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Saturday, March 15, 2014

The History of UHF-TV

After television was launched to the public, there was a problem.

Everybody loved it. And they wanted in on it.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, radio stations began adding or moving to more spacious studio spaces in anticipation of the time they will be able to add the delicious letters "TV" to their station letterheads and business cards. They were assured that TV would eventually make radio obsolete. So they began planning for the jump to TV.

But there were only 13 original VHF channels originally assigned for television in the US.

And there WAS once a VHF TV Channel 1. The VHF dial didn't always start at Channel 2.

Here's what happened.

In the early 1940s, the FCC was in a pickle. They had to find spectrum space for FM radio, TV and early mobile phone/emergency radio use. They originally settled on 42-50 MHz for FM radio.

A 1940s radio with the original 42-50 MHz FM radio band.
But TV channel 1 used 44-50 MHz. So they moved the frequency range for Channel 1 around the lower VHF spectrum, causing confusion with viewers, broadcasters and manufacturers. Finally, they concluded there would be no Channel 1. And VHF TV channels would begin at Channel 2. The FM radio band was also moved to 88-106 MHz, then completed at 88-108 MHz.

But this now meant there would be one less channel for TV, leaving only a dozen channels. And the FCC was swamped in TV station license applications.

And more importantly, due to short spacing between stations on the same channels and unforeseen atmospheric conditions, there was interference. Lots of it. Especially in the Northeast. New TV spectrum had to be carved out to satisfy everyone.

Finally in 1952, the UHF TV band was created out of was once surplus radio spectrum for the military. UHF had 69 extra channels, boosting the overall TV channel selection to 82 channels (but later down to 81. In 1963, UHF TV Channel 37 was reserved for radio astronomy purposes and to this day, there are no UHF TV stations - or anything permitted to operate on Channel 37), but still enough for nearly every well financed radio station to have a TV station of their own. With room to spare for many others.

There was one little problem. People didn't know what UHF was then. And until 1964, TV set manufacturers weren't required to even include UHF TV on their sets.

So some enterprising electronics manufacturers invented the first "set-top" boxes, tuners for UHF TV

These were still made well into the '70s and even early '80s for older TV sets made before the All-Channel Receiver Act in 1964!
Most dealers offered them as loss leader freebies for your new TV set or as a low price upgrade for your existing set. You could set it up yourself (if you were more technically inclined.) Or have a serviceman from the dealer do it for you.

They were also sold by mail order.
This automatically created a new problem. Broadcasters began viewing UHF from the start as a lesser TV band. Most viewers still had VHF only TVs and didn't want too much fussing around with the adjustments (they weren't very stable in the early days of TV. As someone who's had to fix a wonky picture on an old 1950's black and white TV set, I can assure you they weren't much fun. There was a pretty good reason why parents rarely let their little kids near the TV in those days.)

And most were satisfied with that few choices they had. Adding a UHF converter meant more knobs and thus more things to go wrong.

And 20 years after the All Channel Receiver Act, some people STILL didn't know what UHF was!
Also, UHF signals by nature travel shorter distances than VHF channels. They also more easily blocked terrestrially by buildings, hills and even trees. To gain a similar broadcasting range as a typical VHF station, they needed 50x the power because of their higher frequencies.

For example, to get the same signal coverage as a VHF TV station on Channel 5 at 100,000 watts, a UHF TV station on Channel 22 needed 5,000,000 watts - that's right - FIVE MILLION WATTS.

That also appears the power bill of the station. Which means you had to sell more advertising and/or charge more for it than the VHF stations. And for a brand new TV station on a fairly unknown and problematic TV band and dubious programming with few, if any stars, the odds didn't look good.

So the many radio stations with ambitious TV plans that couldn't get a spot on the VHF-TV dial simply gave up on them. In fact, contrary to the predictions that radio would become obsolete after TV was introduced, radio simply moved into the era of the disc jockey and specialized music formats as the old-line network radio programming model moved off radio and onto television.

However, there were HUGE areas of the country that were too far from metropolitan areas with VHF stations. And adding stations to the already overcrowded VHF band would increase interference to the existing stations. Some areas, such as Yakima, WA, Peoria, IL and Huntsville, AL became UHF-only "islands", areas where all local broadcast TV is UHF. Public TV stations and upstart TV networks such as DuMont and the fledgling ABC network had no other option than UHF in most areas.

In the 1950s, some of the very first UHF TV stations often came on the air wealthy and often left the air broke - often within a year. These were often stations within the receiving area of VHF stations with established programming and network affiliations. Simply because no one was watching them outside of people who worked at the stations and their families. And even most of them were watching the other channels!

And that was another problem. When a major TV network initially affiliated with a UHF station in an area where a VHF station would later sign on or lose another network affiliation, the network would habitually create loopholes in their already lopsided affiliation contracts that allowed the network to end their affiliation with the UHF station with little notice to go onto the VHF station.

