Central Illinois Television pre-1953
Local Television was non-existent before July 1953, and even then it was limited in reach. Local UHF stations (those at channels 14 -83) in the early years didn't reach out much beyond 20-30 miles from the transmitter point. VHF stations (channels 2-13) were a different matter. When VHF station WCIA went on the air local television became a reality for many communities beyond the coverage of the lower-powered UHF stations. 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 based on certain brands to select dealers who would provide service departments maintaining those fragile early television sets.
Where it all Begins
As the FCC was overrun by a large number of applications for TV stations after WWII, it became apparent that the VHF band of only 12 channels was not going to be enough to bring about the proper number of channel allocations for cities across the U.S.. Beginning in 1948, a number of hearings and studies began by the FCC in which the Commission would decide on several other issues which were going to have to be settled before any more permits were to be issued. It was during that time called “The Freeze” that the FCC “froze out” issuing any permits for the construction of new television stations and even in some cases radio stations.
Besides the problems with allocations which would deal with technical issues involving spacing between stations, power outputs, and tower height, other rules and regulations would need to be established that would deal with education television, color TV technical standards, and the opening of frequency spectrum for use by TV stations beyond the original 12 channels.
Winter is Over
By April 14, 1952, the FCC had finally, it seemed, lifted “The Freeze.” The questions concerning the technical standards of color TV and expanding the available frequency spectrum for new television stations were announced in the Commission's 6th Report and Order and the FCC would be taking applications from potential developers who hoped to invest in the new broadcast technology. Even though there were still quite a few issues to be worked out, the main problem of spectrum space was decided.
The additional spectrum would come from the frequency spectrum in the UHF (Ultra-High-Frequency) band. Those stations which were already grandfathered in the original VHF (Very-High-Frequency) band, those with channel numbers 2-13, would stay pretty much as is.
The new rules would allow for 617 VHF stations, and 1,436 UHF stations and would establish zones with mileage requirements for the separation of stations along with antenna height standards. Those rules would be questioned for years. Many of the rules would be the cause of many developers losing their investments, people losing their jobs, and communities losing a potential media voice.
By September of 1952, the first commercial UHF stations went on the air in Portland, Oregon on channel 27. It would be just five months later that central Illinois would see its first UHF station in Peoria. WEEK-TV signed on the air on February 1, 1953. Unfortunately, most people in central Illinois were still in the dark when it came to local television as there were very few television household viewers at that time.
Central Illinois Channel Allocations
In trying to satisfy the needs of future local television investors the FCC set up a number of predetermined channels which could be assigned to each community. It was a mixture of VHF and UHF channels and a plan to allow for a mixture of each in some areas. In mid-Illinois, the list of communities and allocated channels included Belleville (54), Bloomington (15), Centralia (32, 59), Champaign-Urbana (3, *12, 21, 27, 33), Danville (24), Decatur (17, 23), Jacksonville (29), Kankakee (14), Macomb (61), Mattoon (46), Mt. Vernon (38), Olney (16), Quincy (10, 21), Peoria (8, 19, 37, 43), Springfield (2, 20, 26) and Vandalia (28). Other allocations affecting future television in mid-Illinois include those for the following Missouri communities: Festus (14), Hannibal (7, 27), St. Louis (4, 5, 9*, 11, 30, 36, 42), and communities in Indiana: Bloomington (4, 30*, 36), Lafayette (47*, 59), Terre Haute (10, 37*, 63).
Those channels indicated with an asterisk were allocations set up for educational television use. I will also add that a couple of those assigned channel numbers will be very controversial as well.
The Quest for Channel 2
In April of 1952, it appeared that Springfield, Illinois would be assigned allocations for VHF channel 2 along with UHF channels 20 and 26. The allocation was granted for channel 20 and would become WICS. Channel 26 would be set aside for educational television broadcasting with a plan that was yet to be determined.
It didn't take long for the allocation of VHF channel 2 to be targeted with an application filed in June 1952. The owner/operator for Springfield's WTAX AM/FM first applied for the lone VHF allocation and proposed Springfield's first television station. In July of 1952, WCBS Inc. would file for channel 2 (The call letters of WCBS were changed in 1946 to WCVS, but the name of the Illinois State Journal-Register-owned company, WCBS, Inc remained through much of the 1950s). During the same week as the WCVS application came one from WMAY-TV Inc. operators of yet another Springfield radio station.
