The Birth Of Cable Tv
THE 1949-50 SEASON WAS A VERY GOOD ONE for television owners. Ed Sullivan presented “The Toast of the Town” Sunday nights on CBS, and “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends” appeared on Wednesdays. Milton Berle headlined “Texaco Star Theater” Tuesday nights on NBC. “Cavalcade of Stars” aired on the DuMont network on Saturdays. And “Roller Derby” rumbled two nights a week on ABC.
But not every American could get in on the act, even if he or she bought a TV. As of January 1, 1950, only ninety-eight television stations were on the air. Many cities had no television, and even entire states, including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Colorado, had no stations within their borders. In the face of tremendous demand for more TV, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had frozen the television licensing process in late 1948 to revise its plan for allocating stations. No new licenses would be issued until 1952; in the meantime the country was left with spotty service or, quite often, none at all. Only those who lived within about fifty miles of a broadcast station—and who were not obstructed by a hill or mountain—could hope for decent reception. Television’s reputation far exceeded its grasp.
SO APPLIANCE DEALERS READ WITH interest a report in the November 1949 issue of Sylvania News about L. E. (“Ed”) Parsons, of Astoria, Oregon, and his new system for delivering television to areas outside the range of reliable reception. Five months later the readers of Popular Mechanics learned how Parsons was able to pick up a station 125 miles away on the far side of a 4,000-foot mountain range. Soon after these articles appeared, requests for help started pouring in, often addressed simply to “Ed Parsons/Astoria, Oregon.”
The letters came from all over the country—for example, Ellenville, New York, 80 miles from New York City, and Sparks, Nevada, 180 miles from San Francisco. From Henry, Illinois, a man wrote, “I have had a television set for about a year, the first in this area, and I have been able to secure spasmodic reception from Chicago,” about 110 miles away. A would-be viewer in Portland, Maine, wrote about his attempts to tune in channels 4 and 7 out of Boston: “Our reception is fair about two nights a week.” From Pottsville, Pennsylvania—125 miles from New York and 75 from Philadelphia—a TV and radio distributor lamented that he had spent “about $1,000.00 exclusive of a television receiver in a rather vain attempt to receive satisfactory television signals.”
These people’s hopes were not misplaced. Popular Mechanics was on the mark when it predicted, “Television is going to town—your town,” thanks to the ingenuity of Ed Parsons. The system Parsons had improvised in his spare time was one of America’s first incarnations—perhaps the very first—of what we know today as cable television.
In 1995 Americans paid a total of $24.6 billion for cable service. Companies like TeleCommunications, Inc., Time Warner, Inc., and Comcast Corporation supply channels by the score to millions of subscribers. Yet forty-odd years ago the industry started out with momand-pop systems like Parsons’s that delivered one or two stations to homes numbering in the hundreds for perhaps three dollars a month. Cable television—known in its infancy as “community aerial systems,” “community receiving antennas,” and, most commonly, “community antenna television” (CATV)—was the creation of pioneering tinkerers and entrepreneurs. The involvement of major corporations was slight, and the government was indifferent. Cable TV came about because throughout the United States local businessmen—many of them appliance salesmen trying to sell television sets in areas with weak or nonexistent signals—understood the demand for television and knew a good idea when they saw one.
ALTHOUGH THERE ARE REPORTS of earlier community-antenna systems in Pennsylvania, the first well-documented one was built by Ed Parsons in Astoria, a fishing town at the mouth of the Columbia River. The multitalented Parsons sold and maintained communications gear for local fishermen, operated a radio station, ran a flying school, and managed the local airport. The Astoria system apparently started after his wife, Grace, saw a television demonstration when she accompanied him to a broadcasting convention in Chicago in the late 1940s. She told her husband she wanted a TV.
At the time it was believed that television signals could reliably travel only about 50 miles, and then only over fairly level terrain. Unfortunately for the Parsonses, the closest stations—WBKB in Chicago, for example—were well out of reach. In early 1948, though, Parsons learned that radio station KRSC in Seattle—125 miles away— was going to launch a television station that fall. Several months before the official debut, KRSC started test broadcasts. Parsons stayed abreast of these tests, trying to see if he could pick up a signal.
