Numbers. The letters of algebra. They’re a funny thing. Sometimes it’s good when they’re high, like with your bank balance, and sometimes it’s good when they’re low, like with the number of corpses under your house. When it comes to TV channel numbers, though, you want to go low. Low-numbered stations (2-13) operate in the VHF (Very High Frequency) range, which is usually reserved for big, multi-million-dollar broadcasting corporations. Everyone else uses UHF (Ultra High Frequency), which despite containing the word “ultra” is still seen as the ugly stepchild of broadcast television. In reality, though, UHF stations are the secret backbone of American broadcasting, which Peter discovered while working at a UHF station for 20 years. Specifically, he’s learned that…
Research by Evan Symon.
UHF Stations Were Almost Like An Early Form Of Internet
UHF has long been a joke among broadcasters. Not even Weird Al’s amazing documentary about the business was able to change it. It’s not like all the naysayers didn’t have a point, though. VHF had CBS and NBC and ABC while UHF had family-owned stations that aired nothing but reruns. VHF would come in crystal clear, but UHF had crappy, snowy reception (due to power and antenna issues). VHF brought Carvel’s for everyone’s birthdays while UHF could only afford a vending machine muffin with a candle on top. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t serve a purpose.
“You probably think UHF stations were useless but we had our moments. It’s a Wonderful Life would never have been a classic if it wasn’t for UHF stations playing it over and over as the only public domain Christmas movie out there. Without UHF there would be no MST3K and no Soul Train.”
“High school football team games we would play the next day or on a delay (whenever we got the tape in), with 3 high schools paying for $50 worth of graphics to show the score every once in a while. They paid for the game to be on, because they would watch and review the next day, or for students to show people who didn’t make the game.”
Before the internet, this was how you reached everyone without mortgaging your house to buy blank VHS tapes and sending them out through the mail like some early, analog Netflix.
“One of the community colleges had classes on late at night as well, so students taking a correspondence course could have ‘real’ classroom experience. They had lost their own closed-circuit channel, and they needed to reach students who couldn’t make it … I remember that one of the classes was an English class, and for a month after their contract ended for summer classes we would get calls from viewers asking for us to bring the ‘series’ back because they wanted to continue ‘their’ course.”
It wasn’t just that. Thanks to UHF, businesses who couldn’t afford prime time had a place they could afford. So Peter’s station had used car ads, ads for job training, lawyers, restaurants etc. If it wasn’t for UHF, they would never have gotten a chance to advertise on TV.
“UHF stations were far from the best, but if you want a similar experience, I’d equate it to watching Youtubers before they get a large audience.”
It Admittedly Could Get A Little Depressing
Being the underdog in the world of big business is a great idea for a lighthearted ‘90s comedy, but in the real world, that shit’s not funny, as Peter found out:
“We were always financially unstable, and money was always an issue. Not the ‘We can’t afford Cheerios, we better buy the off-brand type’ short of money, but the ‘We had to pay some workers in office furniture one week’ short of money. I was never paid by check because buying checks would have cost extra, and it was cash and a written pay stub each week. Some weeks the station owner had a pile of bills and a Ziploc bag of change as my pay.”
”It was the right amount, but we were so low on money that I got money from the take-out change pile in his office.”
And because UHF really was like an early form of YouTube, it means it had no quality control, which made some of their prospective commercials look like rejected Interdimensional Cable sketches from Rick and Morty.
“One guy who had zero charisma came in every advertiser meeting for months showing us the same ad of him staring into the camera for 20 seconds before saying ‘Next time you’re in my city, shop at my store.’” Which sounds less like a commercial and more like a threat. A commereat. A thrercial.
“Then it broke to a paper arrow pointing at a place on a road map. It was unsettling, but he came in every meeting and we flipped a coin on who would be telling him ‘no’ this time around. Some commercials featured the owner with his family, but then they would endanger their child. One businessman/father showed off his strength by launching his five year old up several feet and saying ‘You’ll catch great savings at my store’ and catching his son while looking directly at the camera. We all had kids and rejected it out of principle.”
When you’re surrounded by horrible programming and somehow even more horrible commercials, it makes it hard to be proud of your work. So you start lying about where you work and, in the heat of the moment, you go with “bull masturbator” because that somehow feels slightly more dignified. This didn’t happen to Peter, btw. I may just be projecting my own experience of working at Facebook on the whole thing.
It Was All Done Ridiculously Cheap And With Tons Of Improvisation
“Part of our antenna was made up of mostly old flag poles we had found … Then there’s original programming. Most were local radio hosts or comedians we gave 30 minutes to do funny stuff in. Most were rip-offs of our late night host, but some tried to be like Johnny Carson. We actually had a standing order NOT to show the audience because there was always only 5 people in a seating area for 100, and at least 2 of them were crew.”
”Sets were decades old. When the CBS station tossed it’s old news desk, we went to their dumpster in the middle of the night and took it to the set.”
But where did all those savings go? We’ve established it wasn’t to original, quality programming, so what kind of fat cat with Santa sacks sawn into his pants for pockets was getting rich off UHF stations? Mostly, it was the electric company. Low band stations only need 100,000 watts for VHF signals but UHF signals can use as much as 5 million for the same strength.
Since the low band stations were all network and any attempt at grabbing one of those station numbers would have brought about concerns of frequencies being too close to each other, most smaller broadcasters were stuck with the most expensive, least popular frequencies. They essentially paid more to do less. Yes, I know that having written that, I just gave a Comcast manager somewhere an erection. I’m so sorry.
“The biggest killers for us, and this was much more of a factor in the 80’s and 90’s, was the lack of news. We couldn’t afford weather instruments, so there was no weather. We had few cameras, so we couldn’t film outside. We couldn’t pay the fees or get permission of any major sports leagues (even minor league baseball was too expensive for us), so there were no sports … On 9/11, every station was showing round the clock footage of the disaster – except for UHF stations. There was no way we could recycle footage without paying for rights.”
”We let our late-night host on because we didn’t know what else to do, and the entire time he stumbled through it. He would start talking about it, couldn’t find the words and we would cut to one of the Three Stooges episodes we had. That was our 9/11 coverage.”