Chapter Four

From 1949 to 1951, television in Georgia involved only two stations in Atlanta. Both sent out their signals at much lower power than would eventually be the industry norm, which meant that few viewers outside of Atlanta could experience TV. WSB’s signal reached Athens, Rome and Carrollton 70 miles away, but on most days the image was fuzzy.

Viewers in Savannah and Brunswick could pick up WMBR, channel 4 in Jacksonville (now WJXT), but that was hit or miss, too. For the rest of the state in the early ‘50s, radio was still the place to turn for prime time entertainment.

At this point, technological and regulatory issues were hindering the growth of TVin Georgia. There were attempts by radio stations, newspapers, colleges and entrepreneurs to launch television stations in other Georgia cities, but the FCC’s freeze of new applications inthe fall of 1948 stopped all of them dead in their tracks.

The freeze wasn’t supposed to be such a big deal — the FCC predicted the process of issuing new TV station licenses would resume by the spring of 1949. It didn’t turn out that way. The complexity of the task was daunting: the federal government was trying to iron out two difficult issues affecting more than 200 cities across the country.

The first was involved geography. When the original TV channel assignments were created in the mid 1940s, engineers didn’t realize how much distance would be required between stations operating on the same channel without interfering with each other.

The second was capacity. Under the original plan, the entire country was allocated only 12 TV channels, 2 through 13, called “VHF” channels. Channel 1, used briefly by a few stations, was reassigned to police and fire radios in 1945 at the suggestion of DuMont Network engineer Thomas T. Goldsmith. “Every time a police radio would come on nearby, all the TV pictures got squirrelly,” Goldsmith once said. Clearly more channels were needed.

The answer came from a new band of “UHF” stations on channels 14 through 83. UHF was developed during World War II as part of the allies’ experiments with radar. A UHF frequency could carry a TV signal, but it required much more electricity and was more prone to interference from hills, buildings and even tree leaves. An even bigger issue was that no existing television set could pick up UHF channels without an external adapter that added $35 to $50 to the cost. Few set owners paid the money.

The FCC had to decide whether to pursue a radical plan: switch some cities to all-UHF so UHF channels would survive…or simply add UHF to cities that already had VHF. Clearly no VHF station wanted to give up its desirable channel number and massive lobbying of the FCC ensued.

And there was another factor. Because UHF signals don’t travel as far as VHF, some rural viewers who had been getting a VHF signal would no longer get any TV service if a nearby city went all-UHF.

In the end, the commission decided to add UHF channels alongside VHF. This preserved the status quo but practically guaranteed UHF stations would fail except in the few cities like Huntsville Alabama where UHF was the only option for viewers. The decision to mix UHF and VHF also helped doom the struggling DuMont Network by starving it of viable affiliated stations and made it much more difficult for ABC to survive. In the end, the FCC decided it wasn’t the Commission’s priority to provide the most TV channels possible to viewers, but rather to ensure that everyone could watch at least one station.

The FCC wouldn’t release its outline of new TV channel assignments until April 14, 1952 with a massive document called the “Sixth Report and Order,” which set out how TV would evolve nationwide over the next 25 years. Changes outlined in the document took effect July 1st of that year, which finally opened the doors for new stations.

Meantime, early television in Atlanta was primitive and challenging. WSB and WAGA aired cooking shows, children’s shows, Atlanta Crackers minor league baseball, high school and college football and plenty of bluegrass music. WSB radio’s Bob Van Camp appeared often on television doing a crossword puzzle on the air, or pitting young people against their parents on a quiz show. The station’s daily puppet show “Woody Willow” with Don and Ruth Gilpin was so successful, tickets were snapped up months in advance.

Dick Van Dyke had a daily afternoon program on WSB TV where he lip-synched hit records. Van Dyke recalled playing an Andy Griffith record, mugging for the camera, only to look up and see Griffith observingin the studio. A decade later, both would have CBS prime time sitcoms produced by Griffith’s company.

Network programs were in demand, but there was no cable to link Georgia with live network feeds, which meant Atlanta viewers saw low quality films of New York shows sometimes weeks after the live broadcast aired. Christmas shows from the networks aired locally in January. Most were “kinescopes,” which were essentially movies shot off a TV screen as the live program originated.

That all changed on September 30, 1950, when AT&T linked live network feeds from New York with WSB. The first live network program to air in Georgia was a kid’s show from ABC and the improvement in picture quality over kinescopes was described as breathtaking. For a time, the mash-up or microwaves and coax cables could only carry one network at a time, which meant WSB and WAGA had to cherry pick programs. But for the first time,Atlantans could watch national newscasts, football and baseball games, boxing (which was a staple of early television) and political conventions.

One of the first shop-at-home programs aired on WSB TV during a 1951 trolley strike, when employees of Rich’s Department Store demonstrated kitchen goods and modeled clothes on camera. Viewers could call the store and place their orders for delivery.

Above all, programmers at all stations avoided controversial subjects. Television was treated as a guest in the home and the threat of a fine from the FCC or even loss of license loomed in the background. This meant bad guys always lost, kisses were short and sweet, there was never a “damn” or “hell” spoken and in this pre-civil rights era, blacks were rarely featured.

Outside of Atlanta, demand was intensifying. Newspapers and radio stations wanted in on television. Owners of WJBF and WRDW radio in Augusta, WSAV and WTOC Savannah, WMAZ Macon, WDAK and WRBL Columbus, WRFC Athens, WGOV Valdosta and WROM Rome — among others — all wanted TV licenses. And as the FCC moved closer to releasing its decisions on TV frequencies, many would soon get their wish.

Up next: “The Tallest Structure in the World" 

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