by K.M. Richards
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
In the late 1940s, residents of Fresno and the surrounding area -- then as now, the major population center in the San Joaquin Valley region of California -- were going to great lengths to watch that new-fangled invention television via the VHF stations on the air in Los Angeles. Doing so required an expensive high-gain receiving antenna on a tall tower, aimed at Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains (about 200 miles away), coupled with a good receiver, and patience for those times when atmospheric conditions or man-made interference disrupted reception ... usually when you wanted the stations most. Still, for those with the right equipment and attitude, all four networks were available for viewing. And with the 1948 "freeze" on new television station construction, with the FCC's assurance that they were formulating a plan to bring TV to nearly every corner of America, there was great hope in Fresno that someday distant reception of the Los Angeles stations would be replaced by clear, interference-free reception of local stations providing the same network programming.
Enter the Anderson family. Patriarch Herman Anderson had put KCOK/1240 in Tulare (about 45 miles to the southeast of Fresno) on the air in late 1945, followed in 1949 by the acquisition of KAFY/550 in Bakersfield, another 15 miles down U.S. Highway 99. His son Sheldon was manager of both stations ... a good choice, given his experience since 1935 at stations in Bakersfield, Redding and Fresno before tackling the initial construction of KCOK. The family watched developments in Washington DC with great interest, noting in 1951 the FCC Third Notice of Further Proposed Rulemaking's inclusion of a table of allocations which assigned channel 3 to Visalia, a mere nine miles to the northeast of Tulare. Despite Herman's passing away after a long illness on the last day of October, Sheldon filed on January 30, 1952 for that channel, no doubt hoping it would survive the final hearings and remain available for grant.
Alas, by the time the Sixth Report and Order was released the FCC had decided that a better use of a channel 3 allocation was to assign it in both Santa Barbara and Sacramento rather than Visalia, and it was replaced in the final table by UHF channels 43 and 49, but Tulare itself had gained its own assignment of channel 27 -- immediately adjacent to one of Fresno's allocations of channel 24 -- and with his original application now moot, Sheldon filed in July for it ... and quickly found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. In 1948, he had purchased a 15% interest in Fresno's KYNO/1300, but when that station's majority owners decided to file for channel 47, the overlap with the proposed channel 27 signal was impermissible. Fortunately, his father's will called for him to assume full ownership of the Tulare and Bakersfield radio stations, and when the FCC approved the transfer in March 1953 Sheldon wasted no time in divesting his stake in KYNO (which would have caused further legal difficulties as he went from 15% to 100% ownership of KCOK anyway).
That divestiture cleared the way for the FCC to grant the channel 27 application on April 2. One week later, KYNO withdrew their channel 47 application in exchange for an option to purchase 35% of the application of competitor James Edward ("J.E.") O'Neill, a local rancher and horseman of considerable local stature. Upon therefore winning the grant, O'Neill promptly named the new station after himself by choosing the call letters KJEO.
By that time, down the road in Bakersfield KAFY-TV/29 was under construction with a target date of June 15, and the same plans were to be used to construct the KCOK-TV building midway between Tulare and Visalia. However, that proved infeasible and they instead converted a 9500 square foot building in East Tulare that had previously housed a refrigeration company and an auto dealer, creating space for no fewer than six standing sets including a circular stage, 19 feet in diameter with both a hydraulic lift and rotating motor. Anderson had to get a special use permit to build the channel 27 transmitter site on Eshom Point in Sequoia National Forest, more than 5,000 feet above the Valley and about 35 miles northeast of Tulare, but a 90-minute drive on winding mountain roads; in a special 22-page Tulare Advance-Register supplement the weekend before KCOK-TV began operation he said that location would allow the new station to be received as far north in the Valley as Modesto (135 miles away) and hoped that "our northern fringe [will be] actually near Stockton" (another 25 miles north, just south of Sacramento).
The high elevation above the Valley floor sparked Anderson to promote KCOK-TV in early advertising as "The Mile High Station" (see below, left).
What went unmentioned -- not that the average reader would have understood anyway -- was that channel 27 would, at sign on, be one of only three UHF stations to broadcast with a directional pattern using a specially-designed General Electric antenna, the other two being KACY/14 Festus (St. Louis) MO and KTVU/36 Stockton.
