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Mary Robinson is all about real-world information on the switch to digital television signals. The success of the DTV switch will depend on regular folks understanding new technology and getting it running in their homes. Ms. Robinson is weighing in on those nitty-gritty details, sharing her enthusiasm for TV-signal technology with those who are less technically inclined. She’s developed an expertise through years of hands-on experimentation, pulling in signals from the rooftop of her Texas home. Now she’s a resource for consumers struggling with the digital switch. We discovered Mary right here on TVWeek.com, where she reliably dispensed information in the comments section of this story, First Digital TV Converter Box Wins Government Approval about the digital switch. Let’s keep the conversation rolling!

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Digital Transition Answers



Future Transition Brings Back Memories

September 8, 2008 8:57 AM

Just for fun, let's step back in time this morning to an era long ago and for many of us far, far away. To another time and place. To another life.

As we travel back to the early 1950s, we may find that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The VHF band was getting crowded at the dawn of the golden age of television, and more channels were needed to satisfy the thirst for television in areas of the country that were not near the major metropolitan cities.

To address this problem, in 1952, the Federal Communications Commission created the UHF band with channels 14 through 83. Immediately applications were filed and stations began to slowly come on the air. KPTV in Portland, Ore., became the first commercial UHF station on the air on Sept. 18, 1952.

The problem at the time was that there were no televisions on the market with UHF tuners in them. So what to do? They manufactured set-top UHF-to-VHF converter boxes! As Yogi Berrea supposedly once said, "It's deja vu all over again."

According to AntiqueRadio.org, the UHF converter worked this way: You hooked up separate VHF and UHF antennas to the back of the converter box and a common antenna lead-in to the back of the VHF television. There were two knobs on the box, so when you wanted to watch UHF, you set the knob on the left to UHF and turned your channel selector on the TV to either channel 5 or 6 (whichever was not used in your area) and then tuned in the UHF channel you wanted with the knob on the right. When choosing VHF with the knob on the left, the signal was "passed through" to the TV and you chose what channel to watch with the channel selector on the TV. Sound familiar? Instead of analog pass-through, we had VHF pass-through.

I personally do not remember seeing one of these devices. We got our first television in 1955 with the extra tax deduction that my parents received from me being born the year before, and if my memory serves me (and it may not), it did in fact have a UHF tuner, although they were not mandated on all televisions until 1964. Our first TV was an Admiral, blond-wood console television set with a 21" screen.

I have no recollection of life without television, although my sister does. But I do have a memory of the audio going out on the TV one time, and until the repairman could get out to our house (yes, the TV doctors made house calls), we had a tall stand-up Hi-Fi radio and turntable unit that had a FM radio in it that we used to hear the audio from channel 6 at the bottom of the FM dial. "Gunsmoke" was not to be missed for any reason.

The first television stations in our area were UHF stations on channel 31 in Beaumont, Texas, pre-dated by a channel 25 in Lake Charles, La., but I have found no other reference to these other than an ad, in the archives of the local newspapers, for an antenna guaranteed to receive the stations.

We got our first VHF station, KFDM channel 6, in 1955, pre-dated by KPLC channel 7 in Lake Charles in 1954. I don't think channel 25 or channel 31 lasted much longer after that,

In fact, when KFDM signed on in 1955, the paper carried a headline that stated, "Big Time Television Comes to Area." That gives reference to the second-class status of UHF television at the time. The first UHF station I remember seeing listed in the TV Guide was a channel 16 in Galveston, Texas, although I never watched it, and it disappeared from the listings just a few years later. The next UHF station I remember is channel 39 in Houston, which is still on the air and is, at this time, a CW network affiliate.

If you are interested in seeing more of the UHF-to-VHF converter boxes or the accompanying signal boosters that were needed to receive the early stations, you can go to Mark Nelson's Web site the First Set-Top Boxes to view his collection.

