About WTRFOn October 24, 1953, the station made its maiden broadcast. It was co-owned with WTRF radio (1290 AM, now WYLY, and 100.5 FM, now WBGI-FM) in Bellaire, Ohio, which had signed on across the Ohio River in 1947. The call letters were a homage to FM 100.5, which was utilized to continue programming after AM 1290 signed out at sunset. In the 1970s, the radio stations were sold to help fund the television station.
WTRF was an NBC station that also showed some ABC programs, dividing that network's programming with the then-CBS affiliate. WSTV-TV (channel 9, now WTOV-TV) (channel 9, now WTOV-TV). WTRF was the area's first station to employ videotape rather than film in 1979.
WTRF-TV was the unchallenged leader in the Wheeling-Steubenville market throughout its first quarter-century on the air, while being well within reach of the much larger Pittsburgh market. Despite their near proximity and highly overlapping signals, the Wheeling-Steubenville market remains distinct from Pittsburgh as of 2017.
WTRF switched network affiliations with WTOV on January 7, 1980, and became a CBS affiliate. NBC had been struggling in the ratings for several years at the time, and WTRF desired a stronger relationship. It also canceled the other ABC shows from its lineup. This was not as catastrophic as it looked, because Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV (channel 4) was widely available over-the-air and on cable in the area. However, the swap backfired horribly. While channel 7 was an NBC affiliate, it had to compete with Pittsburgh's WIIC-TV (channel 11, now WPXI), one of NBC's weakest affiliates, for network viewers, it now had to compete with KDKA-TV (channel 2), one of CBS' strongest affiliates, as it was (and still is) widely viewable in the area both over-the-air and on cable. This, paired with NBC's comeback in the 1980s as CBS struggled, resulted in WTRF falling far behind WTOV in the local ratings. While CBS recovered in the 1990s, WTRF never fully recovered, with some viewers preferring CBS programming on now-CBS O&O KDKA-TV over WTRF.