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The History of WCHU, Channel 33, Champaign, IL
and WICD, Channel 24, Danville, IL

1959 - 1967

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A Lesser Facility is now Planned

Due to a request filed by Plains TV against competitor WCIA being denied by the FCC, it appeared that Plains made the decision to "punish" viewers by downgrading the plan to build Channel 33. The original plan was to build a full-powered television facility that could have brought NBC programming to all of east-central Illinois.  After the FCC decision, the application for a full-powered UHF station which was filed in 1956 was pulled from consideration. 

Plains Television along with the Balaban brothers was busy purchasing other broadcast properties at the same time. It is possible the “downgrading” of the proposed channel 33 may have been to save cash. For whatever reason, the building of a television station to serve Champaign-Urbana with “lesser facilities” would finally take place in 1958-1959.

 

By “lesser facilities” the plan would downgrade the power output of what would become WCHU from a proposed 200kw to 5.5kw, and instead of a 650-foot antenna, it would be 150 feet. All of a sudden the signal of this proposed east central Illinois property would decrease from a 50-mile radius to a mere 15 miles!

 

In November of 1958, construction began with a completion date of April 24, 1959. Ultimately, that's when WCHU went on the air from the Inman Hotel in Champaign, to broadcast the off-air signal of WICS, static and all. 

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NBC for Champaign-Urbana, but not much more

 

Before WCHU, NBC programming was seen over all of east central Illinois was seen on WCIA and in color too! Channel 3 had picked up a secondary affiliation with the network along with its primary affiliation of CBS. This would monopolize the two strongest broadcast networks for WCIA. WCIA would air an occasional NBC program such as “Dragnet,” “Grouch Marx-You Bet Your Life,” “Colgate Comedy Hour,” “Your Hit Parade” and other special events from 1953 to 1958. It was also WCIA's only source of color programming outside of a very rare CBS color presentation during that period. WCIA had converted to broadcast color from network programming in 1955, now with the loss of NBC WCIA would not be able to “show off” to central Illinois color TV viewers.

 

This was also bad news to other east central Illinois NBC viewers. Unless you lived in the very near proximity of Champaign, you would lose NBC programming entirely. It was also, temporally bad news for those who invested in color televisions throughout the entire area, as WCHU would not broadcast NBC color until 1961. Realistically, though, its likely the color quality would have been less than perfect, since Channel 33 would still be re-broadcasting the over-the-air signal of WICS. That additional step in the broadcast chain may have distorted the signal of WCHU enough to smear any kind of acceptable color video.

 

It's pretty obvious today that the lessening of the facility of WCHU was a mistake by Plains Television. This ridiculous business choice would create a culture for the station that would position it as the weaker less relevant station in the market, a stigma which would be attached to WCHU and later WICD for decades!

WCHU A “Lesser Facility” with a Shaky Start

 

Construction on WCHU began in November of 1958 and the station at first went on the air in September of 1959 as a low-powered UHF station on channel 33 and was a full translator of WICS from Springfield. WCHU was designed to receive an off-air signal of WICS for rebroadcast from a receiver located on the roof at the studio location, the downtown Inman Hotel. It didn't take long to see that the assumption of getting a broadcast quality full-time signal from WICS was a mistake. Engineers evidently didn't anticipate weather conditions, the time of day, and other extraneous sources of interference located in the downtown Champaign area contributed in a far less reliable signal from WICS.

 

WICS at about the same time was now broadcasting from a 900-foot tower/antenna at Mechanicsburg east of Springfield at about half a million watts. To expect a broadcast quality signal at all times from 65 miles was a stretch even in the best of circumstances. The receiving antenna on top of the Inman Hotel was a large parabolic-style antenna with signal amplifiers, but it just didn't work.

 

Later in 1958, an application was filed for the construction of a receiving antenna/tower to be located northwest of Champaign in an area that has the highest elevation in Champaign County just north of U.S. 150. The application was granted by the FCC for a 150-foot tower/antenna receiver and a microwave link that would relay the off-air signal of WICS to the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign.

