The Untouchable Charlie Brown

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If you look at this ad, you may be wondering (as I did when I stumbled across it) why Charlie Brown is advertising a television show in 1963… and why, of all shows, he’s advertising The Untouchables. (Or you may be one of the many people now populating the earth too young to remember the TV series that ran from 1959 to 1963, nor its 1987 film adaptation, nor its 1993 TV revival. For those who are still fresh of heart, I will let you know that it was a gangster show, about an FBI agent and his work against Al Capone and his fellow mobsters.)

This ad ran in the San Bernardino (California) Sun in September, 1963. Channel 18, KCHU, was not a brand new station. According to this K.M. Richards article I rely on for much KCHU data, it had gone on the air in 1962, the first UHF station in Southern California. UHF, those higher-numbered TV stations, were not a major player in the TV scene at the time. Ultra High Frequency TV had not only been developed after the lower-numbered Very High Frequency (VHF) broadcast, but the government had stopped granting stations for years while they reserved the bandwidth for eventual separate color TV broadcasting. Only after a method of broadcasting color was developed that would still work with existing black-and-white sets and content did the US government resume licensing UHF use. Add that to the fact that UHF stations had weaker broadcast signals that wouldn’t carry as far, and you ended up with a bit of a loop: there weren’t stations because there wasn’t an audience, and the potential audience wasn’t buying UHF-compatible TV sets because there weren’t stations. If you had a five-year-old TV set in 1963, there was less than a one-in-ten chance that it had UHF reception built in.

The 1962 launch of the station did not go well. The original owner apparently quickly wanted to get it off their hands, and found  new owner to buy them out. Who? Well, this is a piece of information that I had correctly guessed before I had looked it up. This Channel 18 ad doesn’t look like an ad that anyone would license. For one thing, who would license Charlie Brown, then associated solely with Tennessee Ernie Ford’s TV show, to advertise a rerun channel that was not airing the Ford show? And even if they did, wouldn’t there be a copyright tag on the image?

But there was one group of people who felt free to use Charlie Brown in their ads, and that’s newspapers that ran Peanuts. It was quite common to use comic strip characters to advertise the paper and the fact that you could read that strip in the paper, and it was not unreasonable. The blatantly non-Schulz ad here for the daily comics in the Des Moines register is an example — and hey, Charlie Brown in space in April 1958, not only before his association with NASA but even before NASA existed, that’s kinda cool, right?) So yes, it was the newspaper that the The Untouchables ad ran in which had bought out the station, in early 1963. For the end of September, they were doing a relaunch with a new line-up of shows. In order to build audience, they were offering to pay half the cost of the $30 it would take viewers to have their TV sets converted to take UHF. (That $15 price that remained would be the equivalent of $150 today… for which you can now buy a 42-inch HD smart TV with voice remote. If you wanted a “voice remote” in 1963, you had to have a kid brother.) And it seems like they felt that as long as they owned the paper, they could use characters to advertising things the paper owned. It wasn’t just Charlie Brown, although they did use him repeatedly, not just for the reruns of The Untouchables but also for Frontier Circus and “the children’s programs” in general. Linus and Snoopy also got into the act.

And while the majority of the ads were featuring Peanuts characters, Dick Tracy did get pulled into advertise the cop show Dragnet (which makes sense, but wouldn’t Tracy have been a more logical choice to promote The Untouchables as well?) Dennis the Menace, agent of family chaos, makes an intriguing choice to promote Divorce Court.

Once the new line-up actually launched, the comic character ads went away, replaced by ads using pictures from the actual TV shows they were promoting.

So, did having their lineup launched by famed comics characters make KCHU a long-lived and thriving media colossus? Alas, no. When a media conglomerate bought out the newspaper the next year, they only wanted the paper itself. The TV station was just a blip in California TV history. No one has been able to watch Frontier Circus on San Bernardino’s channel 18 in my lifetime, and the world is, I presume, sadder for it.

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