Chalk Hill Media's Virtual Museum
A TELEVISION PIONEER: KTVE, CHANNEL 32
By Gordon Green
In the early 1950's, television stations had pretty well saturated the larger cities. They were, of course, mostly VHF stations. They were tied together by coaxial cable into the two major networks (CBS and NBC) and the two minor networks (ABC and DuMont).
Those of us who lived a distance of a hundred miles or more from these big-city transmitters had to erect tall towers on which we placed large and unwieldy antenna arrays. Even with such costly installations, the "far fringe" areas had to content themselves with a picture that was at best extremely grainy, and in poor weather the electronic snow more-or-less obscured the picture entirely.
Into this situation came a new technical development: Ultra High Frequency (UHF) television. The Federal Communications Commission saw this as a means of getting television broadcasting into the boondocks, so they adopted a policy of "deintermixing" and began to place new UHF stations in the smaller cities.
Among the first to see this opportunity was A. James Henry of Longview, Texas. He applied for and was awarded a construction permit for a station to broadcast on channel 32. He built a small building on Highway 26, midway between Longview and Kilgore, to house the broadcast studio, the business offices, and the transmitter. A transmission tower was erected immediately behind the building. Henry selected the call letters KTVE to signify "television for East Texas. " In 1951, the new station was ready to serve the people of Longview, Kilgore, Tyler, and Marshall.
At the grand opening, local dignitaries visited the small, spartan facility to tour the single studio, with its permanent kitchen set for a cooking show. The tiny control room backed up to the space which housed the transmitter and the sixteen-millimeter projector. A painting of the building by Longview artist John Frazer hung in the business office.
Original staff included Barry Monigold, whose polished delivery added a touch of professionalism to the small-town station; Hershel McClure, who had a resonant radio voice but who also had a tendency to trip over his words; and Wesley Dean, who pulled double duty as the station's sports director and as the affable "Ranger Wes," host of the afternoon kiddie show. Carl Lay was the cameraman.
In the beginning, KTVE had only one camera. When the station wanted to switch from live to film, the camera was swung around in the studio to thrust its lens into a specially-constructed hole in the wall, allowing it to pick up the image from the projector in the next room. At the conclusion of the film offering, Carl Lay would pull the camera back out of the hole and again focus it upon the talent in the studio.
Programming was of three kinds. First, the live local shows were of considerable interest to the folks of Longview and vicinity. Organist Lawrence "Sonny" Birdsong played a variety of types of music on "Startime," though he performed with the handicaps of limited visual effects and only the single camera. Another musical show featured Tubby Wallace and the Honey-Drippers. Academic competition between local schools enlivened the "Mortarboard" program. The Longview Ministerial Alliance rotated duty to provide the Sunday afternoon "Religion This Week," remembered mainly for its use of a "stained glass window" gobo that made it appear that the program originated from inside a jail. And of course Ranger Wes, with his young assistant Ranger Breezy, presided over the Monday-through-Friday "Ranger Round-Up."
Ranger Wes At Work. Does anybody know what kind of camera is in the picture? we think it is a GE.
Click on Picture to see a letter from Ranger Wes.
The second type of fare came from the slim library of ancient movies. At first these films were shown later in the evening, but with a modest success in selling advertising to local merchants came an expansion of the broadcast schedule into the afternoon.
The third kind of programming came by way of the film projector, too, but it consisted of syndicated shows and kinescopes of off-network shows. "Amos 'n' Andy" had enjoyed a run on CBS-TV, and it proved to be one of Channel 32's best-received offerings. To host a series of syndicated film dramas, local sponsor Leonard Sosland journeyed out Highway 26 to the studio. No-cost programs from the U. S. Army ("The Big Picture") and the Christophers appeared on Sundays. The popular Liberace program was purchased from Guild Films.
