WVLT-TV debuted on October 18, 1953 as WTSK-TV on channel 26. It was Tennessee's first UHF station, and the second television station in East Tennessee. The station was a CBS affiliate, but also shared ABC programming with WROL-TV, now WATE-TV, which signed on a few hours before WTSK.
Channel 26 found the going difficult at first, since television manufacturers weren't required to build in UHF tuning capability at the time. Viewers needed an expensive converter to watch WTSK, and even then the picture quality was marginal at best. In addition, most of eastern Tennessee is very mountainous, and UHF signals at the time usually did not carry very well over rugged terrain. In 1954, the station's original owners sold the station to South Central Communications, a radio company in Evansville, Indiana, who changed its calls to WTVK.
When WBIR-TV signed on in 1956 and took the CBS affiliation, WTVK became a full-time ABC affiliate. However, it spent most of the next 20 years as a very distant third in the ratings. While this was due in part to ABC being a much weaker network (it wouldn't be on par with CBS and NBC in terms of programming until the 1970s), another problem was the terrain issue. Many viewers didn't get a clear signal from channel 26 until cable arrived in Knoxville in the 1970s. In fact, many viewers got a better signal from WLOS-TV (channel 13) in Asheville, North Carolina; WLOS' transmitter is located almost 118 miles east of Knoxville.
In 1979, the station changed its affiliations from ABC to NBC, swapping affiliations with WATE-TV. By this time, ABC had become the highest-rated network in the country, and was seeking to affiliate with stronger stations. Under the circumstances, ABC jumped at the chance to move its programming to long-dominant WATE-TV. Even as NBC dominated the ratings in the 1980s, channel 26 stayed in the local ratings basement. However, it did win the rights to broadcast a daily one-hour show from the 1982 World's Fair, held in Knoxville. The program was hosted by Jim Hess and Jim Hampton and featured news updates with WTVK news anchors including Melinda Kramer.
In 1988, the station returned to CBS, swapping affiliations with WBIR-TV; shortly afterward the station changed its calls to WKXT-TV and moved to channel 8, one of the last remaining VHF channel allocations in the U.S. It became one of the few stations in America to have been a primary affiliate of all "Big 3" networks. Soon after the move to the VHF band, South Central sold the station to a local ownership group. Channel 8 changed its callsign again to WVLT-TV in 1997 after Gray Television bought the station in 1996.
On January 9, 2011, their 11 p.m. newscast became the first in the Knoxville market to originate in high definition. On April 20, 2013, WVLT became the last station in the market to add a weekend morning newscast.
Vol Network affiliation
In 2007, WVLT and the Vol Network, the broadcasting arm of the University of Tennessee's athletic department, entered into a new 10-year agreement for WVLT and MyVLT to be the exclusive home of all Vol TV Network programing in the Knoxville area. WVLT paid UT $4.95 million for the 10 year contract. This gives the two stations the exclusive rights to the weekly highlights shows featuring head football coach, head men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, head women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, and other UT athletic-related programs in the Knoxville market. With this, the Vol TV Network ended a 10-year relationship with NBC affiliate WBIR-TV.
WVLT-DT2 launched in 2003 as a UPN affiliate, branded as UPN Knoxville. After UPN and The WB shut down and merged to create The CW Television Network, the subchannel became a MyNetworkTV in September 2006. Its branding changed to "MyVLT." In early-2011, WVLT-DT2 began broadcasting in 720p widescreen and started airing syndicated programming in HD. MyNetworkTV programming on the subchannel, however, is still aired in SD 4:3 (as opposed to HD 16:9 on most MyNetworkTV stations), and is stretched to fill the 16:9 screen.
Analog to digital conversion
WVLT-TV shut down its analog signal, over VHF channel 8, on June 12, 2009, the official date in which full-power television stations in the United States transitioned from analog to digital broadcasts under federal mandate. The station's digital signal remained on its pre-transition UHF channel 30. Through the use of PSIP, digital television receivers display the station's virtual channel as its former VHF analog channel 8.