Snowy black-and-white television pictures first flickered into South Carolina on a regular basis on July 15, 1949, when WBTV Channel 3 signed on the air in Charlotte, North Carolina. However, it would be four more years before a station in South Carolina would go on the air because of a nationwide freeze on new construction imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With just twelve VHF (Very High Frequency) channels in use, the FCC was concerned about interference, so new construction was stopped while sixty-nine new UHF (Ultra High Frequency) channels were created.
After the freeze was lifted in 1952, six South Carolina stations raced to go on the air: three in Columbia, two in Charleston, and one in Greenville. The first was WCOS-TV in Columbia, which began airing a test pattern on April 23, 1953. With no competition, the new station could choose shows from all four networks–NBC, CBS, ABC, and Dumont–and began broadcasting May 1, 1953, with The Life of Riley, The Dennis Day Show, Famous Playhouse, and boxing. The station was located in a Quonset hut, and chief engineer Robert Lambert said that viewers could hear water beating against the metal roof when it rained.
With call letters that stood for “Wonderful Charleston South Carolina,” WCSC-TV made its debut June 19, 1953. The original owner, John M. Rivers, Sr., passed the station to his son John M. Rivers, Jr., who sold it to General Electric in 1987. It has been owned by Jefferson Pilot since 1992.
In Columbia, WNOK-TV began broadcasting on September 1, 1953, as another CBS affiliate on UHF Channel 67. Dick Laughridge, who joined the station the next month, said that pine trees swaying in the wind caused UHF pictures to wiggle in those days. The station later moved to Channel 19 and changed its call letters to WLTX-TV. It is one of the oldest UHF stations in the country. Both WNOK-TV and WCSC-TV bought cameras from the Allen B. Dumont Company in New Jersey. Dumont’s chief engineer Thomas T. Goldsmith was a Greenville native and a pioneer of American television who helped develop the cathode ray tube, television circuitry, and transmission standards for the industry. The Fox affiliate WTTG-TV Channel 5, the former Dumont station in Washington, D.C., is still identified by Goldsmith’s initials.
In the early days of television, VHF stations had a considerable advantage over their UHF counterparts because their signals were stronger and their pictures better. So it was not surprising that two radio stations fought for a valuable VHF channel allocated to Columbia. Under the direction of G. Richard Shafto, WIS joined with WMSC to go on the air November 7, 1953, on Channel 10 with a live broadcast of a University of South Carolina football game. As an NBC radio affiliate, WIS (which stood for “Wonderful Iodine State”) carried over the affiliation to television. This spelled the beginning of the end for WCOS -TV, which was left with ABC, then a struggling network. The station signed off January 21, 1956. Five years later Channel 25 was reallocated to WCCA-TV, and in 1964 the station was purchased by Cy N. Bahakel of Charlotte and became WOLO-TV.
South Carolina’s fifth and sixth television stations were in the upstate. WAIM-TV Channel 40 (now WBSC-TV) began broadcasting in Anderson on December 1, 1953, and WFBC-TV Channel 4 went on the air in Greenville at midnight on December 31, 1953, its next-door position obliterating the Charlotte signal that had dominated the area for four years. WFBC-TV was the brainchild of Roger Peace, who owned WFBC radio, and R. A. Jolley, Sr., who owned WMRC radio. WFBC’s first program arrived by freight just hours before sign-on at midnight on December 31, 1953. The engineers did not have time to check the film before air time, so the first show was broadcast upside down and backward. WFBC-TV was renamed WYFF-TV (“Your Friend Four”) when it was bought by Pulitzer Broadcasting in 1983.
By the end of 1953, every home in South Carolina with a television set could receive at least one of those stations. The South Carolina Educational Television network began broadcasting on closed circuits from a studio at Dreher High School in Columbia in 1958, and the first open-circuit educational television station, WNTV, began broadcasting in Greenville on September 15, 1963. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, eleven noncommercial channels were licensed to South Carolina. SCETV and more than twenty commercial television stations were broadcasting in South Carolina.
Pendleton, Nat. “The Start of Television in South Carolina.” Proceedings to the South Carolina Historical Association (2001): 83–90.