WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO CHANNEL 1?
by John Reiser
Ever wonder why your television dial starts with Channel 2? Find out why in this brief look at the early days of television and how it all began.
WHEN A TELEVISION RECEIVER IS PURCHASED in the United States, you can take it anywhere in the country, plug it in, pull up the rabbit ears, and tune in a station. That is possible because we have national broadcasting standards that are common throughout the country. Yet, one time commercial television was going to be introduced to the American public without standards. Fortunately, that experiment ended before it even started. But let's not get ahead of the story!
UP TO 1937
During the first few months of 1933, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) demonstrated the first successful all-electronic television system. Broadcasts were made from the RCA experimental television transmitter, W2XBS, located at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. The characteristics of that early all-electronic television system were modest:
*Lines: 240 *Frames: 24 per second *Scanning: Sequential (no interlacing) *Bandwidth: 2 MHz *Video carrier: AM modulated, full sideband *Audio carrier: AM modulated, full sideband
Yet, the results were far better than any mechanical television system had ever accomplished. For those experiments, the video carrier was approximately 45 MHz.
It may be hard for us to appreciate fully what RCA had accomplished in 1933. But to give you an idea: Many of the experimental television broadcasts were still using frequencies in the 2 to 3 MHz range, and bandwidths of 100 kHz. In addition, the earlier systems were mechanical using gears, motors, mirrors, etc. As television advanced, each step pointed towards non-mechanical systems, and higher bandwidths and carrier frequencies.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established by an act of Congress on June 22, 1934. It was about that time that a portion of the VHF radio spectrum was allocated to television for the first time (see Table 1). Previously, any frequencies above 30 MHz was available to experimenters. Those experiments included a number of pioneering amateur radio operators; there were also experimental stations that included television. In 1934, the experimenters were moved to the frequencies above 100 MHz, while television was allocated to bands, 42-46 and 60-86 MHz. There were no channels associated with the allocations, but it was a beginning: television was making its first move.
Progress was slow for television during those years. The depression was at its worst, and even mighty RCA lost money. But advances were made in RCA's all-electronic system. In June 1936, RCA announced the start of a massive field test. A total of 100 experimental-television receivers were distributed to RCA employees for placement in their homes and offices. RCA began regular television broadcasts from W2XBS, using their new Radio City television studios. Those studios were linked to the Empire State Building transmitter by an experimental 177 MHz radio link and a coaxial cable. The composition of the television signal used for that test was as follows:
*Lines: 343 *Frames: 30 per second *Scanning: Interlaced (2:1) *Bandwidth: 5.75 MHz *Video carrier: AM modulated, full sideband *Audio carrier: AM modulated, full sideband
On June 15, 1936, the FCC began informal hearings concerning the radio spectrum above 30 MHz. There was an increasing demand for those frequencies and a new word began to be heard at the FCC; that word was standards. The Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA), the trade association for the radio and television equipment manufacturers, had formed a sub-committee on television. It attended the June 1936 hearings because of its interest in the possible future commercialization of television. In addition to urging definite channel allocations, the RMA had a set of television standards to present. Although those standards were incomplete in some respects, one important recommendation that the RMA made to the FCC was that the bandwidth of a television channel should be 6 MHz -- the same bandwidth that is used today. The RMA television standards were:
*Lines: 441 *Frames: 30 per second *Scanning: Sequential (no interlacing) *Bandwidth: 6 MHz *Video carrier: AM modulated, full sideband *Audio carrier: AM modulated, full sideband
It is interesting to note that the proposed 441-line standard was beyond the capabilities of any system that had been demonstrated up to that point. It wasn't until eight months later, on February 11, 1937; that a manufacturer (Philco) gave a convincing demonstration of a television system that completely met the RMA standards.
The FCC hearings that had started on June 15, 1936 resulted in the allocation of 19 television channels, each with a bandwidth of 6 MHz. The new allocations, which are shown in Table 1, became effective October 13, 1938. The RMA revised and completed its set of television standards, which were essential the same as the 1936 standards except for one important difference: the video carrier would be transmitted with a full upper sideband and only a partial lower sideband. That vestigial sideband system was eventually adopted by the FCC and is used today.
Television now had allocations and channel numbers. Our mysterious Channel 1 was assigned to the 44 to 50 MHz band as shown in Table 1. RCA’s experimental station quickly received a permit for one of those new television allocations and selected Channel 1.
The television industry was generally pleased with the FCC allocation of 19 TV channels. They were hoping for a continuous band of frequencies to simplify tuner design, and were somewhat disappointed that 10 of the 19 channels were above 150 MHz. Those frequencies were virtually unused, and thought to be useful only for television relay networks. But the seven channels between 44 and 108 MHz were enough to begin plans for commercial television operation. By then it was believed that the FCC would adopt the RMA standards and commercialization could begin. But not everybody agreed with the RMA standards, and the FCC wasn’t about to approve any standard unless the television industry was in almost total agreement.