 

The new link from Springfield would allow WCHU to expand its broadcast day with a much more reliable source of programming. On September 13, 1959, Channel 33 would begin its broadcast day at the same time WICS in Springfield would, in time for the broadcast of “Today.” It was reported that the station would now begin in “earnest.” A special insert in the Champaign-Urbana Courier the following month featured the programming and details on the future plans of the station which was to include some local origination within a newly constructed studio on the second floor of the Inman Hotel.

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Here are the people in charge, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Eskew who was placed at the helm of WCHU.  Harry was formerly at "technical services" at WICS while Mrs. Eskew was the former "Traffic Manager" at WICS.  She would now be the Office Manager at WCHU.

(photo Urbana Courier)

WCHU-TV Employee Roster 1962-1964

(as remembered by Ted Sodergren)

station manager: Jim Kelly
sales: Joe Norris
traffic: Shirley Eskew
program director: Bob Lumpp (weather announcer as needed)
weathercaster: Carol Fisher
chief engineer: Harry Eskew
control room engineers: Gerry Probst and                  Gene Euling
director/photographer: "Deke" Kurtz
news announcer/reporter: Charlie Anderson
announcer/interviewer/booth announcer: Keith Page
"Uncle Otto" and production: Dave Otto
studio production staff: Ted Sodergren, Joel Hartman
receptionist/traffic assistant: Barbara Bluege

All text materials and photos contained in the section above have been used by permission. They are owned by Ted Sondergren who has graciously allowed them to be included in this website. 

WCHU Staff

 

The original staff of the WCHU included Vice President Milton Friedland who had been with WICS since 1953 and would oversee the operation at WCHU as well. Others also overseeing both stations included Jerry Merrit as chief engineer and Jack Hoskins as program director.

 

The on-site staff included both Mr. and Mrs. Harry Eskew. Mr. Eskew was from technical services at WICS and would supervise the new station. His wife was a former traffic manager and would serve as the office manager at the station. Jerry Dodds was serving as the station's only account executive and Bob Daniels was serving as announcer. Others in the operations and engineering staff were Roger Thorp and Glen Horton. A small staff for a small station.

Read more about Ted Sodergren's Story of working at WCHU during the early days. Just click on the button above.

(All photos above are ©Ted Sodergren and are used here by permission)

Memories of Ted Sodergren

 

*  Note the monitors labeled with "20" "33" and to the far right "24."  The video monitors included three Admiral table model TV sets which would have used the "off-air" tuners to monitor the three stations.  The second monitor probably monitored the video before being sent to the transmitter, with the one in the middle picking up the "off-air" signal.  

The video switcher is directly in from of Mr. Probst with the Gates audio board model called  "The Yard" sitting on top.  The control room operator had to do both audio and video switching.  Also to the far right is probably the commercial scripts for live and recorded reads....done by the "booth announcer" and at the far left could have been the program log....and the list of phone numbers of other staffers and probably the main control of both WICS and WICD.  This equipment also is full of tubes and other heat-producing electronics needed to have additional air conditioning....notice the wall unit at the upper right-hand side of the picture.

** This photo also shows the reel-to-reel tape with the continuity log for the commercial copy.  Apparently, much of the "booth announcing" was pre-recorded on reel-to-reel tape for each day's broadcast schedule.  There was another "Magnicord" reel to reel recorder/player which could be alternated from one to the other as commercials switched.  The rack on the wall was probably for reel-to-reel tapes with individualized commercial audio on them for playback.  

Also, note the larger monitor just to the far right.  It appears to be an RCA color TV which was used to monitor the "color" off-air signal of WCHU and it's broadcast of NBC color programming.


The television station license and various operators licenses are displayed just above the control room door.  By the way, it appears the air conditioners exhaust was blown into the hallway.

