Why is there no Channel 37 on TV?
Let’s say you’re feverishly channelling surfing past multiple generations of Kardashians on your TV, trying in vain to find something to watch.
As you flip through the channels, you realize you just skipped from Channel 36 to Channel 38.
Did you click too fast?
You check again and realize…no.
Channel 37 simply…doesn’t exist.
How is that possible?
Well, you may be surprised to learn that the answer concerns a British cosmologist, aliens, and…Paterson, New Jersey.
Our world-class team of researchers bravely flew to the ends of the galaxy and even more bravely to….[pause]….New Jersey, to find out more.
To understand why Channel 37 fell off the TV map, we have to go all the way back to 1952.
Why Channel 37 Does not on TV?
The US was on the brink of what would eventually become two fast-growing obsessions: television, and space exploration.
In 1952, the Federal Communications Commission – or FCC – in the US allowed television to start using UHF; ultra high-frequency signals.
This was a huge milestone for the development of TV.
The potential number of TV stations people could watch suddenly skyrocketed from a measly 108 channels to a possible 2,051.
This opened up a whole wide world of possibilities for the sheer amount of programming networks could create and schedule.
It’s one of the reasons why we are now almost at ESPN 18: The Fly-Fishing Channel.
But as with most incredible-seeming opportunities, there were some unexpected drawbacks.
And one big one came in the form of a 400-foot-wide radio telescope in Danville, Illinois.
You may be wondering what kind of challenge a telescope would pose for a TV.
Well, the telescope in Danville wasn’t just any old telescope.
At the time, it was one of the most important tools scientists in the US possessed for astronomical observation.
Researchers at the University of Illinois kept the telescope in operation for 12 to 16 hours a day.
And the key issue when it comes to TV signals is that it was a radio [emphasis] telescope.
Radio telescopes were extremely significant in teaching us more about the universe than we had ever previously known – and funnily enough, they were discovered entirely by accident.
By a radio engineer at Bell Laboratories named Karl Jansky.
Jansky noticed some unexplained static interfering with radio waves meant to be used for transatlantic telephone transmissions.
Being a very innovative engineer, Jansky built custom instruments to determine the origin of the static.
These inventions included a large directional antenna system on a motor-driven turntable, which rode on the wheels of a Model-T Ford along a circular track.
We have no idea how he came up with this system, but it was called “Jansky’s merry-go-round”, and it was shockingly quite effective.
The engineer determined that there were three types of static: the first two were local and distant thunderstorms – very understandable as frequent sources of interference in the US Midwest – but the third was odd.
Jansky said it was, quote, “composed of a very steady hiss static the origin of which is not yet known.”
After investigating the problem to see what could be causing it, he came to the conclusion that the source of the static was, in fact, extraterrestrial, coming from the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.
However, since Jansky’s speciality was in engineering, and not astronomy, he didn’t really have the tools or means to further pursue this discovery.
Not to mention the field of radio astronomy didn’t really exist yet.
That’s right, Jansky had literally just stumbled onto a whole new scientific discipline, and no one was quite sure what to do about it yet.
He didn’t need to worry for long, however, because a British cosmologist named George C. McVittie was on his way to help.
After World War II, McVittie made his way to the United States and was determined to advance this relatively new field of radio astronomy.
McVittie was responsible for building the entire astronomy department of the University of Illinois.
Another scientist fascinated by this new field, George Swenson, helped build the university’s prize radio telescope.
Swenson had the idea to make the telescope a parabolic cylinder that could use the earth’s rotation to sweep the night sky.
To make it cost-effective, McVittie had to pick the perfect frequency the telescope would function at, to ensure the perfection of the reflector.
That’s when McVittie and Swenson realized that to make this radio telescope function optimally, and able to be maintained at a less than ridiculous cost, the observing frequency needed to be 610 megahertz.
He was right on the money, as the 610 MHz [megahertz] band has now become very significant in the whole field of radio astronomy.
This is mostly because of its position between two other important frequencies to the field, 410 MHz and 1.4 GHz [gigahertz].
Bob King of “Universe Today” used the following analogy to explain to those of us less versed in the details of radio astronomy
- – why this frequency should be protected for science at all costs.
He compared the range of frequencies to a 3-panel bay window.
The 610 MHz frequency allows astronomers to get an unobstructed radio view of the sky.
Losing it would be like blacking out the middle pane of the aforementioned three-panel window.
It would essentially blackout that significant chunk of the telescope’s view.
And here is where the problem lay.
608-614 MHz sat right around…you guessed it; the spot Channel 37 was supposed to take on television sets across the US.
This wasn’t a big problem in the early days of television when few channels were actually operating at any given time, and for most TV set owners, accessing UHF signals was an optional upgrade few chose to buy.
However, as TV exploded in popularity, the larger number of channels provided by UHF signals became a default feature rather than a potential upgrade.
For the first time, instead of families gathering around the dinner table and hurling passive-aggressive taunts at each other, they could crowd around the latest episode of “I Love Lucy” and just let their resentment quietly simmer while laughing at Lucy and Ethel’s antics.
This created problems for scientists who needed that small frequency window for their research.
