In 1953, Television Came to the Northwoods

Oct 3, 2018

This week on a Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz tells us how television came to be in the Northwoods.

Television is such a part of our everyday lives that most of us don’t think twice about it.  With cable, satellite, and Internet streaming services, we have hundreds of news and entertainment choices available twenty-four hours a day.  In addition, if we can’t find something we like, we can always pop something in the DVD or Blu-ray player.  It wasn’t always this way, and earlier generations would have marveled at such modern conveniences.

Prior to World War II, people in the Northwoods had four choices when it came to news and entertainment.  They had print media in the form of magazines, books, and newspapers.  They had radio programming.  They had local movie theaters, which in addition to movies often showed newsreels.  And they had each other.  Earlier generations spent a lot more time chatting and socializing than we do today.

Change came with the advent of television, and the first fuzzy television broadcasts that could be received in the Northwoods arrived in 1949.  However, few people actually owned a television receiver, and those that did found reception a hit-or-miss proposition.  If the weather wasn’t perfect then the Northwoods was out of range for Milwaukee broadcasters.  Things changed on November 13, 1953, when WBAY-TV Channel Two out of Green Bay began broadcasting.  WBAY broadcast at 100,000 watts, which was the same as WTMJ out of Milwaukee.  Suddenly television was available to the Northwoods, provided that an individual with a television set also had a very good antenna.  The Northwoods was considered the “fringe” area of WBAY-TV, so it was recommended that viewers mount their antenna on towers ranging from 20 to 30 feet in height.  With a rotating antenna, experts believed that in the future viewers could access stations from Eau Claire, Minneapolis, and Wausau when its planned station came on line.

Merchants estimated that there were between 100 and 150 television sets in the Rhinelander area in the fall of 1953.  However, the ability to receive just one channel – a channel that stopped broadcasting at midnight – was exciting, and local retailers in December announced that with the arrival of WBAY sales of new television sets were booming.  It was going to be a happy Christmas for a lot of first-time television viewers.  As the “Rhinelander Daily News” said in 1953, “A whole new world of entertainment is open to the family.”  If they only knew what was coming.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.