And this even happened with some higher number (Ch. 7-13) VHF stations in areas where VHF dominated. (NBC's original affiliate in Puget Sound was KMO-TV 13, and CBS was on KTNT-TV 11, both out of Tacoma, WA. And both lost to lower-number channels in Seattle.)

In fact to this day, lower number TV channels are preferred to higher ones with TV advertisers because most TV viewers tune from the lowest channel numbers up first. And more slowly and carefully than higher channel numbers, thus increasing the chances the viewer would see the advertising.

The great benefit of a network TV affiliation was the hardest part was already taken care of for you - programming. With the insertion of local TV advertising, a station can become instantly profitable with the big stars and professionalism of the major TV networks. Without a major TV network, you were scrambling for whatever you can get to put on the air. And there were only so many movies, kineoscopes and cartoons available back then. You had to quickly invent programming by the seat of your pants. And it became too much for the upstart UHFs.

So in most major cities, UHF stations were either non-existent or struggling public or even rarer, independents through the '50s, '60s and 1970s. In fact, Seattle only got it's first UHF TV station in 1985 (KTZZ-TV 22, now KZJO "Joe TV")

Most TVs weren't even equipped with UHF antennas (or new set owners didn't know what those little round wire things were in areas where UHF TV was largely unknown and threw them away), The simplest UHF antennas were small cheap loops you could affix to the back of your TV. They worked best in areas closer to the UHF station's transmitter and only fairly in outlying suburbs. I remember after Seattle's KTZZ-TV 22 went on the air installing one of these on my mom's console TV in Lynnwood, WA. But the picture was ghosty and variable and often fluctuated with things as simple as passing airplanes or even the movement of the metal wheels of my mom's wheelchair. That was the most apparent thing about over the air UHF-TV - nearly anything could interfere with the signal if you were beyond a point where you could visually see the station tower.    

UHF was coming to a slow painful death and it took an act of Congress to change that. It became known as the All Channel Receiver Act of 1964, which forced manufacturers to incorporate UHF tuners into their TV sets. This helped UHF TV on the consumer end, but programming, sales and merely staying alive without major network affiliations for the UHF stations were another. In fact, by 1971, there were only 170 full power UHF stations in the US. And over a 1,000 VHF stations. But UHF stations were still dying. Mostly because of the difficulty in getting major advertisers to take independent UHF TV stations seriously.

It was harder to get by on I Love Lucy and Honeymooners reruns and local used car dealership commercials than it looked.

There were attempts at starting a fourth major TV network. DuMont, ironically the very first American TV network, was struggling against better financed rivals NBC, CBS and the upstart ABC TV network and went off the air in 1956. Leaving only ABC, NBC and CBS as The Big Three (as the ABC, NBC and CBS TV networks came to be known for decades) commercial networks and by the '60s, NET (later known as PBS) for public TV.

That wasn't to say people were giving up on UHF TV. Cable TV was still in it's infancy and offered no exclusive programming. Just a clearer relay of TV stations already on the air. And most were required to carry the UHF stations, which actually helped UHF.

Enter The Overmyer Network (later known as The United Network.)

Some United Network affiliates were already established VHF stations with full major network affiliations (such as KOB-TV 4 in Albuquerque, NM, an NBC affiliate.) They just wanted in on the special deal United Network offered affiliates mentioned below
The Overmyer Network began as 5 UHF TV stations owned by Toledo based businessman Daniel H. Overmyer. It's flagship station was WDHO-TV 24 in Toledo, OH.

Overmyer was a social conservative who was against "smut". So there. But he also knew there were lots of entertainment starved independent TV stations across America. Ones that would do anything to move into the "affiliated" category.

And Overmyer gave them a sweet deal; an unheard of 50/50 profit share. Affiliates quickly began signing up.

The network launched nationally on May 1, 1967 as The United Network (and not related to the United Paramount Network or UPN of the 1990s/early 2000s.)

And exactly one month later, the entire Overmyer/United Network was history.

In the final autopsy, it was determined the launch of the network came at the worst possible time of the year. When major TV sponsors were at the end of their yearly advertising budgets. Had the network held out their launch until the new television season in September, they would have had a better chance when the sponsors were in a better spending mood. And since the station used costly proprietary Bell System video lines to relay programming to affiliates, that also ate into costs. It was one thing for 5 affiliates, entirely another for 35.

And more embarrassingly, the national United Network only had one show. A critically acclaimed, but publicly ignored daily variety/talk show called The Las Vegas Show.

The Overmyer/United Network was such a complete and thorough disaster that it was pretty much decided a fourth broadcast TV network was too many and was not attempted again until 1986 when Fox TV came on. And coincidentally, the headquarters of Fox are in the same New York City building that once housed the DuMont network 60 years earlier!

