UHF in Buffalo

The novelty of television was still very fresh as Buffalo viewers luxuriated in the summer of 1953. For the preceding five years, TV in Western New York had been simply WBEN-TV (Channel 4).

A splendid array of inventive local programming, as well as top network offerings from CBS, NBC. ABC and DuMount, was pumped out each day by our Buffalo Evening News station. Yet, the marketplace yearned for the possibility of more. The development of Ultra High Frequency (UHF) technology was eagerly anticipated as the best chance yet to break Channel 4’s monopoly on the hearts, minds, and bug eyes of the Buffalo TV audience.

As UHF verged on becoming a solid reality rather than just a sweet dream, two prospective stations began a competitive fandango for the honor of going head-to-head with the WBEN powerhouse. It was a Texas death-match between WBUF-TV (Channel 17) and WBES-TV (Channel 59).

In 1952, a group of Buffalo bigwigs undertook a careful study of our town’s one-channel monopoly. Then, they acted quickly. Charles Diebold, president of the Western Savings Bank; Joseph Davis, president of Davis Heating and Refrigerating; and attorney Vincent Gaughan, formed the Buffalo-Niagara Television Corp.. in the hope of launching the area’s first UHF outlet. In December 1952 the FCC granted the company a license to broadcast on Channel 59. The sixth floor of the Hotel Lafayette soon would be transformed into the studios and transmitter of WBES-TV (The calls letters stood for “the BESt in Television.”

But the Channel 59 group wasn’t the only outfit banking on UHF. Sherwin Grossman, teaming up with childhood pal Gary Cohen, petitioned to establish a UHF station in Jamestown. One potential investor asked why the men didn’t simply aim their bankroll at the bigger richer of of gold in Buffalo instead. And so they did.

In December of 1952, the FCC granted Grossman and Cohen a construction permit for Buffalo. Coined “Buffalo Television City” by Grossman, 184 Barton Street was chosen to house WBUF-TV, Channel 17. Now there were two UHF stations under construction in Buffalo during the opening months of 1953. The race was on.

It took only until August 17, 1953, for Channel 17 to sign-on with a bare-bones roster of 2 hours of programming from 7 to 9 p.m. Two CBS programs – a 15-minute newscast and “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” – were among the audience draws. Daily programming was drastically limited to allow for testing to solve audio problems. Within days after Channel 17 became Buffalo’s first television station, the Courier Express reported that more than 1,000 UHF conversions were made through the sale of “television-top” receivers. The Channel 17 bosses claimed an average of 200 inquires an hour from viewers asking about proper antenna installations.

Meanwhile, the progress of rival Channel 59 was impeded by construction and technical snafus. By August 1953, however, WBES-TV’s 428-foot tower began to rise atop the Lafayette. The station was criticized by the Courier for “a curtain of silence” regarding news of Channel 59’s progress. This was possibly due to the lack of a network affiliation agreement and the owners’ attempt to be non-committal until they themselves knew what was going to happen. The Courier angrily huffed: “As to Why, What and When, we find none forthcoming. In fact, WBES has apparently decided not to answer the phone!”

At the Lafayette, WBES planned to use the hotel ballroom as its main studio, a crafty ploy to augment the station’s small penthouse location. Situated on those upper floors were the transmitter, projection, film and editing rooms, an engineering workshop, dressing rooms, management offices and reception area.

WBES broke their silence when they took out a full-page newspaper ad to trumpet the station’s upcoming sign-on. The ad proclaimed “Life Begins at 59.” Supposedly dedicated to community service, Channel 59 debuted on Sept. 29, 1953, a scant 6 weeks behind Channel 17. The station’s maiden program was the National Community Chest’s “All-Star Red Feather Show,” followed by the “NBC Weekly News Review.” Also on the schedule: “Hopalong Cassidy,” “Times Square Playhouse” and local news with longtime radio sports personality Roger Baker.

The sky collapsed on Channel 59 almost immediately. Poor advertising sales and mounting debt triggered a stockholder revolt. On December 19, 1953, less than 3 months after signing on, WBES folded up its tent, returning its license to the FCC.

UHF in Buffalo now was knee-deep in the blues. On the heels of Channel 59’s vanishing act, lone UHF survivor Channel 17 boosted its power 12-fold with a new transmitter. The power boost enabled viewers to receiver the WBUF signal with indoor rabbit ears instead of an outdoor antenna, thus lowering conversion costs.

Nevertheless, Channel 17 now faced genuine misery in the form of another competitor, this time on the premier VHF band. Sharing Channel 17’s Barton Street studios and using the vacated Channel 59 tower atop the Lafayette, WGR-TV (Channel 2) took to the air on August 14, 1954, as a primary NBC affiliate. This arrangement with NBC was to last only 2 years, as Buffalo was in store for still another shake up on the UHF landscape.

In 1955, troubled by the hellacious flow of red ink, Channel 17 co-owner Sherwin Grossman gave up on UHF and took a shot at securing Buffalo’s final VHF allocation (Channel 7). Almost simultaneously, Grossman took Channel 17 off the air. Furthermore, as a hedge, Grossman started negotiating to sell Channel 17 to the National Broadcasting Company. In September 1955, NBC shocked Buffalo by buying Channel 17 for $312,500. NBC promptly changed WBUF’s transmitter and studio locations and installed a new antenna system.

NBC’s purchase_ of Channel 17 was a savage body blow for Channel 2. WGR-TV’s NBC affiliation contract expired within months – and suddenly little Channel 17 became Buffalo’s sole NBC outlet. That temporarily left Channel 2 without a major network to supply programming.

NBC invested more than $2 million in Channel 17. That included a new “Television Center” at 2077 Elmwood Ave. On Jan. 9, 1956, Channel 17 returned to the air. Nine months later, the gala station rededication was keynoted by a live Buffalo origination of “The Today Show” with Dave Garroway and sidekick chimp J. Fred Muggs.

Also in 1956, NBC prevailed on superstar Steve Allen to devote a valuable minute of his sensational Sunday night comedy variety hour to the throwing of a ceremonial switch that would goose Channel 17’s power to a then-unfathomable 1 million watts.

It all went for naught. Even with the financial clout of a wealthy network, UHF still was a money loser. NBC made the outlandish claim that WBUF had achieved an 82% conversion rate in the city. However, that questionable statistic meant _ nothing in a market where two strong VHF stations, WBEN-TV and WGR-TV, already were firmly dug in. It would not be until 1964, when the FCC required all new televisions to come equipped with all-channel receivers that UHF could penetrate satisfactorily.

NBC pulled the plug on its Buffalo UHF experiment on September 30, 1958. It wouldn’t be until March 1959 that viewers got the chance to dust off their old converters to dial up a new Channel 17 – WNED-TV, which stands for Western New York Education Television.

As for the large structure on Elmwood, NBC’s former WBUF “Television Center”, it stayed vacant until 1960 when WBEN-AM-FM-TV moved in and expanded the facility. Channel 4 still broadcasts from that site today (2006).