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

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