Applications for Channel 8 in Peoria
In June of 1952, Peoria Broadcasting Company (WMBD Radio) would apply for Peoria's channel 8. WIRL Radio also applied to channel 8 along with Brookwell Enterprises, owned by former Senator C. Wayland Brooks (R-IL). Brooks would eventually cancel his application.
So What Happened?
Central Illinois watches Channel 3, WCIA, but what happened to channels 2 and 8? Find the answers at Central Illinois' On-Line Broadcast Museum at dougquick.com.
ATSC is here in
Read my report on what you can expect with the change-over to ATSC 3.0 or watch the video below for an explanation of what it all means. Click Here to go to the Central Illinois TV page.
Check out a complete listing of area television signals across mid-Illinois, along with Chicago, St. Louis, Peoria, Terre Haute, and Quincy markets.
The pages include current TV listings for each market, all of the television transmitters/towers, who owns each one, the owner's address, the operator's address, phone number, websites, and other contact information.
It also includes all of the sub-channels (minus shopping and religious signals). Ownership is listed along with address, phone numbers, and contact information along with websites.
The pages also include ATSC 3.0 (NextGen TV) information for each market offering the new local television standard! There are also links for an explanation of what to expect in the years ahead!
Pull down your selection from the drop-down menu at the top of the page, TV TODAY, then choose any market for complete info.
Hardly any of us now remember what life was like before television. 70 years ago, in 1953, though, the experience of not having a TV was still what the majority of households across central Illinois faced every day. A poll taken in 1953 among TV dealers determined that only 12-thousand TV sets were sold at the retail level. Of those only 22 hundred were equipped for all channel VHF-UHF reception. That number would change over a few short years and it wasn't long before most households recognized the names, faces, and voices of local TV personalities.
WTVP's Loren Boatman, Al Pigg, Kim Wilson, Earl Hickerson, Dale Coleman, Frank Monte, and Marty Roberts.
WICS's John Begue, Florence Pierce, Malden Jones, Frank Martin, Bernie Johnson, Julie Craig, G.B. Gordon, Pigwell Pete, Bob Warren, Wally Gair, Nick Alexander, Bernie Waterman, Wayne Cox, and Doug Kimball.
WCIA's Fred Sorenson, Wyndham J. “Mr. Roberts” Roberts, Jack Prowell, Scotty Craig, DiAnne Thomas, Sidney “Sheriff Sid” Fulkerson, Red Schoendienst, Robert Brown, Ed Mason, Don McMullen, John Coleman, Paul Davis, and Tom Jones.
WBLN's Fred Muxfield, Esther, Warner Tideman, and Don McKellar.
WDAN-TV's Wayne Coady, Bill Houpt, Frank Williams, Max Shaffer, Ralph Webber, Honore Ronan, Jack Singleton, and John Eckert.
There were many more people who contributed in behind-the-scenes roles in ownership, management, sales, and engineering that made Central Illinois Television possible.
This is a much-abbreviated story of each heritage station across mid-Illinois. We begin with 1939. The public visiting the World's Fair in New York in 1939 saw television for the first time. President Franklin Roosevelt addressed those watching at the fair via television, as most of the public watched newsreel footage much later. World War II put television research on hiatus. Those working on the development of television at the end of the war tested equipment and receivers with broadcasts occurring on an occasional basis, mostly in the larger cities of the east. New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. were TV broadcast centers, but it wasn't until the mid to late 1940s that other TV stations began to appear in other nearby Midwest cities, like Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. Channels 2 through 13 were available to a select number of stations that were later interconnected to form networks by NBC, DuMont, and CBS.
The FCC, though, “froze” the issuance of additional broadcast construction permits by other companies and entrepreneurs who filed for TV station ownership in 1948. By that time, the FCC figured out the number of anticipated future TV stations would not fit in the constraints of only VHF channels 2 through 13. Plus, testing was already underway for the broadcast of color video and there were already three color broadcast methods being developed. A number of other technical standards were needed to make sure that the broadcast industry would produce TVs for the public that would allow all stations to be received in both monochrome and color. That was just the beginning as an entirely new frequency range would open up, called UHF broadcasting. The operation of television stations on UHF was different from that of VHF. The advantage of UHF broadcasting included not being susceptible to interference from everything from ignition noise from trucks and cars, electrical RF noise from small appliances and vacuum cleaners to electrical storms. The picture was clearer, crisper, and more lifelike than that of VHF stations. The major advantage for VHF stations was the range of broadcasts able to be received was many times greater than that of a typical UHF station and at lower power. Thus, TV audiences were bound to be greater for VHF stations, increasing the income potential of VHF stations as advertisers were seeking larger audiences for their commercials.