*** The "Window on the Weather" would include a shot of the current weather conditions in downtown Champaign as viewed from the studio window. Carol Fisher was the original "weather girl" of WCHU

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WCHU Gains Color for NBC

By August of 1960, it was announced that WCHU should be able to broadcast in color, perhaps by the time of the telecast of the 1960 World Series. Milton D. Friedland made a rather obvious declaration that "color is here to stay....RCA and NBC have made tremendous investments in developing color TV and will be transmitting every color show they have." The investment in color-casting at WCHU was in the $15-20,000 range. Friedland went on to announce some of the shows that would be broadcast in color by WCHU including, "Jack Paar, Perry Como, Dinah Shore will all be in color." By then, though, WICS had been broadcasting in color for three years.

 

Unfortunately, WICD, the Danville sister station of WCHU would not be broadcasting in color. It's apparent that the vintage 1953 transmitter of (WDAN-TV originally) WICD was not capable of being retrofitted to accommodate the addition of the equipment needed to color-cast. I would assume that the investment in color-casting for the Danville station was simply not financially practical as a completely new transmitter would have been required. Plus, airing a second-generation re-broadcast color signal, would have been less than desirable and would have most assuredly brought a negative public reaction from those viewers in the Danville area with color televisions.

 

With the WCHU's ability to broadcast in color, it must be said that the only programming which was broadcast in color came from NBC. It was a very similar situation that existed with the broadcasting of high-definition digital video by local stations. The equipment needed to achieve full high-definition would be attained in increments which would take several years. It was the same with the conversion to color broadcasting. It was going to be 10 more years before WCHU would be broadcasting locally originated programming in color.

Not one to be upstaged by the announcement of the telecasting of the more colorful NBC programming schedule, WCIA's August C. Meyer stated that WCIA-TV had been able to broadcast the network color shows since 1954. He went on to say that CBS had a limited amount of color shows available. Actually, CBS had no regular color shows, and wouldn't have until 1966. In fact, CBS was the last of the three networks to have a prime-time schedule with any color programming. This fact had to frustrate the owners of WCIA a great deal.


Part of CBS's reluctance to broadcast in color came from the fact that the color studio equipment had to be purchased from competitor RCA/NBC which held the patents on the technology it took to broadcast the existing color TV programming. It all goes back to the early 1950s when the color TV standards were being decided by the FCC. The CBS color system was reported to be better in quality but was not compatible with the millions of TV sets that were in use even in the early 1950s. The RCA/NBC system was compatible, and after many years and months of haggling by the technical wizards at both companies, the FCC made a decision, then overturned their decision to favor the RCA-compatible format. That set the stage in the reluctance of CBS to purchase equipment from the competitor.

The NBC Peacock as seen by those with color TVs on WICS, CHannel 20

The NBC Peacock as seen by those with color TVs on WCHU, Channel 33

The NBC Peacock as seen by those with color TVs on WICD, Channel 24

Because of the technical limitations of taking the off-air signal of WICS, Springfield, and rebroadcasting it on Channel 33 in Champaign, it's a sure bet the color signal would have been less than desirable by the time it reached viewers television sets on the low powered WCHU. Then, the low-powered off-air signal of WCHU, Channel 33 would have been received in Danville, some 30 miles away (much farther than what the signal normally would have reached), and re-broadcast again to viewers in the Danville, Illinois area. It's no wonder no effort was made to upgrade the transmitter of WICD, Channel 24 to broadcast color.  The overall quality of the signal would have been degraded considerably for viewers of Channel 24.

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A Selection of NBC
Shows from 1959-67

(right): The opening page of local listings from TV Guide® when the listings for Channel 24, WICD were added to the lineup.  Even though Channel 24 had been broadcasting since 1953, the previous owners (Northwest Publishing) chose not to have the station included.

