KHAS-TV: A History

By Justin Spiehs, Adams County Historical Society

Your Full Color Station! Proud as a Peacock! Coverage You Can Count On! These are the catch phrases at KHAS-TV Channel 5, one of the best known and longest running television stations in Nebraska, which turned 50 in 2006. Where would Hastings and the surrounding areas be today had it not been for KHAS-TV? Who would have given us breaking stories, from the death of President Kennedy to the collapse of the USSR, our favorite programs like Kraft Music Hall, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, The Tonight Show, Days of Our Lives, Saturday Night Live and The Cosby Show, sports spectacles like the Olympics, or more importantly for this part of the country, weather updates for those stormy Nebraska nights. As Dorothy Creigh writes in Adams County, Nebraska: The Story 1872-1972, “Television burst onto the scene in Adams County in the 1950’s creating a sociological, intellectual, and even economic revolution here, as well as elsewhere in the country, and the world.” Today, who doesn’t rely on television in Adams County?

The National Broadcasting Company introduced the new medium to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair. RCA, the parent of NBC, and GE, RCA’s successor, originally saw the broadcast network as a way to market electronics equipment. But by the end of the 1940’s, it was clear that television programming – news, entertainment, sports – could be a powerful force in the second half of the 20th Century.

Television reached the Queen city in the summer of 1949 when Roger Hill, a radio repairman and owner of Roger’s Radio Shop, brought the first television set to Adams County. It cost and estimated $350, about one-fourth the price of a new Chevrolet.

According to a Hastings Daily Tribune article from July 29, 1949, Hill’s house at 929 North Briggs had a 40 foot tall antenna and could receive clear signals from Omaha, and at times, as far away as New York. Hill said this was just “freak reception” and did not come in all the time. Because there were no local stations, the TV set was mostly a conversation piece, at least until September 1950 when microwave transmissions from the East Coast finally reached Nebraska. By this time there were around 100 sets in the area. In 1953 KHOL near Axtell was the first station to go on the air close enough to raise (or lower) the status of the television set from a status symbol of affluence to a “must-have” for everyone. Later that year KGIN in Grand Island went into operation, giving viewers another choice for what they wanted to watch; a far cry from the 200+ channels we have today, but a big step for rural Nebraska.

In 1952 two groups from Hastings filed applications with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC for licensing of a station here in Adams County. As one can imagine, this was a slow process due to the backlog of applications from around the country. The Seaton organization filed its request with the FCC in June 1952, with the Strand Amusement Corporation filing soon after. But the FCC froze all applications for new TV channels for over one year. This led the Strand group to withdraw its request, which allowed the Seaton Broadcasting Company to receive the license for KHAS-TV in early 1955.

Shortly after the permit was granted, the Nebraska Television Corporation was formed on May 16, 1955. The initial board of directors were Fred A Seaton (president), J.M. McDonald Jr. (first vice president), John Spady (second vice president), Fred Irons (treasurer), Lloyd P. Kissinger (secretary), Ed Wilken, Hal Lainson, Ben Sherman, John Quirk ad Burton Thompson. Capital stock amounting to $281,900 was distributed among 115 stockholders from Hastings, Grand Island, and Kearney, with Seaton Broadcasting Company being the principal stockholder.

KHAS-TV began construction of a new building in June 1955. Located three and a half miles north of Hastings on Highway 281, the facility was described by local and national officials as “a completely modern building, functional as well as beautiful.” The studio consists of 9,120 square feet and has 18 foot high ceilings.

The building was built as a one story structure but has 2 levels, with the television control room above the studio for better viewing by the engineers. The studio was equipped with 90 electrical outlets (75 in the ceiling). This was, according to the December 30, 1955 Hastings Tribune, “plenty for both black and white programs and color shows, should the station in the future, begin live color telecasting.”

One thing that has allowed the station to stand out is the 767 feet tall tower at the site. The tower is 600 feet tall and the final 167 feet is the antenna itself. In 1955 the signal could reach between 65 and 100 miles in any direction. The total weight of the tower is 77 tons, and it would take winds over 110 miles per hour to shake it very much. The longest of the 12 guy wires that hold the triangular shaped steel lattice mast in place is 890 feet long.

