Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ashtabula's "Beacon" of Entertainment-Conclusion

The conclusion of the History Of WICA-TV 15 in Ashtabula..

Carl Feather
Ashtabula Star-Beacon

It didn't take long for the novelty of local television to wear off and the frustrations of UHF reception to wear thin. By 1955 the fascination of seeing your neighbor sing on a 21-inch screen was no longer enough to get you to turn to Channel 15 or convince a local advertiser to purchase time on WICA-TV.Consider the WICA programming lineup for Jan. 10, 1955. After the news and weather, viewers were treated to "Telecomics," "Americana," a film program by "The Christophers," "Your Business" and a full hour of wrestling (film).That same night, network affiliates from Cleveland and Erie, Pa., were beaming "Dinah Shore," "Milton Berle," "Fireside Theatre," "Warner Brothers Presents," "Wyatt Earp," "Danny Thomas," "The Phil Silvers Show," "Red Skelton" and "The $64,000 Question."Three years earlier, signals from these affiliate would have been no competition for local programming. Snow, ghost images and other symptoms of a waning signal would have marred viewing.But John Colin, who was general manager of WICA-TV, said that the FCC granted the VHF stations substantial power increases shortly after the local UHF channels started going on the air. Not only could these small stations not access the network's programming and advertising dollars, they had to compete against them."Lo and behold, just about this time, the FCC allowed VHF stations all over the country to come in with full power enough to encompass us and get the picture we get today," Colin said. "When the FCC did this, there were 100 or more stations that went off the air, they couldn't handle this."The financial loses were tremendous."The equipment we had was the best money could buy," said Frank Bernato, who was station engineer. "I understand that Rowley invested $250,000 in equipment."Signal strength, however, was not an issue. Colin has in his possession letters from viewers in New York, Michigan, Indiana and Connecticut reporting reception of Channel 15's signal."The problem with UHF was we simply couldn't get enough viewers in the area to make the business pay," said John Strasen, former WICA-TV program director. "You got to have a bunch of people watching if you wanted to sell ads, and that's what it was all about."
WICA-TV plodded along with programming that became increasingly boring and inexpensive. According to program grids published in The Star-Beacon, the last day of broadcast was June 16, 1956. Programming included a full hour of "Home Town Teens," featuring "Five Kings," "The Barnyard Five" and "Vlock-Dahl Quartet" _ hardly any competition for "The Lone Ranger," "Dinah Shore" "You Bet Your Life."In contrast to the yearlong build-up that preceded its arrival, WICA-TV left the air without fanfare. The novelty had become a nuisance."Bingo, we were off the air," said Donald Fassett, who was business manager. "It surprised all of us.""I hate to be negative about it, but for a small town like this, it was state of the art," said Charles Mandrake, former assistant program director for WICA-TV. "It was similar to the early days of sound recording. All it had to do was make a noise and people would be fascinated. I have to compare the early days of television's local stations to that."Since most of the television personnel were doing double duty on the radio, the demise of WICA-TV was no big loss to them."I think there was a sigh of relief among the staff," said John Strasen, former program director. "I worked the better part of another year clearing up the debris _ mostly empty film cans and stuff that had piled up all over. I returned the free films before they got lost. There was a pile of them. Oh, gee, what a job that was."
Channel 15 remained blank in Ashtabula County for over eight years. But the Rowley Family held on to the license, keeping UHF competition from elbowing into their broadcasting turf.In 1964 Colin and public school superintendents in Ashtabula County began to explore the feasibility of using the channel for educational television. Articles of incorporation for The Ashtabula County Educational Television Foundation were filed and its trustees traveled to demonstration sites to observe educational television at work.But enthusiasm for the project waned and it was put on hold until 1967. In the meantime, station management attempted one last attempt at reviving local television. Without fanfare, at 3:45 p.m. Dec. 15, 1965, the 363-foot tower on Jefferson Road began beaming television programming to Ashtabula County homes.Starting out with a minimum of 2^2 hours of