WPHL-TV, virtual and UHF digital channel 17, is a MyNetworkTV-affiliated television station licensed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Owned by Nexstar Media Group, the station maintains studios in the Wynnefield section of West Philadelphia; its transmitter is located on the Roxborough tower farm.
WPHL is the largest MyNetworkTV affiliate by market size that is not owned and operated by the Fox Television Stations subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, which owns the programming service.
Channel 17 first signed on the air on June 17, 1960, as WPCA-TV, the call letters standing for "People's Church of the Air." Founded by Percy Crawford, it originally maintained a religious programming format. WPCA was Philadelphia's first commercial UHF station; however, the station suffered due to the fact that UHF tuners were not required to be incorporated onto most television sets at the time (the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would not make UHF tuning capability a requirement until 1964 with the passage of the All-Channel Act), WPCA shut down on August 1, 1962 after only being on the air for two years.
Subsequently, advertising executive Len Stevens and attorney Aaron Katz formed Philadelphia Television Broadcasting Company which purchased the channel 17 license and returned it to the air on September 17, 1965 as independent station WPHL-TV. It was the third UHF independent to sign-on in Philadelphia that year, two and a half weeks after WKBS-TV (channel 48) and four months after WIBF-TV (channel 29, later WTAF and now WTXF-TV). After merging with U.S. Communications Corporation in 1967 WPHL-TV became the flagship station for their station group. U.S. Communications also operated WATL-TV in Atlanta, WPGH-TV in Pittsburgh, WXIX-TV in Cincinnati and KEMO-TV now (KOFY-TV) in San Francisco. The station produced and aired numerous local television shows over the years, including kids' favorite Wee Willie Webber's Colorful Cartoon Club and Dr. Shock's Horror Theater.
In the summer of 1975, WPHL-TV moved from its original studio facility at 1230 East Mermaid Lane in the suburb of Wyndmoor to its current studio on Wynnefield Avenue in the Wynnefield suburb of West Philadelphia. The building had once been the location of an A&P supermarket. The station offered a schedule of off-network drama series, sitcoms, old movies, sports and religious programs. It also ran NBC and ABC programs that KYW-TV (channel 3, now a CBS owned-and-operated station) and WPVI-TV (channel 6) had respectively pre-empted until the fall of 1976, and again from the fall of 1977 to the summer of 1983. The Providence Journal Company bought channel 17 in 1979. At that point, WPHL sought a different programming strategy geared towards adults, gradually dropping children's programming and cartoons. It focused more on movies, off-network drama series, recent off-network sitcoms and sports. The station also aired several hours of religious programming each day.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, WPHL was known on-air as "The Great Entertainer," with voiceovers provided by announcer Sid Doherty. The station positioned itself as an alternative to both WTAF and WKBS, as it programmed more towards adults with movies and other syndicated programs, while its competitors were heavy on sitcoms and children's cartoons. WPHL was also a station heavy on local sports, as it aired games featuring Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies until 1982, the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers from 1982 to 1995 and the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers in the 1990s.
From October 1981 to August 1987, the WPHL studios hosted a weekday afternoon dance show called Dancin' On Air, hosted by Eddie Bruce, as well as a spin-off on the USA Network called Dance Party USA, whose host, Dave Raymond, was better known as the Phillie Phanatic mascot seen during Phillies games. Those shows marked the on-air debut of a young girl from nearby Voorhees, New Jersey named Kelly Ripa.
In the summer of 1982, WKBS went on the market after its owner, Field Communications, decided to exit broadcasting. The Providence Journal Company was among those who were bidding for channel 48's license. Had it won, Journal would have merged WPHL's and WKBS' schedules under the WKBS license and channel allocation, while selling the channel 17 license to either a religious or educational broadcaster. However, the Journal Company's bid was still far below Field's asking price. With no takers willing to give Field what it wanted for the station, WKBS-TV ceased operations one year later on August 29, 1983, and WPHL picked up various syndicated programs, cartoons, movies and production equipment from WKBS.
In 1987, the Providence Journal Company sold WPHL-TV to a consortium headed by Dudley S. Taft Jr., the former president of the Cincinnati-based Taft Television and Radio Company, the longtime owners of rival WTAF-TV. Dudley Taft had left his family's namesake company following a corporate restructuring which resulted in the firm changing its name to Great American Broadcasting. He also brought along key personnel from WTAF (which Taft had sold to TVX Broadcast Group in early 1987), including general manager Randy Smith. The new ownership scrapped the "Great Entertainer" slogan and related logo for a new identity as "PHL 17", in an apparent attempt to counter WGBS-TV's (channel 57, now WPSG) "Philly 57" branding. The new owners restored some cartoons to the schedule. In 1991, the Taft group sold channel 17 to the Tribune Company.
