by K.M. Richards
George B. Storer had a problem.
It was 1953, nearly 30 years since he had purchased his first radio station (WSPD/1370 in Toledo OH), and in the intervening three decades he had built up a formidable broadcasting empire, including WGBS/710 and WGBS-FM/96.3 in Miami, the city that Storer Broadcasting Company's headquarters called home. But he had been stymied in his attempts to also own a television station in that growing market; because the comparative hearings for channel 10 were taking place concurrently with the FCC's deliberation on station ownership limits, and Storer already owned television stations in Atlanta, Detroit, Toledo and San Antonio with the purchase of a station in Birmingham pending, his application for the Miami station was first withdrawn, then resubmitted with an offer to divest an existing station if granted channel 10, and dismissed. Although Storer requested reconsideration of the dismissal on the grounds that the Commission unfairly applied the ownership rules -- it was the first instance of them being applied to an application that had not yet been granted -- the refiling was dismissed by a full Memorandum and Order three days before Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, in adjacent Fort Lauderdale, UHF stations WFTL-TV/23 and WITV/17 had gone on the air in the course of 1953 (in April and November, respectively). When the FCC proposed at year's end to allow ownership of two UHF stations by groups that already owned five VHFs, Storer saw his opportunity.
The hearings for the proposed rulemaking on ownership limits dragged on through most of 1954, including a separate set of hearings in the U.S. Senate because one of their number -- Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado -- was opposed to the idea, calling it a "wicked give-away" that would lead to "brazen television monopoly." (The subcommittee assigned to hold the Senate hearings gave the proposal a general endorsement, much to Johnson's dismay.) It wasn't until the end of September that the FCC approved the new limits, by which time Storer was challenging the existing rules in a federal court appeal of the Miami application dismissal.
But as I said, Storer saw an opportunity ... and he took it: The ink was barely dry on the Commission's limits revision when he made his move, and it was a clever one at that. WMIE-TV had been granted channel 27 but had not begun construction because the Miami "antenna farm" (where all of the area stations had co-located, to facilitate receiving antenna orientation) could not accommodate both it and WFTL-TV due to minimum mileage separation requirements for UHF stations four channels apart from each other. In a plan similar to one that had been discussed earlier in the year by the stations involved, Storer purchased the WMIE-TV CP and WFTL-TV's facilities, then filed for WFTL-TV to be reassigned to channel 39 and go dark, with WMIE-TV then reassigned to channel 23 and going on the air as WGBS-TV with a test pattern on December 29, 1954 from WFTL-TV's transmitter site, and with programming a little over a week later on January 7, 1955. (The now-former owners of WFTL-TV surrendered their CP at the end of March the following year.)
Since Storer's Toledo station WSPD-TV/13 had been an affiliate of NBC from the day it signed on in 1948 and the network had only gotten piecemeal clearance in Miami on CBS affiliate WTVJ/4, WGBS-TV signed on as a full schedule NBC affiliate. This prompted would-be competitor WMFL/33 -- who had yet to begin construction on their own station -- to file a petition for reconsideration of the WMIE-TV/WFTL-TV deal, charging that Storer had only purchased channel 23 to get the NBC affiliation (they claimed they had been told no affiliation would be offered in Miami until the remaining VHF channels were granted) and also that Storer planned to sell single-channel UHF converters only able to receive WGBS-TV, manufactured by Storer subsidiary Empire Coil Company. The petition was denied in April by the FCC on the basis of WMFL's failure to sustain the burden of proof (and a counter-charge by Storer that WMFL had offered to not file the challenge if they were allowed to transmit from the channel 23 tower at the antenna farm). WMFL went on to acquire WEAT-TV/12 West Palm Beach in 1957, surrendering the channel 33 CP in the process.
But back to Storer: In February 1955 the U.S. Court of Appeals rendered its decision that the FCC could not define multiple ownership by blanket rule and that Storer should have received a hearing on its 1953 application for channel 10; the Commission subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court (which ruled in May 1956 against Storer, saying that "the Commission is not bound to provide a full hearing on all such applications"). By then, however, Storer was in the middle of the deintermixture proceeding with its own corporate ideas of how Miami's television dial should look ...
In April 1955 Storer filed comments on deintermixture, proposing that WTVJ be moved to channel 39; they were joined by WITV, on the presumption that in an all-UHF market they would be able to keep the ABC affiliation for Miami-Ft. Lauderdale (the rumors were that NBC "promised" to move to channel 7 when it went live, and ABC intended to affiliate with channel 10; since the UHF stations had 90-day cancellation clauses in their affiliation contracts, WITV said it would be "forced to discontinue operations" once those clauses were invoked). Storer withdrew the WTVJ petition a month later but reaffirmed its position that the existing unfilled VHF grants be moved to UHF and also refiled for channel 10, only to have the application returned by the FCC because the comparative hearings had already concluded. The Commission rejected Storer's position that the refiling was actually their original application, because Storer never appealed the original refusal two years earlier.
