The Tulsa World recently published a story about the 30th anniversary of a movie filmed almost entirely in Tulsa.
The movie was “UHF,” and it starred parody maestro Weird Al Yankovic.
For those of a younger vintage, you may be wondering this: What the heck is a UHF? Is it a sound effect?
Yankovic felt an explanation for the movie title was necessary when he provided commentary for a 25th anniversary DVD/Blu-Ray release in 2014. At that time, he said a lot of people don’t know what UHF means anymore, but he grew up in an era when television sets could get “funky, weird, low-budget” UHF stations at the high end of the TV knob. Believe it or not, there was a time before remote controls when people had to get out of their chairs and turn a knob if they wanted to channel-surf.
Low-numbered “regular” network-affiliated TV stations aired on the VHF (very high frequency) band, and the alleged oddball stations aired on the UHF (ultra high frequency) band. Because of the proliferation of cable and satellite TV (plus streaming options), Yankovic is sure many folks don’t know what a UHF station is.
Tulsa was introduced to UHF before “UHF.”
At 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26, 1980, UHF station KOKI debuted on channel 23 with a replay of the U.S. Grand Prix, never mind that the Formula One auto race was held three weeks earlier.
Even if you weren’t necessarily giddy about carburetors and pistons, the arrival of a brand spanking new television station was a big deal — a big enough deal, in fact, that people gladly spent a dollar for a “loop” antenna that would permit their TV (probably already equipped with a VHF-friendly “rabbit ear” antenna) to pick up the new channel.
Let’s call the $1 loop antenna the biggest bargain of 1980. It gave you one additional entertainment option during an era when most TV viewers were restricted to three network affiliates and PBS. KOKI’s Dick Enderwood told the Tulsa World in 1980 that 75% to 80% of Tulsa-area viewers were not on a cable system at that time.
Now: We have access to a zillion channels and complain we can’t find anything to watch.
Then: The addition of a fifth channel was like being blessed with the keys to another dimension, and that was sort of the case if you watched reruns of “The Twilight Zone” on the new channel.
In advance of the debut, KOKI purchased “get to know us”-themed advertisements to let viewers know what programs they could expect to see. The early-years programming consisted mostly of retro TV series that aired in syndication, but there were also old movies and occasional football bowl games (before ESPN gobbled up the majority of bowls).
KOKI’s initial Sunday lineup included “Daktari,” “Here Come the Brides,” “Grizzly Adams,” “Last of the Wild,” “Wild, Wild World of Animals,” “Best of Ed Sullivan,” the 1956 movie “The Baby and the Battleship,” “Hollywood Squares” and “Combat.”
Initial weekday offerings included the “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” TV series, “700 Club,” “Divorce Court,” “Perry Mason,” “Maverick,” “The Mike Douglas Show,” “Let’s Make A Deal,” “Hollywood Squares,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Flying Nun,” “The Real McCoys,” “The Don Lane Show,” “Sha Na Na” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Because KOKI was not locked into network prime-time programs in the early years, the station’s original prime-time lineup consisted of five-days-a-week showings of “The Virginian” and “Merv Griffin.” KOKI became a Fox affiliate in 1986 and began airing the network’s first crop of prime-time programs during the 1987-88 television season.
For history’s sake, it should be pointed out that KOKI’s 1980 christening wasn’t Tulsa’s first dalliance with UHF. Tulsa TV station KCEB went down a UHF path for 10 months in the 1950s. The channel was briefly rebooted in the 1960s. UHF staying power finally arrived in 1980.
Those who have seen the movie “UHF” are aware that the programming on fictional channel 62 was far more outlandish than anything that ever aired when channel 23 was a new kid on the block. Yankovic’s character, who was in charge of channel 62’s programming, filled one of the station’s time slots with a game show called “Wheel of Fish.” There’s a scene in the film where Yankovic’s character tinkers with a programming board full of all kinds of zany shows. Hit the pause button and check ‘em out.
If you watch the 25th anniversary DVD, it is recommended that you experience the “extra” with Yankovic and manager/director Jay Levey providing humorous and insightful commentary. Yankovic explained that the movie had to be re-titled in Europe because there was no such thing as UHF.
But there was such a thing as UHF in Tulsa. You were in on the ground floor if you were among the pioneering viewers who, on the first Saturday KOKI was on the air, sampled “Space: 1999,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “Dance Fever,” a couple of throwback movies and the Leonard Nimoy-hosted show “In Search Of.” (Viewers really, really, really wanted Mr. Spock to be the person who located Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.)
Was it the best day in television history? Not by a long shot. But you had one more channel than you did on the previous Saturday and, framed that way, it was glorious.
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