Chapter Seven

By 1952, Georgia residents outside of Atlanta were about to get their own local TV stations. On April 14th of that year, the Federal Communications Commission completed the massive undertaking of re-allocating TV channels across the country so stations operating at higher transmitting power wouldn’t interfere with each other.

Five years after WSB TV came to life in Atlanta, the Federal Communications Commission open the floodgates for new stations. VHF channels, 2 through 13, were reassigned to ensure stations wouldn’t interfere with each other. And because those 12 frequencies weren’t enough to satisfy demand, the FCC added including, higher channel UHF frequencies, 14 through 83, that existing TV sets weren’t equipped to receive.

Atlanta was denied a fourth channel. WEAS radio and Georgia Tech had requested channel 7, but the commission decided to allocate the channel to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Middle Georgia Broadcasting’s WMAZ radio had also applied for channel 7 but was given 13.

WRFC Athens was denied channel 11, while the University of Georgia petitioned for the soon-to-be non-commercial channel 8. Mercer University applied for and was granted Macon’s UHF channel 41.

The only problem that stood in the way of TV blanketing Georgia…was competition. All manner of companies and entrepreneurs wanted to get into the TV business, which was increasingly becoming a ticket to wealth and influence. Every one of those competitors had to be assessed by FCC staff in Washington. Each was measured for prior broadcasting experience and quality of management, financial stability, commitment to local programming, and quality and accuracy of technical plans against competitors.

In a few cities, the FCC couldn’t decide, which forced competitors to share TV channels. In Kansas City, two competing stations alternated: each got to run programming in 90-minute increments. Georgia stations didn't have to deal with that, but there were fierce battles in some cities.

Macon got TV first. In late summer of 1953, competing radio stations WBML and WNEX combined investment to launch WETV channel 47. It was a risky move watched by TV applicants around the country…for reasons we’ll explain in the next chapter.

The city’s only VHF channel, 13, was awarded to WMAZ radio. On September 27th WMAZ came to life as a CBS affiliate and because of the flat terrain in central and south Georgia, became one of the most powerful stations in the country with a signal that stretched from south Atlanta to north Savannah.

A day later, TV came to Columbus. Allen Woodall, owner of WDAK radio and co-investor Martin Theaters launched WDAK TV as an NBC affiliate on UHF channel 28. It would become the only UHF station in Georgia to remain on the air. Studios were located on 1st Avenue, where Carmike Theaters’ headquarters is located today.

On November 15th, Columbus got a VHF allocation. Jim Woodruff, owner of WRBL radio, put channel 4 WRBL TV on the air as a CBS affiliate.

In Augusta, the fight was on for channel 6. Businessman J.B. Fuqua applied, as did Martin Theaters (later Carmike Cinemas) and WAUG radio. To expedite the process, Fuqua convinced Martin Theaters to give up the fight in exchange for a 22% interest in the new station. WAUG gave up and got nothing. As a way to broaden its business beyond theaters, Martin would also invest in Columbus Georgia and Chattanooga Tennessee TV stations.

WJBF took to the air in November 1953. Among the first employees was future “Gomer Pyle” star Jim Nabors. During Nabors’ first week as a control room operator, he threaded a film labeled “The Big Picture” — a half hour series provided free to stations by the US Army — and put it on the air without previewing it. What got on the air was an Army VD prevention film that featured full frontal male nudity.

In 1953, WJBF also launched “Parade of Quartets,” featuring gospel singers including James Brown, Shirley Ceasar, Al Green and the Mighty Clouds of Joy that remained the longest running program of its kind in the US.

By September 1967, Fuqua made a rare decision to switch WJBF’s network affiliation from NBC to third-place ABC, because Fuqua owned two other ABC affiliates and no other ABC station was available in the area.

Across town in Augusta, WGAC radio competed with WRDW radio for the rights to channel 12. WGAC agreed to give up its bid in exchange for the option to buy an interest in the TV station, though the bid was never exercised.

In Savannah, a fight for the first TV channel ensued between WTOC radio owned William Knight and a local investment group, Martin and Minnard. The FCC granted the channel 11 license to longtime CBS radio affiliate WTOC.

It took two years of hearings before the FCC grated Savannah its second station on channel 3. Longtime radio competitors WJIV and WSAV fought for the license and refused to negotiate with each other. After analyzing financial statements and programming plans, the FCC granted the license to WSAV, which signed an affiliation agreement with NBC.

Savannah wouldn’t get a third outlet until July 1970, when car dealer JC Lewis launched WJCL TV on channel 22.

In southwest Georgia, two stations took to the air. The Albany Herald, in partnership with co-owned WALB radio, was granted channel 10. The decision provided an unusual amount of influence to Jim Gray, the owner of the properties. And in Thomasville, the FCC granted channel 6 to Thomasville’s WPAX radio and businessman John H. Phipps. Nearby Tallahassee was granted only one TV channel, which was granted to Florida State University. This allowed WCTV Thomasville to serve both markets as a CBS affiliate.

The final VHF station in Georgia was allocated to Rome. Because of the way frequencies were allocated and channels fit, Rome got the desirable channel number when few other cities its size got a TV channel at all. Charlie Dodd’s WROM radio applied for and received the license on February 16th 1953. Problems appeared almost immediately. The power bill for a 300,000 watt transmitted that covered parts of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee alone outstripped the station’s revenues. The TV network coaxial cable didn’t reach Rome, forcing the station to pick up ABC network shows off the air from Atlanta, to rely on low quality kinescopes shipped in from New York, old movies and live hillbilly music and fishing programs produced by WROM radio personnel.

WROM TV marketed itself as “Dixie’s Largest Independent,” but in truth the station lost money from the beginning. A solution was to move channel 9 70 miles north to Chattanooga, which had a much larger population. It took four years before the FCC granted the move. The night before the decision came down, one of WROM’s owners died of a heart attack, brought on in part by the stress of keeping the station on the air.

On February 11, 1958, Martin Theaters’ new Chattanooga station WTVM signed on, making Chattanooga one of the smallest cities in the country with three VHF stations.

 

 Up next: "Co owners in Macon in the national spotlight"

 

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