Delaware’s first television station flickered to life in the late 1940s. WDEL-TV broadcast its first signal on June 30, 1949, from Wilmington’s Talleyville neighborhood.
The new television station owners—the Steinman family of Lancaster, PA—had acquired WDEL radio, an NBC affiliate, in 1947. The expansion of their business, combined with access to NBC programming, enhanced the content, variety and reach of the TV’s division.
Operating on a scant 1,000 watts, WDEL-TV faced technical issues. Viewers outside Wilmington frequently struggled with fluctuating reception. The station’s geographical position, trapped between the strong signals of WJZ-TV in New York City and WMAL-TV in Washington, D.C., exacerbated this broadcasting challenge.
Early adopters in Wilmington frequently grappled with viewing issues such as a picture without sound, or vice versa. The period’s clumsy, user-unfriendly television sets often required the services of ‘set technicians.’ They, much like the era’s doctors, made house calls.
WDEL-TV implemented an alternative solution to mitigate these challenges. They decided every afternoon, from 2 to 3 PM, to broadcast a test pattern. This allowed viewers to ‘tune their sets’, thus increasing the possibility of better reception for the evening’s shows.
From early on, the station’s line-up mirrored today’s familiar TV formats and schedules. Popular NBC productions such as ‘Howdy Doody’, ‘Hopalong Cassidy’, and the ‘Olsen & Johnson’ comedy show topped the programming slate. Notably, Wilmington audiences got their first glimpse of future Television Hall of Famer Milton Berle on WDEL-TV.
Meanwhile, “News Caravan” began airing at 7:45 PM and “Scores, Weather” concluded the broadcast day at 11 PM as local content started to surface. Wilmington’s “Morning News” published the first telecast guide on July 19, 1949, showcasing eleven shows with varying durations, ranging from a quarter of an hour to a full sixty minutes.
Historic symbolism played a role in shaping WDEL-TV’s brand identity. The station’s logo featured a silhouette of the Caesar Rodney statue, paying tribute to the renowned colonial hero. This choice symbolized the station’s dedication to weaving a sense of identity with the cultural life of the First State.
Television was replacing radio by the early 1950s as America’s main medium. In 1954, WDEL-TV recognized the potential of a dynamic radio personality named Joe Pyne, the first ‘talk radio’ personality. Station management poached Pyne from WILM and offered him a platform that would elevate WDEL-TV ‘s profile. Pyne’s sharp wit and provocative style quickly captivated viewers, bringing an unprecedented level of attention to the Wilmington station.
Radio’s Reign Replaced
After a successful stint at WDEL-TV, Pyne left in 1956 to explore opportunities in Los Angeles, where he continued to establish his industry fame.
Fast forward to 1958, when Storer Broadcasting, the new owner, changed the station’s name to WVUE-TV.
Pyne returned to host a late-night talk show. This move brought a dramatic surge in the station’s ratings, which reportedly increased thirtyfold. The addition of ‘The Joe Pyne Show’ boosted the station’s reputation, solidifying its status in the television landscape of the time.
Nonetheless, due to a technicality regarding the 1958 FCC station ownership limit, which was set to 7 television stations, WDEL-TV was shut down later the same year. WDEL-TV, which started on June 30, 1949, ceased broadcasting as WVUE-TV on September 13, 1958.
WDEL-TV’s legacy reminds us of the power of perseverance and innovation. A small station, armed with 1,000 watts and a dedicated team, reshaped the broadcast experience in Delaware, one home at a time.