Fifty Years Of UHF TV

Fifty years ago, on April 11, 1952, the FCC adopted its Sixth Report and Order (R&O). It was published in the Federal Register on May 2, 1952. This landmark ruling completely reshaped the television broadcast industry. The sixth R&O was a culmination of a series of issues (Dockets 8736, 8975, 8976, and 9175) confronting the FCC. These included the ending the 1948 TV application "freeze," the opening of the UHF band for TV, a massive table of assignments and other allocation criteria, the reassignment of dozens of VHF stations to reduce interference, and the establishment of non-commercial educational television by reserving channels in hundreds of communities.

Fifty years ago, visionaries at both commercial and educational organizations had the foresight to press hard to obtain more channels, adopt technical standards, develop new reception and transmission technology, and make changes when necessary. It was a time when receiver technology was in its infancy, transmission systems were expensive, and public interest was as high on the minds of broadcasters as broadcasting was on the minds of public. By 1952, there were over 17 million VHF-only black and white TV receivers for a population of 150 million people.

From the title "Sixth Report & Order" it is apparent that other reports preceded this one. Indeed, the series of dockets began by an order adopted on September 30, 1948 to "freeze" processing and construction of 420 proposed new TV stations until current problems with VHF allocations and new technical rules could be worked out.

After the freeze, the first R&O, adopted September 1, 1950, discussed the merits and shortcomings of three color television systems vying for adoption. The FCC was concerned that color developments were not sufficiently good enough and that seven million black and white receivers could be made obsolete. While the commission leaned toward the non-compatible CBS system, a Notice of Proposed Rule Making was issued requesting information on the feasibility of multi-system and multi-line format receivers. It was noted in the order that the RETMA (Radio Electronic Television Manufacturers Association) was in a position to determine whether compatible receivers could be developed for the transmission and reception of color and black and white signals.

In the second R&O, adopted October 10, 1950, the FCC authorized the CBS field sequential color system, but left the opportunity to make changes open. A second order, released a day later, contained the technical rules describing the non-compatible CBS color system with 405 lines, interlaced, 72 fps (24 color fields x 3 colors), and a line rate of 29,160 per second. In the third R&O, adopted June 20, 1951, the commission decided to continue the "freeze" on new TV stations and went on further contemplating how TV might use UHF frequencies.

The FCC's fourth R&O was adopted only weeks later on July 11, 1951. In it, the UHF television band was established by removing five megacycles per second (Mcs) originally assigned for facsimile (470-475 Mcs) and 25 Mcs (475-500 Mcs) originally reserved for common carrier mobile service to create a band between 470 and 890 Mcs exclusively for television. The Communications Act of 1934 would be amended accordingly.

In that same month (it must have been a cool July in Washington that year) the FCC issued its fifth R&O, adopted July 25, 1951. In it, the FCC continued the "freeze" but allowed some stations to make modifications on a case-by-case basis while reviewing issues of UHF allocation and considered changing mileage separations between VHF stations.

Although I was not involved in any of the activities at the time, there are engineers around today that participated in and remember the processes that took place in the creation of a new television service. It took years of committee and task force meetings, laboratory and field testing, hearings before the FCC and, of course, lobbying by interest groups. And all without fax machines, e-mail, conference calls, and convenient and low-cost travel arrangements.

Upon reading the orders, one is struck by the fact that each of the commissioners generally had a firm grasp on the issues at hand and were able to remark succinctly on engineering matters as well as policy in their comments. At the time, each had engineering assistants to explain the intricacies of allocations and propagation.

It is instructive to note that the route to digital television developed in much the same way. A freeze on construction of analog, hundreds of committee meetings, development of application and implementation policies, establishment of technical rules, and finally an assignment table. Stay tuned.