U is for UHF

UHF managed to stick, in no small part because of the All-Channel Receiver Act in the early 1960s, requiring UHF capacity on TVs.


While researching a book about local television that I will almost certainly never write, I discovered that, after World War II, there was a great demand for having local television stations in the United States. TV in those days was limited to what was called VHF (very high frequency) of channels 1 to 13; eventually, channel 1 was reassigned. But with only 12 individual choices of TV stations, there were, inevitably, issues of station signals interfering with other broadcasts.

By 1949, there were just over 100 local stations in the country. While some large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles had four or more stations, other places had only one or two, and some places such as Denver, CO and Austin, TX had none.

So the Federal Communications Commission, the government body in charge of these things, instituted was called the Freeze of 1948, with over 700 applications waiting to be addressed, and only some already in the pipeline getting approved. The freeze was only supposed to have lasted a few months; it ended up taking four years.

By this time, the FCC had offered the stations the opportunity to broadcast on a different set of frequencies known as UHF, ultra high frequency, initially channels 14 through 83. There was only one little problem; most sets were not designed to access the UHF signal! As in any hardware/software balance issues of today, TV manufacturers didn’t want to make sets with UHF capacity unless there were enough stations broadcasting in UHF. And broadcasters didn’t want to invest in a UHF station unless there were enough sets that could air their signal.

There was one workaround: buying a converter. But would people pay for a device to get greater television access when they had been getting it for free? Eventually, UHF managed to stick, in no small part because of the All-Channel Receiver Act (ACRA) in the early 1960s, requiring UHF capacity on TVs. Unfortunately, before that happened, a wager by the Dumont network on the UHF technology eventually led to the network’s demise.

UHF was also clunky, even after the passage of the ACRA. While the set would click to each station between 2 and 13, the UHF dial was like a radio dial of that era, and tuning it to a given setting was a sometimes thing. This meant that getting an outside antenna was pretty much imperative.

Since UHF was less than prime viewing, stations on that end of the dial often broadcast old movies or other inexpensive productions. That was, more or less, the premise of the 1989 movie UHF, starring ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. You can read the reviews and see the trailer and, at least for the time being, watch the whole movie.

One of the great successes of a UHF station was when entrepreneur Ted Turner bought the struggling television station in Atlanta on Channel 17 and eventually turned it into cable network TBS.

Of course, nowadays, people often DO pay for TV via cable, a dish, or other technologies. TV stations are broadcast digitally, so a given station can have 2 or more different signals. The technology is SO much sophisticated now.

ABC Wednesday – Round 11

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

25 thoughts on “U is for UHF”

  1. Yes I remember the days of only three channels and they didn’t even broadcast more than 12 hours a day. But the programming was quite good.

    Now we have 600 channels and nothing on.

  2. I remember when we first got a UHF converter box. For that matter I can remember my family’s old black and white television and then getting our first color one being a big deal. Interesting post Roger.

  3. We were a long time getting TV in the Similkameen, – lucky people in the right spot in the valley could access the Spokane station, but too bad for the rest of us. Interesting post, Roger.

  4. I can remember sitting in front of the old black and white television set watching the test pattern and waiting for something to come on. Also, I know I heard my Dad up on the roof a lot twiddling with the antennae up there as well as the one perched on the top of the TV set. Boy, you’ve taken me back to the days of Howdy Doody! lol

    abcw team

  5. This was great nostalgia… I feel old remembering some of those devices. I do hope you write this book some day and I’ll be in the stands cheering! And thank you for your very kind note on my post and for the time and attention to detail you’re putting in to mine. Have a great week and thanks for the nostalgia.

  6. Like Leslie , we were also sitting in front of the TV set watching the b&w test pattern on the screen. It was like a miracle.
    Good post Roger.
    I am glad that you like my maps of the Netherlands. I don’t think my post about a province of my country is complete without a map!
    Have a great week, Roger.

  7. Eventually Austin got one VHF assignment, on channel 7 — KTBC, owned by the Texas Broadcasting Company, which in turn was owned by Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife Lady Bird. That was in 1952. There wouldn’t be a second commercial station in town until 1965, and it was on channel 42.

    (After KTBC was sold in the Seventies, its sister radio stations got new calls: KLBJ-AM-FM. Just in case you’d forgotten.)

  8. I don’t remember any VHF at all, since ours is such a small country, with only one tv station, I don’t we ever have one!! Interesting facts, as usual and I enjoy reading your entry each week

  9. Roger, great information as usual. As a child I have all the memories as the other bloggers, seeing the signal–saying “off the air”.

  10. I vaguely remember UHF (but I do remember it!) Had no idea the story behind it. A very unique take on U-day.

  11. This was an interesting overview of television in its early stages. My mother (a Newfy) refused to have a television in our house (small village in Quebec) until I was 12 (around 1960), even though “all the other kids had one.” We had two channels (one English and one French) and were only allowed to watch it on the weekends. My sister and I used to sneak in the Howdy Doody Show after school before my mother came home from work 🙂

  12. Rog, blast from the past. We lived in Apalachin (“the boonies” in those days, just three streets up two hills, Tioga Terrace, which later became the monstrosity of 800 homes now. Anyway, we had the antenna on the roof and the only channel we got was 12 (CBS). While my friends with better antennae were watching Addams Family and The Wonderful World of Color (in black and white, since no one charged anything in those days and paid cash), we were happy with Mr. Ed, Ted Mack, Ed Sullivan, Gunsmoke, et al. Nice synapse snap for tonight! A

  13. Ah, UHF channels, I remember them fondly. You know, for a while, we used an OTA antenna for our local channels, but other than that, I don’t know that my son has ever seen a television that wasn’t connected to a cable or satellite system; I think the young people have missed out on some of the fun times of TV.

  14. I just saw something about this on tv. It discussed the same things you
    wrote about.
    I go to school in Canada and we just now are learning about this in our
    class. Thanks for helping me with the last part of my report.

    Thanks for the outline of tv stuff.
    I definitely think that cable television is going to go away.
    Or at least have to change with the times.
    Online tv is totally the wave of the future. As broadband speeds get faster,
    everyone will be watching their tv shows on sites like this.

    What does anyone know about this? I doubt there’s a lot more to the concept
    I was just watching this on television this week. They talked about the
    same things you wrote about.

    Also visit my webpage :: what free movies (Mitch)

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