Geek Trivia: Lucky number (thirty) seven

For what official purpose was UHF channel 37 removed from service for television broadcasts in North America -- a justification that was markedly different from the commercial spectrum auctions that describe nearly every other U.S. phase out of TV channels?

Three Dog Night taught us that one is the loneliest number, and though most music fans would insist the rock trio was waxing philosophic on the nature of romance, you could make a snarky argument the group was also singing about U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) television channel assignments. (Okay, maybe not.) For you see, once upon a time, there really was a broadcast television "channel one" in the United States, but more than 60 years ago, it was legislated away.

From 1938 to 1948, VHF channel 1 was a viable, sanctioned television broadcast frequency in the United States, though exactly which frequency range was covered by channel 1 changed twice during the decade. The precursors of contemporary broadcast stations such as WNBC in New York and KCBS in Los Angeles, along with several others, broadcast originally as channel 1 television stations. This was an experimental period, however, and for much of that time, the FCC allowed certain radio services and television stations to broadcast on many of the same VHF radio frequencies. This meant that radios would sometimes pick up television audio, and TVs would sometimes pick up radio broadcast audio. After World War II, U.S. TV broadcast stations multiplied, exacerbating these issues.

By 1948, the FCC realized that its policy of allowing television broadcasts and radio communications to share certain VHF radio frequencies was no longer tenable, and the line of demarcation the agency drew between radio and TV signals left channel 1 in radio's range rather than television's. Thus, from 1948 onward, no broadcast television station in the United States could legally transmit on channel 1, and no U.S.-marketed television receivers would be manufactured to receive broadcasts in that range.

While this may appear a mere odd footnote in TV broadcast history, channel 1 is far from the only TV broadcast frequency that the FCC gaveth, then tooketh away. While in most cases, the channel ranges that were rescinded were auctioned off for commercial usage by competing broadcast technologies, in at least one case -- that of UHF channel 37 -- a decidedly non-commercial enterprise was the motivation for denying television activity on the allotted frequency.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...