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Koplar Communications: America’s First Broadcast Earth Station Revisited

The Koplar family set up the first satellite broadcast earth station in the United States more than 30 years ago, kicking off a new era in television, but for roughly a decade, the company ceased broadcasting. Now the family is back at it, bringing content to audiences across Missouri — and still using satellite. Here is the story of KPLR-TV and Koplar Communications, then versus now.

It was a phone call from a friend of Ted Koplar, then president of Koplar Communications, about a construction permit that returned the Koplar family to the broadcast world. There was property up for grabs in Osage Beach, Missouri, and if he wanted it, he could go for it. He did.

Harold Koplar, Ted’s father, had launched KPLR-TV in 1959. The station was America’s first independent Very High Frequency (VHF) station, and by 1997, had become the top-ranked independent television station in the country, according to Nielsen television ratings. Along the way, the station installed the first broadcast facility with a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for ownership and operation of a satellite earth station, which then became the subject of one of the first ever articles in Via Satellite Magazine’s inaugural issue. But in the same year of reaching that prestigious ranking, Koplar Communications, parent company of KPLR-TV, sold the station to ACME Television Holdings. Koplar Communications had diversified over the years, doing other video-related work, and had a long history in property and real estate. Broadcasting fell to the wayside.

“It would be fair to say the company was more or less dormant for a good 10 years,” says Bob Koplar, son of Ted Koplar and current president of Koplar Communications.

But the friend’s phone call resurrected the company’s broadcast business. In 2007 Koplar Communications acquired a construction permit from the FCC and built a new television station from the ground up. Two years later Koplar Communications signed KRBK, which in another two years became the local Fox affiliate for Springfield, Missouri.

Koplar Communications is now an active part of the local broadcast scene in the U.S. Midwest, and is also continuing to use satellite. The challenge of meeting the demands of viewers now is very different, however.

“You’ve got way more competition from all kinds of sources than we used to as a TV station. Back in KPLR days, a lot of people didn’t have cable, so you turned on your TV and what was available to you were the five to seven channels you had over the air. Nowadays you are competing against Netflix, you’re competing against any number of streaming services, Facebook — people’s attention is totally divided right now,” says Bob.

Bob joined Koplar Communications in 2009, leaving a law firm to return to the family company. The original reason, he says, was an animation project. In the 1980s the company got into making cartoons, including the popular children’s show Voltron. Decades later came the opportunity to do a reboot of the cartoon and give it new life.

KPLR-TV 1970s news team, including (from left) Bob Plager, Gil Engler, Christine Buch, Nancy Scanlon, Bill Thomas, Maggie Linton, and Gentry Trotter.

“We partnered with NickToons and created a brand new series in 2009. That’s now gone onto the next iteration with DreamWorks Animation, and we are working with Netflix. We now have a show on Netflix, which is the latest iteration of Voltron, called Voltron Legendary Defender. That’s how I was originally brought into the company, and then, as our broadcasting business reemerged in Springfield, I migrated over to the broadcast side and was focused on that,” he says.

Bob says Koplar Communications has been focused on establishing itself in the Springfield area, which geographically is not a region the company was very familiar with. The company is licensed in Osage Beach, but that is in the northern part of its Designated Market Area (DMA). Along with needing to serve a larger area, Koplar Communications had to reach Springfield in particular, which is toward the south of its DMA.

“It’s geographically a very large DMA,” says Bob. “It encompasses over a quarter of the state of Missouri and part of Arkansas, so it’s a huge swath of land … Our initial plan was to put up a 2,000 foot tower kind of in the middle of nowhere that was directly in between those two places, but the FCC wouldn’t allow it, so we had to scrap those plans.”

In lieu of the massive tower, Koplar Communications ended up implementing a Distributed Transmission System (DTS) consisting of a network of five different, smaller towers spread throughout this DMA. The towers, which geosynchronize to prevent interference with each other, function as transmitters for the company’s signal across the DMA. This is where satellite returns to the picture, though in an admittedly different way than the days of KPLR-TV.

