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Early Days of Television in Mid-Illinois

This is a picture of my father installing a VHF television antenna on top of my grandparent's house in Taylorville, Illinois around 1951.  The picture shows the antenna, based on the position of the house pointing to the southwest to receive the only TV signal available to them, that of Channel 5, KSD-TV.

IABC  presented "The Ruggles" live from Hollywood from 1949 to 1952.  It starred the movie character actor Charlie Ruggles.  It was performed live for the west coast stations from KECA-TV, while being kinescoped for airing the next week on the rest of the small ABC network. 

Central Illinois Television pre-1953

Local Television was non-existent before July 1953, and even then it was limited in reach.  Local UHF stations in the early years didn't reach out much beyond 20-30 miles from the transmitter point.  VHF stations were a different matter.  When WCIA went on the air local television became a reality.  If a home TV set included a UHF tuner (at an extra cost) it would add the possibility of adding one or possibly two more stations, if it was lucky.

Central Illinois Television Mania

A typical television installation during those early days costs about $200 to $400 plus antenna, tower, cable, rotor, etc. adding another $150-$200 to the investment.  One thing is for sure, your life wouldn't be your own after your purchase.  

If you had a television people would "pop in" to watch shows on many nights, especially when those "spectaculars" were shown and the popular shows of the era like "Milton Berle," "The Colgate Comedy Hour" and "The Toast of the Town, " not to mention the World Series and various boxing matches and wrestling matches.  

Many bars and taverns installed television which pretty much guaranteed a large number of viewers who would spend hours drinking before going home.  People would gather at storefronts
 along Main Street if there was a television in the window.  It's hard to imagine anything today which would get so much attention!

Television dealers sprung up overnight, some were mom-and-pop neighborhood dealers in back rooms,
garages, and small storefronts.  Others were already major department stores.  Television manufacturers set up franchises that would lock in certain brands to select dealers who also would provide service departments to maintain those fragile early televisions.

This NBC kid's sci-fi series was broadcast from 1950 to 1952.  The episodes were 15 minutes long for most of its run.


The Ed Wynn Show was the first variety show to originate from Hollywood.  It was done live in Hollywood, then kinescoped for airing the next week on the rest of the CBS network stations.

The Cavalcade of Stars had several hosts from the years 1949-1952.  Among the stars were Jack Carter (1949-50), Jerry Lester (1950), Jackie Gleason (1950-52) and Larry Storch (1951 and 1952 Summer Seasons). Jackie Gleason perfected the skit called "The Honeymooners" during his time on the DuMont Network Variety Show.


In 1948,"The Life of Riley" aired on just a few thousand TV sets in most major markets, starring  Jackie Gleason.  William Bendix had a very successful film career, and in spite of playing the character on the radio for several years, wasn't able to fill the role of  Chester Riley.  Gleason filled the role, but the program was canceled after one year.  Those few viewers wanted Bendix as Riley, and by January of 1953, watchers of "The Life of Riley" got to see William Bendix play the bumbling husband on TV.  He also continued to play him on the radio for a number of years at the same time. Here is a video from the pilot episode with William Bendix from January 1953. WICS wasn't on the air yet.


(right): The Champaign-Urbana Television Dealers Association, being led by WCIA introduced the new appliance to the Champaign-Urbana households by hosting a weekend trade show like an event at the Urbana Armory.  Each dealer had a booth in which they could display their models.  Television's with names like Arvin, Majestic, Hoffman, DuMont, Sentinel, Columbia, and Motorola, joined brands known today like RCA, Philco, Zenith, Sylvania, Emerson, and Admiral at the dealer's booths.  I would bet that most if not all were manufactured right here in the USA.  WCIA also gave a demonstration of just how attendees would look on TV by setting up a camera with a closed circuit "broadcast" within the confines of the Armory.  The event attracted thousands, with a newspaper account naming the east central Illinois and west central Indiana communities which were represented at the show.   It appeared that the advent of the TV age was coming into Central Illinois with a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement!

(Urbana Courier)

(above): Magnavox (upper left), Philco (upper right), Motorola (lower left), and RCA (lower right), were all well-known brands of TV in 1953....all American companies, all producing sets in America for Americans!

(Urbana Courier) 

(below): The regional grocery chain "Eisner's welcomed the age of television by offering a contest in which they would give away four TV sets to customers. WDAN-TV, Channel 24 would eventually serve the Danville, Illinois area and was the last of the heritage TV stations signing on Sunday, December 19, 1953.

(Danville Commercial-News)

This is my dad (left) and his brother (right) installing an antenna array at my house in what was probably 1958. It included 2-UHF antennas for receiving WICS(Springfield) and WTVP(Decatur) along with a VHF to receive WCIA(Champaign). It was also installed with the ability to be rotated by twisting the antenna mast at the base to redirect it to receive the St. Louis TV stations. 