When the station went on the air on January 1, 1956, as an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Company operating at a maximum power of 100,000 watts, it was said to have a market of 360,000 persons covering 27 Central Nebraska counties and 4 Kansas counties with gross sales estimated at more than half a billion dollars. On hand for the opening were some very important figures. Nebraska Governor Victor Anderson was given the honor of cutting the ribbon. Other dignitaries were Hastings Mayor Wendell Foote, Grand Island Mayor Jack Martin, presidents of the Hastings and Grand Island Chambers of Commerce and many members of the Seaton family. Once on the air, the station was flooded with hundreds of calls reporting that the reception as far away as Sargent and North Platte was excellent. As promised by General Manager Duane Watts an open house was held on March 24, 1956. Several thousand people were reported to have toured the building that day.

The first day’s program schedule began at 2:00 pm with a “test pattern” that ran for two hours. At 4:00 came the welcome announcement that the station was on the air, beginning with the words “Take One.” From there the schedule for the first night included classics such as Hopalong Cassidy, It’s a Great Life, King’s Crossroads, Amos N’ Andy, City Detective, Play of the Week, and Justice. The news was broadcast at 6:30 and 10 pm, followed by a movie on “5 Star Theater” after the final newscast.

Viewers did not have to wait long for the NBC station to begin color telecasting. The January 2, 1956 Rose Bowl parade and football game (in which Michigan State beat UCLA 17-14) made the station the first in Central Nebraska to broadcast color programs. This was such a big deal in 1956 that an event was sponsored by Rogers Radio and TV Shop at the KHAS Radio Auditorium to show both the Parade of Roses and the Rose Bowl in color. Even Tom and Jerry’s TV and Appliance on South Burlington ran four different ads in the Tribune’s News and Brief for January 1, 1956 saying, “The BIG news in TV. See the Rose Parade in Color… Plenty of seats available.” Even though it would take some time before KHAS could produce its own color programs, from the beginning it could broadcast color programs produced by NBC to give consumers what they wanted.

It was estimated by the Hastings Tribune that with the new station in Hastings the “number of television sets in homes will materially increase in the next few months.” In the December 30, 1955 edition of the newspaper, merchants offerings ranged froma 21” console (with mahogany finish) at Montgomery Wards for $179.88 to a 24” Motorola at Rogers “for only $249 (with trade in of your old set),” all the way up to the 24” RCA Winthrop Deluxe at Radio Electronics for a whopping $525. And before long, most houses in Hastings and the surrounding area would have a television. By early 1957, the Tribune reported that the city had issued 2,252 television antenna permits (309 in 1953, 890 in 1954, 676 in 1955 – with 152 being issued in March 1955 alone!)

KHAS-TV also did not take long to become first in the hearts of Central Nebraska viewers. A survey taken by the American Research Bureau between November 15 and 21, 1956 showed that the station had become number one in Hastings, Grand Island and the Kearney area, being the first watched channel 52 percent of the time. Along with this achievement the station reported large amounts of correspondence with viewers. In 1967, KHAS-TV became one of the first stations in Nebraska to acquire color equipment and have the ability to produce its own color broadcasts. It would not be until 1970, though, that everything that the stations ran was in color.

When the station went on the air, there were many people behind the scenes. Duane Watts was general manager, W.L. “Murph” Murray was operations manager and Duane Allison was chief engineer. Watts and Allison began their broadcasting careers at KHAS Radio, which was also owned by the Seaton family. Each served for decades on the television staff, Watts acting as general manager until October 1980, when John Bensen took over.

The people up front did not go at it alone either. The first anchors were Russell Snow (news), Robert Buckley (weather) and Robert Schnuelle (news/sports). Miss Marjory McGavren was the commercial copywriter, Marsden Garey was the film editor, Kay Murray (wife of Operations Manager Murph Murray) was the traffic manager, Paul Loehig was the film and slide projectionist, Glenn Barton was the floor man in charge of the sets and props, and Reuben F. Hoff was the custodian. Still, this is a far cry from the large number of people it takes to run today’s TV station. By 1972 the staff included 34 full time and 4 part time employees. They were responsible for producing the 113 hours of programming that happened each week. This would include 6 hours of news, one hour 30 minutes of weather and 2 hours of sports (not including network games) and other entertainment that totaled 103 hours.
 Twenty three hours of programming each week was produced locally at the station, with 90 hours coming from network sources.

Local on-air personalities developed a following. In the late 50’s, the Al Grebnick Czech Orchestra appeared in prime time for 26 weeks straight. For the first 8 years a popular part of the station’s lineup was a segment called “Today with Fran.” This was an in house production that was a forerunner of today’s network cooking shows. To accommodate host Fran Johnson, a completely new, all-gas kitchen was installed at the station by Kansas Nebraska Natural Gas Company. “Fun Ship Five,” a locally produced children’s program with KHAS staffers like Bob Booe (Captain Happy) serving as live actors was another popular show in the early years. Booe became a news anchor for several years at Kearney rival KHGI TV (formerly KHOL), but other anchors went on to have national careers. Forecaster Jodi Saeland, for example, was a popular host on the Weather Channel from 1992 to 1996 and is now a television meteorologist in Salt Lake City. She was recently nominated for a Regional Emmy Award. Two of the familiar names that have been with the station for 15 years or more today are John Walsh (Weather) and Ed Littler (Sports).

