The station first signed on the air on March 18, 1949, originally broadcasting on VHF channel 4; it was the fourth television station in Pennsylvania and the first to sign-on outside of Philadelphia, beating WDTV (now KDKA-TV) in Pittsburgh which began operations in November of that year. It was founded by the Steinman family, owners of WGAL radio (1490 AM, now WLPA, and 101.3 FM, now WROZ) and Lancaster's two major newspapers, the Intelligencer Journal and the Lancaster New Era. At the time, Lancaster was the smallest city in the country with a television station. The station's first formal program was shown on March 22 to a group of RCA executives, television dealers, and radio station personnel at the Stevens House Hotel in downtown Lancaster.
WGAL was a major beneficiary of a quirk in the FCC's plan for allocating stations. In the early days of broadcast television, there were twelve VHF channels available and 69 UHF channels (later reduced to 55 in 1983). The VHF bands were more desirable because they carried longer distances. Since there were only twelve VHF channels available, there were limitations as to how closely the stations could be spaced.
After the FCC's Sixth Report and Order ended the license freeze and opened the UHF band in 1952, it devised a plan for allocating VHF licenses. Under this plan, almost all of the country would be able to receive two commercial VHF channels plus one noncommercial channel. Most of the rest of the country ("1/2") would be able to receive a third VHF channel. Other areas would be designated as "UHF islands" since they were too close to larger cities for VHF service. The "2" networks became CBS and NBC, "+1" represented non-commercial educational stations, and "1/2" became ABC (which was the weakest network usually winding up with the UHF allocation where no VHF was available).
However, what would become the Harrisburg/Lancaster/York market was sandwiched between Philadelphia to the east, Johnstown/Altoona/State College to the west, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to the north, and Baltimore and Washington, D. C. to the south. This created a large "doughnut" in South Central Pennsylvania where there could be only one VHF license. Largely due to WGAL's good fortune in gaining that license, it has been the market leader for most of the time since records have been kept. During the analog TV era, WGAL was the only commercial VHF station in eastern Pennsylvania that is licensed outside of Philadelphia.
In 1952, WGAL increased its power from 1,000 to 7,200 watts. On December 31, 1952, the station moved to channel 8 as a requirement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to prevent interference with WRC-TV in Washington.
On January 1, 1954, WGAL presented its first color television broadcast of the Tournament of Roses Parade. It has always been an NBC affiliate, but also carried some programs from CBS, DuMont and ABC until 1963 when Nielsen collapsed the Lancaster and Harrisburg/York areas into one large market. The Steinmans also launched WDEL-TV in Wilmington, Delaware around the same time as WGAL's launch but sold that station in 1955. Over the years, the family purchased three more television stations (KOAT in Albuquerque, New Mexico and KVOA in Tucson, Arizona both of which were sold to Pulitzer Publishing in 1969 and WTEV-TV, now WLNE-TV, in New Bedford, Massachusetts) as well as several radio stations and newspapers. The Steinmans sold off the WGAL radio stations in 1976, but sold WGAL-TV and WTEV to Pulitzer in late 1978—in the process, earning a handsome return on the original investment they made when they signed on WGAL radio in 1922. The Pulitzer purchase reunited WGAL-TV and WTEV with KOAT (that company spun off KVOA in 1972).
Under Pulitzer's ownership, in 1985, WGAL became the first television station in Pennsylvania to broadcast in stereo beating much larger stations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Although the radio and television stations had gone their separate ways 15 years earlier, channel 8 dropped the "-TV" suffix from its callsign in 1992. Pulitzer sold its entire television division, including WGAL and KOAT, to what was then Hearst-Argyle Television in 1999. The sale closed on March 18, coinciding with the station's 50th anniversary.
The station is known for being a community service leader in the market and holds the Salvation Army Coats For Kids drive and telethon, and airs the Children's Miracle Network telethon, and the Jefferson Awards. Anchors and other on-air personalities are active in the community as well.
WGAL has also been known for installing numerous signage on area highways. Most of these signs consist of the WGAL logo from the 1980s, the phrase "Drive Carefully" and the borough or township where the sign is located. Although the logo is no longer used, the signs are still commonplace around the market, and are occasionally updated so as to be more visible to motorists.