At first, scientists thought bringing their concerns and requests to the FCC would quickly resolve the situation.
After all, they were just asking for one measly channel in return for what could potentially be groundbreaking discoveries in the field of space and astronomy.
However, to the surprise of no one who has lived under the reign of recent FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC came into conflict with experts and scientists in the name of higher profits.
As McVittie later recalled the general response to his requests at the time, even fellow radio astronomers saw the impossibility of what was being asked in the eyes of the FCC and the American public.
Some said, quote, “do you mean to say you are asking the American public to give up one television channel for science?
Whoever heard of anything so absurd?”
It’s…[pause]…comforting to know that some things never change.
The FCC was also reluctant to jump on board because few stations had called in to even use Channel 37 yet, as TV was still in its infancy and networks were slow to create and expand the content.
Remember, reality shows weren’t a thing yet, so some semblance of care had to be put into programming.
But hold on, you might be thinking.
Why would the FCC need to ban Channel 37 all across the US?
Could all TV stations on this channel, even hundreds of miles away, really interfere with this one radio telescope in Danville, Illinois?
But surprisingly, most big TV markets presented a problem.
Because the telescope would be strongly affected by any signal coming from within a 600-mile radius, and likely affected even beyond that.
Danville itself is a relatively small town; the population at the time: 31,246.
However, within a 600-mile radius of the town lay most of the major metropolitan centres of the US at the time.
Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington DC, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and even Toronto all lay within 600 miles of the centrally located Illinois town.
Philadelphia and New York City, though they fell slightly outside the radius, were still close enough to it to potentially provide interference as well.
Almost all the coastal cities of the Mississippi River fell within this radius, as well as the majority of the Eastern seaboard except Florida and New England.
The FCC was eventually forced to directly address the issue when Paterson, New Jersey, asked for Channel 37.
For those wondering why Paterson couldn’t request one of the many other channels available, other FCC limitations and regulations had taken away other channel options for this New Jersey city.
Scientists impressed upon the FCC that even though Paterson fell just outside the 600-mile radius encircling the Danville telescope, use of Channel 37 there would still likely interfere with the work being done at the University of Illinois.
The FCC came up with a compromise it thought would work well. Within 600 miles of the telescope, it banned stations on Channel 37 until at least 1968, when the projected McVittie could complete his survey of radio star sources.
Stations outside the radius could use Channel 37, but couldn’t air anything between midnight and 7 AM.
The thinking was that McVittie could use a few hours in this window for uninterrupted research.
While the FCC patted itself on the back for a job well done, scientists felt that officials there had completely missed the point.
Signals outside the 600-mile radius would still interfere with telescope functionality most of the time, and the field of radio astronomy would need that 610 MHz frequency way past 1968.
Feeling they had hit a brick wall in their negotiations with the FCC, scientists took their complaints to the media instead.
Why does not Channel 37 exist n TV?
An ever-growing chorus of scientists sent the following statement to the FCC to express their displeasure: “The FCC Docket suggests an appalling lack of comprehension within the FCC of the nature and needs of radio astronomy and yet the Commission has the power to cripple and perhaps even destroy radio astronomy.”
Officials at the Commission rejected this assessment – as most people would reject an assessment of themselves as, essentially dumb and ignorant – but strangely enough, relented.
In October of 1963, the FCC issued a statement announcing that the use of Channel 37 would be barred in the US.
Additionally, the Commission encouraged its Canadian and Mexican neighbours to do the same.
McVittie could hardly believe that the FCC flipped on the issue after so many months of seemingly failing to understand the problem, as well as scientists’ frustrations.
Though the official FCC explanation for the decision simply stated that they had finally understood any activity on Channel 37 would likely interfere with significant scientific research, rumours floated around of other pressures on the FCC.
One of the most interesting – and shockingly, plausible rumours about the FCC’s flip – suggested that the public had put immense pressure on the Commission after media attention was brought to the frequency issue.
Because what the public had gathered from this case is that interfering with the radio telescope at Danville would interfere with potential alien communications.
Now, whether people were scared of potential aliens or excited by them is unclear.
However, they viewed the FCC’s intention to interfere with such possible contact as a threat to progress, or safety, or simply a government cover-up.
Though laypeople didn’t seem to quite understand the debate or the work being done at Danville – to be fair, neither did the FCC – they threw their weight behind the scientific community over deregulation and potential corporate profits.
Clearly, this happened in a bygone era.
The way McVittie later put it, quote, “We got rumours, George particularly from friends he knew, that gradually a huge accumulation of letters arrived at the FCC, protesting against this nonsupport of this new science…[pause]…whatever it was.”
By the way, if you get Channel 37 today and have been wondering what in the world we’re talking about this whole time, you likely get it as a digital channel.
This means that 37 functions as a “virtual channel”, allowing any station to be broadcast on it no matter what its position on the MHz spectrum.
But for most of us, we can stop wondering if our TV is broken, and instead marvel at the fact that a small and determined group of scientists banded together to override the mighty FCC.
We may not have channel 37, but we have a whole new important field of science giving us discoveries about our galaxy and universe at every turn.