On October 20, 1938, just one week after the allocations because effective, RCA announced that regular television programming would begin as a public service on April 30, 1939. That date coincided with the opening of the 1939 New York World's Fair. A number of manufacturers began producing television receivers, and by the opening of the fair they were in the stores and ready for sale. The opening ceremonies by RCA's W2XBS, and featured the President of the United States. After that event, broadcasts were scheduled on a regular basis.
By the end of May 1939, large department stores, such as Macy's in New York, offered as many as nine different models for sale, supplied by three manufacturers (Andrea, DuMont, and RCA). Screen sizes for those television sets ranged from 5 to 14 inches and prices ranged from $189.50 to $600.00. Most of the early sets were complete receivers, but one, the Model TT-5 from RCA had no audio section. If audio was desired, it had to be connected to a compatible RCA receiver. Unfortunately, sales of those early television sets were not very good, and by the end of 1939 fewer than 400 had been sold in the New York area.
All of the major television broadcasters (incidentally, the stations were still considered experimental) had adopted the RMA standards by the end of 1939. That included the stations in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Schenectady. The FCC was urged to adopt the RMA standards so that commercialization could begin. The FCC responded to the pressure from the television industry by publishing rules on December 22, 1939, for limited commercialization. It was a kind of Christmas present for the television industry.
HOW THE TELEVISION ALLOCATIONS have changed over the years.
This table shows the frequency (in Megahertz) allocation of VHF channels
At the time those rules were published, the FCC also announced that hearings would be held in January, before establishing a date for limited commercialization. At those hearings, it was made clear to the FCC that many of the broadcasters did not agree that the RMA standards were the best. Philco urged the FCC to adopt their system of television with 605 lines and 24 frames-per-second. DuMont wanted standards that included 625 lines and 15 frames-per-second. In addition, there was some vague talk about something-called color television. Nevertheless, in an order issued on February 29, 1940, the FCC rules that limited commercialization could begin on September 1st but warned that nothing should be done to encourage a large public investment in television receivers. It refused to adopt any standards, with the implication that each of the broadcasters could use whatever standards they liked best, with the public deciding who had the best system.
RCA responded to the authorization for limited commercialization with full-page newspaper ads in early March announcing the arrival of television, and ordered the immediate production of 25,000 television receivers. The FCC realized that limited commercialization wasn't going to work, as the sale of thousands of television sets would, in effect, freeze the standards, making a change to other standards almost impossible. Within a few days of the RCA newspaper ads, the FCC's permission for limited commercialization was withdrawn.
Television was also about to undergo some more changes. Major Edwin H. Armstrong had introduced his development of frequency modulation (FM), in 1935. Shortly after its introduction, five experimental frequencies between 42.6 and 43.4 MHz were allocated for FM. By 1940, the FCC had 150 applications for experimental FM stations on file that could not be processed because of lack of frequencies. As a result of hearings held on March 18, 1940, the FCC assigned FM a continuous band of frequencies (done to simplify tuner design), and expanded the FM allocation to include the frequencies from 42 to 50 MHz. The new allocation included the 44 to 50 MHz band that had previously been assigned to Channel 1.
But that is not what happened to Channel 1! The television channels were renumbered with Channel 1 now assigned to the 50-56 MHz band and the remaining channels were shifted around the spectrum. But when the smoke cleared, the television industry had lone one channel, leaving it with 18 allocations.
The new FM channels and the changes in the television allocations became effective on June 20, 1940. Commercial FM broadcasting was authorized to begin on January 1, 1941.
When the revised 18-channel television allocations went into effect, the television industry was unhappy, to say the least. The limited commercialization plan was suspended, the FCC continued its refusal to set television standards, and a television channel was lost to FM. Because of the changes in the allocations, many of the experimental television broadcasters had to go off the air to complete extensive transmitter changes. For example, the RCA experimental transmitter W2XBS, operating on the old Channel 1 (44-50 MHz) was forced to switch to the new Channel 1 (50-56 MHz) because of the changes.
However, soon after that things began to look up. A member of the RMA had met with the FCC to ask just what the television industry could do to win approval of a set of standards. The FCC replied that if the industry could agree on one set of standards, it would be approved without delay. Quickly, the RMA organized the National Television System Committee (NTSC). The NTSC was open to all major interests in the television field whether they were associated with the RMA or not. Eventually, over 160 individuals became associated with the NTSC. On July 31, 1940, under the RMA's sponsorship and with the FCC's blessing, the NTSC held its first meeting.