On February 14, 2014, a portion of the roof at WGAL's Columbia Avenue studio facility collapsed due to heavy accumulations of snow and ice caused by a winter storm that moved through the Eastern United States earlier that week. This caused the newsroom on the second floor of the building to be evacuated, followed by the evacuation of the remainder of the station's 100 employees after Lancaster Township Fire Department officials examined the structural stability of the facility. Fire officials determined that a concrete support beam and slab in an adjacent studio that is no longer used by WGAL had shifted and dropped. As a result, with its master control unstaffed, the station went off the air, scuttling plans to broadcast its 5, 5:30 and 6 p.m. newscasts that evening out of a makeshift studio outside the building (the station was able to produce a live newscast that was streamed on its website). Area Comcast systems soon piped in either WGAL's Baltimore sister station WBAL-TV or NBC's Philadelphiaowned-and-operated stationWCAU in order to restore NBC programming. WGAL staff members were allowed to re-enter its studios on the afternoon of February 15 after a steel column was installed in the room to prop up a sagging roof beam in the affected area of the building, following which the station resumed regular programming.
WGAL discontinued regular programming on its analog signal, over VHF channel 8, on June 12, 2009, as part of the federally mandated transition from analog to digital television. The station's digital signal relocated from its pre-transition UHF channel 58, which was among the high band UHF channels (52-69) that were removed from broadcasting use as a result of the transition, to its analog-era VHF channel 8 for its post-transition operations.
Due to problems with receiving the main channel 8 signal in many areas, WGAL has applied for six low-powered "fill-in" translators. If any of the stations sign on, they would be assigned the WGAL callsign and the same facility ID as the main station.
WGAL presently broadcasts 31 hours of locally produced newscasts each week (with 5 hours on weekdays and 3 hours on Saturdays and 3 hours on Sundays). In addition to its main studios, WGAL operates bureaus in Harrisburg (on Market Street) and York (on South George Street a.k.a. BL I-83/Susquehanna Trail). The station operates the area's only live weather radar at its transmitter site known as "Super Doppler 8". As the only VHF station in the area, it has been the market leader for many years. This may also have to do with its newspaper roots, as is typical for many long-standing market leaders in the United States.
As of 2013, WGAL's dominance is primarily in Lancaster and York Counties, which contain the majority of the market's population. Starting in 2012, WGAL began experiencing declines in news viewership, the largest occurring in May 2013 That July, WHTM-TV beat WGAL for the first time at 5 p.m. among adults 25-54. WGAL lost ground in other time periods, including at 6 p.m., and fell to a virtual tie with WHTM at noon.
On September 30, 1995, weekend morning editions of News 8 Today premiered. In 2010, a 6 a.m. hour of News 8 Today was added. In February 2010, days before the Winter Olympic games, WGAL began using updated tickers for weather warnings, school closings and breaking news to fit 16:9 screens, preventing high definition programming from reverting to 4:3 standard definition when the tickers appeared. Around late October or early November 2010, WGAL's news set was modified with two new flat screen monitors to the left and right of the set, and an additional flat screen monitor was added to the front of the new anchor desk.
On December 13, 2010, starting with its 5 p.m. newscast, WGAL became the first television station in the Harrisburg-Lebanon-Lancaster-York market to begin broadcasting its local newscasts in widescreenstandard definition, and also introduced updated on-screen graphics. Before WGAL's switch to widescreen newscasts, the market was the largest Nielsen television market in which all of its stations did not broadcast their local newscasts in either high definition or 16:9 widescreen (as of January 2014, the largest market that does not currently have HD or widescreen newscasts is Chico-Redding, California). On August 29, 2011, WGAL became the second station in South Central Pennsylvania (behind Fox affiliate WPMT) to begin broadcasting its local newscasts in high definition.
The news open was modified to include the station's legacy logos, while the set remained unchanged until newscasts returned to Studio B with a new set on February 5, 2012. As of April 14, 2012, with WHP-TV's upgrade to HD newscasts, all four major stations in the Susquehanna Valley (WGAL, WPMT, WHP-TV and WHTM-TV) now air their local newscasts in HD; however, unlike the other three, WGAL airs only in-studio segments in the format (its field video continues to be presented in enhanced definition widescreen). On February 4, 2013, WGAL debuted a nightly half-hour 10:00 p.m. newscast on its then This TV (now MeTV) affiliated second digital sub channel.