On March 13, 1954, Ultra High Frequency station KCEB aired its first program. The project was the work of one man, Tulsan Elfred Beck. As an independent oil producer, Beck had been blessed with considerable success in his discovery of several rich oil fields.
After obtaining a bachelor's degree in geology from the University of Nebraska, Beck worked as staff geologist for several oil and gas firms in the midwest. In 1933 Beck vent into business for himself, promptly striking it rich with his discovery of a new oil pool in Osage County.l
This discovery led to Beck's friendship with the leader of the Osage Indians, Chief Lookout. Beck transacted a lease agreement with Chief Lookout for the mineral rights in Osage County. This friendship was brought to light some 20 years later in a rare gesture of tribute. The mountain site on which Beck built his television facility was named Lookout Mountain in honor of his good friend.
Beck's byword was "best" as far as his television station was concerned. Not only did he buy the most expensive equipment available, he hired experienced people to operate it. Mr. N. Ray Kelly was hired as general manager of the station. Kelly, a native Oklahoman, had worked for 20 years with NBC in New York. Because of his activities in all phases of station operation, Kelly was given the task or making KCEB operational.
Ground-breaking ceremonies took place on August 21, 1953, with the Tulsa press observing Mayor Clancy Warren as he turned the first shovelful of "rock" on the mountaintop. Despite the hard ground and inconvenient location, a road was carved out and work progressed at a steady pace. In less than six months from the start of construction the facility was completed. The six months were well spent by Beck and Kelly who were awarded an architectural prize for their efforts by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Institute or Architects.2
Beck also received support from two major networks in an attempt to augment his local programming. KCEB affiliated with NBC and the DuMont networks. DuMont at that time was at its peak with some 205 stations carrying all or part of their programs. Beck's program director, William McLaren, had a wide choice of shows to schedule through the first months of operation.
Because television receivers were not manufactured to receive the UHF signal until 1964, converters or adapters had to be used on sets built prior to that time. This single factor was perhaps the most critical to UHF licensees who found the going quite rough in the 1950's and early 1960's. Elfred Beck recalls that in June of 1954, there were some 82 UHF stations in operation in the United States. One year later only 24 remained.3
The task of convincing set owners to purchase the necessary adapters was handled well. Many viewers, curious to see the program fare of a UHF station, voluntarily purchased the converters. Others were convinced by local merchants who were anxious to use the drawing power of a new station to sell additional receivers. No less than 53 Tulsa merchants stressed the fact that KCEB would soon be on the air in their advertising copy.4
Estimates on how many homes were equipped to receive UHF in the year 1954 vary only slightly. Beck claims that the converters were installed on approximately 100,000 sets which accounted for some 40 per cent of the total receivers in Tulsa. Howard Eden, an employee of Tulsa's largest electronic supply house, Radio Incorporated, recalls a higher ratio. Eden, who handled much of the converter business for his company in 1954, believes that as many as half of the quarter of a million sets in the Tulsa area could pick-up the KCEB signal.5
Beck, in designating his station as KCEB, soon discovered that the simple act of reversing his name was "news." An industry magazine, Television Age, noted in its December, 1953, issue that KCEB was the only station in the United States whose call letters spelled the name of the owner in reverse.6
In spite of major network affiliations, a satisfactory conversion ratio, expensive and up-to-date equipment, the station did not last out its first year. After nine months of operation, KCEB went off the air in December, 1954. Beck sought to keep the station from going under in mid-October by resorting to a filmed operation on a four-hour daily schedule. When this alternative failed to win viewer support, Beck closed the doors of his television facility. Actually, several events transpired from March to December in rapid succession that led to the station's untimely demise. KCEB, despite the large measure of public confidence and highly trained staff, was the recipient of several devastating setbacks that simply could not be overcome.
Shortly after sign-on in March, 1954, the seemingly popular DuMont Television Network failed. Failure of the network was attributed to a lack of advertising revenue. This left KCEB with only the services of the National Broadcasting Company. Although Beck was supposed to have an exclusive agreement with NBC, he soon learned that rival station KOTV was still receiving a portion of its programming from NBC. In fact, remembers Beck, the VHF station was given top priority on all programs from that network.7
In addition to network problems, it was soon announced that a third station was coming to Tulsa on a VHF allocation. The several factions contending for the Channel Two allocation had finally agreed to join forces which resulted in Central Plains Enterprises becoming the permittee of the coveted VHF station. Beck himself had attempted to secure a Construction Permit for Channel Two but found the competition much too formidable. The competition included philanthropist oilman, John Mabee, who had applied with Tulsa ice rink owner, John Mullins, for the station. Also a faction led by Tulsa businessman, Fred Jones, and Tom P. McDermott applied for the channel. The ultimate approval of a group headed by Robert S. Kerr, William G. Skelly, and Dean McGee ended the speculation on the new channel.8
Channel Two, known as KVOO, soon dealt a crippling blow to Beck in his operation of KCEB. The National Broadcasting Company, anxious to affiliate with VHF stations wherever possible, agreed to provide Tulsa's third station with programming on an exclusive basis. This development led Beck to seek out a one-sided contract with the American Broadcasting Company. Under the terms ABC reserved the rlght to give KOTV first call on all programs. Beck, of course, agreed as he desperately needed program material in his operation. Thus, in less than six months, KCEB had utilized the services of no less than three television networks.
Just when Beck thought he might weather the storm and actually make it through the first year, he was faced with another setback. In mid-September, it was announced that a VHF station would soon go on the air in Muskogee. On September 18, 1954, KTVX went on the air as an affiliate of the American Broadcasting Company. This marked the beginning of the end for Beck's hopes for a successful UHF operation.
In October Beck resorted to a limited program schedule in the vain hope that his facility could be salvaged, but this attempt could not develop enough revenue to maintain operations. Beck signed-off on December 10, 1954, less than nine months after signing-on. Four months later on April 5, 1955, Beck sold his entire facility to the Tulsa Broadcasting Company, operators of KTVX (Channel Eight). Beck did not, however, give up his Constructibn Permit. He is currently planning to reactivate KCEB in cooperation with Tulsans Ernest Moody and Claude Hill.9
1 Interview with Elfred Beck, March 5, 1967.
2 Tulsa World, March 15, 1954.
3 Interview with Elfred Beck, op. cit.
4 Tulsa Daily World, Advertising Section, March 13, 1954.
5 Interview with Howard Eden, March 6, 1967.
6 Television Age (New York: Television Editorial Corp., December, 1953).
7 Interview with Elfred Beck, March 22, 1967.
8 Tulsa Tribune, June 2, 1954.
9 Interviews with Elfred Beck, March 5 and March 22, 1967, op. cit.