TV History: Cable and Home Satellite (1970–90)

In August 1973, my girlfriend (and future wife!) wanted to visit some friends in Maine, so we drove up there from New York. She loved all this healthy air and the break from living in a city. Me, I was...less enthusiastic about a week or so of rural life, but damned if I was going to let on. We took a slow, wandering route and spent two days on the road to central Maine. Compared to many places in that state, let alone outside of the continental United States, the property we were headed to wasn't even all that remote.

What does this have with TV history? In that era of almost half a century ago, almost nothing, and that's the point: Even in the up-to-date, whiz bang USA at the top of its postwar game, there were many topographic pockets and thinly populated areas of the country that were barely in the TV era. Depending on your location you might get a fuzzy, jumpy television picture, one single channel from Bangor or the state capital at Augusta. Good enough meant having an antenna on a 50-foot outdoor mast, in an area where summer thunderstorms are frequent. So even people who “had TV” didn't have much of it, nothing compared to where I grew up in New York City, let alone today's media-saturated universe. If you lived in Waterville or Skowhegan, you probably knew who Mr. Spock and Archie Bunker were, but you weren't glued to the tube, as the expression went in those days.

Back then, people drove to each other's houses—how quaint!—played card games, pumped the pedals of the player piano and exchanged family news. That was what American evenings were like before television or the internet. But outside of the haze and lights of the city, you could already see the stately passage of a handful of satellites in a velvet black sky.

In 1983, ten years later, we happened to be back in Maine. Our friends had their children a few years before we had ours, and we were, in effect, test-shopping the near future. We liked it. So, when the little ones went off to sleep, we retired to the living room and turned on cable TV. Our friends had HBO.

Cable and satellite had arrived at almost the same moment as home video, and VHS video rental became widespread. Others in Maine were buying C-Band satellite dishes to intercept what was then free television from 22,000 miles out. Rural isolation, the normal, natural state of mankind for many thousands of years, seemed to be ending. It was, I have to admit, kind of strange; in the middle of miles and miles of country darkness, I was watching the same show, at the same time, that I could have seen at home in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles. A new world of TV, the same everywhere. Gradually, bit by bit over the years, a different America.

Rewind to 1973. My girlfriend's grandmother was the first person I knew who had cable; in Manhattan, it was sold as the best way to get clear, sharp pictures on all local channels, long a problem in the shadows of skyscrapers, even more so with color TV. By then, remote controls were commonplace, but it still felt odd to have the tuning knob on a big box right next to you instead of on the TV, across the room. There weren't many channels. There was no special connotation to the word “cable” back then; there was no Discovery Channel, no Nickelodeon, and no CNN. It just meant “not by antenna”.

We've taken it for granted for so long that it's hard to remember that there was considerable skepticism that people would pay for television in any form. I mean, it would be like bottling water and trying to sell it, right? Crazy. In our area, and maybe in yours, movie theaters ran a preposterously self-serving publicity campaign, “Stop Pay TV”, years before there was any serious attempt to bring cable to homes. Our theater ran a trailer, a short film before every show, and had a table for signing petitions in the lobby. So, for some time, although everyone was aware of the potential of a, what could we call it? Home box office? cable companies were careful at first to emphasize the less controversial job of bringing you TV better, sort of a super-TV antenna, which in fact is how many systems began. That's why the side panels of the installation trucks of nearly every fledgling Seventies cable company used a rainbow in their logo: it wasn't a premature commitment to gay rights, but the promise that after laying out all that dough for a color set, you'll finally have a good picture.

Like every other new branch of an industry, the policies, deals and structures that were necessary to get it off the ground can prove to be hindrances, if not an outright set of handcuffs later. Cable's business model wasn't Hollywood's. At first it had almost nothing to do with Hollywood. The model was independent local phone companies, circa 1900. Many of the early cable systems were in fact speculation on the part of local phone companies, who already knew the routes and owned the poles. Others were small investments started by local radio stations or newspapers, looking for a relatively cheap way to hedge the losses that they were sustaining from the competition of TV.

