WTVO is the ABC-affiliated television station for Northern Illinois licensed to Rockford. It broadcasts a high definition digital signal on UHF channel 16 (or virtual channel 17.1 via PSIP) from a transmitter at its studios on North Meridian Road/IL 24 in Rockford. The station can also be seen on Comcast channel 4 and in high definition on digital channel 908. Owned by Mission Broadcasting, WTVO is operated through joint sales and shared services agreements by the Nexstar Broadcasting Group. This makes it a sister outlet to Fox affiliate WQRF-TV and the two stations share studios.
The station signed-on May 3, 1953 as the market's first television outlet and is the oldest continuously operating UHF station in the northern portion of Illinois. Originally airing an analog signal on UHF channel 39 but moved to channel 17 in 1967. Interestingly, WQRF has operated from channel 39 since first signed-on in November 1978. WTVO was originally a primary NBC affiliate and shared secondary ABC status with WREX-TV.
When WCEE-TV (now WIFR) signed-on in 1965, it took the CBS affiliation sending ABC to WREX and leaving WTVO with just NBC. The station was owned by Winnebago Television (incorporated into the call sign, Winnebago TeleVision Organization), which was partially owned by the H & E Balaban Corporation (which later became Balaban Stations), until 1986 when Young Broadcasting of New York State purchased it. After a 42-year run as the local NBC station, it swapped network affiliation with WREX taking the ABC affiliation in August 1995.
Another ownership change came on November 22, 2004 when Mission Broadcasting (a subsidiary of Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting) bought WTVO from Young for $21 million. WTVO shares studios with Nexstar-owned WQRF although this station essentially functions as the senior partner of the agreement. WQRF originates from the WTVO facility and this station produces programming for the former.
For a number of years, WTVO carried selected Chicago Cubs telecasts originating from WGN-TV. However, in 1988, those telecasts moved to WIFR. During its days as an NBC affiliate, WTVO preempted a good number of network shows particularly in weekday and Saturday daytime as well as the Saturday edition of the NBC Nightly News in the 1980s.
A significant figure in its history was news anchor Bruce Richardson. He spent over 35 years at the station from 1956 until his retirement in June 1992. Richardson had the longest reign as a local news anchor in the history of Rockford television. Harold Froelich, one of WTVO's founders, served as General Manager for 37 years from sign-on until his retirement in 1990. In 1953, Froelich was one of the youngest General Managers in television. WTVO's secondary programming service launched on September 22, 2003 with offerings from UPN. Known on-air as "Rockford UPN 16", WTVO-DT2 replaced WHPN (now WBUW) in Madison, Wisconsin on Rockford area cable systems.
Access to UPN was actually lost a year earlier in 2002 after a change in WHPN’s ownership prompted an affiliation switch to The WB. That station's new owner, Acme Communications, was a major station group involved in The WB. Since UPN moved to a similar secondary programming service in Madison (known "UPN 14"), Rockford cable systems imported Chicago's WPWR-TV into the market as the de facto UPN affiliate for Rockford until WTVO added "Rockford UPN 16". In September 2006 with the merge of UPN and The WB, WTVO-DT2 joined the other new network debuting at the time (MyNetworkTV) which is actually a sister operation to Fox that is seen on WQRF.
The station's digital signal is multiplexed:
|Channel||Video||Aspect||PSIP Short Name||Programming|
|17.1||720p||16:9||WTVO-DT||Main WTVO programming / ABC|
|17.2||My Net||WTVO-DT2 / MyNetworkTV|
WTVO shut down its analog signal, over UHF channel 17, on February 17, 2009, the original target date in which full-power television stations in the United States were to transition from analog to digital broadcasts under federal mandate (which was later pushed back to June 12, 2009). The station's digital signal remained on its pre-transition UHF channel 16. Through the use of PSIP, digital television receivers display the station's virtual channel as its former UHF analog channel 17.
In March 2006, WTVO began producing the market's second prime time newscast on WQRF known as Fox 39 News at 9. The broadcast only aired on weeknights unlike the area's original prime time show that was seen every night on cable-only WB affiliate "WBR" (produced by WREX). This distinction made WQRF's news Rockford's first over-the-air newscast at 9. Competition between "WBR" and WQRF was short lived because, in late-2007, the former had its news canceled by WREX for an unknown reason. The time slot is currently used to replay the NBC outlet's weeknight 6 o'clock show on what is now CW affiliate WREX-DT2.
Another addition to local newscasts on WQRF occurred January 14, 2008 when WTVO launched Fox 39 Evening News at 6:30. This broadcast was seen weeknights and aired against the national broadcasts on the area's big three affiliates. Eventually, WQRF expanded Fox 39 News at 9 to a seven night operation and lengthened the weeknight version to a full hour. That station would eventually drop the 6:30 show for an unknown reason.
WQRF's weeknight prime time newscast maintains a separate news anchor but features the same meteorologist and sports anchor as seen WTVO. On March 5, 2012, WTVO launched a two-hour long extension of its weekday morning show on WQRF. Known as Fox 39 More Local in the Morning, this can be seen from 7 until 9 offering a local alternative to the national morning programs that air area's big three outlets.
WIFR was the first television station in Rockford to upgrade its newscasts to high definition followed by WREX on December 12, 2010. On December 18, 2012, WTVO and WQRF debuted a brand new set, news music package, and graphics scheme that is based on the Eyewitness News branding seen on other Nexstar/Mission television stations. Unlike most ABC affiliates, this outlet does not air a midday newscast during the week. As part of its schedule, MyNetworkTV affiliate WTVO-DT2 offers repeats of local news from the main channel.
On April 24, 2013, WTVO and WQRF moved to high definition, becoming the last television station in Rockford to do so. Ben Hutchison, Matt Rodewald & Chief Meteorologist Candice King anchored the final standard definition news broadcast in Rockford history.
In June, 2013, WTVO became the first local affiliate to air a Spanish language newscast hosted by anchor/reporter Alma Valenzuela and airing on channel 17.2. It began as a 15 minute newscast and was then expanded to a half-hour.