by K.M. Richards
The WBKZ-TV story actually began during the "freeze" on television while the FCC determined UHF's role in it, and by necessity has to continue for two decades beyond its demise. The reason? Channel 64 only represented the first attempt at bringing video to Battle Creek that was not dependent on adjacent market stations (and even then, the station that ultimately survived was dependent on its network service coming from an out-of-market VHF that had tried mightily to keep it from going on the air).
In 1951, John L. Booth (Booth Radio and Television Stations, which owned radio stations WJLB/1400 & 97.9 Detroit, WBBC/1330 Flint and WSGW/790 Saginaw) submitted proposals during comments on the Sixth Report and Order to add channels 6 and 9 in Detroit (making a total of five when added to 2, 4 and 7), but they proved unfeasible; one problem was that channel 9 was -- and still is -- allocated across the border in Windsor ON.
After the freeze on new applications was lifted (and with his dream of a VHF station in Detroit killed) Booth filed for the channel 64 allocation in Battle Creek as part of a group of five applications in Michigan, which also included channel 62 in Detroit, channel 23 in Grand Rapids, channel 12 in Flint and channel 54 in Lansing. They withdrew the Flint application in September when they filed for channel 51 in Saginaw (they had announced their intent to file for channel 5 in nearby Bay City but opted not to, for reasons never made public). Almost simultaneously, Michigan Broadcasting, which owned WBCK/930, filed for the other Battle Creek allocation of channel 58.
The construction permits for channels 58 and 64 were issued within one month of each other -- October 29 for Booth and November 19 for Michigan Broadcasting -- as was a third CP, for channel 36 in Kalamazoo, on November 26. Booth was to operate from the former WELL-FM/96.1 (which had recently gone silent) site on U.S. 12 near the Calhoun-Kalamazoo county line and Michigan co-locating its studios with its AM station downtown and transmitter nine miles west of the city at a site near Augusta described as "one of the highest points between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo".
By the time his competitor's CP was issued, Booth had chosen WBKZ-TV as call letters, and almost immediately was challenged by WBCK, which petitioned the FCC to rescind the assignment to avoid "confusion" between the two stations. Channel 64 argued successfully in January that its call had been issued first and had been "widely publicized" (an argument that apparently disregarded the fact that WBCK had been used by the AM station since 1948).
Meanwhile, in December Battle Creek Enquirer columnist Art Middleton wrote a column on what viewers would need to do to receive the two new UHF stations, discussing tuner strips, converters and antennas with "my well-informed friend" G.E. Murphy of the local Electronic Supply Co. In what he likely considered a clever put-down of television in general, Middleton concluded with the paragraph:
Now on a Wednesday night you can
The channels referenced were VHF network affiliates in Kalamazoo (WKZO-TV), Lansing (WJIM-TV) and Grand Rapids (WOOD-TV, which would move to channel 8 about a year later).
As often happened in the early years of post-freeze stations going on the air, the Enquirer and News published a separate 18-page section in their joint Sunday edition on May 10 talking about the new station, the ones in the pipeline, and what was needed to receive UHF. Their section, like most others of its day, was more intended as an advertising promotion, carrying ads from virtually every radio-TV dealer in the area promoting their manufacturer's set as superior, an ad from the Alliance Manufacturing Company in nearby Ohio promoting their "Tenna-Rotor" and declaring stationary aerials "obsolete", and a full-page ad from RCA Victor devoted to the claim that since channel 64 had chosen RCA transmitting equipment then their sets would "receive them best". This was in addition to the newspaper's front page being given over entirely to the station's scheduled start.
One week earlier, the station had taken out a large ad announcing its start dates for both test pattern and programming, promoting its affiliation with ABC. (In the excitement, one could forgive WBKZ-TV misstating that their new network was merging with Paramount Pictures rather than with the spun-off United Paramount Theaters division.)
