Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ashtabula's "Beacon" of Entertainment-Part One

Today's Article is about WICA-TV 15 in Ashtabula, Ohio. C. A. Richard D and David C. Rowley had operated WICA-970 AM in Ashtabula since the 1937 and WICA-FM since well as the Ashtabula Star Beacon Newspaper..Below is an account of the History of WICA-TV as reported by Carl Feather in the Star-Beacon in 1995..It highlights the unique difficulties at the time..Being UHF, Kind of in a no man's land geographically.The difficulty of lining up sponors, network affiliation, etc..

WICA-TV History
By Carl Feather
Ashtabula Star-Beacon

Turn back 40 years, to Jan. 9, 1955. Supper dishes are done. Your high-fat, high- cholesterol meat-and-potatoes meal is beginning to settle down. You walk into the living room and turn your new television on _ a Philco 21-inch set housed in a maple cabinet. It's the centerpiece of your living room, and rightly so. It set you back $454.95, plus tax.Your new set is of the latest design, for it features a UHF tuner that reaches above the paltry 12 channels on VHF to the ultra-high frequencies (UHF) of television land. Your acquisition of the set has made you very popular with relatives and neighbors. During the holidays, there was a constant parade of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and shirttail relatives who stopped by watch your set, one of the few in the neighborhood with UHF capabilities.But tonight, it's just the spouse and kids. You glance at your watch, note the time and turn the set on. The tiny dot in the middle of the screen grows steadily until its ghastly glow probes every corner of the room. The speaker crackles and hisses as you turn the tuner to the magic number on the UHF dial, "15."You're just in time for the sign-on of WICA-TV, Channel 15, broadcasting live from its modern studios on Jefferson Road in Ashtabula. You tinker with the fine tuning dial on your set until the picture is clear (for the time being). Then you settle down in the easy chair and get ready for the news. Announcer Charles Mandrake comes on the screen with a picture of the U.S. Capitol behind him. In the news tonight: Frank J. Lausche was sworn in as Ohio's 5-term governor; Diamond-Alkali in Painesville announces plans to locate a radiation research center in Painesville; and 2-year-old Larry Knapp of Andover removed the labels from all the cans in his mother's cupboard, making a guessing game out of meal preparation.At 6:40 p.m., the signature tune of "Music for You" announces that it's time for a visit with Mrs. Fern Dingley and her local guest artists, Mario Brindzi and Mrs. Vincent Gigliotti. You doze and read the paper while Brindzi sings "The Lace-Edged Shawl" and Gigliotti gives her cello arrangement of Handel's "Largo."Your favorite show comes on at 7:30 p.m., "I Led Three Lives," a half-hour drama about an American who posed as a Communist. It's a regular on Monday nights and one of the few big-name WICA_TV programs.At 8:30 p.m., another film program, "The Big Picture," informs you about the activities of the South Korean Army. Halfway through the show, the film breaks and your screen turns white. The infamous, "One moment please" slide appears.Mandrake returns to the screen at 9 p.m. with a final update on the news, and the station signs off for another day. Your time in front of the TV screen is limited not by your couch potato discipline, but the availability of material on the local channel.It has been exciting to watch this hatcheling medium peck its way out of the shell and into your living room. For now, you are content to have an image, any image on your screen. But in a few months, the constant parade of mediocre talent, public service films and cowboy movies no longer entertain. The stronger signals of the Cleveland and Erie television stations carrying network programming to your living room woo you from your initial allegiance to the local station. Then one evening in the summer of 1956, you turn back to Channel 15 out of curiosity.Only snow greets you.

