When Television Almost Became All-UHF

When television in the United States converted from analog to digital broadcasting, much of it ended up on the UHF band because higher frequencies are less susceptible to electrical interference and -- unlike analog signals, where that simply created noise in the picture -- said interference causes a complete loss of decodable signal. But did you know that fifty years earlier, there was a point at which the FCC contemplated moving all analog television to UHF?

The story begins with the start of UHF television itself. In July of 1952, the FCC issued the first construction permits since freezing the list of authorized television stations in 1948 to almost completely rewrite the table of channel allocations to include UHF. That itself turned into a battle over which cities should get channels ... and how many; Broadcasting devoted an entire special section of their April 14, 1952 issue to the publication of the entire FCC text on the new allocations table which included all of the petitions, comments and proposals (and arguments) received during the three-plus years that the Commission worked put the new channel assignments. The full assignment table appears on pages 132 though 136 of that special section; most communities received only one or two channels, usually UHF, and larger cities received a mixture of VHF and UHF channels, many with only one of their channels on the VHF band.

Everyone had high hopes for UHF to bring television to an eager nation. It had become obvious before the 1948 freeze that VHF alone could not do the job, because the required separation between stations transmitting on the same or adjacent channels created large areas where the number of possible new stations ranged between few and none. There was an even bigger headache in creating the separation mileages for UHF television, because everything that could interfere with the allocated frequencies of two transmitters did, given the technology available for analog broadcasting. As an example, if a community was allocated channel 34, then the following "taboos" existed:

(Thankfully, digital television transmission and reception processes are completely different from those of analog television and the above minimum separation distances are no longer a factor. In fact, many large markets now have stations transmitting on adjacent channels without interference.)

What the above meant was that UHF channels had to be six channels apart in the same community. To take Los Angeles as an example: Channels 22, 28 and 34 were the original three allocations. So, using the example above, with channel 34 allocated to Los Angeles, channel 20 was allocated to Santa Barbara CA (86 miles away) and then, because that allocation had taboos of its own, could not be allocated again until San Francisco CA (272 miles from Santa Barbara). That distance was greater because channel 21 was allocated to Hanford CA, near Fresno (174 miles from Los Angeles but only 131 miles from Santa Barbara and 180 miles from San Francisco). The Hanford allocation was close to that of channel 24 in Fresno itself, at 32 miles ... and the channel 21 and 24 allocations prevented everything else between channels 18 and 24 from being used anywhere nearby. You get the idea.

Nevertheless, the table (flaws and all) was used to accept applications for the first time in over four years, construction permits issued, and new stations took to the air. Because UHF channels had been allocated literally everywhere in the then-48 states due to the inability to fit VHF channels everywhere, a large number of the new stations were on the channels above 14 (the highest channel that was ever used for a full-power station was channel 74, WMGT Adams MA, which operated from February 5, 1954 to December 20, 1954 before moving to channel 19 and then going dark February 25, 1956; it resumed operation a year later as a repeater for channel 10 in Albany NY and continues operation on that basis today).

The reader will note in the preceding paragraph that WMGT lasted just over two years before going dark. As it turned out, that was better than a lot of UHF stations did. The first two stations to wave the white flag of surrender were WROV-TV Roanoke VA on channel 27 (which lasted five months on the air) and WBES-TV Buffalo NY on channel 59 (which operated for three months). Both came -- and went -- in 1953. Many permittees, seeing early stations struggle, surrendered their construction permits rather than go to the expense of building a station which had the odds against survival. On April 15, 1954, the FCC announced that, having issued 305 permits on UHF, only 41 actual stations had gone on the air (and eight of those had subsequently gone dark), 53 unbuilt permits had surrendered, and the remaining 211 permittees were still somewhere in limbo. By comparison, only 12 of 232 VHF permits issued in the same period were surrendered.

