07 December 2007

[media, notebook] This Post Is Brought To You By The Letters K and W, and by the CBS Mandate

1179. From The ZehnKatzen Notebooks–TV Station Call Signs, or the letters we call our TV stations.

We know that all the broadcast stations in Oregon begin with K; in fact, it's a truism that broadcasters west of the Mississippi start with K whilst those east start with W; and some stations have three-letter calls (KEX, KGW, KXL) though others four (KOIN, KATU, KPOJ). Strangely, however, there's a KDKA in Pittsburgh-hundreds of miles west of the Mississippi. Ever wonder why?

I did, found out, filed away the info, and then forgot it. Now, in collecting TV Station logos, I found I wanted to know again and now, thanks to Google, the answers are but a few minutes away, perforce, the following, capped with a few words on corporate style (the CBS Mandate).

The following is a thumbnail of what I found out. A web-bibliography follows.

The Story of the Ks and the Ws

A long time ago there were only a handful of stations broacasting anything, of course. They began to multiply, and it was decided by the international broadcasting community that a indentification standard would be A Good Thing Indeed.

Prior to 1912, a station could call itself anything it wanted. After this, however, the precursor of the International Telecommunications Union established a system that would evolve into the familiar K/W dichotomy that we know today.

The original plan for USA was to simply allocate A, N, K, and W. The US lobbied for A and N for Army and Navy, and the reasons K and W were chosen for civilan broacasting are unclear and are usually characterized as arbitrary and reason-less, but one of the sources I read pointed out that K and W are easily obtained by adding a dash to the Morse Code symbol for A:

  • Morse "A" is • –
  • To get "K", put a dash in front of the "A" ( – • – )
  • To get "W", put a dash in back of the "A" ( • – – )

We're not sure either, because the actual reason does not seem to be recorded, but this seems to have the right ring to it.

Once established and agreed upon, the appropriate authority started meteing out the calls. When first established, though, there was no requirement that a W or K be anywhere in relation to anything. A W could be in the west, and a K could be in the east.

As a matter of fact, that's what happened. One of the pioneer broadcasters, the legendary KDKA, was established and still broadcasts from Pittsburgh, PA; KYW is a station in Philadelpha, and WOAI broadcasts from San Antonio, TX.

As broadcasting spread west, however, it was deemed that a further territorial division would be Another Very Good Thing. Sometime between 1912 and 1920, the first dividing line was established, but due to the relative scarcity of broadcast outlets in the west, a line based on the New Mexico-Texas border would be appropriate. Existing K stations in the east were grandfathered, and that's why you have K stations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Soon enough, as broadcasting realy took off, it was decided that a line that far west was optimistic, so in January 1923, that demarcation was shifted to the Mighty Mississppi. W stations that existed before that shift had thier calls grandfathered, which is why you find W stations in San Antonio and Waco and Oklahoma City, amongst other places.

The map, hotlinked from one of my sources, tells the story.

One current exception happens in states like Minnesota and Louisana, where the Miss cuts through, they are allowed to mix it up. Both K and W calls exist in the NOLA, Twin Cities and Duluth markets regardless of thier relative positions to the Mississppi thalweg, and are not considered anomalies But all new stations outside those grey areas must adhere to the K/West, W/East rationale.

The Drawing of the Three ... Letters

Another mystery is why some stations have three letter calls while most of them seem to have four.

This can also be explained by expediency of the then-exploding broadcasting market. Originally three letters were thought to be sufficient; originally, the letters were randomly assigned.

By 1922, though, the applications began to flood in and the demand exceeded the supply of three-letter calls, and the answer to The Times-Picayune's application for the New Orleans market were the four-letter string WAAB (the station today is known as WJBO in Baton Rouge).

This would also explain why the three-letter stations in any market seem to be the ones that go back the farthest, that have the most "history"; they simply have been around, first in radio form then video form, longest of all. Portland's KPTV (1952) may have been the first Portland television station; to radio KGW (1922), and KEX (1926) it, as a broadcast outlet of any stripe, was a johnny-come-lately.

I Have a Mandate

The other thing we noticed in our looking around was that some stations had a common treatment to thier logos. This is more than a coincidence.

Even today, in this age of media consolidation, not every station has a non-network owner. Some networks themselves own and operate stations; these are the "O&O's", the network Owned-and-Operateds. Stations like WCBS in New York, KCBS in LA, and WBBM in Chicago all happen to be CBS O&O's.

In the interests of consistent branding, CBS Corporation (then known as Viacom) established what's now called the CBS Mandate. This mandate simply said that the station's call sign would be deprecated except when the FCC requires it to be announced in favor of the network name (CBS) followed the the channel number followed by the city, where appropriate to prevent ID confusion. Thus, WBBM typically identifies as "CBS 2" (as do the other stations; as it happens, they're all on channel 2). The CBS station in Philadelphia (coincidentally, KYW) identifies as "CBS3"

Visually, the mandate ordains a limited color palette (blue white and yellow) and the presentation of the CBS eye and name in an equal point size as the channel digit.

Not all O&O's obey the Mandate; there seems to be no penalty for not hewing to it. But many do, and that's the reason why some TV Station logos seem to have the common look that they do (NBC has no mandate of which we are aware but some stations seem to echo the theme)

Reading For Further Illumination

And that's all for this go.

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Paul said...

interesting post. I noticed a few years ago that all of the ABC stations were using yellow. Do they still do that? i quit watching TV along the way somewhere.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

They don't seem to. As far as I can tell from what shallow research I did (I can't claim I Am Detective over the CBS Mandate discovery–I quote stumbled on it when looking for something else in Wikipedia) CBS is the only network that encourages its stations to similarly brand.

There's something to be said for not fighting fashion, though, and I'll bet any widespread use of yellow is governed by fashion and any specific rules about use of the ABC logo (having logo use rules is a pretty common thing amongst identity systems, and while ABC may not have a "mandate", I'll lay odds they have use standards for their logo).

Also, the Mandate extended only to the O&O's; the network presumably has little or no control on how external licensees craft their branding and identities.

The closest evidence I have to a mandated corporate look outside CBS/Viacom was the unified Fisher Broadcasting look prior to mid-2007. All the Fisher stations from Seattle to Portland to Boise to Eugene to Idaho Falls used a cool treatment (and by cool I mean blue predominating), and while they've changed the on-air graphic look the websites still show this unified look.

Anonymous said...

And then there were the "X" stations from Mexico. Growing up near the US/Mexico border, we had XTRA [am radio] and XETV [now Fox but back in the 70s they were indy]. No FCC regs in Mexico meant these a.m. signals were strong - so strong that these small stations had huge audiences, from San Diego to Fresno. Wolfman Jack got his start on one of the super-powered stations and helped spread the RockNRoll gospel

(Posted on behalf of John Chilson of Stumptown Confidentials (http://stumptownconfidential.com) by SJK)

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

There are, in fact, three currently-broadcasting Mexican-licensed stations that broadcast for American markets–XHRIO Channel 2 in the Brownsville area has its studios and offices in Texas but is licensed to Matamoros, and San Diego has XHDTV Channel 49 (licensed to Tecate) and XETV Channel 6 (licensed to Tijuana).

I didn't think you could do that (have your station licensed just of the international border, it sure doesn't happen in northwestern Washington), but I guess you can.