KOLN signed on for the first time on February 18, 1953 as Nebraska's third television station and the first outside Omaha. It was owned by broadcasting pioneer John Fetzer along with KOLN-AM 1400 (now KLIN). Originally broadcasting on channel 12, it moved to channel 10 in 1954 after donating the channel 12 facilities to the University of Nebraska for its educational station, KUON-TV.
The station was originally the DuMont Television Network affiliate for the Omaha/Lincoln market. Later in 1953, it became a primary ABC affiliate. However, after a year on the air, Fetzer persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to merge Lincoln with the Hastings/Kearney market in central Nebraska. Lincoln has long been the cultural center for central Nebraska, and Fetzer felt that Lincoln had more in common with this area than Omaha. He also wanted an affiliation with a stronger network. Although Fetzer had a very good relationship with CBS, there was little prospect of taking the affiliation from Omaha's KMTV. During the 1960s, KOLN/KGIN frequently broadcast games of the Detroit Tigers, the baseball franchise that John Fetzer owned.
Soon after the FCC made Lincoln the center of the new Lincoln/Hastings/Kearney market, KOLN became a primary CBS affiliate. Omaha wouldn't have a primary ABC affiliate again until KETV signed on in 1957. DuMont shut down in 1956, and KOLN dropped the remaining ABC shows from the schedule in 1957. During the late 1950s, the station was also briefly affiliated with the NTA Film Network. Over the next few years, KOLN signed on translator after translator across its vast and mostly rural coverage area, cementing a dominance that continues to this day.
KGIN debuted on October 1, 1961 as a satellite of KOLN; since then, the two stations have been known on-air as "10/11." Fetzer began selling off his stations in the 1980s. KOLN/KGIN was among the last to be sold, going to Gillett Communications in 1984. Gillett sold the pair to Busse Broadcasting in 1987 to make room for Gillett's acquisition of the Storer Broadcasting stations. Busse merged with current owner Gray Communications, now Gray Television, in 1998.
Until KLKN signed on in 1996, KOLN was the only commercial station in Lincoln, making it one of the largest cities in the country with only one full-power commercial station. However, KOLN had no need to air other networks' programming. Most of the Omaha stations provide at least secondary coverage of Lincoln, and all of them are available on cable.
Well into the 1980s, when nearly every other local television news broadcast began with the latest news, KOLN began its newscasts with the weather report as a service to its mostly rural audience. A. James Ebel, KOLN's general manager from 1954 to 1985, began this practice not long after he arrived, saying years later, "The first thing I learned when I arrived here in 1954 is that the weather is the No. 1 story in Nebraska." Mel Mains served as KOLN's main news anchor for 34 years, from 1961 to 1995.
For a time in January 2009, the KOLN/KGIN website included a section about a Fox affiliate on its second digital subchannel (currently used for MyNetworkTV, which was to have moved to the DT3 subcarrier). However, station officials later said there were no immediate plans to launch such a station, describing the page as part of an experimental project not meant for public consumption. Although the station refused to rule out launching a digital Fox station in the future, this was rendered moot when then-CW affiliate KCWL relaunched as Fox affiliate KFXL.
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