by Andrew Krueger
[Based upon an article from June 2, 2011 in the Duluth News Tribune, where the author was employed as a reporter. The newspaper apparently removed its "Attic" section, which contained articles from their archives, in 2016. We have retrieved the original text and photos and added information from the News Tribune and other Minnesota newspapers, as well as from Broadcasting. Mr. Kreuger is now with Minnesota Public Radio. Photos are from the original article.]
It arrived with great fanfare, ushering in a technological and entertainment revolution in the Twin Ports. But little more than a year later, it was left in the dust by more powerful upstarts, and relegated to being a largely forgotten footnote in local history.
From the beginning, WFTV faced an uphill battle as a UHF station in an era when few existed. Up to that time, anyone in Duluth with a TV set would have tried to snag occasional signals from distant VHF stations in the Twin Cities. In the days leading up to WFTV's first broadcast, local stores placed many ads in the News Tribune touting TV sets and antennas that could pick up the new UHF signal. WFTV, owned by Great Plains Television Properties, took out its own full-page ad two days before its launch, introducing the station and its staff. "This is it," the station proclaimed. "The big event is here. The hard work and months of planning are now completed. The excitement is now at its highest."
Great Plains Television Properties was 50% owned by two "theater men", Herbert Scheftel and Alfred G. Burger, with the remaining half-ownership divided between a variety of their colleagues in the motion picture theater business. The pair had started the "Telenews" newsreel service in 1939 and retooled it for television beginning in 1948, and were among the early applicants for UHF, filing in August 1952 not only for the Duluth allocation but also for channels 23 in Little Rock AR and 36 in Sioux City IA. All three were granted within a week of each other at the end of October, and by the time WFTV went on the air at 2:00pm on June 7, 1953 they had also applied for channel 20 in Springfield IL. The two VHF allocations, for channel 3 in Duluth and channel 6 across the state line in Superior WI, were still tied up in comparative hearings as WFTV went live.
The first day included film footage of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, which had taken place the week before, as well as televangelist Billy Graham and an hour-long program from the local Presbyterian church, Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town from CBS, NBC's Philco TV Playhouse and Front Page Detective from DuMont (all via kinescope), the syndicated Boston Blackie series, two movies, and a half-hour news program at 10:00pm billed as "News in View/Weather Man/Sports Spindle." WFTV had the luxury that most "first stations in a market" received in being able to cherry pick programs from those three networks (as well as ABC, which they were hoping to receive a full affiliation with) and their listing in the Broadcasting-Telecasting Yearbook showed them as affiliated with all four, so obviously they did just that.
Other network programs WFTV carried in 1953 were I Love Lucy, Arthur Godfrey and The Web, from CBS, and Dragnet, Groucho Marx and Robert Montgomery Presents from NBC. Not surprisingly, "Telenews" was also on the channel 38 schedule, as were syndicated serials Flash Gordon and Rocket to the Moon.
WFTV traded two hours of its broadcast day (3:00 to 4:00pm, 5:30 to 6:00pm, and 6:30 to 7:00pm) to WEBC/560 -- which was itself the first radio station in Duluth -- for studio and tower facilities upstairs in the same building. WEBC operated the "Arrowhead Television Network" but its programming was apparently no better than what channel 38 could produce itself (sample titles from their time blocks in September included Video Quiz, Music Album, Public Reports and Dr. Anderson) and no information about the "network" can be found, even in the local News Tribune.
WFTV's local news, sports and weather programs were hosted by Robert Potter, Gordon Paymar (also the station's program director and assistant program director, respectively), Bill Kirby and public service director Ernest Orchard. Newspaper accounts also indicate the station carried a local women's program produced and hosted by Elizabeth "Libby" Smith, commentary from Wallace W. Hankins, entertainment from country-western singer "Famous", and a "kiddie program" conducted by Earl Henton (who later went on to a long career at channel 3).