After its first week of operation with a 4½ hour daily schedule of filmed and in-studio programming -- the microwave hookup from ABC was still under construction -- WBKZ-TV said it was receiving "excellent" test reception reports from a 50-mile radius and local TV dealers indicated that "equipment changes" would correct the few exceptions. The schedule at that point consisted of such shows as Twin-City Theater, Your Legislature Reports, Rootie Kazootie, V&E Showcase (a local talent show titled after the aluminum siding company that sponsored it) and the occasional syndicated offering such as Superman, Smilin' Ed's Gang and Wild Bill Hickok. Still pre-network as the weeks turned into months, it wasn't until late August that a handful of ABC shows -- Super Circus, A Date With Judy, You Asked For It, Sky King, Space Patrol and Bishop Fulton Sheen -- began appearing on the channel 64 schedule via kinescope ... known to be kinnies from the testimony John L. Booth subsequently gave during the Senate UHF hearings which confirmed this. (We also know from newspaper articles that AT&T did not begin microwave relay service to Battle Creek-Kalamazoo until January 1, 1954 and that Booth intended to construct its own private relay to Lansing instead; also, the airing of the aforementioned A Date With Judy the evening of Wednesday, October 7, 1953 was one week to the day after its last network airing ... a near-dead giveaway of a delayed airing by film.) One program that most certainly arrived via kinnie was CBS' Revlon Mirror Theater, which aired live performances on the network on Saturday nights but aired in Battle Creek on Wednesday evenings.
There are those who have asked, if ABC was going to send kinescopes to WBKZ-TV until the real-time AT&T link was in place, why did they leave their new affiliate to operate for more than three months without sending any? While there is nothing in the published accounts of channel 64's early days that answers the question, the best guess is that poor timing was to blame; the station signed on just as the regular season was giving way to summer reruns, and ABC -- at that time still running last among the three networks remaining as DuMont gradually faded away -- likely couldn't justify the expense of sending kinnies without paying sponsors' advertisements being included.
In any event, once the kinnies started arriving, a review of the published listings showed WBKZ-TV's ran ABC programs as much "in pattern" as their operating schedule allowed, perhaps anticipating eventual live interconnection and wanting that to not disrupt viewership patterns. Nevertheless, whether by their decision or the network's, channel 64 apparently received far less than the full network schedule: Of their 30 hours per week of on-air time the first week of October 1953, only 5½ were filled with network shows. Another check of published listings for the first week of April, just before they went dark (and therefore serves as an indication of what their maximum carriage was) showed just under ten hours of ABC shows during a 48-hour broadcast week.
Things did not go well for Booth in the long run as channel 64 went dark exactly four weeks shy of its one-year anniversary, on April 23, 1954. The official reason given to the FCC was that Booth wanted to seek "higher power and a new antenna". At the time, they cited losses of $10,000 per month.
At the Senate UHF hearings that year, John L. Booth asked for complete use of VHF for all by reducing the Grade B service area of VHF stations, beam tilting, and reduction of power, saying that not doing so "means the death of UHF and the extension of the clear channel psychosis." WBCK-TV used the hearing as an excuse to halt construction on a replacement tower at its transmitter site; it was already months behind their original schedule when the first tower was brought down on the afternoon of November 30, 1953 in a private aircraft collision (it had taken until March to repair the studio and transmitter building). Subsequently, Michigan Broadcasting attempted to purchase the facilities of WBKZ-TV in an attempt to get "instant viewership" from viewers that had channel 64 tuning strips installed in their sets. Booth held off on the deal pending a decision for channel 10 in Parma, which they had applied for after first trying to have that channel moved to a community 100 miles away, where it would not be in competition with channel 64. (Channel 10 ended up, five years later, being the only share-time operation ever split between commercial and educational operation.)
The idea of selling WBKZ-TV to WBCK-TV apparently never got beyond discussions, and the channel 64 CP was deleted by the FCC on October 27, 1954. With no other options left, Michigan Broadcasting subsequently tried for close to another year to complete construction of channel 58 and get on the air before surrendering their CP on September 2, 1955. For the next ten years, television in Battle Creek remained available only by the use of tall antennas with rotors to receive the aforementioned VHF stations in Kalamazoo, Lansing and Grand Rapids, where WZZM-TV/13 joined WOOD-TV on the dial on November 1, 1962. Like WBKZ-TV, it was an ABC affiliate, and was owned by West Michigan Telecasters, which also owned WZZM-FM/95.7.