The history of television broadcasting in Ashtabula County is a short but fascinating one. WICA-TV beamed its first program, Charles Mandrake's newscast, over the airwaves 6 p.m. Sept. 19, 1953. No public announcement of its final telecast appears to have been made, but The Star-Beacon last printed a TV grid for the local station June 21, 1956. The station returned to the airwaves briefly in the mid-1960s. Many of the same factors that doomed it a decade before put it off the air again in 1967, this time for good.In the early 1950s, however, the prospects for a local television station were very bright. Prior to 1952, television stations had been limited to large markets and a narrow band, VHF, or very high frequencies. Stations in Cleveland and Erie, Pa., tried to service this area, but the long distances, poor receiving equipment and weak radiated power of the stations made reception poor, at best.The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) controlled the allocation of television channels. The small number of channels in the VHF band made it very unlikely that a community the size of Ashtabula would be assigned a channel. Indeed, as the number of stations grew in metropolitan markets, so did interference between stations occupying the same channel in neighboring cities. The problem became so great that in September 1948, the FCC placed a freeze on new television station licenses.But research by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in the late 1940s offered hope. Their answer was the UHF band, which would open up channels 14 to 83 (VHF is assigned 2 through 13).On Dec. 30, 1949, experimental station KC2XAK in Stratford, Conn., rebroadcast the VHF signal from New York station WNBT on the UHF band. Fifty experimental UHF receivers built for occasion were placed in homes, businesses and other locations around the community to assess the quality of the reception. Shortly thereafter, the first commercial UHF station, in Portland, Oregon, went on the air.Local media entrepreneurs Robert B. and Donald C. Rowley watched these developments with acquisitive interest. Their father, the late C.A. Rowley, had laid the groundwork for a media empire in Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga counties. Rowley's AM radio station, WICA, went on the air in 1937 (see page B2 for a look at the radio side of WICA). In 1940, C.A. Rowley made preparations for the addition of an FM station, a dream he did not live to see fulfilled. Rowley died Aug. 10, 1945.But his sons sustained the dream. By 1949, WICA-AM and WREO-FM were broadcasting 18 hours a day, with the FM station boasting 48,000 watts, the second most powerful station in Ohio. But the AM station was stymied by FCC regulations that focused its broadcast pattern on Lake Erie and the southern regions of the county to avoid infringing upon stations from Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The signal fell off substantially beyond Saybrook Township to the west and Kingsville Township to the east.Frank Bernato, who was engineer for the radio stations, said he recalls going to Washington D.C. with the Rowley brothers to plead their case before the FCC. Bernato said the FCC officials recommended WICA apply for a spot on the UHF band and assured the Rowleys that Ashtabula would be given a favorable channel, close to those on the VHF band. The Rowleys filed their application _ and waited.Meanwhile, UHF technology improved and the FCC eventually lifted its freeze on new stations. The FCC's new allocation plan, announced in April 1952, provided for 2,053 television stations in 1,291 communities in the United States, its territories and possessions. The agency's plan would put a television station in virtually any region of the nation. True to their word, the FCC assigned Ashtabula an excellent spot on the UHF spectrum, Channel 15.

Robert Rowley died in 1950, leaving Donald as president of WICA Inc. and publisher of four Northeastern Ohio newspapers, including The Star-Beacon. Rowley needed a man to take over the organization of the new television channel, and selected John A. Colin for the job. Colin had served as legal counsel for the media conglomerate and had always been interested in the newspaper and broadcasting business.Colin was named general manager of WICA-TV. He began laying the groundwork for a new station, from filing the FCC paperwork to planning the layout of transmitters, film chains and the studio. This was concurrent with the station moving its radio studios from Center Street in Ashtabula to Jefferson Road, which would also become the location of the television studios and transmitter.Another task assigned to Colin was negotiate an affiliation with a major television network. Network affiliation would be essential to the economic survival of a new station. With it would come the popular programming of the day, but more importantly, the national advertising dollars that would pay the electricity bills, purchase the equipment and compensate the employees.But networks were not interested in spending their money or efforts in a market the size of Ashtabula's."This was one of our great problems," said Colin, who still maintains a law practice in Ashtabula. "I had to visit New York, Chicago and other cities to get these networks to give us an affiliation. The closest we came to getting one was either CBS or ABC, but no promises."Even without network affiliation, the station's management decided to move ahead on the project. Colin said Rowley was committed to making WICA-TV a local television station that would feature hometown talent and address community issues. The absence of network programming would be compensated for by running free public service films and renting low-budget motion pictures from film services."He became convinced we didn't have to have a network," said Bernato. "We could get a lot of free stuff, old movies, cowboys and wrestling shows. It think that hurt us. People wanted something better."

Courtesy Ashtabula Star Beacon Archives..
Part 2 to follow

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