On November 2, 1993, Tribune and the Warner Bros. Television division of Time Warner announced the formation of The WB Television Network. Due to the company's minority interest in the network (initially 12.5%, before expanding to 22%), Tribune chose to affiliate the majority of its independent stations with the upstart network, resulting in WPHL-TV becoming a network affiliate for the first time in its history upon The WB's January 11, 1995 debut. In September of that year, the station changed its on-air identity to "WB 17". For most of The WB's run, WPHL was one of the network's strongest affiliates.
Switch to MyNetworkTV
On January 24, 2006, CBS Corporation (which split from Viacom in December 2005) and Time Warner's Warner Bros. Entertainment (the division that operated The WB) announced that they would dissolve UPN and The WB and merge both networks' stronger programming onto a newly created network, The CW. Concurrent with the announcement, it signed a ten-year affiliation agreement with 16 of Tribune's 19 WB-affiliated stations. However, in the case of Philadelphia, The CW's affiliation went to the city's UPN station, CBS-owned WPSG (which was part of an affiliation deal with 11 of CBS' UPN stations). It would not have been an upset had WPHL been chosen as the area's CW affiliate, however. The network's officials were on record as preferring The WB and UPN's "strongest" stations for their new network, and Philadelphia was one of the few markets where the affiliates of both networks were both relatively strong.
WPHL was slated to revert to its previous independent status, but on May 15, 2006, Tribune announced that it would affiliate channel 17 (and two other WB affiliates that were not included in the CW affiliation deal) with MyNetworkTV, making WPHL the largest station in terms of market size affiliated with the network that was not owned by its then-parent company News Corporation (which became 21st Century Fox in June 2013 after spinning off most of its non-entertainment properties). It is also the only major station in Philadelphia that is not owned by its respective network. In July, WPHL rebranded itself as "MyPHL17", reviving the station's former "PHL 17" moniker. WPHL began airing MyNetworkTV programming on the day that the new service was launched, September 5, 2006. As a result, it did not air the final two weeks of The WB's programming.
On October 4, 2010, the station removed the "My" portion of the branding as many affiliates of the network began dropping references to MyNetworkTV due to it becoming more of a primetime programming service than a true television network. WPHL retains the multi-shaded 'blue TV' component of the network's logo as part of the station's own logo. Before the move of the broadcast rights of the Phillies in 2014 to WCAU-TV, another version of the logo was used where the "p" in "phl" was replaced with the hat insignia "P" from the logo of the Philadelphia Phillies. In addition, the Antenna TV subchannel the station carries is branded with a modified version of their 1970s/80s "Great Entertainer" logo; many other Antenna TV stations do this as well.
Aborted sale to Sinclair Broadcast Group; pending sale to Nexstar Media Group
On May 8, 2017, Hunt Valley, Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group announced that it would acquire Tribune Media for $3.9 billion, plus the assumption of $2.7 billion in debt held by Tribune. Had the deal received regulatory approval by the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division, the transaction would have brought WPHL under common ownership with CBS-CW affiliate WHP-TV in Harrisburg. (Sinclair intended to sell Tribune-owned Fox affiliate WPMT in Harrisburg and, to address a separate conflict with Tribune-operated ABC-affiliated sister WNEP-TV, the Scranton virtual triopoly of Fox affiliate WOLF-TV, CW affiliate WSWB and MyNetworkTV affiliate WQMY to Standard Media Group to address ownership conflicts related to the deal.) Because of WPHL's status as a MyNetworkTV affiliate with limited local programming, some analysts initially believed that Sinclair may choose to sell WPHL to Fox Television Stations to form a duopoly with Fox owned-and-operated station WTXF-TV, which would make WPHL a MyNetworkTV O&O. However, Sinclair did not include WPHL in a subsequent $910-million sale of seven Tribune-owned stations to Fox Television Stations that was announced on May 9, 2018. It is asserted that Pennsylvania's status as a swing state in Presidential elections may have been considered a deciding factor in Sinclair choosing to acquire WPHL.
Less than one month after the FCC voted to have the deal reviewed by an administrative law judge amid "serious concerns" about Sinclair's forthrightness in its applications to sell certain conflict properties, on August 9, 2018, Tribune announced it would terminate the Sinclair deal, intending to seek other M&A opportunities. Tribune also filed a breach of contract lawsuit in the Delaware Chancery Court, alleging that Sinclair engaged in protracted negotiations with the FCC and the DOJ over regulatory issues, refused to sell stations in markets where it already had properties, and proposed divestitures to parties with ties to Sinclair executive chair David D. Smith that were rejected or highly subject to rejection to maintain control over stations it was required to sell.
On December 3, 2018, Irving, Texas-based Nexstar Media Group announced it would acquire Tribune's assets for $6.4 billion in cash and debt. The deal—which would make Nexstar the largest television station operator by total number of stations upon its expected closure late in the third quarter of 2019—would give WPHL-TV an additional sister station in Hagerstown, Maryland-based independent station/Heroes & Icons affiliate WDVM-TV (presuming Nexstar opts to create a duopoly with Tribune-owned CW affiliate WDCW in the co-located Washington, D.C. market). Nexstar would also be present in every market serving Pennsylvania except for Pittsburgh if the deal is closed.
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