Those hearings were held on March 20, 1941. The NTSC standards that was presented at the hearing was almost identical to the one proposed earlier except that the number of lines was increased to 525 lines. (Although the selected number of scanning lines seemed to be arbitrary, it was not. The line count had to be an odd number and to be related to few multiples of odd numbers, such as 3x3x7x7 = 441 or 3x5x5x7=525, for example. That was necessary for generation of the synchronizing pulse.) The new standards was as follows:
*Lines: 525 *Frames: 30 per second *Scanning: interlaced (2:1) *Bandwidth: 6 MHz *Video carrier: AM modulated, vestigial sideband *Audio carrier: FM modulated, +/- 75 kHz deviation (later +/- 25 kHz deviation)
Virtually all of the participants in the hearings (they went on for four days) agreed that the NTSC Standards were correct and should be adopted quickly. The FCC was convinced that the industry had finally agreed and the NTSC Standards were adopted as the national standard in April 1941. The effective date was July 1, 1941. Commercial television could finally begin!
When that Opening Day for commercial television finally arrived, only two television stations were licensed and ready for operation; WNBT (NBC, old W2XBS) transmitting on Channel 1 and WCBW (CBS, old W2SAS) transmitting on Channel 2. Both of these stations were in New York City. Soon after WPTZ in Philadelphia started transmitting September 1, 1941, using on Channel 3. By the spring of 1942, a total of four commercial stations were in full operation and 10,000 television receivers had been sold.
World War II halted television's growth, when the Defense Communications Board ordered construction of new radio and television stations to end. Television programming was reduced to just four hours per week for the broadcasters already in operation (all devoted to war-related activities).
As the end of the war approached, the FCC was faced with a monumental task. The war effort had brought about an extraordinary leap in communications technology. Frequencies that had been thought to be useless were now in tremendous demand. The entire spectrum had to be re-examined, with new allocations made and old ones revised. The FCC began holding hearings on September 28, 1944. It was promptly overwhelmed. The 18-channel television allocations in effect since 1940 were attacked by one group as being wasteful of the valuable VHF spectrum, yet another group urged in increase to 26 channels. Others urged the FCC to immediately move all television allocations to UHF frequencies. But the television industry argued that television had waited long enough and should develop now, using the existing allocations.
After hearings that were held on February 14, 1945, it became clear that no group was going to get everything it wanted. In the FCC's final decision, released on June 27, 1945, television's allocation was reduced to 13 channels and FM was moved from the 42-50 MHz slot to 88-106 MHz, later extended to 108 MHz. The television interests were very unhappy that they had been left with only 13 channels, but the FM interest suffered a major blow because all of the existing stations had to go off the air and switch to new frequencies. In addition, 500,000 home FM receivers were now obsolete.
The reduction to 13 television channels was accompanied by new and reorganized frequency allocations (see Table 1). Again broadcasters had to go off the air to switch frequencies.
Our Channel 1 was still around, but it was moved back to the 44-50 MHz band that it had occupied from 1938 to 1940. In addition, there was a restriction on assigning Channel 1: It could only be used as a community channel, and power limited to 1,000 watts. Other television channels were for metropolitan stations, with a maximum power of 50,000 watts permitted. All channels, except Channel 6, were shared with fixed and mobile services -- a fact that left the television interest concerned about interference. The changes became effective March 1, 1946.
Even with the reduced number of channels, the boom was on. Manufacturers quickly began producing television receivers, transmitters, antennas, etc. New television stations were built all over the United States. The FCC had identified the top 140 metropolitan cities and assigned each at least one channel; a total of 400 were to be allotted. The FCC received many more applications than it had available channels. In an effort to provide with as many channels as possible, the FCC routinely threw away the safety factor of mileage between licensed transmitters. Television receiver sales were doing very well, with 175,000 sold by the end of 1947. Manufacturers were selling television sets as fast as they could be made, even though they were rather expensive. (A typical set with a 10-inch screen sold for $375.)
But problems began to appear. Propagation theories at that time predicted that television signals would not be received over the horizon -- but they were, quite readily. So, even with just 50 stations on the air, interference problems were beginning to appear. Meanwhile, the FCC had reduced the minimum distance between stations using the same channel to just 80 miles. An engineering study released by the FCC warned of interference problems if immediate action wasn't taken. That lead to an FCC report issued on may 5, 1949, that rules that television could no longer share its frequencies with fixed and mobile services, and that the 72 to 76 MHz band could be used for fixed radio services only.
But where could the mobile services be located if they could no longer share the television allocations, and could no longer be used for use the 72 to 76 MHz band? There was only one place to go -- the television industry would have to give up another television channel. But which channel would that be? The American Radio Relay League (an association of amateur radio operators) urged that Channel 2 be deleted so that the second harmonics of the 28-29.7 MHz amateur radio band would not interfere with television reception. The television industry, although not pleased about loosing yet another television channel, agreed that 12 clear channels were preferable to 12 shared channels. If they had to loose a channel, they preferred that it be Channel 1, because its absence would have the least impact on commercial television.
The FCC went along with the television industry's position, and on June 14, 1948, Channel 1 was deleted from the allocation plan. Channel 1's frequencies were assigned to the land and mobile services. At the same time, the FCC decided not to renumber the channels -- that is what happened to Channel 1.
Based on a March 1982 issue of Radio Electronics Magazine.
Edited and expanded by J. W. Reiser, FCC International Bureau