Sunday, May 08, 2005

SEARCY ’46 – ’56 - Part 19

Chapter Fourteen

Tom Pry

Snap, Crackle .. Hiss? – Part 2: TV

Only the rich had TV back when I started high school, in 1952. It’s not that it was some sort of “in” thing, it’s that you had to lay out so much money here to just get a signal that only appliance dealers and the Upper Crust could afford it.

Item: black & white TV set (we were a couple of years away from color), $400 or so, and not much in the way of picture size.

Item: outdoor antenna. The antenna itself didn’t cost that much but, unless you lived right in a major metropolitan area and could use rabbit ears to pick up a signal, you were going to have to put up a pole .. or a tower.

A tower was the more likely choice here.

In 1952, my sister and I were down here with our grandparents; our folks were still up in Chicago, accumulating some money to use when they got down here in mid-1953. They also bought a TV set, to watch up there. So, when they finally became Arkansas immigrants, they already had the TV set … which sat, unused, in the livingroom for almost a year before we had the wherewithal to put up a stick and an antenna.

Part of the problem was the sparse availability of TV stations. As I recall, the first one we had in this area was (predictably) in Little Rock: but it was Channel 25! A standard VHF signal (channels 2-13) had enough trouble getting a signal here, but UHF? First, you had to buy a TV set with a special tuner, because it wasn’t until around 1970 that all TV sets were required to pick up all channels, then you had to cope with the fact that, the higher the frequency, the more power it takes to get the same quality signal the same distance as the lower channels. (You think that’s not radical? Channels 2-6 have a maximum allowable power of 100,000 watts; channels 7-13 have a maximum of 316,000. UHF stations get up in the millions of watts territory).

The second problem inherent in TV is that, unlike AM radio, the signal comes straight out of the antenna … and keeps going. It doesn’t bounce, it doesn’t curve around the earth: it just goes straight ahead into space. The farther you are from the tower, the higher your own antenna needs to be.

In practical terms, that meant that Memphis is over the horizon, and any signal we got here was “leakage” from the low channels.

We finally got a VHF station and, surprise!, it WASN’T in Little Rock. Instead, the tower was about halfway between Little Rock and Pine Bluff, and the studios were IN Pine Bluff. It identified itself on the air as “Little Rock-Pine Bluff,” but it was out in the sticks, no two ways about it. It was KATV, Channel 7.

It did, though, have a couple of things going for it. Their homegrown programming wasn’t too bad. Jim Edward, Maxine, and Bonnie Brown – brother and sisters – did a weekend musical show that helped polish them up for the national stage as “The Browns.” It had the ABC TV network which, at least, gave you Super Circus on Sunday afternoon (a show for which I’ve always had a fondness, since I was on its first network broadcast back about 1950 or 51).

The other two of the “big 3” got on the air as quickly as possible. As to which one got on first, I’m not sure: I suspect that, effectively, it was a dead heat. Channel 11 had to resort to working out of an office building in downtown LR, on Markham. Probably the most memorable thing was their weatherman, an ex-DJ who operated on the principle that people were looking for minimum basics when it came to the weather, so he’d come on about 10:15, say “Hi, here’s the weather,” and the control room would play a popular record (ideally, one with a humorous bent) while the weather man would do cartooning of the national weather picture on his outline map. When the record was over, he’d give the short and sweet forecast, and the show would move on.

He didn’t last long after KTHV moved to their big megaplex built in a converted auto garage; just didn’t seem to fit the image.

(KTHV was very image-conscious. KTHS stood for “Kome to Hot Springs” and, if you wanted to listen to it, that’s where you had to listen to it. There was enough low grade iron ore in the surrounding hills to suck up any attempt to get out of the valley. Finally, they bit the bullet, got permission to move to Little Rock, kicked their power up to 50,000 watts – daytimes – and became a really good operation. They had partners in the TV operation, which is why it wasn’t KTHS-TV. KTHS later became KAAY, a rock powerhouse .. daytimes).

Channel 4 WAS KARK-TV. KARK radio was kind of the prestigious Grand Old Man of Arkansas radio, and had the then-prestigious NBC franchise. What’s left now belongs to Citadel Broadcasting, and is called KARN.

Someplace in that mélange, channel 25 disappeared under the weight of competition.

Does an affiliation with one of the three major networks mean a lot? Consider that, in 50 years, not one of those three TV stations has swapped networks.

Not that that meant all that much in the beginning, especially mornings. NBC had a lock on the early risers with the TODAY show; the rest of them didn’t even try to compete. CBS tried any number of things, including a great variety show with Ernie Kovacs – but 10 of a weekday morning wasn’t the time for it (Kovacs commented, “My station list looks like closed circuit, with leaks”).

The rest of the time … one station carried a film version of the Guy Lombardo Show early on Saturday evening. The music was dull enough, but Guy standing there waving a baton in a motion that seemed to have no relationship to the music was deadly.

But it was better than Sunday night, when the last thing on was the Oral Roberts tent revival.

“Last thing”? Yep. 10:30 or 11:00 at night, and it was pull the plug time, on ALL the stations. Even the late night show was a year or so away from us. The original “Tonight” show was on in Memphis, but not in Little Rock. (Quick: who was the first host of the Tonight Show? Huh, huh? It was Steve Allan, then Jack Paar, THEN Johnny Carson. We didn’t get the Tonight Show until Paar came along).

In part 1 of this episode, I promised to tell you about the color TV wars. I think I’ll wait until part 3, because color TV wasn’t the only fallout from the RCA-CBS wars.

In the meantime, what were YOUR memories of early TV?

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


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