Channel 44, UHF, and Bay Area TV’s Great Leap Forward

I know from personal experience that most young people are not interested in hearing about the early days of television, and the prehistoric technology Baby Boomers had to endure during our formative years. But I think it’s okay for us to remind ourselves of the remarkable journey we’ve traveled over the past 50 years, moving from the horror of black and white sets, the depravity of few channels, and the humiliation of having family members stand on the roof to hold the antenna in place, to today’s color, high definition big screens and hundreds of channels available through cable. Although the many changes we’ve witnessed did not occur overnight, one significant step took place in 1968, with the debut of KBHK 44, and the invasion of the UHF channels.

UHF (ultra high frequency) is a form of broadcasting that has different characteristics than the much more familiar VHF (very high frequency). I won’t bother to go into the details of the technology involved, as it’s kind of complicated, and the Daley Planet’s science editor is on vacation. The point is that in the early days of television, VHS became the established form of viewing, as those stations, operating on channels 2 through 13, were available on all TV sets. UHF stations could only be accessed by turning to the UHF channel (located between 2 and 13), and then dialing in the channels (14 through 83), much like you would with a radio. The problem was that many television sets sold in the 1950’s did not include UHF tuning knobs, or the special loop antenna also required for UHF viewing. Saddled with these handicaps, very few UHF stations existed in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and for television enthusiasts like me, my viewing was usually limited to channels 2, 4, 5 and 7 (when did Channel 9 ever have cartoons?). But in 1961, Congress passed the “All-Channel Receiver Act” which allowed the FCC to require that all television sets manufactured and sold in the U.S. after 1964 would have to include UHF tuners, meaning that the potential size of the UHF audience would no doubt increase every passing year. All that was needed was some UHF stations.

Operating a VHF station in Honolulu since 1958, the Henry J. Kaiser Company saw the “All-Channel Receiver Act” as an opportunity expand its broadcast holdings on the U.S. mainland, opening six stations between 1965 and 1968. In late 1967 came the formal announcement that KBHK (Kaiser Broadcasting/ Harry J. Kaiser ) Channel 44 would begin operations on January 2, 1968, becoming San Francisco’s first commercial UHF station, and the second one in the Bay Area (San Jose’s Channel 36 signed on in October of 1967). Releasing its programming schedule weeks before the first broadcast, Channel 44 relied heavily on reruns, old movies and afternoon kids shows. But in addition to shows like “Hazel,” “Dobie Gillis,” and “The Honeymooners,” the new station would feature some ambitious sports coverage, including the first ever color broadcast of a San Francisco Warriors- Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, live from the Cow Palace on KBHK’s opening night, plus 25 regular season games involving the Oakland A’s, who would begin there first year on the West Coast in April of 1968. On January 2, 1968, at 5:55 pm, Channel 44 hit the airwaves with an invocation by Rev. James C. Brown, followed at 6 pm by its first ever entertainment offering, “The Little Rascals.”

Unfortunately, the Daley family was not participating in any of the fun. Our black and white set, purchased during the Truman Administration, did not have UHF capability, and, in fact, didn’t receive channels 5 or 7 too well either. Our only access to KBHK 44, Channel 36 or KEMO 20, which debuted in April of 1968, was through a portable Sony TV, which was a gift given to my sports writer father by the Oakland Raiders. Although the Sony was equipped with a UHF tuner, it only had a three-inch screen, making the family viewing experience quite pathetic. There was special equipment available that could give any old set UHF capacity, but my parents were not big enough fans of “The Little Rascals” or “Hazel” to spend the money, so my first season of watching Oakland A’s, American League baseball on television was much like peering through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

Happily, the Daley’s finally got a color TV set, courtesy of the San Francisco Warriors (you didn’t think we’d actually buy one, did you?), in the late fall of 1968. In less than one year, the number of television channels available to me had doubled. As I remember, each of the UHF channels had something unique to offer. Kemo 20 featured Saturday night horror films as well as Oakland Oaks (of the ABA) basketball. Channel 36’s early days is fondly remembered by all-night movies hosted by Jay Brown of Spartan Dodge, home of the “Price-Slasher.” Briefly there was a channel 38, which included an interview show hosted by Giants’ centerfielder Willie Mays. Then there was Channel 32, which, despite being a San Francisco station, whose listings appeared faithfully in the daily TV logs, did not seem to be available to anybody, which was very frustrating whenever they carried a Raiders pre-season game.

But KBHK 44 was definitely the Bay Area king of UHF, as their variety of programming was far superior to their UHF rivals, and at a par with the independent giant, KTVU 2. Aside from Major League Baseball and NBA, Channel 44 had pro-wrestling from Philadelphia, a syndicated variety show hosted by Steve Allen, a home grown kid’s show host called Sgt. Sacto (played by Mike Cleary), and Don Sherwood, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to shift his persona as the “World’s Greatest Disc-Jockey” from radio to television. But my favorite Channel 44 moment occurred on July 21, 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the “Eagle” and became the first human being to walk on the Moon. Every television station was tuned to Armstrong, except KBHK 44…they were running Mr. Ed.

It was the proliferation of UHF stations that ultimately led to the transition to cable. In 1970, Ted Turner purchased the failing Channel 17 in Atlanta, using the station to show Atlanta Braves baseball games along with wrestling and countless reruns. Uplinked to satellite in 1975, Turner’s WTBS became the first “superstation,” and along with HBO, among the first to be carried nationally. Specialty networks, devoted strictly to news, sports, weather or movies, a concept first tried on UHF, were formed to build a string of networks we now know as basic cable. One company, News Corporation, was able to combine various UHF stations it had acquired over the years, as the foundation of a fourth major network, Fox.

Note: Operating the UHF knob was an acquired skill. In 1969, Channel 36 carried a Saturday night Oakland Raiders- Miami Dolphins game, which my family watched in black and white, only to learn later that if the dial had been moved one more centimeter, we would have had color.