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The Launching of a
Local Television Station

B. J. Kostelac
Belleville Township High School West, Belleville

One of the three major television channels in St. Louis is Channel 20. Its birthplace, however, is not in that city. It began broadcasting in 1953 as the Signal Hill Broadcasting Corporation at 10200 West Main, Belleville, Illinois. The call letters were WTVI, and it was UHF (ultra high frequency) Channel 54. WTVI served local residents for two years before moving to St. Louis. The station was commonly referred to as the channel "at the bottom of the hill."

Eileen Logsdon was secretary, general manager, and office manager at WTVI for twenty-eight years, including two years in Illinois and twenty-six years in Missouri. "Things were pretty hectic. We were the only UHF station that did not meet their demise," she said. All the other small stations had unforeseen difficulties that resulted in their failure. As television gained popularity, viewers increased. Broadcasts featured local personalities who helped keep viewers' attention. "We got to see and meet the big stars, like Charlotte Peters. With those live shows, there was never a dull moment. And you never knew who or what would walk in that door," remembered Logsdon.

Television in 1953 presented a certain magic to its viewers. Norm Greenberg, working part-time for WTVI, would draw the daily weather map using a light color that television cameras would not pick up. Those "invisible lines" were drawn over during the weather presentation by the on-air announcer. The weather announcer appeared to be a wizard as he sketched over the existing information and related the local weather information to the captivated television audience.

Norm Greenberg had the fringe benefit of meeting local celebrities:

I can also remember very clearly during the summer months when they (WTVI) were carrying Cardinal baseball broadcasts. Jack Buck would come into the studio carrying a regular business briefcase which he would then open up in the studio and it was an Anheuser-Busch beer display. That's the way he did the commercial.

WTVI's launching date was August 10, 1953. The first program was a St. Louis Browns (now Baltimore Orioles) and Cincinnati Reds benefit baseball game from Busch Stadium. It brought the game into the living rooms of many local homes. The exciting game was hosted by Buddy Blattner and Dizzy Dean. The broadcasting station was very excited to be able to provide entertainment to so many people.

Bernard Wilson, president of the Signal Hill Broadcasting Corporation, estimated "that 125,000 TV sets are equipped with UHF reception mechanisms in this area. Whether the sets will require outside antennas will be determined only by individual set test," Wilson noted in 1953. UHF was not a universal feature as it is today, and most owners had to buy an extra converter to pick up WTVI's broadcast.

The next day, a local newspaper reported the results of the opening day of the new television station's telecast:

It was stated by television authorities that 'snow' in picture reception was due to improper adjustments within the set and converter units. Opening night reviews were mixed. Although the picture was picked up clearly in Mount Vernon and Benton, many Belleville residents reported plenty of snow because their sets and converter units weren't properly adjusted.

WTVI's slow start did not stop the station from continuing to broadcast tor two more years before moving to St. Louis. A typical broadcast day featured "Amos 'n' Andy," "Life Begins at 80," and "Captain Video." Professional wrestling was also a favorite among viewers. A comparison of 1992 to 1953 reveals that some features, like professional wrestling, are still popular among the viewers.

WTVI moved to St. Louis on April 9, 1955, and changed its call letters to KTVI Channel 36. Two years later KTVI Channel 36 became a high frequency station and was changed to Channel 2-VHF.

The crude beginnings of broadcasting have resulted in a high-tech business for today's viewer. The excitement of local broadcasting is an everyday experience as a result of the brave adventures of 1953.[From Belleville Advocate, Aug. 11, 1953; Belleville Journal, Ap. 14, 1989; Belleville News-Democrat, Dec. 1, 1989; and East St. Louis Journal, Aug. 10, 1953.]

ILLINOIS HISTORY / MARCH 1993 57


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