Of the just under 100 UHF stations that were on the air, the majority were struggling because they were in competition for viewers with established (or in some markets, brand new) VHF stations. At the time, UHF was at a distinct disadvantage because television receivers were VHF-only, for the most part, and a viewer who wanted to watch one of these new channels above 13 either had to have the tuner on their set modified so that one or more of the "blank" VHF channels would instead tune a UHF channel operating in their area, or purchase a converter to separately tune the UHF band and then convert it to a VHF channel for the set to tune. Since CBS and NBC only affiliated with UHFs when there was no VHF channel available in a market (ABC and DuMont were hungry for affiliates and didn't care what channel you were using, as long as you were on the air) and the "big two" had the most popular programming, there was little incentive for households to spend the money on set conversion. There was even less incentive when the newcomer UHF had no network affiliation and was dependent on local programs mixed in on the schedule with the handful of available syndicated fare (if their well-heeled VHF cousins hadn't already snapped up the latter).

The aforementioned WROV-TV was a case in point; as Broadcasting reported in an article on the station's demise in their July 13, 1953 issue, the station operated at a disadvantage against WSLS-TV on channel 10 from day one and was facing the eventuality of a second competitor on channel 7 ... this despite the fact that they already owned a successful radio station in Roanoke. In fact, they had originally filed for channel 7 and changed their application to channel 27 only because they feared the delay while competing applications were sorted out would prevent them from getting on the air quickly. (As it turned out, delivery of their transmitter did not come until after channel 10 got on the air, its path ironically cleared because WROV's decision to drop out of the channel 7 battle caused one of the two competing applicants for channel 10 to modify their application to channel 7.) In those three months, WSLS-TV's presence had been responsible for the sale of more than 40,000 television sets in the region ... virtually all of them VHF-only. WSLS-TV received a full affiliation with NBC and filled in much of the remaining time with CBS programs, while WROV-TV was able only to affiliate with ABC (which had so few programs that attracted viewers that it wasn't even programming a full prime-time schedule at that point) and CBS wouldn't allow them to pick up the programs WSLS-TV didn't. Needless to say (although the article does) WROV-TV was awash in red ink after only the first few months.

If you owned a UHF station at that time, and read the article about WROV-TV, what would you conclude? Many concluded that UHF was never going to work with VHF as a direct competitor, and in four markets stations made that known to the FCC by filing petitions for changes that would make their markets' stations be either all-VHF or all-UHF. Those petitions were all summarily denied, and they subsequently filed for reconsideration, which led to a full comments process on proposed deintermixture of their four markets: Hartford CT, Peoria IL, Evansville IN and Madison WI. None of those four cities had VHF stations operating in them at the time, and the proposals for all four were based on moving the reserved non-commercial allocation from UHF to VHF, leaving all of the commercial stations on UHF channels. The FCC received comments and replies in April and May of 1955. Not surprisingly, the UHFs supported deintermixture while VHFs (or those competing for new VHFs) opposed it. Specifically:

Further complicating matters, stations in five additional markets -- Lexington KY, Baton Rouge and New Orleans LA, Albany-Schenectady-Troy NY and Corpus Christi TX -- filed similar deintermixture petitions while the comments period on the original four was in process.

Meanwhile, FCC Commissioner Frieda Hannock -- the same Commissioner who fought for channels to be reserved for non-commercial, educational use (and was possibly beginning to regret it, given the way the deintermixture petitions all involved the jockeying of those channel allocations) -- was already calling for all-UHF television operation as early as May of 1954, and formally proposed same in March of 1955, along with another freeze on VHF grants. In response, Commissioner Robert E. Lee two months later proposed a 47-channel VHF band, which died within a year when the military refused to give up its portion of the proposed band. (Just as well, actually: Lee's proposal would have moved FM up to 342-362 MHz, just as it was finally recovering from having been moved from 42-46 MHz to 88-108 MHz less than a decade earlier.)