Like other pioneering businesses, the waves of consolidation came early, and mom and pop operations faded. But cable systems, even big ones, were inherently wire-bound and local, and quickly subject to the same regulation of utilities and franchises as other businesses. Like car dealers, this gave them certain anti-competitive advantages that most worked to the hilt. The price tag in rural areas was being pushed to cover routes that were unprofitable; the price tag in urban areas was carrying useless public access channels and paying off local shakedown artists.

Fairly quickly, a few ambitious but ordinary, advertiser-supported local broadcast stations bought time on satellite transponders and overnight managed to package themselves as coast to coast “Superstations”. Superstations weren't all that super, showing the same reruns of “What's Happening!!” and “Sanford and Son” as your local TV, but at least it offered some additional choices. In the Seventies it was still pretty magical to be able to watch another city's TV, 24/7, complete with local news and commercials. “This is WPCH, channel 17, Atlanta, Georgia” was like hearing science fiction.

The best known three were a motley group: young Ted Turner and his sixth-rated Atlanta UHF station; Chicago's WGN, a respected name with a distinguished history, outgunned in a tough market; and WOR, any New Yorker of the era's easy choice as having the weakest programming of the city's seven lively local stations. For New Yorkers-in-exile of baby boomer age, one unique memory of WOR channel 9 was The Joe Franklin Show, an evening not-terribly-late night aimless chat between its elderly, benevolent, babbling host and a succession of minor celebrities who often looked stunned at what they'd somehow wandered into. Of course, to put superstations on your cable box, your cable system needed a satellite dish, five to nine feet in diameter, an expensive proposition in those days.

Once it had one, you had lots of options. Premium cable promised premium profits. HBO was usually accompanied by its co-owned dance partner, Cinemax, and Showtime showed up with its usual date, The Movie Channel. Most early programming from rivals HBO and Showtime was tame—"Airport “75”, or “The Poseidon Adventure”. These were not first run films, and despite the Home Box Office name, only its sporting events were (rarely) simulcast to theaters.

Incredibly, until the end of the Seventies, in the run-up to the Academy Awards my local cable system carried all of the latest, in-theater Oscar nominees. That's right, no delay, no encryption—after all, it's not like more than a handful of people had any way to record the program. There weren't many cable subscribers yet on the west side of Los Angeles, and the few that had it overlapped people in the film industry, Academy voters, almost exactly.

Now came cable's flashiest, most self-cherished and pretentious role, as provider of programming that regular TV can't or won't show. Very early on HBO promised big, in un-woke language they'd cringe at using today—"Sizzling hot, hot, uncensored, uncut, movies for mature audiences the way you like it! Plus special programs for women and kids"”". This was technically an exaggeration. HBO did not, and to my knowledge does not even now show porno movies. They did seek out ordinary Hollywood films that featured bare breasts and frequent cursing, which they seemed to think showed how valuable they were. Note that the tacit assumption of the ads is, “We know that you're just waiting for these moralistic rules to be broken! Well, we're going to prove our artistic seriousness by breaking them for you".

For years to come, premium cable original programming was—it's hard to be kind about it—really lame. Decades before “The Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones”, HBO was noted for distinguished fare like “First and Ten”. Showtime produced “Gallagher: That's Stupid!” The cable industry created the Cable ACE Awards to recognize their work, since The Emmys were dominated by broadcast TV. By the end of the Eighties, the quality of cable originals had gone up somewhat, but feature films were still the backbone.

Let's go back to 1983 as a cultural reference point, a tipping point in America's adoption of this new form of television. A satiric article in the Los Angeles Times, printed after the release of “The Return of the Jedi”, described scenes of cute, cuddly, teddy bear-like Hollywood executives ruthlessly cut down by laser-wielding HBO dealmakers. That summer's “Blue Thunder” was about a dark conspiracy involving the surveillance systems of a futuristic police helicopter. The onboard screens can pick up anything. “Let's see if it has HBO”, growls the pilot, Roy Scheider. In the teen comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, a wistful girl wonders if she can find true love in her hometown. One of her friends shakes her head. “We don't even have cable TV in Ridgemont”.