In fact, tiny KTVE made the pages of weekly Variety, the national entertainment newspaper, when it announced the purchase of the entire Guild Films inventory. This included the "Joe Palooka" series, starring Joe Kirkwood, Jr.; the musical show of Florian Zabach, who tried to do for the violin what Liberace had done for the piano; and others. Most of these never made it to KTVE's broadcast schedule, though.
This slate of programs had a certain local appeal. There were major problems in attracting an audience, however. Despite claims of promotional materials that KTVE's signal was "covering East Texas like the dew," the technical and power limitations of UHF broadcasting confined the coverage to a relatively small area. Furthermore, these early UHF stations necessitated the use of a separate converter box (to change the UHF signal to VHF) and a special bow-tie type receiving antenna. Many local viewers were not interested in purchasing these items, nor in learning how to operate the additional equipment. Finally, viewers had become accustomed to the higher production values and featured performers of the network fare from Dallas's big-time VHF stations.
So A. James Henry and his colleagues sought network affiliation, as did another small UHFer in nearby Tyler, KETX-TV, Channel 19.
Network moguls noted the small audiences and the tiny broadcast coverage areas of the UHF stations. They weren't interested. And for the same reasons, neither were the large national advertisers. Henry hired the firm of Forjoe and Company to represent the station for national sales, but most of the advertising remained local or regional.
There were rumors that Carl Estes, influential publisher of the Longview newspapers, wanted to buy the station to extend his control over the local media. When his offer was declined, so the story went, he withheld his support for the network affiliation bid.
It appeared only a matter of time, however, until the networks realized that these local stations were building an audience. Then with network affiliation would come national advertising accounts, first-rate programs, and still larger audiences. KTVE had kinescopes of a few CBS programs, and Tyler's KETX-TV had a few filmed NBC shows, so it looked like the network affiliations were almost in place.
In at least one instance, KTVE tried to jump the gun. In Longview as elsewhere, there was great interest in the television broadcasts of the baseball World Series. As a service to its viewers, without income from advertisers, and quite illegally, Channel 32 picked up the signal from a distant network station and broadcast one of the Series' afternoon games. The network, which had paid a large sum for the privilege of broadcasting the games, was not amused. Neither was organized baseball, which preferred to sell its product, rather than have it picked out of the air for free. Subsequent games in the Series did not appear on KTVE.
Then the FCC abandoned its posture of support for the struggling UHF stations and allowed the intermixture of VHF stations into previously all-UHF territory. Shortly, in nearby Tyler, there loomed the ominous presence of the new KLTV, broadcasting a strong signal on channel 7. No UHF converter needed, no extra antenna, no additional dials or knobs. Very quickly, this newcomer had network affiliation...of sorts. It received programs on film, on a delay basis, from NBC, CBS, and ABC! (DuMont had by this time mostly faded into history.) KLTV could "cherry-pick" its shows from all three commercial networks, while the two East Texas UHFers watched their audiences shrink.
KTVE continued for a while. It purchased a dedicated Dage film pick-up, freeing up its camera for studio work. But this small sign of progress could not obscure the handwriting on the wall. Henry sold the station. In late 1955, KTVE went dark, never to resume broadcasting. The call letters were later assigned to a VHF station in El Dorado, Arkansas.
Tyler's KETX-TV, Channel 19, also closed.
KLTV continues to thrive. Though it can no longer cherry-pick, it is the prosperous East Texas affiliate of ABC-TV. After a hiatus of almost thirty years, a new generation of East Texas UHF stations took to the air. In late 1984, KLMG-TV, Channel 51 in Longview, signed on with some irony as a CBS affiliate. (It later became KFXK-TV and switched to the Fox network.) KETK-TV, Channel 56, became an NBC affiliate in Jacksonville.
But the enterprising spirit and the creative local programs of the old KTVE, Channel 32, are recalled fondly by East Texans who were around during those pioneering days.
Special thanks to Raymond Keese for the loan of the Ranger Wes memorabilia, and to Jack Haynes and Donnie Pitchford for the pictures.