In the revised table of channel allocations issued by the FCC in 1965, both the channel 58 and 64 allocations were replaced by a single channel 65 which was filed for on November 5 of that year by BCU, Inc., a partnership between former FCC secretary Mary Jane Morris and local businessman James R. Searer (ultimately, each ended up with 26% of the stock after additional minority partners bought in). Morris had worked for the Commission for twelve years before leaving in 1960 to open a private law practice in Midland MI, about 50 miles north of Flint. It took until September 28 of the following year for Morris' former employers to designate the BCU application for a hearing on financial issues; in the interim WZZM-TV had filed its opposition to the application and was thus made a party to the hearings.
By the time the hearings were set, the FCC had changed the Battle Creek allocation to channel 41 but the BCU application was not accordingly modified until after the CP was granted on September 27, 1967. Although BCU chose the call letters WWWU-TV, the Enquirer called the proposed new station "WBCU-TV" for more than two years ... beginning with their first article, on the day of the CP grant. The newspaper, perhaps remembering WBKZ-TV, allowed a great deal of skepticism to be included in their coverage, and started early: Shortly after the call letters were chosen in September, they published a reader letter which began "if and when that proposed station carrying ABC starts ..." (An obviously irritated Morris responded that it wasn't a question of "if" and "when" would be the following summer.)
Shortly thereafter, some interesting entanglements came to light which may well have contributed to a very contentious legal battle. WZZM-TV's owner, West Michigan Telecasters, had taken over channel 13 in 1965 from an interim operator during post-hearing litigation. It turned out that Morris had been one of the larger minority stake principals in one of the losing applicants, and that West Michigan Telecasters had filed a petition accusing that applicant of trafficking, although denied. It probably also didn't help any that Searer had held a minority stake in another of the competiting applicants and the minority stakeholders in BCU all came from that company as well.
The grant of channel 41 conflicted with WZZM-TV's plans to serve Battle Creek itself; it applied for a channel 74 translator, which was approved October 13, 1967 and went on the air January 26, 1968 as W74AM. Since WWWU-TV intended (like its predecessor) to seek the ABC affiliation, to have that programming now available via a low-cost repeater of the station whose main signal was not receivable meant reduced odds for their own affiliation. They filed a petition to revoke the translator grant the same day it began operation, claiming potential harm to their future station; the grant was set aside -- although W74AM remained on the air -- and was set for a hearing. (The order setting aside the grant was stayed by Commission one week later in order to allow the appellate court in DC to review the matter.)
In the meantime, West Michigan Telecasters sued BCU for $3 million, demanding that BCU stop "interfering" with the translator grant and enjoining them from pursuing the ABC affiliation. BCU then petitioned for reconsideration of their original petition opposing the WZZM-TV license grant (which was denied February 14, 1968). This resulted in channel 13 challenging the channel 41 grant, which was also denied by the Commission, then remanded to the FCC by the federal circuit court in June because the Commission did not "state specifically the basis for each of its conclusions" in denying the challenge. Meanwhile, W74AM finally went dark March 6 after the appellate court denied the stay of the order. Hearings on the competing applications began two weeks later.
Impatience apparently set in at this point, and West Michigan Telecasters negotiated a deal to acquire the channel 41 permit from BCU for $50,300, with the intent of simply having WWWU-TV act as a satellite station to WZZM-TV. (The Enquirer, apparently still befuddled by all the owner names, call letters, and channels, duly reported on October 22, 1968 that the long-dark "Channel 74" was acquiring the CP.) Three days later a group of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo businessmen d/b/a "Channel 41 Inc." filed a new application for that channel (and James Searer had a stake in the new applicant). The FCC asked the appellate court if it should reopen the matter since an existing CP was involved; almost a year passed before the path was cleared to cancel the BCU CP and accept the new channel 41 application on September 8, 1969.