Channel 38's first studios were in space shared with WEBC radio at Superior St. and Fourth Ave. West (shown in the photo at right) and in early 1954 moved to studios seven blocks down Superior. They enjoyed a monopoly in the market for the better part of a year, but the comparative hearings for the VHFs had ended for channel 6 in October and for channel 3 in December, and by the end of March both were on the air as WDSM-TV and KDAL-TV, respectively. The two new stations snagged some of the top network programming (ABC and NBC going to KDAL, CBS and DuMont to WDSM) and as VHF stations they were more powerful and easier to receive.
WFTV limped along for a while, still managing an eight-hour broadcast day with a combination of first-run syndication (Terry and the Pirates, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid and Mr. District Attorney), whatever NBC shows were rejected by channel 3 (Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, Mr. & Mrs. North and Your Hit Parade), and two or three titles each day from their movie library.
It took only about three more months for WFTV to call it quits. On July 9, 1954 the Duluth newspapers carried word that the city's pioneering television station would cease broadcasting the following Sunday at 10:00pm. The last programs aired were the Ziv-syndicated I Led Three Lives, the Loretta Young Show from NBC, a 25-minute newscast, and a late movie. "We find the market unprofitable," general manager C.G. Alexander told the Duluth Herald, "and rather than spend more money, the best thing is to call it quits." A letter sent the following week to the FCC by Scheftel as part of the station's application for a "silent" STA was more to the point: "In recent months two VHF stations have gone on the air in this market and WFTV has lost the programs of the two major networks. As a result the station's operating losses have substantially increased." In August, the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune quoted that letter in an accurate, to the point article titled "Ultra-High TV Stations Lose Out to Very-High Foes."
And so on July 11, 1954, WFTV's days in Duluth came to an end. The station that brought the Twin Ports into the age of television faded to black. One year, one month, five days on the air ... an even 400 days. It was the thirteenth UHF to go dark.
The experience appeared to have soured Scheftel and Burger on television to some degree, and they never again owned an operating television station in its entirety outright: By the time WICS/20 Springfield IL went on the air, they had sold one-third of their interest to Harry & Elmer Balaban and another third to the owners of WCVS/1450 in that same community. They were also partners with the Balabans in WHNB-TV/30 New Britain CT (which figured prominently in the story of WELI-TV/59 New Haven), as well as in the acquisition of WDAN-TV/24 Danville IL and WCHU/33 Champaign IL, which they merged into WICD/15 in 1967 as a satellite of WICS. They also held a interest, along with the Balabans, in the 1963 grant for channel 32 in Chicago, which was acquired by Field Communications in 1965, eventually becoming WFLD-TV; one year prior, they were one of three applicants for channel 37 in Paterson NJ, becoming the winner in comparative hearings and subsequently selling 49% of what eventually went on the air as WXTV/41 in 1968 to competing applicant Spanish International Network (he kept the remaining 51% well into the 1970s). Great Plains Television surrendered the CPs for Little Rock and Sioux City in January 1955, although they kept the Duluth permit until July 1958, surrendering it only after being included in the first "McFarland letter" purge.
Alfred Burger passed away in 1963 and his estate remained partners with Herbert Scheftel in Great Plains' television interests through the rest of the decade. Scheftel's last television holding was a part interest in WCLQ/61 Cleveland, which he divested in 1984; his real estate holdings included part interests in the Pan Am building in New York and the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. He passed away August 16, 2000 at age 92.
In October 1955, KDAL-TV switched primary network affiliations with WDSM-TV, remaining with CBS until the end of the 2015-16 season. Its affiliation with ABC was taken by WDIO-TV/10 when that station signed on in January 1966. It changed call letters in 1979 to KDLH and is now an affiliate of The CW. WDSM-TV (KBJR since 1974) has remained the market's NBC affiliate since the swap with KDAL ... a run of more than six decades. After the DuMont network folded, it also carried some ABC programs not aired on channel 3 until WDIO began operations. CBS programming was moved to a subchannel of KBJR when it was acquired by KDLH's owner, so as to maintain lower ratings on the latter in order to be able to own both under FCC rules. Ironically, since stations in the market identify on-air by their cable channel, KBJR's CBS subchannel identifies as "CBS 3 Duluth" while KDLH's logo is "Duluth CW" with no channel number.
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