Alaska Life

In the 1950s, the race to bring television to Alaska was marked by anticipation, suspense and mishaps

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Americans spend an average of three hours a day watching television, according to the 2020 American Time Use Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The potential negative outcomes from spending too much time in front of a screen are well known and varied, from obesity to dementia. Yet, we cannot seem to stop ourselves. Have you seen “Squid Game”? Did you know “Succession” started up again? How about the new NBA season? If you do not like those choices, there are countless other options, from the hits of yesteryear to the latest sensations. Accordingly, Anchorage history can be easily divided before and after the arrival of TV.

Two fledging Anchorage companies raced through the summer, fall and winter of 1953 to become the first TV station in Alaska. The competitors were Channel 2, owned by the firm of Kiggins and Rollins, and Channel 11, led by general manager Augie Hiebert of Northern Television, Inc.

On July 31, 1953, Channel 11 was the first of the rival firms to receive call letters: KTVA. Soon after, Channel 2 became KFIA, later changed to KENI, then KTUU.

KFIA was the first to install its antenna, which was placed atop the Westward Hotel in early October. Then came the happy announcement. On the night of Oct. 15, KFIA would air a test signal, a pattern of black and white lines. After some locals complained that the image could stand to be a bit more exciting, a local military official offered to supply the station with “two pretty girls,” which raises other questions. However, station manager James Duncan declined the proposal.

Nowadays, the quantity of entertainment options surpasses our ability to consume them. In 1953, something as simple as a test pattern was an advertised event. Notices were posted in stores and in the local newspapers. This is how you know it was a different time. Anchorage families gathered in their homes. The streets quieted. The people waited, but nothing appeared on their sets.

Though the KFIA crew worked through the night, they could not overcome the lack of two small but essential pieces of equipment. These little pieces connected the transmitters to the transmission lines. A rush order had the equipment on a plane out of Seattle the next day. Finally, at 2 a.m. on Oct. 17, KFIA delivered the first TV broadcast in Alaska, a simple station identification card. Future test patterns included female stars of shows slated for future broadcast. Station manager Duncan declared that regular programming would begin on Nov. 1.

Despite KFIA’s stumble, KTVA seemed locked into second place. Their initial batch of equipment, shipped from a General Electric warehouse in Syracuse, New York, arrived in early September. They began moving into the first floor of the Mt. McKinley Building, with their antenna installed on the roof in mid-October, around the time that KFIA finally broadcast its first test signal. That antenna also served as a beacon for pilots.

KTVA’s original home building deserves an aside. The Mt. McKinley Building was the original name of the 14-story apartment building at 337 East Fourth Ave., currently known as the McKinley Tower Apartments. Built in 1951, it cost $1.5 million (about $16 million in 2021 dollars) and was designed by Seattle architect Earl Morrison, who was also responsible for the similar Inlet Towers. In the 1960s, infamous Anchorage lawyer Neil Mackey bought the building, moved into the penthouse, and renamed it the MacKay Building. He altered the capitalization of the name to emphasize the correct pronunciation. It was not spelled “McKay” despite the popularity of the misunderstanding. In 1982, the building was condemned, and two years later, Mackay sold it. For many years, it was one of Anchorage’s most visible derelicts before its relatively recent revival.

Back in 1953, KFIA’s Nov. 1 deadline passed without success. Nov. 15 was declared the new start. That date also passed for want of a single piece of equipment that would have cleared issues with image quality. After multiple failed deadlines, the station ran an apology in the local newspapers. While management assured hopeful viewers that the “problems are temporary,” they also noted that “the installation of a Television station is not as simple as installing a common household appliance.”

Eventually, KFIA lagged far enough behind that the KTVA tortoise won the race. On Dec. 4, KTVA began transmitting test patterns. And on Dec. 11, 1953, two days ahead of their original target date, Channel 11 began its regular broadcasting schedule.