Broadcast Links

Broadcast History Links

        Archive of American Television                                          

Chicago Television History is where Steve Jajkowski has put together a collection of facts and memories of each of the major heritage television stations.  There are some connections when it comes to mid-Illinois television, but you have to look closely to find them.

This is where the Balaban name makes an appearance for a later connection to WICS and eventually WCHU and WICD. Under "Video Veteran Spotlight" you'll get the story of Balaban and Katz, the company formed by John Balaban and Sam Katz ran the B and K Theaters. There were more than 100 theaters under their company's brand in Chicago.

Barney Balaban was president of Paramount Pictures, Inc. as the filmmaker who emerged from bankruptcy in 1935. Paramount was the owner of the Balaban and Katz theater chain that nationally had more than 1500 theaters, with even more in Europe, South America, and Canada.

That was a monopolistic arrangement that was eventually broken up under the Justice Department. Barney Balaban maintained control of the Paramount Studios, while brother John would control the movie theaters and team up with Sam Katz (from MGM). 

By 1939, Paramount was encouraged to get into the television business, by Leonard H. Goldenson, an up-and-coming corporate lawyer at Paramount. (Goldenson would later be the President of ABC from 1953 through 1985.)

Goldenson would acquire an experimental license that would become W9XBK to broadcast on channel 2 in Chicago. The station would be changed to channel 4 when the FCC rearranged the frequency assignments. By late 1943, W9XBK would become the first commercial station in Chicago, WBKB. Later it would change to channel 7, and by 1968 it became WLS-TV. In the early days, during the 1940s, Milton Friedland was a sales executive with WBKB. He later would accept the position of general manager at WICS, Channel 20, in Springfield, Illinois.

Meanwhile, two other Balaban Brothers, Harry, and Elmer were also theater owners, under the company name of H & E Corporation. Most of their holdings were suburban theaters in the Chicago market reaching down into central Illinois. They, too, were getting into television station ownership with a number of applications throughout the Midwest. Among those were TV stations in Rockford, Illinois(WTVO), and Springfield, Illinois(WICS). By 1958, Harry and Elmer along with Plains TV had a stake in the two mentioned Illinois properties, but also KGKO radio in Dallas, Texas; WIL radio in St. Louis; WRIT radio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and possibly (although not quite clear) WMCN radio in Grand Rapids, Michigan and KFBI radio in Wichita, Kansas. 

NBC: Television History Special

NBC Historic Telecast from 1946.

The NBC Story.

--from TV Museum (YouTube)

Television History: The NBC Story


The NBC Story.

--from Computer History Archives Project (YouTube)

Television: How it Works


Remember seeing those Coronet Instructional Films when you were in grade school? This will be rather nostalgic, as Coronet works with WGN Television with this presentation.

"A great informational film explaining “HOW TELEVISION WORKS.”  With some digital restoration edits, this easy-to-watch gives a nice overview of the technology behind broadcast television and early CRT-based television sets.  Filmed in WGN studios in Chicago. The film shows the Camera tube (Image Orthicon), CRT picture tube, TV control room, TV signal transmission, and more.

--from Computer History Archives Project (YouTube)

TV: A Forgotten History

"The invention of the television was a dynamic process that represented the convergence of many technological innovations and inventors. The medium has been both affected by and affected by history. The History Guy remembers the forgotten history of the small screen."

--The History Guy: History Deserves to be Remembered (YouTube)

The Forgotten War for Color Television

"Today we know that 29.97 fps is a hallmark of NTSC video. We may even know the mathematical reasoning behind it. But the war for color television that birthed that oddball number, a war that raged for over a decade and left an imprint on the soul of electronic moving pictures has been largely forgotten..."

--Filmmaker IQ (YouTube)

1956 RCA-The Story of Television

"In this film, David Sarnoff, head of RCA from 1919 to 1970, speaks to Vladimir Zworykin, Russian-American inventor, engineer, and pioneer of television technology.  Zworykin invented a television transmitting and receiving system employing cathode ray tubes.   

"The film covers the evolution of RCA television technology up to the color TV period."

--from Computer History Archives Project (YouTube)

VHF vs. UHF TV Bands - Antenna TV Viewers Should Know the Difference

"This video talks about the difference between VHF and UHF TV signals. What is VHF? What is UHF? What channels broadcast on these bands? How do they differ? Knowing the differences between these bands is important to understand how they are affected which can improve your TV reception."

One correction: Low VHF is channels 2-6 and high VHF is 7-13.

--Antenna Man

TV Vintage Sets

Television Sets Throughout the Years

All ads were from various Pinterest sites.

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