For those of us in Central Illinois we had the potential of three VHF stations and many other UHF stations. VHF channels 2, 3, and 8 were made available by the FCC. Channel 2 was designated for Springfield, Channel 3 for Champaign, and Channel 8 for Peoria. The UHF allocations for stations were for various channels in other cities, including some UHF allocations for cities with VHF allocations. All of the allocations were assigned to reduce interference between stations and to maximize the ability of persons to receive more than just one station.
When the allocations were announced in 1952 as the “freeze” was lifted, Channel 2 had four, then three groups of local radio broadcasting stations in Springfield, WMAY, WTAX, and WCBS(call letters were changed later to WCVS) applying for the VHF station. To our north, Peoria had several groups vying for Channel 8, including two groups that owned separate Peoria radio stations, WMBD and WIRL, and a former Illinois Senator, although he would later bow out.
The competition between the groups for Channel 2 and 8 would ultimately delay the issuance of those permits. That delay would allow for other groups in nearby markets of St. Louis and the Quad Cities to apply for those VHF stations and have them moved to their cities. That was supported primarily by ABC which needed those VHF stations as affiliates to compete equally with already established VHF stations with CBS and NBC affiliation. It may sound simple, but it was far from that and the fight was far from friendly. The competition for Channel 2 took place between stations in those cities and potential ABC affiliates, the Springfield UHF station WICS-Channel 20 Springfield, various local community and professional groups in Springfield and St. Louis, and of course the politicians from those areas. In fact, it was so heated that ultimately the decision as to what to do, ended up at the Supreme Court, although no decision came from the High Court.
Channel 3 had a much different outcome thanks to the wisdom of the president of a newly formed company, Midwest Television. Midwest had several owners, including several representatives of the local newspaper, The News-Gazette, which also owned WDWS Radio. August Meyer, as the President of Midwest Television, was also an attorney on staff at the News-Gazette. Midwest Television, though, also had some competition for Channel 3 from Illinois Broadcasting Company and its owner F.W. Schaub. Mr. Shaub also owned the Decatur Herald Newspaper, the Urbana Courier Newspaper, along with WSOY-Radio in Decatur.
Since each group wanted the “golden egg” which was a permit for Channel 3, Mr. Meyer had a brilliant idea that just might push the application through for approval by the FCC. Any delay would have brought about many FCC hearings among many other issues from other markets all across the country. Any such delay in coming up with a solution for the ownership of Channel 3 would have ended up similar to the stories from Channel 2 and 8 in central Illinois. So, Mr Meyer made an offer to Mr. Schaub of Illinois Broadcasting to merge, allowing that company to own 20 percent of Midwest Television, if Illinois Broadcasting would withdraw its application. On February 26, 1953, the FCC would grant Central Illinois its only VHF commercial station. WCIA, Channel 3 would go on the air Saturday, November 14, 1953.
The other heritage stations in the market on the UHF dial had a more simpler filing experience with only WICS seeing any competition for the construction permit for Channel 20. Channel 20 was the result of a mass application effort of Harry and Elmer Balaban and Transcontinental Properties, a group of Chicago real estate investors. By filing a number of applications, they would surely win at least a couple. That they did with permits for Springfield and Rockford. The Balabans owned a number of outlying movie theaters in the Chicago area, while other Balaban brothers owned some of the most prominent theaters downtown. The other Balabans were also involved in experiential TV in Chicago along with Sam Katz who began WBKB, Channel 2. Channel 2 was later sold to CBS, and they moved the call letters and their operation to Channel 7. Meanwhile, another Balaban brother, Barney was the head of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood which also owned a number of movie theaters until the company was broken up by the government for holding an unfair monopoly on movie production and displaying.
WICS, Channel 20 in Springfield would sign on right before the World Series of 1953, on September 30, 1953. Despite having the only TV signal in the Illinois Capitol City, a dark cloud of uncertainty was over the future of WICS. The ownership knew that and kept expenses low. The station rented a space on a local (friendly-not competitive) radio tower of WCBS (later WCVS). The tower and facility limited the ability of the station to broadcast much more than 25 miles from Springfield and was hardly seen in Decatur. The studios were also rented from WCBS located in the annex to the Leland Hotel in downtown Springfield. The station remained without many improvements until the decision to move Channel 2 to St. Louis. Channel 2 would have taken the affiliation of NBC away from WICS, which was only under contract with NBC on a month-to-month basis. WICS losing NBC, even though the network compensation was extremely low due to the lack of coverage of the station, would have been a fatal blow to the station. There was even talk that a Channel 2 could have wiped out Decatur's TV station as well.
