Thursday, September 26, 2002
A Tale of Two Stations
By ROGER M. GRACE
When Paramount Pictures plunged into television broadcasting in Los Angeles in September 1942, as experimental station W6XYZ, competition for viewers here—to become fierce among rivals in future years—had its meek beginning.
Paramount, assigned to transmit on Channel 4, was up against Don Lee’s W6XAO, on Channel 1. Yet, there wasn’t much of a contest. Not then.
W6XAO, spunky and inventive during its earlier years, was virtually dormant while World War II was in progress.
Shortly after the war’s end in 1945, there was a shuffling of frequencies by the Federal Communications Commission. Effective March 1, 1946, the Paramount station—which was later to become KTLA—was shifted to Channel 5, and the Don Lee station (now KCBS) was moved to Channel 2. (The FCC at first decided to reserve Channel 1 for low-wattage community TV stations, then yanked it from the television band in 1948.)
W6XAO, the station with the head start, began beaming its signal on Dec. 23, 1931, as noted in previous columns. It launched regularly scheduled programming—an hour a day, six days a week—on March 10, 1933, the day an earthquake hit Los Angeles. Films of the damage were aired the following day. There were 100 or so sets in the approximately 30-mile radius that could pick up the signal.
By 1936, W6XAO had increased its output to four hours a day—and reportedly became the first station to air a motion picture in its entirety when it broadcast “The Crooked Circle,” a 68-minute 1932 comedy with ZaSu Pitts and James Gleason.
A June, 1939 publication of the California State Chamber of Commerce reported:
“As compared with this year’s estimated figures of radio listeners to the stations of the Don Lee network—8,000,000 in 2,000,000 homes—the most optimistic guess concerning W6XAO’s customers is something like 1500 in not many hundreds of homes.”
The article continued:
“To date the station has transmitted 11,000,000 feet of motion picture film. The production and transmission of ‘live talent’ programs started in April 1938, after a year of preparation.
“At present the six-day weekly schedule of W6XAO consists of live talent four nights and film two nights. Films are mainly newsreels and educational features.”
In 1939, Mike Stokey, then a college student, began orchestrating charade games on W6XAO—which he was later to do on network television on “Pantomime Quiz” and “Stump the Stars.”
It was on W6XAO that the Tournament of Roses was broadcast for the first time, on Jan. 1, 1940.
During World War II, W6XAO retreated to a modest schedule of three hours, every other Monday from 7:30-10:30 P.W.T. (Pacific War Time) By contrast, W6XYZ—operating from Paramount studios—took dynamic strides.
It broadcast remotes from the Paramount lot, starting with a televised glimpse of the filming of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in a scene from “This Gun for Hire” in October 1947. There was a talk show—said to be TV’s first—with Franklin Lacey interviewing guest celebrities, live. And there was wrestling, the announcer being Dick Lane, who long remained a fixture on local television. He had an assistant who also made something of himself: Steve Allen.
After the war, W6XAO emerged from its state of near-hibernation. At that point, there were only nine television stations in the United States, six of them, all on the East Coast, with full-fledged commercial licenses. (The NBC and CBS stations in New York had led the way, with their commercial licensing on July 1, 1941.)
W6XAO edged toward that status, gaining a construction permit from the FCC in 1945, under the call letters of KTSL—“TSL” being the initials of Thomas S. Lee, son of Don Lee and head of the operations following his father’s death in 1934. The station continued to use its call letters as experimental station W6XAO until May 6, 1948, when it came of age, licensed as a commercial station.
Its Paramount rival did not gain its own commercial license until Feb. 9, 1953. Nonetheless, KTLA is able to claim the distinction of being the first commercial station west of the Mississippi. That’s because experimental station W6XYZ on Jan. 9, 1947, was granted “special temporary authority”—in FCC bureaucratese, an “STA”—to operate as KTLA on a commercial basis.
Michael Ritchie, in his book, “Please Stand by—a Prehistory of Television,” comments:
“For almost two decades, the Don Lee and Paramount stations had been equal to—and sometimes better than—their better financed New York rivals. W6XAO did fancy remotes years ahead of RCA. W6XYZ did sports before DuMont and more frequently. Don Lee pioneered fresh newsreel coverage while NBC used ‘stock’ shots. Paramount invented the talk show while the big three cannibalized radio quiz shows.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
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