Pre-Air History of WTVT



While Channel 8 applicants battled for the license another group of potential television broadcasters were strategizing their goals of winning channel 13.

A veteran Florida radio broadcaster, W. Walter Tison, saw channel 13 as his opportunity to jump into television.  Tison became involved with the radio medium while serving the U.S. Navy in World War I as a radio technician.  Upon his discharge from the service in 1919, Tison joined the Merchant Marine and continued his career as a radio operator. In 1922, Tison was part of the engineering crew that launched WSB radio in Atlanta.  Tison moved to Clearwater in 1925 and started WGHB radio, where he served as General Manager and Engineer in Charge.  WGHB was rechristened WFLA in 1927 and Tison continued as G.M. until 1941.  After a short time as G.M. of WBRC radio in Birmingham, Alabama, Tison returned to Tampa Bay in 1946 and was granted a license for broadcasting over 1110kc.  He named the new station WALT radio. 

Realizing that Channel 13 had the potential to become a valuable media property but aware that the licensing procedure would be contentious, Tison sought help from the Tampa legal firm of Mabry, Reaves, Carlton, Anderson, Fields & Ward. "Carlton" was former Florida Governor Doyle E. Carlton, an individual with enormous political clout.  The firm's partner David Ward met with Tison, who was not optimistic about his chances and sought assistance in the back-room F.C.C. negotiations to be held in Washington. Ward took the lead in organizing an outstanding group of Bay Area citizens to join forces with Tison,  creating a corporation known as the Tampa Television Company with Governor Carlton as president, Tison as vice president, Ward as secretary-treasurer and the firm's Mich Emmanuel as assistant secretary. All partners in the firm were given an opportunity to purchase stock in the company and all did so.

When hearings for Channel 13's license convened in 1953, three applicants lined up for consideration:  

Tampa Television Company 
(co-owned by W.Walter Tison and the law firm of
Mabry, Reaves, Carlton, Anderson, Fields & Ward
, in Tampa)

Orange Television Broadcasting Company 
(no media properties)

The Tampa Times
publishers of a daily newspaper 
(owners and operators of radio station WDAE)

To further enhance their chances of winning the channel 13 license, Mabry et al hired a Washington law firm specializing in communications law and submitted plans for facilities and programming.

F.C.C. hearings on the license for channel 13 included the review of proposals from the three applicants. Ultimately, the hearing officer rendered a decision favoring The Tampa Daily Times, which was then Tampa's independent afternoon newspaper (later the Times was purchased by and merged into The Tampa Tribune which eventually terminated the afternoon edition.).  Had that decision stood, channel 13 would probably be known as WDAE-TV.  But Tison had anticipated a fight and his Tampa Television Company and the other petitioner appealed to the F.C.C. which, after several additional hearings, finally awarded the permit to the Tampa Television Company. (BIG 13 has no access to how the F.C.C. decision was turned around in favor of Tison and the politics involved...but it must have interesting).

In public records, the F.C.C.'s decision was based upon a belief that Tampa Television's local programming aspirations were superior to other applicants because of their broadcast experience and that F.C.C. commissioners were impressed by Tampa TV's plans for a satellite studio in St. Petersburg.

The outcome was quite a disappointment for The Tampa Times, which had already begun studio planning and construction of a transmitter on the belief that they would be awarded the license for Channel 13.  A major Times challenge for the license would soon effect channel 13's debut plans.

Channel 13 would take the remaining network affiliation available in the Tampa Bay market, CBS.  This would leave WSUN affiliated with the ABC network. (The Dumont network ceased operations in 1955).  

In September, 1954,  Tison told the St. Pete Times that work was beginning immediately on channel 13, which would be equipped for color when it went on the air...hopefully in time for the annual Gasparilla celebrations in February, 1955.  

Meanwhile, The Tampa Times filed an appeal and the license was frozen pending a review process.  The appeal dragged on into 1955.

"We were running neck and neck with WFLA,'" said a confident but cautious Tison in January, 1955.  "Footings for a television tower are already in, the lands cleared and the buildings are ready.  The tower and antenna are standing on the ground, ready to be installed, where they will stay until the FCC reaches a decision on a rehearing asked by the other two contenders for the channel." 

Tison is probably referring to the original transmitter site five miles southeast of Tampa at 5417 Providence Road in Brandon (the property is now the Gil Athletic Field Complex). 

Knowing the monumental task of constructing a television studio and transmitting facility, Tison added "Because of the delay, we'd have to resume construction tomorrow to be on the air by the middle of April."

WFLA's transmitter went active on January 29, 1955, with a test pattern for station engineers to make necessary adjustments.

Actual photo off monitor showing WFLA's test pattern

On Gasparilla Day, February 14, 1955, WFLA was there and made the pirate invasion and parade their broadcast premiere.


The same day Channel 8's transmitter started test operations, January 29, the FCC confirmed their decision about channel 13's license and lifted the freeze on Tampa Television.  Tison ordered the transmitter installed and resumed preparation for an April launch.  The aborted WDAE television transmitter stood in downtown Tampa well into the 1970's as a painful reminder of the Tampa Time's failure to secure the license.  In the meantime, channel 13's transmitter went on line, sending a test pattern to receivers in the Tampa Bay area.

Watch out, Channel 8...Channel 13 is on the way!

Tison named Daniel H. Smith as chief engineer and assistant general manager.   WSUN-TV's Monte Gurwit was hired as program manager, film buyer, and on-air host.  Another WSUN mainstay, sports director Guy Bagli, also joined Channel 13.  About 35 staffers would be needed to get Channel 13 on the air in production, engineering, sales, secretarial, traffic, accounting, and on-air personalities.