After a dedication ceremony with local dignitaries, the first show broadcast was the Western series “Range Rider.” Jock Mahoney played the mysterious hero who had no other name and notably wore moccasins instead of cowboy boots. Other programs from that inaugural week included a children’s puppet show called “Time for Beany,” the “Gene Autry Show” featuring the eponymous singing cowboy, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and newsreels. For the sports fans, there were wrestling and boxing shows. Also airing was “Crusader Rabbit,” a cheaply made animated series that was the first cartoon developed specifically for TV.

Three days after KTVA began broadcasting, KFIA limped onto the air. Befitting their second-place finish, they initiated their commercial broadcasts on Dec. 14 without ceremony. Said general manager Duncan, “We will just go on the air quietly and without fanfare.” In addition, glitches with the image quality had survived all remedies. “But rather than deprive the people of the programs any longer,” said Duncan, “we decided to go ahead and work out the bugs as we go along.”

Of course, new TV channels meant a new demand for TVs. In the 1950s, this meant large, heavy cathode-ray-tube cabinets. Local retailers were prepared well in advance. As far back as August, shops began offering layaway services. “Use our lay-away plan and have your RCA-Victor Television receiver already installed when KTVA-Channel 11 and KFIA-Channel 2 go on the air,” said a combined advertisement from Tom’s Radio by the old federal building and the Record Shop in the Loussac Building.

These TVs were also expensive. Local prices ranged from $209.50 to $855. After adjusting for inflation, that is roughly $2,100 to $8.700 in 2021 dollars. So, when Anchorage Motors began advertising that every new car came with a free TV, it was a significant bonus.

For years, the Anchorage stations flew reels and tapes of programs up from Seattle. If a flight was delayed, that meant reruns for area residents. Thus, the next major TV innovation for Anchorage was live satellite broadcasts. The first such instance, a costly experiment, came in 1969.

Thanks in large part to the advocacy of Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, Anchorage residents were able to join most of the nation in watching the Apollo 11 mission to the moon as it happened. The Department of Defense shipped a mobile communications station from New Jersey to Anchorage and installed it at Nike Site Summit. The first live satellite broadcast in Alaska — shared between the three Anchorage stations — came on July 14, 1969, a pre-launch interview with the Apollo 11 crew. Residents were subsequently able to follow along with the mission, including the July 16 launch, July 20 moon landing, and July 24 return to Earth.

Shipping the mobile station cost roughly $50,000 (almost $375,000 in 2021 dollars), though locals cared little compared to the opportunity to revel in the shared experience. One Alaskan told the Anchorage Daily Times, “Few of the extremely complex scientific findings will ever sift down to the average person, but the fact that the whole world has been together watching this event — that’s the important thing. The instantaneous communication of their trip will be the greatest part of their going.”

As might be expected with American society, sports became the focus of live TV for Alaskans. KTVA aired the first live via satellite sporting event on Jan. 3, 1971, an NFL playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. In 1975, roughly 120 hours of live telecasts played in Anchorage. Only about six hours featured material other than sports.

The countless hours of TV watched by Alaskans, all of it, goes back to December 1953. Think back on all the shows and games you have watched. What are your Alaska TV memories?

Key sources:

American Time Use Survey. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020, bls.gov/tus/.

“Area Waits in Vain for TV Test Pattern.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 16, 1953, 1.

“Channel 2 Opening Set.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 14, 1953, 1, 9.

Haswell, Clay. “Live Televised Sports to Explode Next Year.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 22, 1974, 25.

Hilscher, Hilary. “Here’s How Man in Street Sees Man on Moon.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 21, 1969, 2.

Hunt, Joe. “Gutted MacKay Building Masks a Dignified History.” Anchorage Times, May 5, 1991, A11.

Kiggins and Rollins, Channel 2-KFIA. “A TV Message to the Public.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 21, 1953, 9.

“KTVA Launches Eight-Hour Tests.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 4, 1953, 9.

“Local TV Debut Milestone in Alaskan History.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 11, 1953, 1.

“Lunar Telecast Timed Perfect for Anchorage.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 8, 1969, 1.

“Space Age Pictures.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 15, 1969, 4.

“TV Test Patterns Get Late, Or Is It Early Start.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 17, 1953, 1.


David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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