When the application for Channel 17 in Decatur was filed, by Prairie Television it was one of the last companies to file for a central Illinois TV station, but it was the first to go on the air. Prairie Television was primarily owned by William Shellabarger who owned the Shellabarger Mills, Inc. a local processor of grain. It was sold to Ralston-Purina Company which allowed that investment to be shifted to a broadcast enterprise. One of the major stockholders Harold Cowgill, was a Decatur native who had different careers in commerce, broadcast law, the FCC, and ultimately in broadcasting by being the station's new general manager with what would become WTVP, Channel 17. After making some changes in the initial application to increase the facility with the construction of its own studio center and a higher tower/antenna, the station would include the largest employee roster of any station in central Illinois. With one delay from a potential disaster due to a “cracking” of the jin pole that helped in the rising of the antenna to the top of the tower, the second attempt the next day was successful. WTVP would go on the air on Sunday, August 16, 1953. The station would go through several ownership changes over the years including that of Metropolitan Broadcasting, later changed to Metromedia, and then LIN Broadcasting in the mid-60s.
Peoria would have two UHF stations, which were somewhat under that same dark cloud as WICS, with the prospect of having what would be a major VHF CBS affiliate in their own front yard. In early July of 1952, an application was filed with the FCC for the allocation of Channel 43. The grant was issued in August of 1952 for what would be the first Peoria station WEEK-TV at Channel 43. It was owned by West Central Broadcasting owned by U.S. Senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma who already owned a radio station there and was a principal of the Kerr McGee Oil Company. Other stockholders also had ties with the oil industry. WEEK like WTVP built its own studios near one of the high points just east of the Illinois River in Tazewell County. WEEK-TV very quickly became the leading station in the market with many upgrades of the transmitter that gained coverage areas with each one. Channel 43 became an NBC affiliate, with some programming being from ABC and DuMont.
The second TV station to go on the air in Peoria was Channel 19. It was initially filed by WWXL Radio with the ownership name of Hilltop Broadcasting and granted in December 1952. The call letters of WTVH were granted in February 1953 as the station announced a primary affiliation agreement with ABC. Channel 19, WTVH would go on the air Thursday, September 1, 1953, but within a year, it would take on CBS as its primary network affiliation with ABC as secondary. The battle for Channel 8 had a direct influence on WTVH becoming a temporary CBS affiliate, as it was accepted that if Channel 8 did go on the air, it would become a full-time CBS affiliate. WTVH, like WEEK, would go through several power increases with transmitter add-ons, or new transmitters. It still became evident that WTVH was the least significant station on the Peoria television scene. By April 1954 the majority share of the station was purchased by the Peoria newspapers, the Morning Star, and the Afternoon Journal. The next month the newspapers would finish the purchase of most of the minority stockholders and held over 90% ownership. The name Hilltop Broadcasting would continue until being purchased by Metropolitan Broadcasting, later changed to Metromedia, and then sold to WIRL Radio in the mid-1960s.
Just down the road from Peoria, in Bloomington, another television station was being applied for by Cecil W. Roberts of Missouri. There he owned a group of small radio stations. He decided to make a number of requests for radio and television stations in the early 1950s. Locations, where he would apply for television stations, included St. Louis when he applied for Channel 36. He also applied for Channel 15 in Bloomington, Illinois. All of his applications for radio and television stations included investments that were well below the average amount of cash needed to achieve even a small chance of a successful operation. His application for Channel 15 in Bloomington was no exception. His cost of construction was listed at $110,000 with expected revenue for the first year set at $120,000. Despite having a lowball investment in a television station he was granted a permit in March 1953 for the construction of what would become WBLN, Channel 15.
The site for the construction of the studio and tower/transmitter was to be along the U.S. 66 by-pass near the intersection with U.S. 150. The site would be leased by Mr. Roberts for his TV station. The construction and even painting of the building's interior were challenged by local construction and electricians' unions. That created a huge public relations problem for his station within the community. There were other delays in equipment delivery and setup, but by Thursday, November 19, 1953, WBLN would go on the air with low power and a test pattern. That would continue for some time, as “problems” with equipment delayed the official sign-on with regular programming. WBLN would eventually go on the air Sunday, December 6, 1953, to become Central Illinois' 3rd ABC affiliate.