One week later, WZZM-TV announced their intent to relocate the channel 13 transmitter to a location 60 miles northwest of Battle Creek. Channel 41, Inc. complained that the move was another attempt to thwart UHF from going back on the air in their city. In February 1970, the Association of Maximum Service Telecasters filed an opposition to the move, on the basis of the proposed new site being "short-spaced" to WSPD-TV/13 Toledo. (The Enquirer noted that the other area VHFs -- WKZO, WOOD and time-sharing WILX/10 Onondaga -- were all members of AMST.)
In March, the Battle Creek Chamber of Commerce's television dealers committee circulated a local petition for FCC to deny the move and expedite the new channel 41 application. It garnered in excess of two thousand signatures in less than one month and was sent to FCC Chair Dean Burch on April 20. Within three weeks, the Commission denied the channel 13 application saying the move "would have an adverse effect on UHF development". Meanwhile, Channel 41, Inc. filed an amendment to their application specifying a different transmitter site at a higher elevation and a power increase to 1.61MW (1,610,000 watts), which would give them a much improved coverage area compared to what channel 64 had operated with some 15 years earlier; their CP was issued July 29, 1970 at the new site and power. (ABC, for its part, decided to delay the affiliation decision to see if channel 13 was going to appeal this as well.)
A couple of weeks later, Searer announced a contest in which local citizens would suggest the new call letters, a clever move in terms of impartiality since the FCC would determine the winner by making the assignment from a list of five possibilities submitted by the station (and to further the image of the contest being legitimate, entries had to be sent to the Battle Creek Chamber). In addition to the chosen calls WUHQ ("U" for "UHF", "HQ" for "headquarters" ... a nod to negotiations with the city for the station's studios and offices to be at the former headquarters building at Fort Custer, which the city was in the process of purchasing from the federal government), entries officially submitted for the Commission to consider were WWHQ ("Water Wonderland Headquarters"), WXLI (the Roman numerals for "41"), WCFO ("We're Channel Forty-One") and WTAL (a nod that the new station's tower would be the tallest in lower Michigan). In releasing the list to the Enquirer at the time of submission Searer said multiple entries were received for WBCM and for calls incorporating "CC" for "Cereal City".
The city approved the Fort Custer lease on October 5, 1970 for $300 per month, with an option to buy it for $25,000 once the city had clear title to the land (the purchase from the feds was at that time awaiting approval from the state Municipal Finance Commission). The FCC assigned the call letters that the same day, and the contest winner, one R. Thomas Parker, received a color television set as his prize; although his actual entry of "WHDQ" was already in use, it was judged closest to what the FCC had chosen from the list. Later that month, Searer announced a target date of January 1 for beginning operation, saying that tower erection plans had been completed and the studio and transmitting equipment had been ordered. They were still negotiating with ABC, three months after the WZZM-TV transmitter relocation plan had been denied by the FCC.
By the time the FCC upheld its denial of the channel 13 tower move in December, channel 41 found itself competing with WKHM-TV/18 in Jackson (which had held a CP for four years and not yet started construction) for the network affiliation. Searer travelled personally to ABC headquarters in NYC to make his case (the affiliation was finally granted in February 1971). WKHM-TV also tried its own "monkey wrench" tactic by filing an opposition to channel 41's request to increase its power to over three million watts.
Financial details started to come to light on April 25, when Searer told Enquirer columnist Jay Berger that channel 41 already had approximately $100,000 in tentative ad contracts lined up and that renovations to the Fort Custer building had cost $400,000 with twice that much spent on studio and transmitting equipment (although they had negotiated a deal to pay only interest for the first 15 months after beginning operation). ABC signed the affiliation agreement at its fall season preview event in early May; a month later, the channel 18 petition was denied by the FCC.