After all the comments were considered, the FCC denied all of the petitions and began to consider a revision of the table of channel allocations, prompting the Washington DC law firm Scharfeld and Baron to suggest retiring the table and instead allow applications to specify channels with engineering exhibits to support their grant. By this time, even more petitions for deintermixture had been filed, for Fresno CA, Jacksonville and Miami FL, Hutchinson KS, Louisville KY, Raleigh NC, Toledo OH, Philadelphia PA, Spartanburg SC and Newport News VA. All of those either proposed deletion of the sole VHF allocation or that it be made educational; those petitions were summarily denied as well. At the time, the FCC said that acting on individual petitions would result in a "piecemeal" approach to the problem creating only "isolated solutions" but paradoxically added VHF channel 10 to the Albany market (in nearby Vail Mills NY) even as they denied the deintermixture petition there.

By this time, with four possible courses of action possible -- deintermixture, either selective or national; additional VHF assignments; moving all television to UHF; or maintaining the status quo -- the television networks began weighing in on the issue. CBS proposed adding VHF channels in those top-100 markets with less than 3 VHFs and ABC proposed deintermixing by dropping ungranted VHFs from markets where UHFs were already operating, adding VHF allocations where feasible and swapping ungranted VHF educational allocations for UHF channels. One engineer offered the opinion that as many as 234 VHF channels could be "dropped-in" if the FCC considered changes to the co-channel separation rules.

By the time the FCC decided on selective deintermixture and the cities to deintermix (Fresno CA, Hartford CT, Miami FL, Peoria IL, Springfield IL, Evansville IN, New Orleans LA, Duluth MN, Albany-Schenectady-Troy NY, Elmira NY, Charleston SC, Norfolk VA and Madison WI) 363 UHF CPs had been issued, 151 of those had ever been on the air (56 had gone dark), 111 returned, and 101 "in suspense" pending the result of the deintermixture matter. In addition, the U.S. Senate had begun pushing for television to be moved almost entirely to UHF (while insisting that areas with two or more VHF stations plus UHF be made all-VHF, in ignorance of the technical considerations involved). Typical of a political situation, the Senate Commerce Committee said that they wanted "to make clear to the broadcasting industry, to advertisers and advertising agencies, and to the public that UHF is not only going to be maintained but expanded to assume its necessary place in our over-all television system."

(The graphic to the right is a reproduction of the proposed channel reallocations as reported by Broadcasting in its July 2, 1956 issue.)

By early 1957, the FCC was preparing to move forward with the first round of deintermixtures to all-UHF in six markets, with a few tweaks -- in Springfield by moving channel 36 from St. Louis and deleting channel 2; Peoria, by adding channels 25 and 31 and deleting channel 8; Fresno, by moving channel 30 from nearby Madera and deleting channel 12; Evansville, by adding 31 and deleting 7; Elmira NY, by adding 30 and deleting 9; Albany-Schenectady-Troy, by deleting channel 6 and the previously "dropped-in" 10 and adding channel 47 -- resulting in three existing VHF stations being forced to move to UHF: KFRE-TV Fresno (from channel 12 to channel 30), WRGB Schenectady (from 6 to 47) and WTVW Evansville (from 7 to 31). All three, naturally, petitioned for reconsideration; the FCC reversed its decision on deintermixing Albany-Schenectady-Troy four months later and WTVW endured seven years of hearings before the "all-channel" television set legislation took effect in 1964 and caused the FCC to finally drop deintermixture in Evansville. (KFRE-TV was a more convoluted situation, as we shall explain a few paragraphs farther down.)

At the same time, the channels were deleted from the CPs already issued for WMAY-TV Springfield and WIRL-TV Peoria pending new UHF channel assignments. Adding to WMAY-TV's dilemma, the FCC allowed KTVI St. Louis MO, which had been using channel 36 there, to move to the channel 2 allocation originally assigned to Springfield. (WMAY-TV and WIRL-TV lost their final challenges to being moved from VHF in 1958, when appeals courts issued decisions within 60 days of each other upholding the all-UHF deintermixture plans for those two cities; neither station bothered to build their newly authorized UHF facilities, although WIRL-TV held on to its channel 25 CP until 1965.)

The FCC also decided not to deintermix Hartford CT (clearing WTIC-TV to begin constructing their channel 3 station there) and Madison WI, and added VHF channels in the New Orleans-Houma LA, Lake Charles-Lafayette LA and Beaumont-Port Arthur TX markets, leaving them as VHF-UHF intermixed with three commercial VHF channels in each.

