Chapter Two

“T-Day” Arrives

Television in Dixie was a big deal. Because no competitive hearings had to be held, the FCC approved the license of WTVR Richmond, and the station signed on in late April, 1948 as the first TV service south of Washington D.C.

Other applicants lined up quickly.

WSB announced that its new TV station would hit the airwaves on Wednesday evening, September 25th 1948 at 8pm. That meant constructing a new building at 1611 West Peachtree Street, north of downtown Atlanta, featuring a large underground TV studio and offices on the ground floor.

WSB would operate on channel 8 and had the benefit of a powerful AM radio station to promote its progress.

In the weeks leading up to the official launch, the rare TV set owner could tune to channel 8 or crowd around sets inside Davison’s department store and see a WSB TV test pattern. If they were lucky, they might see an unscheduled and unannounced remote broadcast like a high school football game or fashion show being transmitted without commercials to help the TV staff learn how to operate the temperamental equipment.

Ads for TV sets blanketed the pages of newspapers in north Georgia and sales were brisk. You could count on paying about $300 for a set — roughly the price of a washing machine and dryer. The Atlanta Journal began a countdown of the days until “T-Day” (a term that had been used previously in other markets).

Finally, the big day arrived.

At 8:00pm, the inaugural broadcast of television in Georgia commenced. WSB TV took to the air with audio of the national anthem and video of a small flag set against a painting of clouds waving “madly in the breeze, generated by a small fan just off camera.” Then announcer John Cone spoke the words that gave life to a new industry: “WSB TV is on the air!”

What followed was two and a half hours of welcoming remarks from James Cox, NBC president Niles Trammell (who brought along a clip reel of the shows from the NBC Cinescope Network that WSB TV would carry), Georgia Governor Marvin Thompson and Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, representatives from local schools and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, a filmed tribute from WPIX TV in New York (whose shows WSB would also carry), and staff members including general manager John Outler and program director Marc Bartlett.

A young Dick Van Dyke was also in attendance. He wound soon make his TV debut with a daily show on WSB called “The Merry Mutes,” featuring his partner Phil Erickson.

The evening ended with a feature film: 1941’s “Cheers for Miss Bishop” starring Sterling Holloway.

In those early months, most Atlantans got their first glimpse of television in bars and appliance stores. Only a thousand people in the Atlanta area owned a set. Programming was scarce and advertising even scarcer. Initially, WSB TV operated seven days a week from 5pm to 10pm with a mix of local talk, music, live and filmed entertainment shipped to the station by air from NBC and eventually, from the fledgling ABC network.

A mile or so down the road toward Atlanta, the city’s second station was taking shape. WAGA would carry shows from CBS and the struggling DuMont Network. DuMont, which was actually the country’s first TV network, lacked a radio network and the valuable relationships that came from operating one. DuMont, which folded in 1956, was also hampered by a lack of capitalization, few high powered VHF channels outside the largest cities, and a federal regulation that required a TV network to lease AT&T radio lines in additional to video lines — a major and unneeded expense DuMont couldn’t afford.

What few realized was that WAGA TV nearly beat WSB to become Georgia’s first TV station. In fact, WAGA helped its rival sign on.

In July 1948, just two months before WAGA’s scheduled launch date, the owners of the station decided to ship some of its equipment to the company’s other new TV station, WSPD, in their home market of Toledo. The Toledo market was bigger than Atlanta’s in those days and WSPD would have the entire market to itself for 10 years.

The decision to favor WSPD pushed back WAGA TV’s launch date and gave WSB TV a five-month head start.

In a sign of cooperative spirit, WAGA helped WSB sign on. The day WSB TV was to launch, a transmitting tube that was required to operate the station blew and no replacement could be delivered in time. WSB’s chief engineer C.F. Daugherty approached WAGA’s chief engineer Paul Cram, who loaned WSB TV their tube. WSB got on the air, but his good deed did not go unpunished. Cram said WAGA’s owner sternly reprimanded him.

While TV was beginning to buzz in Atlanta, the rest of Georgia was about to take a back seat because of a decision by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington.

The day after WSB TV signed on, the FCC temporarily froze the process of granting new TV station licenses across the country. In drawing up the map of which cities would get what TV frequencies, FCC engineers miscalculated. It turned out that stations on the same frequency needed to be much farther apart. Particularly in highly populated areas, viewers were getting interference that rendered both stations unwatchable.

Those early adopters — the companies that got their applications in and approved early — were about to get a windfall they couldn’t have imagined. In cities without approved stations (which was the case in the rest of Georgia), viewers were about to suffer a big loss.

The FCC decided to stop issuing licenses everywhere for what was expected to be a mere six months of study. Only the stations that had already been licensed, would be authorized. This included a third outlet for Atlanta, but none elsewhere in Georgia.

Six months turned into five years. WSB, WAGA and a third Atlanta station that got approved before the cutoff had the market to themselves until 1953. The rest of Georgia got static.

 

Up next: “In Conquest of The Sky" 

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