Archivals #2: Curiosities of Early Cable TV

Don't ask me why, but I find history of TV as a medium rather interesting.  The early days of cable are particularly fascinating, since the commercial realities and availabilities are totally alien to today's market.  The difference between my area, which was a sort of "early adopter" of cable TV, and other regions where you think there'd be a rush to get it (like Chicago, as you'll see) is also interestingly baffling.  I can't see anyone putting up with a station that (a) required an extra payment, (b) was only broadcast part-time over a UHF signal, and (c) required a special piece of equipment just to receive it & it alone like OnTV did.  And they definitely wouldn't cotton to a limited-time-even-for-recordings service like Tele1st, which is truly the oddest of the bunch.

This was originally written on 5/2/2008.

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I was home sick, again, most of Monday and all of Tuesday. Usually, when that happens, I wind up goofing off on YouTube (since the dogs won’t let me sleep). It’s relaxing, and aside from the occasional way-too-angry-about-copyright-laws rambling lunatic, it can usually be pretty nostalgic. But you also learn new things while you’re looking for old HBO bumpers. Namely, you learn about how major cities like Chicago flat-out refused to bring cable into their area, so all sorts of different ‘premium’ networks popped up to try and fill the void for HBO-like programming in these areas.

The first interesting one was OnTV. Subscribers would be given a special signal box that would overwrite the signal for a local UHF channel, and they could then watch uncut movies. It actually seemed to have a good movie line-up, unlike some of these, and their concert specials looked pretty cool, too (Talking Heads, Rush, and the Police!). I also think that their logo was pretty sharp. But the thing that hurt them was that off-the-shelf third party signal boxes could be used by non-subscribers to pick up the network as easily as subscribers with the company boxes, so they were bleeding money. Worse, the FCC was on them for broadcasting porn on a UHF frequency (like all things FCC, this ignores the basic step of needing a box to see it in the first place and presumes it’s a normally broadcast station - no one ever says that the FCC is staffed by smart people). It wasn’t killed until cable was finally allowed into the Chicago market, meaning that it now had to compete with HBO and Showtime. Unlike most of these local-only premiums, OnTV actually seemed to be a pretty good channel.

The second interesting one is Tele1st. Tele1st comes from the ‘this is almost a good idea’ file. Subscribers needed a special descrambling box (unlike OnTV, it couldn’t be picked up by third-party boxes), and it would run for four hours overnight on a local UHF channel; because it was overnight, subscribers would usually be encouraged to record the block for future viewing. Here’s the ‘almost a good idea’ part - to watch back the tapes, you needed the descrambling box (this was apparently necessary to appease the movie companies). The box would then match its received signal to the recorded frequency. The biggest flaw in this is Tele1st assuming that their signal would exist into perpetuity. As a result, people trying to view these today have to use a special dummy signal to view it, and even then, you still can’t get a completely clear picture. Worse, their time block allowed for either one long movie with ‘lifestyle’ filler shows or two short movies, and Tele1st’s line-up of movies/specials mostly sucked rocks. I seriously doubt anyone is going to pirate that many Charles Bronson revenge fantasies unless they have serious problems.

A YouTube user named ‘drripco’ has lots of examples from both OnTV and Tele1st, since he subscribed to both. Make sure to check out the news programs about OnTV he posted, since they seemed like a pretty consumer-friendly company; it’s hard to imagine a modern-day company offering any people stealing their services amnesty like they did. Also, check out the Tele1st pre-block stuff; you can see their ‘meh’ line-ups, their Pure Moods-esque filler music with countdown, and the steps needed to tune the signal to make it viewable. One in particular has a good example of what happened when the Tele1st signal wasn’t quite matched - droning clicking noises over sped-up skipping sound, two bands flickering in the middle of the picture (these appear in the clearer examples as well), and colors periodically switching over into negatives. It’s truly fascinating to see how pre-cable people back in the day had to get their movie fix.

(Worth noting: Philly had one of these services, known as Prism. Its primary draw was that it showed all local sports games with local commentators, and its resources would later be channeled into the earliest form of Comcast SportsNet. Only one ad for the service exists on YouTube, and it sums up Philly sports quite nicely - except that YouTube TOS'd it for daring to show two seconds of MLB footage without written consent in triplicate. Thanks, douchebags. It’s pretty clear that they knew they needed a local appeal to survive, since our area had cable, and there was no way they could compete with the resources and reputation of the nationally available channels.)

EDIT 5/12/08: Apparently, I was a bit off about Tele1st. It sounds like they were legally required to change their signal encoding every few months; this way, the movie companies wouldn't have to worry about recording competing with their home video sales, since these would only be good for a limited amount of time. It still sounds crappy to me, but then again, I grew up in the era of cheap HBO and taping-as-a-habit

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