programming a day, Monday through Friday, station management promised to air programs of local interest featuring local artists and community leaders as well as programs of general interest. It sounded like the same, tired format all over again.But the environment for a local UHF station looked favorable. Congress had passed a law that required television sets manufactured after January 1963 be equipped to receive UHF and VHF. Videotape equipment was coming down in size, making location taping of commercials and local events possible."All manufacturers of sets had to put UHF on them," said Colin. "We thought it would be much easier."Still, WICA would return to the air without the benefit of network affiliation. And it was a black-and-white station in a medium that was making the transition to color. Further, within a couple years cable television would be available in Ashtabula, providing 12 VHF and UHF channels without an antenna. And the station limited its broadcast schedule to weekdays.In April 1966 the station expanded its hours to fill a 3:45 to 8:30 p.m. time slot. Eventually, the programming would be extended until 11 p.m., but the content was mediocre, at best.The April 4, 1966, lineup on WICA-TV was: news, weather and sports; "The Stewardess Story; "With All Good Wishes," "Suspension Bridge," "Now and Forever," news and weather, "Big Band Bash," sports and "Theater 15."Eventually, "Theater 15" would be expanded to consume four of the seven hours of WICA programming. Promising "full length films produced since 1958," "Theater 15" also had the nasty practice of running the films twice in one week."This is similar in philosophy to that used by theaters and will give viewers two chances to see a movie," explained Robert Rowley, business manager, in a newspaper story.The titles of the some of the Theater 15 films suggest mediocrity and low rental rates: "Crime in the Streets," "The Accursed," "Samson and the Sea Beast," "Temple of White Elephants" and "Black Sunday."The station continued to operate with one studio camera, the same antiquated unit whose technology had imposed severe limitations on local broadcasting a decade before. The purchase of a portable Vidicon camera in 1967 was touted as a way to bring local events to the television audience. Rowley was quoted in a newspaper story as saying, "We plan to utilize a portable mobile unit embodying the camera and new tape machine which we can take to all local events of importance."The station bowed off the air later that year, Dec. 26, 1967, with an unimpressive lineup of programming for the night: "Taur the Mighty," "Death Valley Days," "The Saracens.""After the second time, we left the license go, once there was no more hope for the educational television project," Colin said.The station's equipment was sold to other stations or donated to schools. The only physical reminder of the station's existence is the 53-foot UHF broadcasting antenna that rises above the FM pylon.The electromagnetic waves that once emanated from the Channel 15 tower have dissipated into the ether of broadcasting eternity. No videotapes or kinescopes of "The Hoot and Holler Gang," "Happiland" or any of the other locally produced programs exist. The memories of those days are getting dimmer, fading to black like the tiny dot on the 1953 Philco that once filled our living rooms with the joys and sorrows of baby television.

Ashtabula Star-Beacon Archives...
Great resource for Historical articles on Ashtabula County

Link to Archives..

These articles were originally published in the Star-Beacon January 16, 1995

There were a lot of grand ideas for Local Television in Ashtabula County in the 1950's and 60's. The WICA folks should be honored for the effort they put in..The main thing is..having entertaining programming and sponsor wonders what might have happened if the Rowleys had not kept the license..Who else might have come in and tried to put it on the air..I think it would definitely be on the air in some form by now..

1 comment:

  1. Tim ---- Thanks for the WICA TV history. That was great ! The article didn't mention that the unused television Channel 15 in Ashtabula was reallocated to land mobile (2-way radio) use in Cleveland in the mid 1970s....ending any hope for a TV broadcaster to resume operation. Had this not happened, there is no doubt that someone would've put the channel back on the air as a full-power 5 MW UHF running Fox, WB, UPN, TBN, home shopping, whatever. It might've made a good "rim shot" into Erie, Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown markets assuming it could've been licensed at high power without opposition from Canada and gotten must-carry on enough cable systems.