I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to dig through my inbox and pull out a few choice e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to read. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.
Some research ignited by a question posed during a lunchtime conversation (“Whatever happened to channel 1?”) revealed that in 1946, the FCC decided to change the frequencies that channels were assigned to. Channels 1 through 3 moved 6 MHz lower, Channel 4 and 5 moved 8 MHz lower, Channel 6 moved down 14 MHz, and other stations made similarly radical moves to accommodate the move of the FM Radio band to (roughly) its present-day location. Wikipedia has a chart summarizing the changes on its Channel 1 page here.
I’m wondering if there’s any chronicle of the reaction to this wholesale reshuffling of the frequency picture, or were contemporary TV owners resigned to their fate as early adopters, as they grudgingly called the TV repairman to recalibrate their sets?
I note that VHF Channels 14-18 were lopped off, too, but I’m pretty sure nobody was broadcasting on them anyway, so no loss there. But I suspect TV owners were surprised to find they’d have to tune to Channel 4 to keep getting Channel 3.
There’s no reason to rehash the reasons why Channel 1 on the VHF spectrum was reallocated by the FCC in 1948 from television to certain radio broadcasts. In addition to the Wikipedia page linked to by Sean, there are plenty of articles available on the Internet explaining why the channel no longer exists: Snopes, Discovery Online, The Straight Dope and Tech-Notes are great places to start. But Sean raises another interesting question: how did television viewers react to the FCC’s plan to remove Channel 1?
According to John M. Kittross in Television Frequency Allocation Policy in the United States (his 1960 thesis, reprinted in 1979) the FCC only made public its intention to remove Channel 1 from the television spectrum on May 6th, 1948 . The television industry was understandably upset but apparently felt that having 12 channels available was a better option than 13 channels, the bulk of which were shared with a variety of public services . The removal itself took place on June 14th, 1948. Given that there were only an estimated 354,000 sets in use in the United States as of June 15th, 1948, it seems unlikely that there was a large public outcry, or really any outcry at all .
Furthermore, by 1948 there were few (if any) stations actually using Channel 1. In November of 1945 the FCC had announced its plan to reassign commercial television stations: “under the commission’s plan only Television Channel 1 will be designated as a community channel, all others being available for either metropolitan or rural stations. However, in the smaller cities, community stations will be assigned to these channels” . The plan forced current stations to change their channels. For example, in New York City, station WNBT signed off on February 28th, 1946 as Channel 1 and returned in early May as Channel 4 (I don’t know the exact date).
Although television in 1948 was no longer an experimental medium, it had yet to reach a large portion of the nation and growing pains were understandable. It is my opinion that viewers were happy just to be able to watch something on their television sets, so the removal of a single channel — be it in 1946 when Channel 1 became a community channel or in 1948 when it was removed from the television spectrum altogether — wasn’t a huge problem.
As for other channels moving frequencies and being reassigned numerically (i.e. Channel 3 becoming Channel 4), as Sean suggests it appears that viewers simply called the repairman if their sets needed adjusting and waited until television stations returned to the air. According to The New York Times:
WNBT’s new channel No. 4 is the same frequency setting as the old channel No. 3, so no alterations need be made in existing video receivers to tune in the NBC station on Channel 4. Receiver adjustments, however, will be necessary for both WCBW and WABD. Television operating companies have notified present set owners that special service stations have been established to make the necessary adjustments.” 
In 1946, of course, there were even fewer television sets in use than in 1948. And while most of them were concentrated in New York City, according to an August 4th, 1946 article in The New York Times there were just 5,000 sets in use in the metropolitan area . While it was probably annoying to be without television while WNBT, WABD and WBCW were off the air, radio was still huge at the time. If anyone knows of first-hand accounts from viewers regarding channel reassignments or the deletion of Channel 1 please let me know.
3 The New York Times reported on June 30th, 1948 that an Audience Research, Inc. survey announced the previous day estimated that 314,000 sets were in private homes and another 40,000 in bars and other public areas (“The News of Radio: 354,000 Television Sets in Use, Gallup Poll Shows–Godfrey Program Being Expanded,” Page 50).
4 Mallon, Winifred. “Allows Television By 7 Stations Here.” New York Times. 22 Nov. 1945: 42.
5 “Television Signs Off to Change Channels.” New York Times. 28 Feb. 1946: 29.
6 “Television Use Due Soon as Ad Medium.” New York Times. 4 Aug. 1946: 68.