(TV Guide® courtesy of J.R. Evans)

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(TV Guide® ad courtesy of J.R. Evans)

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"Uncle Otto's General Store" was the WCHU/WICD local children's show which ran on weekday afternoons on Channels 33 and 24.  Dave Otto was the star with the puppets of "Honk" and "Toot."  The puppeteer was WICD's Keith Page in his early days of broadcasting.  Keith also supplied the voices of the puppets.  The show also included a studio audience of local kids and a mixing of Warner Brothers cartoons.  Shows like this one helped establish the habits of the younger audience to watch local television stations.

 

(pictures from WICD and the Doug Quick Collection)

"Wagon Train" was NBC's highest-rated show one year after its premiere in 1957.  By 1958 it was in the top 2 shows of all television. It was part series and part anthology focusing on a different set of characters but maintained a regular cast as well. The series continued on NBC through 1962 when it moved to ABC.

(YouTube)

From 1956 to 1961, "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show" aired on NBC and was one of the top-rated shows for the network is in the top 20 each season for the network. This installment is from 1960 and was broadcast in color on WCHU (not on WICD). 

(YouTube)

Here's one of the Bob Hope Comedy Specials as broadcast on April 25, 1962. His guests include Janis Page, Frank Sinatra, and Dorothy Lamour.
(YouTube)

Don Adams played agent 86 in "Get Smart" which aired on NBC from 1965 to 1969 and was in the top 15 during its first year, the 1965-66 season. Here is a compilation of the "Best of Get Smart-Season One).
(YouTube)

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A Selection of Syndicated
Shows from 1959-67

Chevrolet was the major sponsor of NBC's "Bonanza" and if they could have had the Cartrights' drive Chevy's instead of ride horses they would have done it.  This piece features Canadian actor Lorne Greene on the set of Bonanza doing a sales commercial for Chevy dealers as part of a series called "Impact 66". This is the part motivational piece as well as outlining the new cars for the upcoming sales season.  

(YouTube)

Plains Televisions Future

 

The only way to even come close to competing against WCIA for national and regional ad dollars was for WICS to establish two stations to cover both the Springfield and Decatur markets as well as the Champaign-Urbana-Danville market. That set the plan in motion by Plains Television as early as 1962 to blanket all of the mid-Illinois by within five years. That plan was announced when a request was submitted to the FCC in January of 1965. In June of 1966, the plan was announced publically which would replace channels 24 and 33 with a full power station at channel 21 by 1967.

 

WCHU Increases Local Origination

 

Local origination was split between WICS and WCHU/WICD and featured newscasters such as Douglas Kimball and the "Standard Oil News at 6 PM and 10 PM" from WICS-TV. The need for local origination became obvious and the construction of studios was completed within the small confines of the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign. Localizing the WCHU product it could better attract a Champaign-Urbana audience to add to the audience of WICS in Springfield and help bring even more viewers to the total audience of the central Illinois NBC affiliates.

 

The Dunkel/Eaton Report on WCHU/WICD

 

With the addition of studio hardware at WCHU, local News at WCHU/WICD would be provided by the Dunkel/Eaton Report which originated in both Danville and Champaign. Dunkel was in Danville and Eaton was in Champaign. It was a local version of NBC's Huntley/Brinkley Report.

 

The complexities of pulling off such a news broadcast from two different locations would have been a great challenge and one requiring great coordination of skills from both stations. Since WICD received programming from WCHU, to broadcast the Champaign side of the broadcast was to operate as normal. For WCHU to broadcast the Danville side of the local news broadcast, WCHU would have to reverse the process and re-broadcast the signal of WICD. One could only imagine the technical nightmare this would have created for operators at the time.

 

Children Programming at WCHU and WICD

 

Kids were king during the era, often having a couple of hours of local programming directed at them (and their mothers) of the era including "Clicka T. Clack and his Friends" and "The Funny Company" from WICS. Both included a panel of kids from the Springfield area and a staple of Warner Brothers cartoons. At WICD it was Uncle Otto's General Store with David Otto.

