Florida TV History

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sm-tv-wtvj-57I love history and — as is evident by this site — broadcast history. So, I’ve been compiling a list of Florida’s first television stations. You’ll likely notice some familiar call letters as well as some you may never seen before.

Those lesser-known stations are Florida’s early UHF stations, such as Miami’s WGBS-Ch. 23, Fort Lauderdale’s WITV-Ch. 17 and Jacksonville’s WJHP-Ch. 36 (all of which predated Orlando’s first TV station, WDBO-Ch. 6).

Despite high hopes and a market ripe for television programming, these stations suffered the same fate as many other early UHF stations that competed with VHF stations: they ceased operations after a brief period. UHF stations had a very hard time getting viewers because early TV sets didn’t even have UHF tuners — they had to be bought separately. Plus, those early UHF signals didn’t reach as far as VHF signals and were also very difficult to tune-in, even with those add-on UHF receivers.

Still, one of the very first UHF stations in the state managed to hang on for 17 years — WSUN-TV Channel 38 in St. Petersburg. Read on for the list of Florida’s first 25 stations.

Florida’s First 25 Television Stations

=== 1949 ===

WTVJ, Channel 4

Sign-on: March 21, 1949.
Original Networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, DuMont.
Info: WTVJ-6, NBC (a NBC O&O). It was the first TV station in Florida and the just the 16th in the country. It went on to become a longtime CBS affiliate, but in its early years it carried shows from all the networks — CBS, NBC, ABC and DuMont. Click here to read the Miami News’ 24-page special section in 1949 dedicated to the station’s start. In 1987, the station was sold to NBC — which later prompted a three-way affiliation swap in the Miami market (WTVJ-Ch. 4 switched from CBS to NBC, WCIX-Ch. 6 switched from Fox to CBS and WSVN-Ch. 7 switched from NBC to Fox). Then, in another move prompted by a deal between CBS and NBC involving stations elsewhere, WTVJ swapped channel positions with WCIX — WTVJ became WTVJ-Ch. 6 and WCIX became WFOR-Ch. 4. In 2008, NBC reached a deal to sell WTVJ to Post-Newsweek Co., owners on WPLG-Ch. 10 in Miami. Due to objections by the community and a downturn in the economy, the deal was called off.

WMBR, Channel 4

Sign-on: Sept. 15, 1949.
Original Networks: CBS, ABC.
Info: Now known as WJXT.  Glenn Marshall, who owned WMBR, a Jacksonville radio station, decided to launch Jacksonville’s first TV station, WMBR TV-4. It was the only TV station in the southeast between Greensboro, N.C., and Miami.  WMBR TV and Radio were bought by the Washington Post Co. in 1953. After the radio station was sold, WMBR-TV became WJXT. Today, it’s still part of the Post family, one of three Post-Newsweek stations in Florida (The others are WKMG-Ch. 6 in Orlando and WPLG-Ch. 10 in Miami). After more than 50 years as a CBS affiliate, the station balked at the network’s terms during affiliation renewal talks and surprisingly opted to become an independent on July 15, 2002. In January 2009, it became the first station in the Jacksonville market to begin broadcastings local news in high definition.

=== 1953 ===

WFTL-TV, Channel 23
Fort Lauderdale

Sign-on: April 7, 1953.
Original Networks: NBC, DuMont.
Info: Ceased operations on April 13, 1957. After starting off as WFTL-TV in Fort Lauderdale, the station was bought by Storer Broadcasting Co., and relaunched on Jan. 16, 1955 as Miami-based WGBS-TV. It offered Miami viewers the full NBC schedule of shows that had been split on the old WFTL and other stations. After the DuMont network folded and it lost its NBC affiliation to new Miami VHF station WCKT-Ch. 7 in 1956, WGBS briefly became an independent before signing off. Present day Miami Univision station WLTV broadcasts on Channel 23, which was revived on Nov. 14, 1967, as WAJA.

WSUN-TV, Channel 38
St. Petersburg

Sign-on: May 31, 1953
Original Network: ABC
Info: Went dark air in 1970. Was owned by the City of St. Petersburg and broadcast from the St. Pete pier. It was Tampa Bay’s first TV station — and originally carried programs from all the networks. After WFLA-Ch. 8 (NBC) and WTVT-Ch. 13 (CBS) signed on and took network affiliations, WSUN was left with ABC — an affiliation it kept until WLCY-Ch. 10 signed on in 1965. WSUN continued on as an independent until finally signing off in February 1970. Read here about the station’s first day on the air.

WIRK-TV, Channel 21
West Palm Beach

Sign-on: Aug. 31, 1953
Original Network: ABC
Info: WIRK-TV was the first television station in West Palm Beach. Records indicate the station may have started broadcasting a test pattern on Aug. 31, 1953, but regular programming did not begin until Sunday, Sept. 13, 1953. (And regular programming meant having shows from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.) The station had a studio and a transmitter on the 11th floor of the Harvey Building in downtown West Palm Beach. Bob Ray was the WIRK news anchor and news director, Rome Hartman was the WIRK program director and sports director, and Bill Stokes was the weatherman. WIRK carried a few ABC programs, first by Kinescope recording and later by cable. When WEAT-Channel 12 went on the air, ABC affiliated with them — leaving WIRK with local programming, old movies, etc. Like many early UHF stations, WIRK-TV didn’t have a long history. It went dark on March 1, 1956. Click here for a Palm Beach Post story about WIRK-TV’s start.

