Channel 3 Launched TV Era in East Tennessee

“This is WBTV, Charlotte, North Carolina, signing on Channel 3 television from Charlotte, the Queen City of the South.”

With these concise words, the era of television was ushered into the East Tennessee area at 12:00 noon on Friday, July 15, 1949, from the CBS affiliate’s transmitter located nearly 200 miles away. Television sets were essentially nonexistent prior to then, attributable to lack of programming. Most area homes did not begin purchasing the new contrivance until after 1951.

WBTV became very prominent; it was reported that any television receiver capable of obtaining its signal became “rusted on Channel 3.” The Bill Wise family became the first in our Johnson Avenue block to purchase a TV; these amicable folks were eager to share the new media with their inquisitive neighbors. Several of us routinely crowded into their small darkened living room to watch a fuzzy intermittent black and white television picture with equally poor sound quality.

Clear reception required a sprawling antenna on the roof perfectly positioned to receive the signal. Someone would routinely climb a ladder to the top of the house to rotate the receiver, while another person shouted instructions from below. A typical conversation might be: “Turn it a little more, a little more, a little more, hold it. That’s good right there.”

Prior to the station’s signing on the air, they beamed a continuous visual “test pattern” accompanied by a steady monotonous hum. This image employed a series of lines and circles, resembling bulls’-eyes, to provide viewers a means for adjusting their picture quality. Numerous patterns were used over time but the one most remembered by area folks contained the image of an Indian chief ornamented in full headgear.

About three minutes prior to the commencement of the day’s late afternoon programming, the station would broadcast an American flag waving in the breeze with the National Anthem playing in the background. Surprisingly, the first network broadcast beamed from WBTV was a football game between Notre Dame and North Carolina in September 1950. 

My parents bought our first set, a 17″ RCA black and white floor model, in 1952. Like most new innovative devices, they were initially a bit pricey. A July 1953 Johnson City Press Chronicle advertisement showed a 17″ Crosley TV selling for $199.95; a 21″ model sold for $259.95. Until the new medium was fully accepted by the public, downtown merchants often placed TV sets in their store windows as an allurement to passersby.

I can still conjure up vivid images of Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks; Fred Kirby, the Carolina Cowboy; and Clyde “Cloudy” McLean, the Carolina’s first TV weatherman. Arthur Smith and his gang came on each weekday evening at eight-thirty, sponsored by Tube Rose Snuff (“If your snuff’s too strong, it's wrong”). Arthur, a fantastic guitar picker, teamed up with Don Reno, an equally talented banjo player, to entertain with country, bluegrass and gospel music over the air.

The half-hour variety show concluded with a hymn by the “Crossroads Quartet,” consisting of Arthur; his brother, Ralph; Tommy Faile  (of “The Brown Mountain Lights” fame); and Lois Atkins.

In a future column, I will describe an anemic WBTV program guide from 1953, the same year local TV station WJHL signed on the air.