SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — In April 2023, ABC4 Utah will turn 75 years old, remaining Utah’s oldest continuously running television station — and even one of the oldest in the U.S., continuing a history of pioneering in the broadcasting industry.
“Radio with Pictures”
The history of Utah’s first television station starts like many of the earliest TV stations — in radio. It started as an outgrowth of KDYL-AM in 1939. KDYL was an NBC Red affiliate in those days, according to station historian and former chief engineer Jim McDermaid. Through its connections, KDYL got ahold of some of RCA’s very first television exhibits used at the 1939 World’s Fair — three working TVs and a single working camera. KDYL showed off the technology in several areas in closed-circuit exhibits for a few years, including at the Paris Company building in downtown Salt Lake City.
“Remember, David Sarnoff of RCA was marketing television very hard and was working with the ‘big market’ radio affiliates to promote television,” stated McDermaid. “…In 1939, RCA did the now-famous introduction of television at the 1939 World’s Fair (‘The World of the Future’) and apparently did a smaller version in several (5?) cities across the US including Salt Lake City. Industrial design / Art Deco was at its peak. The world was about to change. The ‘Modern Miracle’ was out of the lab.”
McDermaid said KDYL’s parent company, Intermountain Broadcasting, led by owner Sid Fox, was always focused on the future of communication. Radio itself was still a somewhat-new invention at the time. Commercial radio didn’t start in Utah in earnest until 1924, when KDYL broadcasted its first commercials ad-libbed from the local paper, though the station itself had been on the air since 1921.
“He was a gambler and promoter and KDYL-AM Radio and Television was one of his tools,” McDermaid told EarlyTelevision.org. “Sid obtained his AM radio license from a newspaper that couldn’t figure out what to do with it and was on the air in 1921 sharing a wavelength with two other commercial stations in Salt Lake City, Utah. There was no FCC at the time and several stations shared a ‘wavelength’ by going on and off at pre-arranged times. Radio receivers were wavelength, not frequency-orientated.”
In 1944, KDYL was granted an experimental TV license from the newly-formed FCC, launching TV station W6XIS on Dec. 19. (The “W6” part of the call letters stood for the sixth radio district in the western U.S.) Broadcasts started being shot at the KDYL Playhouse above the Pioneer Post Office on First South St., though the studio’s floors were sloped, and the cameras would easily roll around. The broadcast signal started emanating from the top of the First National Bank building at Main and First South streets. Fox touted that public broadcasts could start in 1945.
Unfortunately for Utahns, the outbreak of World War II delayed television becoming a public medium until 1946, and the first official sign-on of W6XIS wasn’t until November of that year.
“KDYL is proud to be a pioneer in this great field,” said Fox at the time. And he was right — the station was the only television provider between Chicago and the Pacific Coast at that time.
It wouldn’t be until 1948 until Utahns had an opportunity to really watch local TV (for the few that actually had them). But once the ball got rolling, things happened pretty quickly:
- April 5, 1948: W6XIS starts broadcasting its test pattern at regular intervals on channel 2 with 400 watts of power, marking it as the oldest television station in the Mountain Time Zone and west of the Mississippi River. It was also the first independently-owned TV station in the U.S.
- April 19, 1948: W6XIS airs its first programming at 8 p.m.
- July 1, 1948: The station gets its first full television license.
- July 18, 1948: The station moves to channel 4, where it has remained ever since. Since the radio station was an NBC affiliate, channel 4 was also an NBC affiliate for TV. However, the station did also broadcast some ABC programming at times until other stations arrived on the scene.
- July 24, 1948: Channel 4 broadcasts the Pioneer Days Parade for the first time ever.
- Aug. 1, 1948: The station runs its very first advertising.
- Sept. 29, 1948: The FCC drops the W6XIS name, and the station becomes known as KDYL-TV. It remained the only licensed station in Utah until the summer of 1949.
- Nov. 15, 1948: The power is bumped up to 50,000 watts with an 8,700-foot tower at Mount Vision on the Farnsworth Peak.
Logos through the years
Growth and changes
As the station grew, it changed names a few more times. In 1953, Sid Fox sold the station, and it became KTVT. In 1959, it became KCPX after being sold to Screen Gems Broadcasting, which was then part of Columbia Pictures.
In 1960, the station became an ABC affiliate and was the first television station in Utah to broadcast color TV.
In 1975, the station underwent its last name change to KTVX. (The TVX part stands for “Television Excellence.”) In October of that year, the station was acquired by 20th Century Fox’s United Television division. In 1981, the group merged with Chris-Craft Industries. In 2000, the station was sold to Fox Television Studios and then was later traded to Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia). However, since Clear Channel already had a presence in Salt Lake City, it was forced to sell KTVX.
During this time, KTVX kept making history, becoming the first TV station in Utah to broadcast in HD in 2000. The analog signal remained on-air until June 12, 2009, when the federal government mandated the full switchover from analog to digital for all TV stations.
In 2006, KTVX landed with Providence Equity Partners‘ Newport Television. Ownership conflicts led to the station nearly being sold again in 2008, though Newport held onto KTVX until July 2012, when the station became part of its current parent company, Nexstar Broadcasting Group, the nation’s largest local television broadcasting company.
Today, ABC4 broadcasts throughout the entirety of Utah and into portions of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming, using a network of 100 translators. The Salt Lake City television market is the single largest geographical designated market area (DMA) in the nation.
Throughout 2023, ABC4 KTVX will continue to explore the history of broadcasting in Utah with a number of televised specials.