WPFA, Channel 15

Sign-on: Oct. 16, 1953
Original Network: DuMont
Info: One of those short-lived UHF stations of the early television era. Went dark on Dec. 18, 1955. This may have been the first TV station in Pensacola, predating WEAR-Channel 13 by a couple of months. The current Channel 15 in the Pensacola market is WMPI, the NBC affiliate licensed to Mobile, Ala.

WITV, Channel 17
Fort Lauderdale

Sign-on: Dec. 1, 1953.
Original Network: ABC.
Info: WITV was Miami’s second TV station. Based on TV listings in the Miami News, the station went dark on January 19, 1958 — the same day a million-dollar studio was dedicated for WPST-Ch. 10, which went on the air in August 1957 and took WITV’s ABC affiliation. WITV owner Gerico Investment Co. filed lawsuits in an attempt to prevent WPST and WCKT-Ch. 7 from going on the air, saying (correctly) that the new VHF stations would seriously harm the UHF station. After being unsuccessful in blocking the two new VHF stations, WITV tried — again unsuccessfully — to get the VHF license to Channel 6 in Miami.  After losing ABC, WITV’s short life as an independent station included a greatly reduced broadcast day — airing shows from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. Bill Byers was WITV’s anchorman, and Maxine Barrat did weather — she was Florida TV’s first “weather girl.” Click here to read about the station’s first day on air.

WJDM, Channel 7
Panama City

Sign-on: Dec. 1, 1953
Original Network: ABC, NBC, CBS
Info: Now WJHG-7, NBC. The station was originally owned by J.D. Manly. According to Wikipedia, Mel Wheeler purchased the station in 1957, and in 1960, James Harrison Gray, the founder of Gray Communications, bought the station and changed the call letters to the current WJHG-TV, after his initials. After other stations in nearby Dothan, Ala., and Panama City signed on and took CBS and NBC affiliate with them, WJHG became an  ABC affiliate. In 1982, WMBB and WJHG switched networks with Channel 7 getting NBC once again.

WJHP-TV, Channel 36

Sign-on: December 13, 1953.
Original Networks: NBC, ABC
Info: WJHP went dark on Oct. 25, 1957 — just days after Jacksonville’s third TV station, WFGA-Channel 12, went on the air and took the NBC affiliation with it. WJPH was owned by the Jacksonville Journal Co., owned by the famed Perry family and John H. Perry Jr. His family amassed a wide collection of newspapers, TV and radio stations across the state — including WESH-Ch. 2 in Daytona Beach.

=== 1954 ===

WEAR-TV Channel 3WEAR-TV, Channel 3

Sign-on: Jan. 13, 1954
Original Network: CBS
Info: According to Wikipedia.org, WEAR was primarily a CBS affiliate when it signed on, sharing ABC with WALA. Once WKRG-TV began in 1955, WEAR took over sole ownership of the ABC affiliation. WEAR’s market overlaps into Alabama.

WINK-TV, Channel 11
Fort Myers

Sign-on: March 1, 1954
Original Networks: CBS, ABC
Into: Still a CBS affiliate. Was the only commercial station in Southwest Florida until 1968, and is still the only legacy VHF station in the market.

WDBO-TV, Channel 6

Sign-on: July 1, 1954
Original Networks: CBS, ABC, NBC, DuMont
Info: Now known as WKMG-6, CBS. Orlando’s first TV station was originally owned by Orlando Broadcasting Co., which also owned radio stations WDBO-AM (580) and WDBO-FM (92.3). Changed call sign to WCPX in 1982 when deal was on table to sell station to Columbia Pictures. The deal fell through, but the station kept WCPX. In 1998, the station was acquired by Post-Newsweek, and renamed WKMG in honor of Katherine M. Graham. (P-N sister station WPLG in Miami is named after Graham’s husband Phillip.) As the first station in Central Florida, it was primarily a CBS affiliate but also aired shows from DuMont (until the network folded in 1955), from NBC (until WESH signed on in 1957), from ABC (until WLOF signed on in 1958).  Interesting that in its early years, when it had all the networks to choose from, it aired ABC’s early evening news with John Daly over CBS’ evening newscast with Douglas Edwards.

WJNO-TV, Channel 5
West Palm Beach

Sign-on: Aug. 22, 1954
Original Networks: NBC
Info: Switched call letters to WPTV on Nov. 6, 1956, after John H. Phipps bought the station. According to the Palm Beach Post, “Channel 5 went on the air as WJNO-TV, with some partial ownership of radio station WJNO. Studios in Palm Beach in the old “slat-house” on Coconut Row. Later ownership change to Scripps-Howard and changed to WPTV.”