“We have an uplink at our main studio in Springfield, and that uplinks all of our three programming streams to the [Intelsat] Galaxy 16 satellite. Then we beam it back down to all of our transmitters. What’s nice about that is, being on the satellite we can reach just about anybody. If there is a cable head-end that our contour doesn’t cover, they can just throw up a receiver and get us by satellite,” explains Bob.

In the days of KPLR-TV, the Koplars used their satellite earth station to bring in news from national or global sources as part of the Independent Television News Association (ITNA). Bob says media used to lease the satellite dish frequently for major events. Now, while satellite is still involved in bringing news from afar, Koplar Communications relies on Fox to source the majority of national and international news.

Bob says Koplar Communications is still bullish on broadcast television, and is very invested in the broadcast space through its television station. The company has diversified distribution methods, leveraging platforms like Netflix for Voltron, but for generating value for advertisers, he says television remains the strongest approach.

“You almost have to be platform agnostic nowadays, but the locomotive is still the airwaves,” he says. “It’s our broadcast television channel that still remains the best way to generate awareness by far.”

The challenge for a newish but still veteran local television station is to ensure that the company is delivering content in ways viewers want to consume.

“There is no question that people’s viewing habits are changing,” Bob adds. “It’s an environment where you want to see what you want to watch, when you want to watch, and where you want to watch it. Linear television as a model is changing because people are time-shifting and they are watching their shows whenever they want. You can’t really count on an audience to tune in anymore at a certain time, so I think the challenge is to be where your viewers are and make it convenient for them to watch your content.”

Harold Koplar launches KPLR-TV, the first independent VHF station in the U.S.

Bob says Koplar Communications encourages news department members to regularly use social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram to reach younger audiences, whether on the air or online.

“As a local TV station it’s a matter of staying relevant and capturing the younger viewer. TV station audiences are getting older and older, and I think the primary challenge for local stations is staying relevant for this new generation,” he says.

Bob was only in high school when the Koplar family decided to sell KPLR-TV. He says his father did not have plans to sell the station, but had several suitors interested in buying for a number of years. When ACME approached, the Koplars got along well with management, and grew to believe in the vision ACME had for the station.

“It was emotional for sure, having to part with a station that my grandfather started and built piece by piece,” Bob says.

The ACME broadcast group was part of Warner Brothers Television Network (WB), and for more than 10 years, KPLR was repeatedly rated WB’s number one affiliate for the entire United States. In 2003, WB sold the station to Tribune Broadcasting, where it remains today.

For Koplar Communications and its new television station, the return to broadcasting is both exciting and nostalgic.

“It’s been a matter of ramping up for several years of building the pieces we had in place with KPLR. We are actually working with some of the same people, including Gil Englar who served for several years as KPLR’s news director,” says Bob.

Today Koplar Communications has three programming streams: Fox on the main channel, MeTV as first multicast, and MOVIES! as second multicast. Bob says, in addition to news and films, classic American TV shows like “I Love Lucy” and “Gunsmoke” remain very popular with viewers. Right now the station’s primary stream is in HD, while the multicasts are in SD. With the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s (ATSC) 3.0 standard, Bob anticipates the company could support as many as five to eight HD streams.

Looking at the future of satellite, Bob says he feels the technology is absolutely essential, and only becoming more so, both in broadcast and in other areas of life.

“Programming distribution is practically all done via satellite. I don’t know how we would do it without the satellite infrastructure, and I don’t see what’s going to come along to change that, to be honest,” he says.

As part of a family that pioneered satellite broadcasting when it was new and novel, Bob remains optimistic that satellite will continue to be a driving force for innovation around the world.

“As a consumer I look at all the different areas satellite affects our lives, everything from self driving cars that are GPS-based; now you can get internet on planes, which used to be ground based and is now moving to satellite. It’s becoming more and more of a satellite-based society,” he says. “The prospect of providing broadband to remote areas in Africa — I can’t even say the sky is the limit. The sky is not the limit; space is the limit. It’s truly a satellite-based future, at least from where I stand.” VS