Many people have wondered over time why Fayetteville doesn’t have a full-service commercial TV station. Community leaders including Bill Bowman, publisher of Up & Coming Weekly, bemoan how the lack of a local television station negatively affects Fayetteville, making ours the largest city in the Southeast not to have one. Four-term mayor, Tony Chavonne, has been concerned about that for many years. “For the past 50 years, we have been in the unfortunate situation of having no local television station in our market. In fact, I believe we are one of the largest urban markets in the country that does not have at least one local television station … It is particularly frustrating as you look at smaller communities in the region – Wilmington, Florence, etc. – that have local television operations,” he said.
There are many reasons why Fayetteville isn’t served by a local TV station. The most important reasons date back to the early 1950s. Fayetteville was a town of less than 40,000 people then. The major metropolitan areas of our state, including Charlotte, the Triad and Triangle were big enough to be in the running for the few television licenses available then. WBTV in Charlotte and WFMY in Greensboro were the first TV stations on the air in North Carolina, both in 1949. WTVD in Durham went on the air in 1954 followed by WRAL in 1956. The bottom line is the bigger cities had stakes in VHF television before anyone in Fayetteville thought about it. Investors had their financial packages ready to go. They had done their due diligence in lining up community support and had made applications with the Federal Communications Commission for licenses to operate. And they all had lined up network affiliations with ABC, NBC and CBS. These were the early days of commercial television. Video was in black and white. There were no cable or satellite services.
The rule of thumb when VHF stations were at a premium was that TV signals could not be duplicated on the same channels within 100 air miles of each other. By the time someone in Fayetteville thought about seeking a license, VHF channels two through 13 were taken. Oh sure, WFLB-TV went on the air from studios on Bragg Boulevard in 1955. But it operated on the UHF band. The FCC had released a few UHF channels for television use in 1952.
Those early UHF signals were subject to interference. The channels generally had less clear signals, and for some markets, like Fayetteville, they became the home of smaller broadcasters who were not willing to bid on the more coveted VHF allocations. Worst of all, TV sets needed converters to switch from the popular VHF channels to upstart UHF stations.
VHF was used for analog television stations and continues to be used for digital television on channels two through 13. The issues involving UHF outlets were greatly reduced many years later with the advent of digital television and cable distribution.
As reported in The Fayetteville Observer 20 years ago, “the future for television broadcasting in Fayetteville, as in many other cities across the land, held great promise. But WFLB-TV went black after only three years on the air. UHF had shown to be unprofitable in competition with stations on the VHF band, not only in Fayetteville but throughout the nation.” The newspaper, in its former Lifestyles section, noted that “UHF sputtered for a long time until years later when the FCC mandated that all TV manufacturers had to have UHF on their sets. The first cable customers in Fayetteville weren’t hooked up until 1964.”
Everything began to change then. UHF Channel 40 came on the air in Fayetteville in 1981 as WKFT-TV, the first independent station in eastern North Carolina but it had no network affiliation. Fox didn’t come along for many years thereafter. In 1985, it was sold to SJL Broadcasting. The new owners built a new 1,800-foot tower and operated with 5-million watts of power. The station rebranded itself as “Counterforce 40” and significantly upgraded its programming, including some local news. But, it operated on a low budget and by 1989, the station was in dire financial straits. In 1985, another group had received FCC access to UHF TV channel 62. WFCT had studios in Lumber Bridge. In 1993 WFCT changed its name to WFAY and a year later became a Fox network affiliate. WKFT-TV was purchased by Univision Communications in 2003. The station later moved from its longtime studios in downtown Fayetteville to a new facility in Raleigh offering Spanish language programming.
Chavonne notes that our community of more than 300,000 people has depended on news coverage from Raleigh and Durham. “The net effect of that occasional television coverage from news operations from out of the community is they don’t have the real pulse of the citizens because they are not here invested every day. Too often it results in misleading, and occasionally headline-grabbing stories told in 30-second soundbites. These stories often miss the real picture and in some ways are reflective of the drive-by media we hear of so often.”
Chavonne continues. “They seldom are able to invest the time in delving into the story to get the facts accurate. While they cover a visually-appealing change of command, they drive by thousands of military family members, each with a great personal story about living in a community that supports them like Fayetteville does. The 911 calls get the headlines but the real stories of our community are rarely covered.”
Chavonne also noted, “The perception of our community across the region and the state is negatively impacted by this limited and incomplete TV coverage. At the end of the day, residents of the communities, and the important role of a vibrant free press in our democratic society, suffer. Add to that today’s low level of attention afforded by the reader who too-often is content with getting their news from tweets and soundbites and too-often unconcerned about accuracy and completeness. They only want a few sentences, and those few sentences decided upon by someone 50 miles away, do not tell the story of this community.”
Chavonne concludes, “I am hopeful that with today’s climate people are gaining an even better appreciation for the role of a robust and free press. In my opinion, we had the best example of that when there were multiple outlets for the free press in those days when we had competing (at least the news operation) newspapers and several locally-owned radio stations with news operations that helped ensure our citizens were informed. So, we continue to fight the battle with no end in sight.”