WBLN would face many problems from the lack of cash to support the losses of the station as ad revenue was not what was expected with the new station. Mr. Roberts, who ran his stations with very little cash flow, quickly found out that it wasn't going to improve over any amount of time. His ownership would end by July of 1955 as he sold the station to another person Worth S. Rough and his company WBLN, Inc.. The station would continue with local religious programming surrounded by a weak ABC program lineup, syndicated fare, and some locally produced studio programs, mostly for kids. By Tuesday, February 5, 1957, WBLN would go dark. It would, though, return for a short period beginning again on December 1, 1957. That return would be minus network affiliation, but with more syndicated programming, local religious programming, and many local investors behind the station who were hoping for a return on their investment. Unfortunately, the creditors of the station lost their investment, as many creditors were making legal claims against the station. Mr. Rough even turned the station over to another inexperienced person, Amos Barton, a construction firm owner and somewhat of a religious leader. On Thursday, June 5, 1958, the station would once again go off the air due to equipment failure. It would never return as Channel 15.
The final mid-Illinois TV station to go on the air was WDAN-TV, Channel 24 in Danville. Even though it was the first applicant for a UHF station in downstate Illinois it was the last to go on the air. The application was filed in May of 1952 by Northwest Publishing, owned by Gannett Company, an owner of a number of newspapers, and had already filed for another station in Elmira, New York. The construction permit was granted in December of 1952, but it would be a year before the station would broadcast.
The cost of the station was set at $215,000 with expected revenue at $300,000 for the first year. The work would begin with the construction of a new tower that would replace the self-supporting tower/antenna of WDAN Radio. The new $20,000 tower would be a guyed tower with insulators separating the main WDAN Radio antenna section of the tower with the extended height of the tower supporting the TV antenna as the mast on top. The elevation of the TV antenna was expected to be near 400 feet. The WDAN Radio studios were expanded in 1948 when the operation moved to the transmitter location from the downtown Wolford Hotel. The studios were expanded once again in 1953 to include a limited TV facility. There were many delays in the construction, probably due to the fact there were dozens of stations being built at the time with the production of all of the electrical components for a TV station not keeping up with demand. After making requests for extensions for completion to the FCC, the FCC granted one final extension that would expire on December 20, 1953. With that, WDAN-TV went on the air, on December 19, 1953, with only the network feed from ABC to broadcast. The station wasn't able to broadcast a regular schedule of local programming for several weeks as equipment delays were given as the reason.
Even while other stations were seeking new transmitters to increase power and their own coverage area, the ownership/management of WDAN-TV actually sought out a permit to decrease power a couple of years after going on the air, presumably to reduce the cost of electricity. WDAN-TV would sell the station to the owners of WICS and its low-powered sister station in Champaign, WCHU that went on the air in 1959. It remained an ABC station for a short period of time before becoming a full-time translator and an NBC affiliate for WICS and WCHU with the call letters of WICD. In 1967, the two stations in Champaign and Danville would combine as WICD, Channel 15, Champaign.
In May of 1955, a national television industry report stated that 80 percent of all UHF stations were near bankruptcy. Not more than 12 or 15 UHF stations were making a true profit, and these stations were without immediate VHF competition. If Channel 2 in Springfield would have gone on the air as an NBC affiliate, WICS would have quickly gone dark, if not immediately shut down. WTVP would have been at risk as well. Decatur could have ended up with no local television service, much like what happened to Bloomington.
There was even a move in 1955 to allow the FCC to drop in VHF allocations across the country. That would have brought Channel 6 to Bloomington, Peoria could have gotten Channel 10 and 13, Galesburg with Channel 11, and Decatur with Channel 7. It was fortunate for the stations that the proposal didn't get any traction.
This is just a brief summary of the early years of local TV in Central Illinois, some 70 years ago. I detailed the info above in great detail in my book “Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television.” Unfortunately, my book is no longer available as my publisher went out of business. I plan on re-publishing my book as an ebook that can be downloaded online. I hope to have that project completed by early next year. I have included more details of TV History at Central Illinois' On-Line Broadcast Museum on my website, www.dougquick.com.
Doug Quick is a retired radio/TV broadcaster, a current broadcast historian, voice-over talent, author, webmaster curator of Central Illinois’ On-Line Broadcast Museum at dougquick.com, and a family guy. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.