About WATE ABC6Channel 6 was East Tennessee's first television station, signing on the air at 8 p.m. on October 1, 1953 as WROL-TV. The race to be the first television station in the eastern part of the state was won by WROL-TV when the 300-foot (91 m) tower of WJHL-TV in Johnson City (ironically, now a sister station to channel 6) collapsed a few months earlier. That station would have been first to sign-on, but WROL claimed the title by only 25 days. Its first studios were underneath the 800-foot (244 m) self-supporting tower on Sharp's Ridge which was one of the tallest man-made structures in Tennessee at the time. It was signed on by Greater East Tennessee TV, Inc., owned by local insurance executive Paul Mountcastle and a small group of investors along with WROL-AM 950. At the time, Mountcastle was chairman of the board of the Life and Casualty Insurance Company of Tennessee of Nashville, which signed on WLAC-TV (now WTVF) in that city in 1954. The stations were not considered to be co-owned.
WROL-TV signed-on as a primary NBC affiliate because of WROL-AM's longtime affiliation with NBC Radio and also shared ABC programming with CBS affiliate WSKT-TV (now WVLT-TV). Although NBC held a firm grip on WROL, DuMont tried unsuccessfully several times to get a secondary affiliation with the station when it was not broadcasting NBC and ABC. Channel 6 opted to fill its non-network schedule with local programming, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate. DuMont was forced to join WTVK on a secondary basis. CBS also made many attempts to grab a primary affiliation with Knoxville's only VHF station, but the owners of WROL held firm despite many financial incentives from the other networks, especially CBS.
The station changed its call letters to WATE-TV in 1955 with the new call letters not really standing for anything; the licensee also was renamed to WATE, Inc. John Reese, the station's program director at the time stated "those call letters were the next available at the FCC." In 1956, WATE dropped ABC when WBIR-TV signed-on and took the CBS affiliation from WTVK, leaving WTVK the ABC station by default. At that time, Knoxville became one of the smallest TV markets in the country to have affiliates of all three networks. WROL-AM later changed its call letters to WATE-AM to correspond with the television station. WATE-TV had a role in the failure of WBIR to have its second antenna tower on House Mountain in 1965 for better coverage. The station used a rather ingenious way to force its chief rival station to build a 1,751-foot (534 m) tower on Zachary Ridge instead of on the much higher House Mountain. WATE simply purchased all of the property on the top of House Mountain from the lot owners. With no property for the tower base on the Mountain, WBIR had no choice but to spend millions of dollars more to build a taller tower on much-shorter Zachery Ridge nearby two years later.