First airing on October 30, 1957, as WLW-I. operating as Channel 13, WTHR emerged from years of licensing battles to become Indianapolis’ fourth and last full-power VHF television station.

WTHR Channel 13 office and studio building, ca. 1990s
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Crosley Broadcasting of Cincinnati owned WLW-I Channel 13. It also owned and operated WLW radio in Cincinnati as well as television stations in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia. The fight for licensure was one of the most contested in the early history of television. Wire radio (owned at the time by Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News publisher Eugene C. Pulliam) filed for licensure of the station, followed by three other groups, including Crosley WIBC radio (operated by Richard M. Fairbanks, former owner of the News), and Mid-West TV, Inc., a group led by Union Federal Savings president George Sadlier.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) first awarded the license to the Mid-West group in 1955. Upon appeal by the losing parties, the FCC voted in March 1957, to issue the license to Crosley instead. The reversal created controversy on two fronts. Crosley became the second Cincinnati company to own an Indianapolis station, and the decision had been leaked during a congressional hearing.

First WLW-I news team including Gordon Graham (seated) and Forest Boyd (3rd from right)
Credit: Indiana Broadcast Pioneers

WIBC sued the FCC, but in the interim Crosley put WLW-I on the air. Studios were located in the Wulsin Building at 222 East Ohio Street with offices in the Merchants National Bank Building. These facilities were merged in 1958 in a new building at 1401 North Meridian Street. That same year, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals overturned the FCC decision and ordered a rehearing, although it allowed Crosley to continue broadcasting pending a new decision.

In late 1961, the FCC awarded the license to WIBC, concluding that local owners could better serve the local community, and ordered Crosley to shut down its Channel 13 operations. Crosley and WIBC concluded an FCC-approved deal in 1962, which allowed Crosley to keep Channel 13 and Fairbanks-owned WIBC and Fairbanks to acquire Crosley’s Atlanta station.

WLW-I Channel 13 was an ABC affiliate but also carried many of the programs produced by Crosley’s stations, including “Ruth Lyons 50-50 Club,” “Midwestern Hayride,” and Cincinnati Reds baseball. The station also produced its own broadcasts of Butler and Indiana universities’ basketball games and was the first television home of the Indiana Pacers.

A 1974 study by AVCO, the parent company of Crosley, described its Indianapolis station as a “third-rate, lackluster station lacking in a variety of the most fundamental professional credentials.” The next year, Crosley sold the station to the Wolfe family of Columbus, Ohio, operators of WBNS-AM-FM-TV there.

The new owners, incorporated as Videolndiana, Inc., changed the call letters to WTHR, improved facilities, and made programming changes. Station manager Chris Duffy launched a major promotional campaign, much of it centered around the station’s NewsCenter and news anchor Paul Udell, who would do extensive reporting from the field.

In 1979, Channel 13 and Channel 6 switched network affiliations. WTHR joined NBC after ABC moved its affiliation to WRTV. At the sign-off on Channel 13’s last night with ABC, the station showed a loving cup, awarded by ABC to mark an anniversary of Channel 13’s affiliation, being shot by an off-camera rifle.

WTHR moved to new studios and offices at the northwest corner of West 10th and North Meridian streets in 1982. The station received a national Emmy award that same year for documentary producer and investigative reporter Tom Cochrun’s documentary on the Ku Klux Klan. Cochrun also served as a news anchor for WTHR from 1986 to 1995.

As an NBC affiliate, WTHR gained ground in the Indianapolis television market airing the bulk of the Indianapolis Colts regular-season games until NFL rights moved to CBS in 1998.

In 1994, WTHR began operating a low-power television station, Channel 27, featuring news and public affairs programs. The mid-1990s also saw WTHR’s affiliation with NBC begin to pay major dividends as the network’s strong programming lineup also brought increased viewership to WTHR.

By the 2000s, WTHR had become one of the top stations in town and regularly swept the others in local ratings. An expanded focus on WTHR’s news team accompanied this boost in its rankings. In July 1995, WTHR made a prestigious hiring move by signing CBS News correspondent John Stehr as the main anchor for weeknight newscasts. The station also increased reliance on its “Eyewitness News” brand.

Changes like these established WTHR as a much-respected news team in the early 21st century. The group was award six Peabody Awards during this time (two in 2006, one in 2010, one in 2013, and one in 2016). WTHR also has had a robust local sports team to go alongside its news crew, with such programming as “Operation Football” and anchors like sports journalists Dave Calabro, Rich Nye, and Bob Kravitz.

WTHR launched SkyTrak Weather in 2000 and affiliated with sub-channel Universal Sports in 2009. The WTHR Universal Sports franchise became well-known for telecasting local high school basketball and football games. The sports sub-channel, no longer affiliated with WTHR, became a cable and satellite network in 2012.

Broadcast media giant Tegna Inc., headquartered in Tysons Corner, Virginia, purchased WTHR on August 8, 2019, as part of a $535 million deal.

Revised July 2021
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