So UHF trudged along. Stations were still frequently sold, still went dark (off the air) or were converted to public TV stations. Outside of those "UHF Islands" mentioned earlier, there wasn't much money in UHF.

With not many stations on UHF, the uppermost channels of the traditional UHF band, Chs. 70-83 were reassigned for the fledgling cell phone industry (In the days before spread-spectrum analog cell phones, it wasn't unusual to pick up entire cell phone conversations on these channels!) But there were no actual TV stations that far up the spectrum (remember, the lower channels are the most preferred) and the various translator (relay) stations in that area were eventually moved to lower channel numbers. Few stations were ever licensed above Channel 69 anyway. And none existed at the time of this switch.

One early experiment merged the concept of pay TV with broadcast TV in 1977. A New York TV station WWHT-TV 68, owned by Wometco Enterprises, offered The Wometco Home Theater. It was essentially a video descrambler box and WWHT ran uncut, often first run movies and sports programming. And it was actually successful (WHT lasted until 1986 and even spawned imitators.)

(Click to enlarge)

The Wometco Home Theater box
The 1970s and 1980s also brought evangelical TV networks such as Trinity Broadcasting Network, Spanish language networks such as Univision and Telemundo and home shopping networks to UHF broadcast TV.

But most commercial UHF TV was still viewed by major sponsors and TV viewers as scrappy, unpolished, unprofessional and weird. The college radio of TV. A fact not lost on parody king "Weird" Al Yankovic who released a parody movie of UHF TV called, what else?, UHF.

In the 1980s, some markets such as New York, music video channels began appearing (After Wometco Home Theater folded, WWHT-TV changed to this format.) Boston and Atlanta, GA also had all music video channels on UHF. However, this proved to be problematic. First, cable video music channel giant (then) MTV flexed it's muscles with the music industry and by the late '80s, effectively cut off the flow of new music videos for these stations and these music video channels converted to the regular third or fourth rate programming of the typical UHF TV channel. Secondly, even with music videos, these few over the air free music video TV stations were still struggling.

It took Fox TV, with it's heavy roster of UHF affiliates and trendy hit shows such as The Simpsons and 21 Jump Street before the tide finally began to turn for UHF TV. The once scrappy programming of UHF began being replaced by more polished programming. Syndicated daytime talk programming such as Jerry Springer, Montel Williams and countless others came and replaced the boring afternoon movies.

And infomercials. LOTS of hour long, boring infomercials. often running 12 hours or more consecutively each day. Something had to pay the bills.

With the success of Fox, potential fifth and sixth major networks sprang up. Such as UPN and The WB (now merged as The CW), PAX (now iON) and expansion of the Spanish, home shopping and religious networks put more UHF TV stations on the air.

But a massive change was coming. A new system, known as DTV or "digital TV" began being implemented in the late 1990s. This system actually used UHF TV channels to relay higher definition programming and all but the smallest, low power stations made the upgrade. In 2009, most analog TV broadcasting came to an end in the US, and most TV stations now broadcast in digital on UHF. The low power stations must switch to digital in 2015.

The benefit of digital broadcast TV was it used less bandwith than analog broadcast TV, freeing up precious bandwith for first responders, wireless internet and other services. With the need for less bandwith, the UHF TV band was cut even further from Chs. 14-69 to 14-50.

The drawback is you really have to be in an area close to the TV tower, as over the air digital TV signals show absolutely NO mercy. In the analog TV days, you could watch TV with a slightly "snowy", slightly fluctuating, but fairly acceptable viewing signal if you were in outlying areas away from the TV station's tower. With over the air DTV, you have to be a LOT closer to get a perfect, interference free signal. Otherwise, the video would freeze in a pixelated mess and even the audio would cut out at times, something that never happened with analog broadcast TV.
And there's talk of cutting the UHF TV band even further. Or even ending all over the air broadcast TV, thus freeing up the entire UHF TV band for other, more high tech purposes.

(UPDATE: More on the history of UHF here: http://www.uhftelevision.com/ )


  1. Really interesting article. I'd forgotten all about Wometco Home Theater, and I vaguely remember UHF, except that it always had "snowy" reception in New York City.

  2. There were many other fourth network attempts between Overmyer and Fox, most of existed as The Holiday Film Network or similar groupings of stations which broadcast quality movies or similar on one day of the month. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_television_network

  3. Really nice piece. Enjoyed reading it, and liked your short punchy sentences. Will explore your blog for more interesting stuff....

  4. Quite a nice and informative article. Well-researched. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  5. Fun fact: The British only broadcast over-the-air TV on UHF these days. The United Kingdom once had VHF channels, but they had such a narrow bandwidth that only the wider-bandwidth UHF channels were suitable for color broadcasts. Eventually, in the mid 1980s, the Brits disallocated all their VHF channels.


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