=== 1955 ===

WEAT-TV, Channel 12
West Palm Beach

Sign-on: Jan. 1, 1955
Original Networks: ABC
Info: Now known as WPEC-12, CBS.  Was owned by RKO Teleradio Pictures, and its business address was listed as “Pennsylvania Hotel.” Wikipedia reports that in 1973, the WEAT calls were changed to the current WPEC which stood for Photo Electronics Corporation in reference to the station’s then-owner.

WCTV, Channel 6

Sign-on: Sept. 1, 1955
Original Networks: CBS, ABC, NBC
Info: Still WCTV-6, CBS. Technically this isn’t a Florida TV station. It’s city of license is Thomasville, Ga., even though it has always been considered a “Tallahassee” TV station. The backstory: The FCC had designated only one VHF station for Tallahassee, and that was taken by Florida State University for its WFSU-Channel 11. The nearest VHF channel available was Channel 6 in Thomasville.

WFLA-TV, Channel 8

Sign-on: Feb. 14, 1955
Original Network: NBC
Info:  The station went on the air for the first time so it could broadcast live Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Parade. Two weeks later, it launched a full 18-hour broadcast day. It’s been affiliated with the Tampa Tribune newspaper since its start. Sister radio stations WFLA-AM and WFLA-FM were also owned by the Tribune. When a change in ownership of the Tribune forced the sale of the radio stations in 1983, WFLA became WXFL. It returned to the WFLA call letters on Jan. 1, 1989.

WTVT, Channel 13

Sign-on: April 1, 1955
Original Network: CBS
Info: Now WTVT-13, Fox (a Fox O&O). For more on the history of WTVT, visit this great Web site: www.Big13.net

WTHS, Channel 2

Sign-on: Aug. 12, 1955
Original Network: Educational independent station
Info: Now known as WPBT 2, PBS. It was Florida’s first non-commercial station. Click here to watch video from WTHS.

=== 1956 ===

WESH-TV, Channel 2
Daytona Beach

Sign-on: June 11, 1956
Original Network: Briefly an independent, then NBC
Info: Station call letters come from its first owner, Wright Esch, who won the TV license but sold it to Perry Publications just before the station went on the air. WESH’s original tower in Daytona Beach was only 300 feet high, which was tiny even by 1950s standards. This limited its coverage to Volusia County. As such, it shared the NBC affiliation in Central Florida with WDBO-TV. It finally became the sole NBC affiliate for the Central Florida market on November 5, 1957. On that day, the station activated a new 1,000-foot tower in Orange City. WESH is the only major Orlando network station with original call letters.

WCKT, Channel 7

Sign-on: July 29, 1956
Original Network: NBC
Info: Now known as WSVN-7, the Fox affiliate for South Florida. Was the longtime NBC station in South Florida, until NBC bought then-CBS affiliate WTVJ in 1988 — setting off a three station affiliation swap. That resulted in WSVN ending up with the Fox network. Click here to read about its first day on the air.

=== 1957 ===

WPST, Channel 10

Sign-on: Aug. 2, 1957
Original Network: ABC
Info: Now WPLG-10, ABC. This was the second ABC affiliate in the Miami market, after WITV-Channel 17. Because it as a VHF station and had stronger signal than UHF WITV, ABC moved its affiliation from Channel 17 to Channel 10. But WPST had its license stripped by the FCC in November 1961 after it was discovered station owner National Airlines bribed a FCC commissioner to get the broadcast license. National sold the station assets to a group that created a new Channel 10, WLBW. This group later sold the station to Post-Newsweek, which renamed it WPLG in honor of Phillip L. Graham. Click here to read about WPST’s studio dedication in 1958.

WFGA-TV, Channel 12

Sign-on: Sept. 1, 1957
Original Network: NBC
Info: Now WTLV-12, NBC. Had switched to being an ABC affiliate, then back to NBC. Now part of Gannett duopoly that owns the NBC and ABC affiliates in Jacksonville. WFGA-TV (which stood for “We’re Florida and GeorgiA”), was the first television station in the United States designed for color broadcasting. WFGA was the first station to broadcast live rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, and provided pool coverage for the networks. Here’s a story detailing WFGA’s history with space launches. WFGA was also instrumental in getting public television going in Jacksonville, donating tower space, money and facilities for station WJCT.

=== 1958 ===

WLOF-TV, Channel 9

Sign-on: Feb. 1, 1958
Original Network: ABC
Info: Now known as WFTV-9, ABC. Changed its call letters to WFTV in 1963. WLOF stood for “We Love Orlando Florida.” WFTV was for “Wonderful Florida Television.”

WEDU, Channel 3

Sign-on: Oct. 17, 1958
Original Network: NET (National Educational Television).
Info: The station is still on the air today as the Tampa Bay area’s primary PBS affiliate.

WUFT, Channel 5

Sign-on: Nov. 10, 1958
Original Network: NET (National Educational Television).
Info:  WUFT, owned by the University of Florida, first signed on the air as North Central Florida’s first television station. It became a PBS affiliate on Oct. 5, 1970

Information compiled from sources on the Web — including Wikipedia.org — and in print.

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