Hastings College communications arts professor Sharon Behl Brooks spent much of her early professional career with KHAS-TV Channel 5. Following a college internship at the station during her senior year, she was hired in 1973 to do the news. For the next 4+ years she would do everything from covering fires in formal dresses while lugging 25 pounds of camera equipment to helping to run one of the first ‘B-reels’ at the station (“Which meant that while you were speaking on air, we could actually put another picture over the TV set!”). From stories that she held dear – like the tale of Andy the Goose to exciting interviews of the Presidential candidates in 1976 – Ms Brooks loved her time at the station so much that when she left she had something like 80 days of vacation time to use up. Her first stint on the air was September 21, 1973, doing the weather. Her own description of the event was not flattering: “I went on the air, and I was horrible. I had no speech training so I tried to look and sound authoritative, but instead I looked cute and about 14 years old.. But I really wanted to do the news and I would do about anything to do it.” During her time at KHAS she became one of the first female news directors in the nation, only two years after her college graduation.

The most famous alumni of KHAS-TV, however, was Fred Seaton, the founding president of the company. By then Seaton already headed KHAS Radio and had published the Hastings Daily Tribune for 20 years. Before his death in 1974, the former U.S. Senator and Eisenhower cabinet member would serve on the Associated Press and Radio Free Europe boards of directors and receive the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 1996, he was elected to the Nebraska Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

The Seaton family would be principal owners of KHAS-TV until September 1997, when Dick Shively and Ulysses Carlini Sr. purchased it. Ulysses Carlini Jr then came from North Platte, Nebraska to take over as general manager. Carlini Sr. entered the business in the late 1950’s in Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky. In 1968 the Carlini family moved to North Platte to begin running KNOP-TV. Today both it and KHAS-TV are owned by Hoak Media Corporation of Dallas, Texas.

In 35 years in broadcasting Ulysses Carlini Jr has seen lots of changes. The investment in technology has been tremendous. The first thing the new owners did at KHAS-TV was to invest in new equipment. One of the biggest puchases came in the form of a commercial file server and other computer equipment. This allowed the station to run public service announcements, commercials, and promos from the server, removing the manual labor from the position. Still, KHAS-TV currently provides jobs for 48 people in the area. Due to technological changes in the last 10 years, however, the station has reassigned jobs, resulting in bigger sales and news departments and a smaller number of people behind the scenes.

Although it is still considered a small market broadcaster, today KHAS-TV reaches around 40 counties in Nebraska (with the additions of Dawson County in June 2006) and 7 in Kansas. The station is also the exclusive NBC affiliate for the Lincoln, Hastings, and Kearney regions of Dish Network and Direct TV. Anyone subscribing to local channel service through these or other cable networks will see KHAS-TV. This allows the station to reach Perkins County in the southwestern part of the state and all the way to the South Dakota border in the north. The station also offers the news on the World Wide Web. Its website, registered over 25 million hits between June 2005 and May 2006, expanding the station’s coverage far beyond what was envisioned in 1956. All of these things have allowed KHAS to cover more area and bring up-to-the-minute news to many viewers in the region.

With the fast pace of technology, times are changing again at the station. Digital television equipment was added in 2004 to create KHAS-DT Channel 21. By February 2009 the station will become fully digital. Due to the cost of a full power digital signal (8-10 times more power is needed), KHAS will be an analog broadcaster one day and completely digital the next. Mr. Carlini says this will save the station from having to put up a new tower, transmitter and transmission lines, as well as avoiding unnecessary power costs.

This has been a brief look at what has happened at KHAS-TV Channel 5 and its impact on Adams County and surrounding areas in its first 50 years. For those who want to learn more about its history, the Hastings Museum has an exhibit of KHAS-TV’s equipment and memorabilia from its early days, including one of its $16,000 cameras from 1956. After five decades, area residents have come to depend on Channel 5 and NBC’s news, weather, sports and entertainment every day, making “Coverage You Can Count On!” more than just a slogan and confirming the vision of the station’s founders.

More Info/Related Links:

KHAS-TV, founded by Fred Seaton, first went on the air January 1st, 1956.  Seaton's full story and more station details can be found online at the Nebraska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame