WRAL-TV can trace its history to 1939, when Capitol Broadcasting Company founder A.J. Fletcher and son Fred saw a television demonstration at the World’s Fair in New York City. Both were fascinated by the flickering pictures on the small oval screen, but TV at the time was still very much a novelty.
Fast forward to the early 1950s and post-war America; the sale of TV sets was beginning to boom and A.J. Fletcher was determined not to miss out on the potential of the exciting new medium. On October 17, 1953, Capitol Broadcasting Company formally applied for a license to operate a television station in Raleigh, North Carolina. With that, the battle for Channel 5 had begun.
Two companies wanted Channel 5 – Capitol Broadcasting and the much larger Durham Life Insurance Company—owner and operator of WPTF-AM, the dominant radio station in the region. Since two applicants wanted the same channel, a competitive hearing was scheduled to determine which company was better suited to hold the license.
The proceedings began in Washington, DC in April 1954 and went on for nine long months. CBC was the decided underdog, but A.J. Fletcher had come to Washington with a savvy legal team and a mountain of supporting documentation. CBC also benefitted greatly from the wise counsel of A.J. Fletcher’s son Frank, who used his prior experience as an FCC attorney to great advantage.
The competition was fierce; Durham Life’s attorneys relied on the company’s radio experience and corporate muscle as they argued for the license. CBC positioned itself as a truly local broadcast company whose officers and managers would actually operate the station, unlike Durham Life.
When the FCC rendered its verdict in the summer of 1955 – it agreed with the hearing examiner that Capitol Broadcasting Company should be awarded the license for Raleigh’s channel 5. CBC had won and once again—David had beaten Goliath.
WRAL-TV went on the air December 15, 1956. Standing beneath the station’s 1100-foot transmission tower, the tallest east of the Mississippi River, A.J. Fletcher said “and now, to the almost two million North Carolinians within reach of our signal, we say happy viewing and listening to all of you on Channel 5.”
Fletcher’s introduction was followed by the classic holiday movie “Miracle on 34th Street.” More than three years had passed since CBC applied for the license, and at last it was official—Raleigh had a new television station.
WRAL-TV went on the air in 1956 as an NBC affiliate, but signed on with the up-and-coming ABC network in 1962. That relationship lasted until 1985, when the station became an affiliate of the CBS Television Network. WRAL partnered with CBS for 30 years, but on February 29, 2016–history came full circle and TV5 once again affiliated with the NBC television network.
Network partnerships have played an important role in WRAL’s success, but the station also has a long and distinguished history of locally-produced programming. Some of the most memorable shows from the station’s early days were produced with children in mind. The earliest of these programs featured Herb Marks, who portrayed submarine skipper “Cap’n Five” as the host of a daily cartoon show that ran for several years in the late ‘50s.
Then in 1961 the multi-talented Paul Montgomery began hosting “Time for Uncle Paul,” a cartoon and variety show that aired for 20 years and became the most beloved program in WRAL-TV history. Thousands of youngsters visited the WRAL studios over the years to appear on the show and “march with Uncle Paul.”
Over the years WRAL continued to produce memorable local programs for children. Shows like “Frog Hollow,” “Sparks,” “Central X-press.com” and “Androgena” were consistently honored as some of the best educational programming in the nation.
WRAL-TV also won acclaim for local programming that broke racial and gender barriers. The station premiered “Teenage Frolics” in 1958. “Frolics” was a weekly dance and variety show featuring J.D. Lewis, who made history as one of the nation’s first black hosts on local television.
“Femme Fare—WRAL-TV’s Magazine of the Air for the Modern Woman” was another landmark program that aired on Channel 5 from 1963 to 1977. WRAL Woman’s Director Bette Elliott hosted the daily program that featured regular segments on cooking, sewing and flower arranging, but also delved into serious topics such as women’s health, business issues, the arts and culture.
The 1960s would see the rise of another WRAL icon – Jesse Helms, who delivered CBC’s corporate editorial positions in daily “Viewpoint” editorials. Helms’ fiery, conservative commentaries stirred passionate debate—winning admirers and enemies alike while making him a household name in North Carolina. In 1972 Helms rode that popularity to the US Senate, where he would serve five terms.
While the station gained recognition for its local programs and editorials, WRAL-TV’s news operation was steadily building a stellar reputation. Early Channel 5 newscasters Bill Armstrong and Sam Beard laid a solid journalistic groundwork for success, but another WRAL anchorman would be the one to galvanize the station’s news image and become a legend in the process.
That man was Charlie Gaddy, a former radio personality who joined WRAL-TV in 1970. Gaddy worked first as host of a morning variety show, but in 1974 station managers named him primary news anchor, which would make him the face and image of WRAL-TV for the next twenty years.
TV-5’s new anchorman was a catalyst for success, and by the late 1970s Gaddy, co-anchor Bobbie Battista, weathercaster Bob DeBardelaben and sports anchor Rich Brenner formed one of the most heralded anchor teams in local television history. At one point, the Gaddy-led 6pm newscast commanded 50% of the market’s available television audience; that made it one of the highest-rated news programs in the nation.
Over the last four decades WRAL’s news operation has carried on that stellar tradition with market-leading ratings and national and regional awards. It also achieved an impressive list of “firsts” that cemented WRAL’s reputation as an industry leader: the first news operation in North Carolina with a fulltime helicopter (SKY 5 – 1979); first in North Carolina with a satellite uplink truck (LiveStar 5 – 1984); and first in the nation to produce a documentary in the new High Definition format (The Cape Light – 1999).
WRAL’s news success and innovation goes well beyond the medium of television. WRAL.com launched in 1996 and quickly became one of the most successful local news websites in the country. In December 2010, the site hit a milestone, serving more than a billion pages in a single year. Today, the site averages about 100 million page views and 4 million unique visitors a month.
Genuine public service has always been one of WRAL-TV’s core principles. The station has raised millions of dollars for charities and victims of natural disaster and has won numerous state and national awards for its involvement in the communities it serves.
The station is widely-known for its community-oriented programming. One longstanding WRAL tradition is the annual presentation of the Raleigh Christmas Parade. WRAL has presented live parade coverage each year for more than four decades. The station is also famous for turning its 300-foot-tall transmission tower into a giant Christmas tree each December. The tower’s three thousand colored lights bring joy to children and adults alike.
While WRAL is well known for its outstanding news, local programming and community service–it has also gained nationwide recognition as one of the most innovative stations in all of broadcasting.
WRAL was a pioneer in the development of High Definition Television (HDTV). In 1996 WRAL was the first station in the U.S. to be granted an experimental license for HDTV. Later that year TV-5 became the first commercial station to broadcast an HDTV signal. In October 2000, WRAL was first to produce and air a complete newscast in HD, and in January 2001 the station was first to gather and produce all its news in HD.
All of WRAL’s pioneering technical work with High Definition helped set the stage for the biggest change in television since the introduction of color. On June 12, 2009 WRAL-TV joined stations across the country in turning off their analog signals, completing the official conversion to digital television (DTV). The technological conversion ended more than 50 years of analog transmissions on Channel 5 and ushered in the new age of digital television. As one of the top TV stations in the nation, WRAL eagerly awaits the challenges and excitement of the next 50 years!