And, of course, the opposition continued. KBAK-TV Bakersfield, which operated on channel 29 in competition with KERO-TV on channel 10, wanted the channel 12 Fresno allocation moved there for their use, instead of Santa Barbara (the Mexican government also opposed the move because they had allocated channel 12 in Tijuana, a straight shot over the Pacific Ocean from Santa Barbara). KERO-TV, surprisingly, supported its UHF competitor's petition; KFRE-TV, hoping to keep that channel, had previously petitioned the FCC to instead add channel 17 in Bakersfield. The FCC's response, in 1958, was to add both channels 17 and 39 -- but not channel 12 -- in Bakersfield. KBAK-TV's petition for reconsideration of that decision was summarily denied, as was their proposal two years later to move channel 10 to Santa Barbara and KERO-TV to channel 45.

Meanwhile, Walla Walla WA was added to the deintermixed market list in April, 1957 when two unused VHF allocations were replaced by UHF channels.

And speaking of KFRE-TV: At first glance, they likely thought the deintermixture process would leave them untouched when the FCC gave them authority to go on the air May 10, 1956 on channel 12. In fact, Broadcasting opined at the time that allowing KFRE-TV to begin operations meant the Commission would not deintermix markets with operating stations. As we have seen, that was not the case ... but it did bring joy to UHF competitors KMJ-TV on channel 24 and KJEO on channel 47, who had been pushing for Fresno to be all-UHF since talk of deintermixture had begun. Thus it came as a great surprise when KJEO suddenly filed a proposal in January, 1958 to make Fresno an all-VHF market by assigning channels 2, 5 and 7 and moving itself, KMJ-TV, and dark KBID-TV to those channels. The FCC took a year and a half to act on the KJEO proposal, proposing in July, 1959 to move KJEO to channel 2, KMJ-TV to channel 5, and KFRE-TV to channel 9, with channels 8 and 12 added to Bakersfield and channel 7 made the non-commercial allocation for Fresno. (KJEO immediately filed for temporary authority to operate on channel 2 and was almost as immediately denied.) The proposal didn't stay under consideration for long; by February, 1960 several legal, engineering and international snags had killed it. KFRE-TV, meanwhile, had been challenging the channel 30 allocation in federal court, to no avail (it also objected to being moved to channel 9!), but then announced they were selling channel 12 to Triangle Publications. Shortly after taking control in early 1960, Triangle announced they were "willing to accede" to deintermixture and move to channel 30, which they did, on February 8, 1961 (becoming the first station to voluntarily move from VHF to UHF)*; the FCC allowed them to operate on both channels until April 15, over the objections of KJEO & KMJ-TV. (That authorization was later extended to June 1 in order to install a channel 71 translator in a small community in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that was able to receive channel 12 but not channel 30.) Apparently the outcome soured KJEO on the entire business of television; it changed hands on May 17, 1961 for $3 million, which was the highest price paid for a standalone UHF station up to that time.

(*-The delay in beginning operation on channel 30, even though it was officially authorized by the FCC on July 7, 1960, was caused by two factors. First, a petition by the City of Fresno, the County of Fresno and the Fresno City Unified School District -- apparently oblivious to the aforementioned legal, engineering, and international difficulties that had prevented all-VHF implementation -- requested that the July decision be reconsidered. When that didn't work, Congressman B.F. Sisk proposed his own allocation table for both Fresno and Bakersfield, apparently without consulting any engineers beforehand, which was rejected due to replacement channels 5 and 13 at San Luis Obispo not meeting minimum mileage separations to the San Francisco area.)

