Forty-four years ago this month, a huge television antenna tower came crashing down in Bithlo and shook up Orlando TV forever.
Owned by WDBO-TV Channel 6 and WFTV-Channel 9, the 1,484-foot tower built in 1969 was the tallest structure in Florida. More than 560 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower and nearly 230 feet taller than the Empire State Building, the $500,000 Bithlo TV tower was called the tallest structure on the planet at one point. But just after noon on June 8, 1973, as workers were preparing to install an antenna for educational station WMFE-Channel 24, the tower collapsed into a massive pile of twisted steel and cables. Two workers were killed in the accident, and structural failure was cited as the cause.
Channels 6 and 9 were immediately knocked off the air, as were radio stations WDIZ-FM and WDBO-FM, who also had antennas on the tower.
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WDBO-TV was able to switch on its 1950s-era TV tower on Texas Avenue, and WMFE kept using its old, low-power tower in Winter Garden. But WFTV expected to be off the air for weeks until it could find a broadcasting solution. There was even talk of the entire WFTV staff going on vacation until the tower situation was solved.
But on June 11, WFTV was able to return to the air in just three days thanks to a “borrowed” 230-foot tower that Southern Bell trucked to Orlando from Atlanta. According to an Orlando Sentinel report, Channel 9 general manager Walt Windsor “said he thought the tower’s signal would reach Brevard County, but termed the Daytona Beach area ‘critical. We really don’t expect that much from this setup.'”
WFTV’s borrowed tower would eventually be replaced by another temporary tower, and then the eventual replacement for the destroyed tower.
Construction of the new Bithlo TV tower — even taller than the first at 1,608 feet — took more than two years. It was topped off on Oct. 10, 1975. Shortly thereafter, WFTV started broadcasting from it on Oct. 26. WDBO-TV and WDBO-FM followed, and WMFE finally moved its antenna to the tower in early November.
But during the period when Orlando-based WDBO and WFTV had to broadcast much weaker signals from their temporary towers, a shift occurred in Central Florida TV audience. WESH-Channel 2, whose tower was located in Orange City, had the strongest signal in the region and became a ratings favorite among the region’s viewers.
One footnote: The day the tower came crashing down, WFTV had just finished broadcasting a special live news event: Embattled President Richard Nixon had come to Orlando to give the commencement address at Florida Technological University, now known as FTU. There was no film at 11, as they used to say.