KMJ-TV/24, sister station to KMJ/580 and the Fresno Bee newspaper, went on the air June 1 with a NBC network affiliation to match that of its radio partner. KAFY-TV got on the air August 10, beating by two months its VHF competitor KERO/10, and Anderson began promoting his two UHFs as the beginning of a "Cal-Central Network" -- as shown in the ad at the above left -- to provide programming of specific interest to the San Joaquin Valley. (The two stations' transmitter sites had an unobstructed microwave relay path between them, which would have allowed simulcasting programs originating at either station's studio.) That plan did not last long, though; shortly after KERO lit up he sold all but 8.3% of his interest in channel 29 to the publishers of the San Francisco Chronicle, who were already operating KRON-TV/4 in the Bay Area.
In the midst of all this, yet another UHF grant was made in the Valley, on August 12 for channel 53, to John Poole, who had conducted pioneering experiments in UHF television broadcasting and was about to convert his Los Angeles experimental operation into KBIC-TV/22. And some areas of the Valley were managing to receive KVEC-TV/6 from San Luis Obispo, near the California coastline, when it went on the air in May. Another competitor, for channel 34 in Merced, was applied for on May 13 and granted September 16 after New York attorney George Becker divested his minority interest of 22% of the applicant, due to his interests in five other granted CPs in Kentucky, West Virginia, Texas, Iowa and Illinois putting him over the FCC's then-limit of multiple ownership interests. After taking the call letters KMER in November, the permittee became a former permittee May 20, 1954 with the deletion of not only the Merced CP but all of the investment group's other CPs, for failure to prosecute (the FCC term for constructing station facilities after a grant).
KJEO went on the air with ABC network programming at about the same time as KERO, and -- after missing announced start dates throughout the late summer and early fall -- KCOK-TV began operation in mid-November with a reported 60-person staff and a full program schedule of ten hours on weekdays, 9½ hours on Saturdays, and 12½ hours on Sundays. On November 29, the station held an "open house" for the public before officially airing its inauguratory program featuring local civic leaders that afternoon (it had been scheduled for November 14 but one of the high-power tubes at the transmitter was found to be defective the day before, forcing a temporary test pattern to air instead for a few days using only the 100-watt exciter).
The first schedule for channel 27 was a mix of local, DuMont network, and first-run syndicated programming, including the daily 90-minute live womens' program Taylor Maid For You, named for hostess Jackie Lynn Taylor (one of the original "Little Rascals"), coming to the San Joaquin Valley after successfully establishing herself as an on-camera interviewer at KTTV/11 in Los Angeles. DuMont contributed Dollar A Second, Front Page Detective, Col. Humphrey Flack, the Hank McCune Show, The Ruggles and the by then-ubiquitous Bishop Fulton Sheen ... all on kinescope, plus Sunday's live NFL game. Syndicated programs such as Betty White's Life With Elizabeth, City Detective, Liberace, and the Paramount Network's Time For Beany filled other slots on the schedule, as well as programs with local celebrities Vern Mack (news commentary) and Jimmy Thomason (country music) plus nightly news and agricultural reports. There was also a significant amount of community-based programming, including fundraisers for the March of Dimes and the Camp Fire Girls, a weekly roundtable discussion conducted by the Tulare County Chamber of Commerce, and (in May 1954) a half-hour chat with California Governor Goodwin J. Knight, simulcast on the radio station.
KCOK-TV had an advantage going in that most early UHF stations did not, and that was the fact that with the exception of the aforementioned KERO an hour away in Bakersfield, its only local competitors were also on UHF ... the lone VHF allocation, for channel 12, had just gone into comparative hearings between the owners of KFRE/940 and KARM/1430 (which was still to take an additional two years to complete -- until January 1956 -- with KFRE-TV going on the air May 10 of that year). Yet channel 27 was denied an affiliation by CBS, because KARM was their radio affiliate for the Fresno market and the network was apparently willing to wait for the coveted VHF slot, clearing some programs on KMJ-TV and KERO in the interim. (This was apparently later proved by CBS' affiliation with channel 12 even though KARM was the losing applicant; on the other hand, KFRE's channel 12 application was a sequel to one they had submitted for channel 2 in June 1944.) No explanation was ever given by the network as to why programs that didn't air on channels 24 and 47 were not offered to KCOK-TV.
Poole's KBID-TV/53 came and went in the space of 153 days in 1954 (February 13 to July 15); despite transmitting from KMJ-TV's Bear Mountain tower northeast of Fresno with a decent lineup of syndicated programs such as Racket Squad, Colonel March of Scotland Yard and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger plus wrestling, roller derby, and an early evening movie each night, in suspending operations "with deep regret" Poole complained that only 50% of the market had purchased television sets and he had been unable to secure a network affiliation (in hindsight, this was likely more proof of CBS' patience in waiting for channel 12 ... like KCOK-TV, Poole's station was never offered any of the programs passed on by KMJ-TV and KJEO). Perhaps the Advance-Register had used a crystal ball when, in a brief editorial on the eve of channel 53's debut, it noted that the San Joaquin Valley would have six operating stations, "one shy of the total in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and twice as many as are in operation in San Francisco" and "we've a notion that there aren't enough advertising dollars to go around" before concluding that "something has to give." Poole held out hope that conditions would improve in the future but his construction permit instead expired on May 9, 1957 without his resuming operation.
Despite having relatively little competition, it quickly became apparent that Anderson had overspent in putting channel 27 on the air. After less than four months of operation, he abruptly changed the call letters to KVVG on February 1, which coincidentally matched the initials of one Vern V. Gilligan, who had recently returned to Tulare after several years of living in Hawaii and who was listed as a director of the Central California Telecasting Corporation. Anderson was conspiculously absent from the list of principals, even as he spun the call letter change as "unrelated" to "bringing in some outside interests" to the press. In any event, the following month an application was filed to transfer ownership not to Gilligan and company, but to Hollywood movie producer/director Cordell W. Fray and Los Angeles Municipal Court presiding judge Byron Walters of Los Angeles (who apparently operated the station for several months under an agreement with Anderson as Sierra Broadcasting System while the application was pending); the FCC approved the sale August 12, but the deal did not consummate. The failed sale brought to light that in addition to the $175,000 purchase price Fray and Walters were to assume $478,000 in liabilities, including $8,000 in back wages for seven employees who had filed complaints with the state labor commission ... including already-former hostess Jackie Lynn Taylor. (Four more filed not long after the sale fell through.) In announcing the collapse of the Sierra deal, Anderson told the Advance-Journal that KVVG was in discussions with "interests in northern and southern California" to form a statewide television network. It was the last time he mentioned such an effort, and in the meantime the station schedule had cutback its daily sign-on time ... first to 1:00pm in June and then to 3:00pm in August, the latter change also moving sign-off up one hour, even as programs were added from the now-defunct KBID-TV's schedule.
But even while the station barely stayed afloat, the past due bills largely remained unpaid, and in March 1955 channel 27 was taken over by a group of creditors as the UHF Telecasting Corporation for the assumption of a remaining $350,000 in liabilities. The new primary owners of KVVG were Hollywood Motion Picture Center Studio owner Joseph Justman and Los Angeles ad agency owner M.B. Scott, who filed in June of the following year to sell their stock in the company to independent movie producer James Stacy for $10,000 plus the assumption of $300,000 in still-unpaid liabilities. (By then, Anderson had filed for bankruptcy, citing $752,985 in debts which he said were all incurred by the construction and operation of the television station.) In the midst of this latest ownership drama, KVVG went off the air for two days when the U.S. Treasury Department erroneously determined the station was delinquent in paying taxes; as it turned out, a check issued in April was never credited to their account.
The sale to Stacy was approved January 30, 1957. Channel 27 limped along for several more months before finally going dark August 6 "for 90 days due to lack of finances." (In June of that year, the rate card showed its base one-time hourly rate as being $325, compared with $550 at KMJ, $500 at KJEO and $650 at KFRE.) KVVG never returned to the air, although in 1961 Sheldon Anderson managed to get a new grant for channel 27, with the familiar KCOK-TV call letters. The FCC cancelled same during the 1965 allocation table revision, when a number of unbuilt CPs were deleted along with their assigned channels.
More of the story of Fresno and Bakersfield's stations, including how KERO and KFRE were moved from channels 10 and 12 to channels 23 and 30, is told in the article Deintermixture: When Television Almost Became All-UHF.
© World Radio History. Original site concept by Clarke Ingram. Site design and management by K.M. Richards.