Chapter Six

From WAGA’s sign on in March of 1949 on until October 1, 1950, television in Georgia grew slowly without much change. WSB and WAGA gradually increased their broadcast days and added more local news programming.

By 1952, Georgians who lived outside of Atlanta had been waiting patiently for television for years. While Atlantans watched “I Love Lucy,” other Georgians had to make do listening to “The Green Hornet” and “Your Hit Parade” on radio. But it was all about to change.

On April 14th, 1952, the FCC finally decided on a revised assignment of TV channels around the country, freeing the logjam of hundreds of applications from companies that wanted to build stations across the country. In addition to VHF channel assignments between 2 and 13 that had existed since commercial television began, the FCC also approved hundreds of new UHF assignments on channels 14 through 83.

Commissioners thought it would be logical to apply the rules of radio to the new business of television. In radio, small stations on higher frequencies did a credible job serving smaller cities and towns. The thinking was that UHF would serve this purpose.

There was also the matter of non-commercial educational stations. Those applicants would further reduce the number of stations available that carried entertainment shows.

Now all that stood between all of Georgia and the nightly antics of Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan was for the FCC to grant licenses to groups that had applied for stations…and for those stations to be built.

In Atlanta, three stations were operating, offering outlying residents tantalizing, fuzzy images from mid-morning to midnight seven days a week. Pioneer WSB, owned by the Cox’s Atlanta Journal, had launched with NBC programs on channel 8. Fort Industry’s WAGA broadcast CBS programs on channel 5.

The Atlanta Constitution’s WCON TV began testing and was about to launch with ABC and DuMont programs on Channel 2, the most desirable channel number. In June 1950, Cox bought the Constitution. While it operated the papers separately, government regulations prevented it from operating two TV stations in the same city. So it turned in the license to channel 8 and moved WSB to a more powerful dial position on channel 2 originally planned for WCON.

As WSB began sending out a test pattern with the WCON logo, viewers as far as Savannah, Montgomery and Greenville reported receiving the signal.

Amid great fanfare, WSB re-launched on channel 2 (“the most powerful TV facility in the world” with a 50,000 watt transmitter) on Sunday morning, September 30th 1952. Channel 2’s greater power — coupled with WAGA’s power increase — helped viewers as far away as Augusta see television programs for the first time. And at the same time, AT&T delivered a second coaxial cable to Atlanta allowing two live network shows to be broadcast at once.

 Channel 2 began with a ceremony featuring its executives and invited guests noting the change in channel numbers. WLTV channel 8 signed on that afternoon.

The channel 8 frequency was licensed to a group of 25 Atlanta businessmen led by Syracuse radio station manager William T. Lane and William Sturdivant, the owner of a textile company in northwest Georgia. Lane’s group put WLTV channel 8 — the last license granted by the FCC before the 1948 freeze — on the air nine days after the FCC approved the transfer of the license from WSB. WLTV was the first new TV station on the air in the US in more than a year.

But newcomer WLTV struggled. The station was forced to compete against two established, well-funded operations well before it had the advertising revenue to support a fulltime schedule. The station had access to ABC network’s seven hours of programs a week, but in 1951, there was little else available to the third station in a medium sized city. To add to the station’s challenges, there were no studios (or money) to broadcast any local programming.

Lane told an audience of regional broadcasters that WLTV’s challenges were “unique in a gruesome way.” Lane said they were forced to charge low advertising rates even though, with 88 employees, their overhead wasn’t much lower than the established competitors. 85% of the station’s schedule consisted of old movies.

It was Lane’s conviction, backed up by other broadcasters, that a city the size of Atlanta, could barely support three TV stations.

WLTV lost $100,000 its first year. Once it had equipment to broadcast live programs, one of the first it sold to sponsors was a series of debates featuring local politicians and underwritten by “civic minded Atlantans.” It took 19 months for the station to turn a profit, after which the owners sold to the much larger Crosley Broadcasting Corporation out of Cincinnati, Ohio for $1.5 million. Crosley’s deeper pockets and access to their own programming helped the station grow.

By 1953, channel 8 (re-named WLW-A on March 17th) had become a more promotion-oriented competitor, airing local wrestling matches, daily bingo television games, a modest attempt at local news coverage and even a Saturday evening variety show featuring African-American performers. Dick Van Dyke moved over from WSB to WLTV to host a daily program with co-host Mary Moore (not the same person as Mary Tyler Moore, with whom he would star in his own CBS sit com eight years later.) Van Dyke would move to WDSU TV New Orleans, where he would attract the attention of CBS brass when his daily program out rated the network’s Arthur Godfrey Show.

Within a year, WLTV moved from cramped quarters in the former WCON radio station offices in downtown Atlanta to a new building located directly behind WSB TV, allowing it to use WSB’s former transmission tower.

Outside Atlanta (and in all other large to medium size American cities) there was a free-for-all in progress as groups of investors, local newspapers, radio stations, other television stations and many others applied for TV licenses. It was up to the FCC to evaluate the finances, personnel and proposed programming being proposed by each of the applicants. It was a time consuming process that would take nearly a decade to settle.

Most applicants didn’t get approved without a fight. In Atlanta, Georgia Tech wanted its own TV station and fought for a frequency. The University formally complained to the FCC about WSB and WLTV, saying both stations violated regulations by not reporting complete reports regarding ownership, demanding one of the channels. The request was denied.

In Athens, L.H. Christian, owner of WRFC AM, fought for the as-yet un-awarded channel 11, which would have given Athens its own station, but was turned down. WEAS AM Atlanta and Georgia Tech applied for channel 7 Atlanta, which had not been assigned to the city. The FCC assigned it instead to Spartanburg South Carolina and Birmingham Alabama.

The Atlanta Board of Education applied for the city’s only non-commercial frequency, UHF channel 30, and got it. WQXI AM radio owner Robert Rounsaville applied for Atlanta UHF channel 36 and got it.

Outside Atlanta, the process began that would bring local stations to life in Augusta, Columbus, Macon, Savannah, Albany, Thomasville and Rome.

 Up next: "How television came to the rest of the state".

 

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