The letter-writing campaign of the previous year almost came back to bite Searer; he was accused of directly organizing same during hearings later that month over of WLBT/3 in Jackson MS after a 1965 renewal challenge from the United Church of Christ claiming the station refused to provide equal time to minority groups to rebut editorials. (Searer was a part-owner of one of five companies that applied for that license in the aftermath of the challenge; ultimately, it took until 1979 for the FCC's chief administrative law judge to reassign the license to a local corporation 51% owned by blacks.) It took testimony from the Battle Creek Chamber of Commerce itself to vindicate Searer.
It took until June 11 for the transmitting antenna to arrive from the Ampex Corporation in Connecticut. About six weeks later, on July 24, 1971, WUHQ-TV finally signed-on; after a half-hour introductory program, the first show aired was ABC's Wide World of Sports. Ironically, at that time the ABC network feed had to originate at WZZM-TV, which meant only shows channel 13 aired could also be carried by channel 41. (The Enquirer reported that the excluded programs included the evening network newscast and The Dick Cavett Show, and as noted at right it also included the summer repeats of the cancelled series Love On A Rooftop and The Immortal.) However, that move alone cut the cost of network interconnection to $700 per month from the $5,000 for a full AT&T microwave relay.
WZZM-TV started carrying the Harry Reasoner-Howard K. Smith newscast at the end of August and WUHQ-TV followed right along, cancelling its half-hour newscasts at 5:30pm and 11:00pm in favor of three five-minute "news capsules" between 4:30 and 6:00pm and moving up the start time of the 11:30pm movie by a half-hour, scheduling three more "capsules" during the film. Either the interconnection to ABC was improved in time for the 1971-72 fall television season, or channel 13 figured out how to pass along programs it wasn't carrying itself: A September 8 ad for The Smith Family was touted as "can only be seen on channel 41".
The last of the WZZM-TV-created stumbling blocks came down on December 1 when their channel 12 translator in Kalamazoo -- W12AP, originally authorized in 1965 "until a new full-power signal served the area with ABC programming" -- was denied renewal and went dark February 7, 1972. They made no further attempts at inhibiting WUHQ-TV's operation.
Channel 41's ownership remained in local hands until the turn of the century. After a $10 million sale to Northstar Television Group (by that time, WZZM-TV's owner) fell through in 1991, WUHQ's programming and sales were brokered to LIN Broadcasting's WOTV/8 (the former WOOD-TV) in Grand Rapids. At that time, Channel 41 president John Lawrence said the television business had changed to a point where "[we] could no longer run this station without a partner." It was only the third installation of a then-new business model wherein satellite stations were owned by different companies than the parent stations. The move also restored local Battle Creek newscasts -- which had come and gone three times in two decades of operation -- to channel 41; the last time they had attempted same in 1985, the production had run up a deficit of approximately two million dollars before the plug was pulled about two years later. Shortly after the new arrangement was in place, channel 41 took the WOTV call letters and channel 8 went back to the WOOD-TV calls. The ownership formally changed in 2002; station operations were consolidated in Grand Rapids four years later and the old Fort Custer studios were donated to the city of Battle Creek, remaining standing for another dozen years before being demolished. LIN was acquired by Media General in 2014, which itself merged into Nexstar Media Group two years later. Channel 41 has kept its ABC affiliation the entire time.
Booth did win the CP for WSBM-TV/51 Saginaw; it was granted October 29, 1953 but was surrendered a little more than one year later, on December 30, 1954. The Booth company did not win any of the other channels they had applied for in 1952, although in a twist of irony they did acquire WJRT-TV/12 -- the station that in 1958 went on the air on the allocation Booth had dropped the original application for in order to file for Saginaw -- in July 1964.
WKMI-TV/36 Kalamazoo never went on the air and surrendered its CP August 12, 1953.
WKHM-TV/18 Jackson renamed itself WWLD-TV and its CP was a casualty of the 1968-69 Purge; its petition for reconsideration was denied May 27, 1970 but the CP was reinstated two months later to facilitate a pending sale. Two failed sales attempts later, the FCC finally deleted the authorization on September 22, 1978.
© World Radio History. Original site concept by Clarke Ingram. Site design and management by K.M. Richards.