even though the CP kept the WNET call letters in the intervening years; they chose WSTG, which was granted September 26, 1980, and they returned to the air (if you could call it a "return" under the circumstances) September 5, 1981 with a schedule best described as a mix of public domain movies and "table scraps". For the next three years, WTSG/64 operated for a minimal two hours a day in order to keep their license. The typical day's worth of programming consisted of pre-1948 movies (and therefore copyright free) and "Three Stooges" and "Wally Gator" cartoons that had been discarded by WLNE-TV/6 in New Bedford. Although WSTG had in the interim received subscription television authority, by the time channel 64 went on the air "over-the-air" subscription TV was a dead issue due to cable's amazing growth by that time.
In September, 1984, "Channel 16 of Providence" -- which had renamed itself "Channel 64 of New England" after the channel allocation change -- sold the station to Providence TV Ltd. ... the first of many ownership changes (eight in total between then and 2002). Today, channel 64 is WNAC-TV and is, ironically, operated by local marketing agreement with WPRI-TV/12, the same station (with different call letters) that indirectly caused the demise of the station some 45 years ago.
This article originally appeared in the author's "UHF Morgue" at his former RadioDXer site and is republished here with his permission. Some information in the original article information provided by Joseph Gallant and Bob Knott. Reformatting and editing, plus additional information about WNET's challenge to WPRO-TV and about the license during its dark period, by K.M. Richards.
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