As the deintermixture comment process continued, Storer outlined its costs of establishing UHF's presence in Miami: $340,000 for the purchase of the WMIE-TV CP and WFTL-TV facilities, $114,790 improving those facilities (a new 500-foot tower and higher power transmitter), $238,380 for a new transmitting plant and purchase of site at the Miami antenna farm, $266,310 for a thousand-foot tower at the new site, $24,604 for promotion of UHF (including 12 canvassers of homes and dealers, newspaper promotion, and a five-man technical crew to supervise and inspect UHF installations). The expenses had resulted in Storer taking a $124,140 operating loss as of April 1955, but they did include the bright spots that Dade County's UHF conversion rate was up to 56% and WGBS-TV had a better signal than the one computed from FCC curves.
Come September, Storer and WITV filed for an injunction prohibiting the FCC from issuing decisions on VHF channels 7 and 10 until the deintermixture proposal had been considered; in the latter, Storer found itself with an unlikely ally. CMUR-TV/4 Havana claimed it was receiving interference from co-channel WTVJ, brought photos documenting the interference they said were taken in their Havana studios, and suggested Miami be made all-UHF. WTVJ called the claim "greatly exaggerated", saying it had received no reciprocating interference from the Cuban station, which reiterated its claims in November. The FCC's response was that when it worked out the 1952 allocations table, negotiations with Cuba had been "unsuccessful" and nothing further was heard from Havana on the so-called "co-channel interference" matter.
As expected, NBC moved its affiliation to WCKT/7 when it signed on July 26, 1956. That December, Storer disclosed an operating loss of $360,754 in the two years of WGBS-TV's existence. They took channel 23 dark the following April 13 and made a deal to sell their studio equipment and transmitter site to National Airlines, which had won the grant for channel 10 and was planning to go on the air as WPST-TV. Two weeks later, Storer sold the nation's first operating UHF station, KPTV/27 Portland OR (which they had acquired when they purchased Empire Coil) to the new owner of KLOR-TV/12 under an option secured at the same time as the channel 12 acquisition deal; KPTV went dark April 30 as the programming and call letters transferred to KLOR-TV.
In June WKAT/1360, another unsuccessful bidder for channel 10, filed a protest of the deal for WPST-TV to buy WGBS-TV's equipment with the Justice Department on grounds of antitrust law violations because $500,000 of the $600,000 purchase price was to be in notes over five-year period. The FCC, ignoring same, granted WPST-TV permission to use the WGBS-TV site and it went on the air from there August 2 (WITV, about to lose its ABC affiliation to channel 10 as it had feared, went dark May 11). That could have been the end of the story, but ...
A subsequent Congressional inquiry determined that National Airlines was guilty of having had ex parte communications with FCC Commissioner Richard Mack, who resigned after that determination in 1958, and the FCC revoked the channel 10 grant in July 1960; ironically, WKAT also was found to have had ex parte communications, as had a third applicant, and the fourth applicant (the only one found not to have attempted to influence the FCC) went on the air as WLBW-TV November 20, 1961 after WPST-TV was ordered to go dark, having lost their appeal of the FCC decision. (Mack came to a ignominious end said by some to be well-deserved under the circumstances; Television Digest reported that he was found dead of natural causes November 27, 1963 in a Miami skid row hotel, on a sheetless bed with 40¢ in his pocket.)
In 1965, appearing at an oral hearing with 19 other CP holders about their inactive status, Storer said it was willing to reactivate channel 23 "only if no new facilities or improvements are are granted in the Miami area." It reiterated that statement at the end of the year as it joined with other Miami-area broadcasters in opposing the proposed move of WPTV/5 West Palm Beach to a site closer to Miami with higher power, citing concerns on UHF development. Storer similarly objected to the May, 1966 proposal by WCIX/6 South Miami to change its city of license to Miami (with an increase in transmitting power) and repeated that WGBS-TV would not go back on the air "in the face of additional VHF competition."
By that time, the handwriting was on the wall, though. Storer sold the channel 23 CP in April, 1967 to Al Lapin, taking a $715,000 loss. Lapin returned the station to the air November 14 as WAJA-TV, only to see the studios gutted and its equipment destroyed in a fire March 23, 1968; remarkably, WAJA-TV returned to the air after only eight hours using replacement equipment intended for displays at that year's National Association of Broadcasters convention. By mid-1969, channel 23 was programming in Spanish 44 hours per week, and was sold to Spanish International Network (today's Univisión) at the beginning of 1971. SIN changed the call letters to the present WLTV three months after the sale.
For Lapin, the success of WAJA-TV came after having to surrender the construction permit in 1969 for KIHP-TV/14 Santa Barbara CA. At the time of the 1971 sale to SIN, he had also lost CPs in San Bernardino (also KIHP-TV/18), Jacksonville (WDUV-TV/30) and Phoenix (KGPA-TV/33), having also unsuccessfully applied for Us in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Chicago. The KIHP-TV call letters were a nod to his most successful business venture; he was the founder of the International House of Pancakes restaurant chain, best known by its acronym IHOP.
Site concept © Clarke Ingram. Site design by K.M. Richards.