Chapter Three

Competition arrives


For about five months, WSB had the television market in Georgia to itself. The head-start was more important to learning the business than it was to growing revenue. Because relatively few Atlantans owned TV sets, the channel 8 crew was able to experiment with program ideas and not suffer when technical problems arose. WSB carried Atlanta Crackers minor league baseball games, cooking shows, kids’ shows and even a daily woodworking program.

The station operated at relatively low power, which required viewers more than a few miles from the transmitter to use rooftop antennas attached to their sets. Big power boosts for stations were still two years away.

Two miles away on West Peachtree Street, work continued in a former single-family residencewhere Georgia’s second TV outlet would launch. WAGA TV came to life on Tuesday March 8, 1949, nearly a year and a half after the station’s original application was filed with the FCC. Nearly all the employees of WAGA radio, including its managing director George Storer, Jr. and news director Dale Clark, were expected to help with the new TV station.

Like many new stations, the most important strategy at first was holding down construction costs. Using an existing house filled the bill. The living room, with a fireplace against one wall, became WAGA’s primary studio. Directly behind was a control room so small, employees had to file in in the order they would sit. The kitchen became a projection room. Offices were located upstairs. Three months after signing on, the lack of air conditioning became an issue.

On launch day March 8th, WAGA aired a test pattern beginning at 2:00pm. At 7:00pm the station was to supposed take to open for business with an inaugural broadcast titled “In Conquest of the Sky” — but a “slight case of camera trouble” delayed the launch by 15 minutes. After the bugs were ironed out, newsman Bill McCain launched Atlanta’s channel 5 with the words, “Atlanta, Georgia. March 8, 1949. To a city known as the communications hub of the southeast, comes a new link with the world.”

The inaugural broadcast included Lambdin Kay, who had launched WSB radio in 1922 and had created the Peabody Awards a decade earlier, and WAGA radio disc jockey Jon Farmer, who would become one of WAGA TV’s first personalities.

It may seem strange for WSB radio’s Kay to appear on WAGA’s first broadcast, but at the dawn of television, stations sometimes welcomed competitors on the air. In 1949, San Francisco’s KPIX TV aired a half hour prime time special about the impending launch of its competitor, KGO TV featuring KGO management and personalities.

Just after 8:00pm, WAGA aired a compilation film of CBS network shows that would be featured in coming weeks, then began a scripted and rehearsed “All Star Review” featuring Jon Farmer and WAGA air personalities, followed by a film of CBS’s “We, the People,” the first program ever to be simulcast on television and radio.

WAGA’s first evening was full of technical challenges. Once cameras were repaired and the first broadcast began, the studio segments worked, but as soon as engineers switched to a film, the station’s only projector kept failing. Finally after several attempts to run a film without interruption, Jon Farmer came back on camera to apologize and the station signed off the air until the next day.

Because of its roots as a CBS radio affiliate, WAGA signed on as a CBS TV affiliate, carrying kinescopes of the network’s programs. It was also an affiliate of the DuMont Network, whose programming peaked in 1950.

Ironically, the house where WAGA operated during its first years had a second life as a TV station’s homenearly 20 years later in 1967, when WJRJ channel 17 (the forerunner of TBS and Turner Broadcasting) signed on using the house as home base.

 

Up next: “The Sixth Report and Order" 

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