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American TVs Don’t Have A Channel 37 And It’s All To Do With Aliens

by : Emily Brown on : 05 Apr 2021 13:26
American TVs Don't Have A Channel 37 And It's All To Do With Aliensquotecatalog.com/Flickr/CSIRO/Wikimedia CC-BY-3.0

If you like to have your volume set to an even number, or have a habit of remembering which TV channel links to which network, you might have realised that American analogue TVs don’t have a channel 37. 

Admittedly, it’s one of those things that you’d only really notice after flicking through each and every channel, but now that it’s been brought to your attention, allow me to explain why.

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It’s not to do with superstition, as is often the case with number 13, or religious reasons, which might make people wary of 666, but it does have a somewhat supernatural tale behind it.

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In 1952, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened up the television system to use ultra high frequency (UHF) signals, causing the total number of potential TV stations to increase from 108 to 2,051 overnight, Vice reports.

Due to the newfound popularity of television, broadcasters wanted to make the most of bandwidth, including the area within a 600-mile radius of the city of Danville, Illinois, which encompassed major cities including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Toronto, and Washington DC.

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The area marked the spot where channel 37 was supposed to be, but unfortunately it was already home to a 400-foot-wide radio telescope, operating along the 610 MHz frequency.

The telescope was created after a radio engineer and Bell Laboratories employee named Karl Jansky found in 1931 that the static interfering with radio waves had an extraterrestrial source, particularly at the centre of the Milky Way.

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Jansky was trying wasn’t able to pursue the mystery, but research into radio astronomy was pursued further after World War II, with George C. McVittie, a British cosmologist who built the astronomy department at the University of Illinois in the 1950s, and George Swenson, who helped to build the university’s radio telescope, among those involved.

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McVittie has previously explained that, ‘for engineering reasons’, they could only build a ‘really big [telescope] if we had a frequency round about 600 megahertz… And so we picked upon this 610 megahertz band as the observing frequency.’

The area has since become important to research as it is placed in the context of two other frequencies important to radio astronomy, 410 MHz and 1.4 GHz, with astronomy writer Bob King, of Universe Today, writing: ‘Without it, radio astronomers would lose a key window in an otherwise continuous radio view of the sky. Imagine a 3-panel bay window with the middle pane painted black. Who wants THAT?’

Though the placement of the telescope was a source of frustration for broadcasters, scientists had the support of the global community and in 1959 the International Telecommunication Union set aside a series of frequencies that were important for various scientific and technical uses, one of which was where channel 37 sat.

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Following the meeting, the University of Illinois asked that channel 37 be allocated to radio telescopes exclusively, but the FCC disagreed.

As a compromise, regulators determined there would be no stations on channel 37 within a 600-mile radius of the antenna until at least 1968, to allow McVittie to complete a survey of radio star sources he was doing on the 610 MHz frequency, and that no stations anywhere listed under channel 37 could air anything between midnight and 7.00am.

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In spite of efforts to find a balance, scientists hit back at the compromise and eventually the FCC agreed to a 10-year moratorium on channel 37 being used, which ended up becoming permanent.

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Discussing the FCC’s decision, McVittie said:

Somehow the news got around that here was this new way of listening to little green men on Mars. This is what radio astronomy seemed to the ordinary public. And the FCC was preventing it from being developed in the United States.

We got rumors, George particularly from friends he knew, that gradually a huge accumulation of letters arrived at the FCC, protesting against this nonsupport of this new science, whatever it was. And that this finally persuaded the FCC that they’d better give in. Nobody knows.

A document explaining the FCC’s decision, cited by Vice, indicated that the commission didn’t necessarily know how scientific research would be impacted if it put channel 37 on the dial, so it decided not to risk it.

Though there may be a digital equivalent to channel 37 found on TVs today, thanks to differences in how signals are allocated, the mystery of the extraterrestrial interference of radio signals means that channel 37 never made it to air in analogue form in the US.

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: Science, Aliens, Astronomy, Space

Credits

Vice and 1 other
  1. Vice

    Why Channel 37 Doesn’t Exist (And What It Has to Do With Aliens)

  2. Universe Today

    The Curious Channel 37 — Must-see TV For Radio Astronomy