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Comments (7)

mary... the cat lady:

Thanks to Mark Nelson who I contacted regarding the original UHF stations in Beaumont, Texas and Lake Charles, Louisiana, I now know the ID's of the stations and the length of time each was on the air.
Channel 31 in Beaumont had a call sign of KBMT and was on the air from 4-9-1954 ti 8-1-1956.
Channel 25 in Lake Charles had a call sign of KTAG and was on the air from 11-2-1953 to
8-3-1961.
I want to publicly thank Mark Nelson for doing the research in identifying these two stations. With due diligence and a little luck, he found a map that listed all the licensed UHF stations in the early 50's. So I thank him very much.

mary... the cat lady:

I also wanted to mention that the station licensed to Galvestion was know as KVVV and was on the air from 2-?-1968 to 8-31-1969. The tower and transmitter were sold to an educational channel and moved down the coast to Corpus Christi and became KEDT.

Thanks for the mention in your article, Mary. I was very pleased to be able to fill in the missing info on those two early UHF stations. I wonder if the transition to Digital will doom any small TV stations?

mary... the cat lady:

Hi Mark,
That is a good question. I think that there are some that are strugling now and others will struggle more as time goes on due to the fact that the analog pass through converter boxes were late getting on the scene. There are quite a few on the market now, but the first couple of months after the coupons were available, they were non-existant.
I think that issue is the second most serious way that congress dropped the ball.
I mean, talk about second class status... Yeah, we will mandate certain things that have to incorporated into the converter boxes, but you can choose wether to include the thousands of low power and class A stations if you want to or not.
I doubt the members of congress ever go too far without 300 channels of satellite programming wherever they go. They have no idea what it is like to have to depend on over the air television. It was much the same in the 50's and early 60's. Hundreds of potentially viable UHF stations had to close down due to the fact that the FCC didn't mandate every television in the US have a UHF tuner in it until 1964. That was 12 years that the FCC left the UHF stations to fend for themselves without any help. It is no wonder they expired alone and in the dark.

carlb:

I had one of these converters, a Channel Master repackaged under a Radio Shack name, back in the 1970's. The FCC might have required new TV's have UHF from 1964 onward, but the same did not apply at that time in Canada and our old 20" table-top Electrohome (a bulky $204 box of vacuum-tubes, monochrome of course) had just the empty space for "U" but not the actual tuner installed. UHF antennas in those days were often little more than coathangers ("folded dipoles" is the technical term) all but mounted to the antenna terminals. The converter would bring in PBS from just across the border without the need for cable TV (yes, way up there on channel sixteen). I think the converter box (which would've been solid-state by then) went for about $37 at a time when a new 14"-20" solid-state monochrome TV was $100-200 (with eighty-two channel support built-in). The whole thing was interconnected with twinlead - an unshielded two-wire pair which connected to screw terminals and had to run spaced away from anything metal. So now we're right back where we were in 1971, except that the converter box for WPBS picks up channel 16.1 (actually UHF forty-one) instead of just plain 16.

carlb:

Hard to say if any of the stations currently in bankruptcy (Pappas Telecasting has several, there may be others) would be there if it weren't for the cost of being forced to build out enough infrastructure for an entire second television station just to provide this digital simulcast. Certainly, there are stations (KCWK Walla Walla WA - CW 9 - is one) which will not be bothering to go digital as they are no longer in business now. Odds are the looming recession won't help matters either.

Individual subchannels intended for the .2 position on digital stations are not doing well in some cases; The Tube is gone, PBS YOU is gone (although some of its content is now on PBS Create), NBC Weather+ will be dead before the year is over... not sure what else has come and gone.

It's the smallest and least well-off stations which will be affected the most adversely. I'm not sure if KXGN (CBS 5 Glendive, Montana - population 5000) finished building their digital station on VHF 10, odds are that as the smallest-market terrestrial TV station in North America they're looking very seriously at whether it'd be less costly to try to convert the existing channel 5 instead of moving to another channel and having to build that part of the station again.

mary... the cat lady:

Hi carlb,
I vividly remember the old twin lead. You had to use stand off insulators to keep it away from the antenna mast and had to twist it on the way down to the pass through in the wall.
I wish that I had a memory of these converter boxes, but I don't.
The next few months are going to be hard on commercial television stations, and I guess too on public ones as well.
I thank you for your personal story concerning the UHF converter boxes. I found it fascinating. Thank you for sharing that with me and everyone else.

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