Having finally moved KFRE-TV to its new home on the UHF dial, the Commission turned its attention back to Bakersfield, where KBAK-TV had petitioned for reconsideration of the previous addition of two more UHF channels instead of a VHF one. The FCC, apparently weary of the two stations fighting a "battle of petitions", decided to instead add Bakersfield to the list of deintermixed markets by adding two more UHF channels (23 and 51, making 39 a non-commercial allocation), deleting channel 10, and ordering KERO-TV to move from there to channel 23 by the end of 1962. In the process, they also satisfied the Mexican government by moving the former channel 12 Fresno allocation to Santa Maria, north of Santa Barbara (which was similar to the proposal made by Santa Barbara's KEYT, on channel 3, when commenting on the 1960 KBAK-TV petition to move channel 10 there from Bakersfield). KERO-TV, of course, took the Commission to court over the matter, and things went downhill for them from there. While a hearing examiner sided with them that urgency had not been demonstrated by the FCC in ordering the move to channel 23, they also said the Commission had the right to delete channel 10 at the end of the current license term. When the appellate court agreed that KERO-TV had no right to its VHF channel past its license expiration, the FCC decided not to force the issue and leave KERO-TV where it was until then; KERO-TV's response was to file a license renewal specifying channel 10, while requesting a stay on the appellate court decision. When the stay request was denied, KERO-TV threw in the towel and amended their renewal application to specify channel 23; they began operation there on July 1, 1963 and were allowed to continue on channel 10 (similar to KFRE-TV's dual channel operation two years earlier) until September 23.

Thus KFRE-TV and KERO-TV became the only two stations in the original analog television era to begin operations on VHF and move to UHF. In a small bit of irony, when broadcast television converted to digital, KERO-TV ended up transmitting their "virtual" channel 23 signal on ... you guessed it, channel 10!

The story of deintermixture didn't end there, however. In July, 1961 the FCC proposed to deintermix eight more markets -- Montgomery AL, Hartford CT, Champaign IL, Rockford IL, Binghamton NY, Erie PA, Columbia SC, and Madison WI -- to all-UHF by deleting their single VHF allocation; those markets were selected because all were top-75 markets with two commercial stations already in operation. Needless to say, existing VHF stations in those markets were not happy at the proposal, but the least happy were WTIC-TV Hartford and WISC-TV Madison (both on channel 3), because they owed their very existence to being removed from the original list of 13 markets to be deintermixed. (They must have felt the same way KFRE-TV did four years earlier.) At the same time, the Commission proposed adding VHF channels in Birmingham AL, Jacksonville FL, Baton Rouge LA, Charlotte NC, Dayton OH, Oklahoma City OK, Johnstown PA and Knoxville TN, while finalizing previously proposed drop-in channels in Grand Rapids MI and Rochester NY (both channel 13) and Syracuse NY (channel 9) which forced existing stations in each market to switch channels while remaining on VHF. At the time, the FCC made it clear that these were the only markets where they were prepared to consider VHF drop-ins "now and in the future" (yeah, right).

Without going into a lot of detail on the battles waged for and against the 1961 proposals -- we will direct the reader to the Broadcasting archives at the American Radio History website, where a search for "deintermixture" will provide a list of 666 (!) pages with articles on the subject -- two things happened to prevent any of the proposals from being implemented. The first was Congress passing legislation in September, 1962 requiring that television sets shipped interstate be all-channel, in return for which the FCC declared a moratorium on the all-UHF deintermixture plan; the second was a May, 1963 decision to not add the proposed VHF drop-ins, which they reinforced six months later by denying petitions for reconsideration filed by would-be applicants for the new channels.

After April 30, 1964 all new television sets sold in the United States were capable of tuning both VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-83, although the initial UHF tuners were more like radio tuners (continuous dial rather than click-tuning) and it wasn't until 1975 that further legislation mandated that tuners for both television bands be "more accurate click-stop".

As for that 1961 statement by the FCC that no further VHF drop-ins would ever be considered? The idea was floated again in 1975 -- at one point the Office of Telecommunications Policy said 83 channels could be dropped-in, nationwide, with changes to the mileage separation standards -- only to be effectively killed by concerted lobbying efforts by the broadcast industry against it; ultimately only four VHF channels were added -- in Johnstown PA, Knoxville TN, Salt Lake City UT and Charleston WV -- in 1984. It wasn't long afterwards that the FCC started to consider high-definition digital broadcasting, the implementation of which finally rendered the entire concept of deintermixture moot.