Keith Page, a long-time weathercaster, began at WCHU as a puppeteer on Uncle Otto's General Store and the alter egos of "Honk and Toot." Keith was also a booth announcer at the station and pre-recorded all of the commercial station breaks, and became a weathercaster when weather "girl" Carol Fisher left the station in 1964.

WCHU and WICD Network Programming

 

Through 1964, the stations would broadcast almost all of the WICS programs including those from NBC. Local commercials would be inserted over the WICS local commercials, by cutting off the simulcast of WICS and airing local commercials which mainly consisted of slides, pictures of TV cards, and live audio commercials read by a local announcer. After the local commercial(s), the simulcast would continue and the WCHU/WICD broadcast would rejoin the WICS signal.

News Simulcast/Local Origination

Local origination was split between WICS and WCHU/WICD and featured newscasters such as Douglas Kimball and the "Standard Oil News at 6 PM
and 10 PM" from WICS-TV.  The need for local origination became obvious and the construction of studios was completed within the small confines of the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign. 

Localizing the WCHU product could better attract a Champaign-Urbana audience to add to the audience of WICS in Springfield.  Local News at WCHU/WICD was provided by the Dunkel/Eaton Report which originated in both Danville and Champaign.  Dunkel was in Danville and Eaton was in Champaign.  It was a local version of NBC's Huntley/Brinkley Report. Unfortunately, no photos of the newscasters have been found.

 

Children's shows of the era included "Clicka T. Clack and his Friends" and "The Funny Company" on WICS which included a panel of kids from the Springfield area and a staple of Warner Brothers cartoons.  At WICD it was Uncle Otto's General Store with David Otto. 

Keith Page, a long-time weathercaster, began at WCHU as a puppeteer on Uncle Otto's General Store and alter egos of "Honk and Toot."  Keith was also a booth announcer at the station and pre-recorded all of the commercial station breaks, and became a weathercaster when weather "girl" Carol Fisher left the station in 1964.
 

Here's Douglas Kimball in a closeup from the ad to the right.  He was actually in Springfield, but it appears that at least part of the newscast originated in Champaign with local news and weather
(from the Urbana Courier)

The 5 O'Clock report as broadcast on
WICS/WCHU/WICD and W-75-AD in the mid-1960s. 
Nick Alexander, DaleColemanand Wayne Cox anchored the Springfield newscasts while Alan Crane and Joe Thompson did the Champaign-Danville newscasts.  Dale Coleman along with Al Pigg(see WTVP) and Kim Wilson had the distinction of spreading their careers at both WICS and WTVP during the 1950s and '60s. 

(ad from TV Guide®
and the Doug Quick Collection)

Four signals to cover mid-Illinois! WICS, Channel 20, Springfield; WICD, Channel 24, Danville; WCHU, Channel 33, Champaign and W-75-AD in Mattoon. By Summer of 1967 better coverage would be achieved with only two signals.

Milton Friedland, Vice President and General Manager of the Plains Television Stations announcing in a TV Guide ad, that construction was once again underway on the new Channel 15 broadcast tower after an ice storm took the first one down early in 1967. 

(from TV Guide® and the Doug Quick Collection)

Seemingly an example of bad programming judgment, or "it seemed like a good idea at the time!"  The management of WICS/WCHU and WICD in an effort to sell more prime time commercial time preempted the new science fiction show "Star Trek" to show the off-network syndicated show "Laramie."  Well, at least "Laramie" was in color (but not on Channel 24)!

 

(from TV Guide® and the Doug Quick Collection)

Sources:

"Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television by Doug Quick, the curator of this site.

Broadcasting-Telecasting Magazine

TV Guide®
WICD-TV

Danville Public Library

Urbana Courier

Urbana Free Library

You Tube

"Total Television" by Alex McNeil

 

Contributors:

Bob Lee (Screen Grabs)

Keith Page
Ted Sondergren

Dave Boyer

J.R. Evans and his TV Guide© Collection

 

 

Click on the image at left to
go to the history of WICD 1967-2015

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