Distance and terrain made it almost an impossible task. But Grace Parsons was certain that if anyone could bring TV to Astoria, it was Ed. As a child he had built a wireless to communicate with a friend. In high school he had made money building two receivers a week for a Portland radio store. When he graduated in 1925, his yearbook entry read: “Talent and manliness are his, / At Math he’s a wonder, at Radio a whiz.”
Parsons rigged up test equipment. He modified some FM radio receivers so that they would be able to pick up the audio frequency of the Seattle television station. He added a field-strength meter to determine how powerful a signal he was receiving. He put one of the units in his car and another in his private plane. Then he started looking around town for signals.
He found them. Parsons could hear not only the audio transmitted with the TV picture but also a distinctive sound created by the video signal. “The most logical place to pick up signals would seem to be hilltops, but it just wasn’t that way,” reported Popular Mechanics . “Parsons found signals on the sides of hills, in valleys and in other assorted spots.”
The mountains, in fact, were not an insurmountable barrier to television. “I established that there was what would be termed a light effect, that signals coming over a rounded hill will focus to a point beyond the hill, several miles beyond the hill depending on the shape of the hill,” Parsons said in an oral history recorded in 1986. Eventually he found a usable TV signal from KRSC closer to home, on the roof of a hotel in downtown Astoria. He strung a cable from hotel across the street to his apartment, which sat atop a three-story building. He received the signal as it was broadcast on Channel 5, converted it to Channel 2 to avoid interference from the broadcast signal, and fed it via cable to his living room. There it connected to the television he had ordered from Chicago, a nine-inch set—black and white, of course—combined with an AM/FM radio and a phonograph.
The system worked well enough to pull in KSRC’s inaugural broadcast on Thanksgiving Day of 1948. In fact it worked too well. Soon an army of uninvited guests started knocking on the Parsonses’ door for a chance to look at a television picture.
“We literally lost our home,” Parsons said. “People would drive for hundreds of miles to see television. We had gotten considerable publicity. … And when people drove down from Portland or came from The Dalles or from Klamath Falls to see television, you couldn’t tell them no.”
So Parsons suggested to the hotel’s manager that he drop a cable down the elevator shaft and put a set in the lobby. “He thought that was a wonderful idea. So we did. A short time later, he asked me to remove the set because the lobby was so full, people couldn’t get in to register.”
Then Parsons asked Cliff Poole, a neighbor who ran a music store, if he’d like a set to put in his window. Poole agreed. He bought a set from Parsons, who also sold him the cable and equipment necessary to receive the signal from the hotel rooftop. Poole placed the set in his window, and Parsons rigged a loudspeaker so that when Poole closed his store for the evening, people could stand on the street and watch the Seattle broadcast.
That didn’t work out either. As Parsons recalled, the Astoria police chief told him, “Ed, you’ve got to do something about that set down there at Cliff Poole’s. People are blocking the street and we are just not going to stand for it.” So, using wires and home-built signal amplifiers, Parsons wired up downtown bars to his antenna. He started wiring TV into private homes too, stringing cable from house to house and using mini-transmitters for wireless transmission of the TV signal across a street. The system required cooperation between Parsons and his customers: “The people had amplifiers in their attics and in their upstairs rooms. Each person supplied the power for the amplifier.”
By November 1949 Parsons was delivering the Seattle station, then operating under the call letters KING, to twenty-five families. Four months later he had about a hundred customers. Parsons charged people for the cost of their installation and made money selling televisions out of his radio store. Later on he initiated a flat fee for installation and a monthly service charge. In August 1951 the price was $125 for installation plus $3 a month. As the system grew, Parsons made improvements, replacing his original antenna with several others around town.
While Parsons worked on the Astoria system, he went on to construct other community aerials in the Pacific Northwest. He tried to get a license from the FCC to rebroadcast the Seattle signal from an Astoria transmitter, rather than pipe the station through cables. But after collapsing from exhaustion in early 1953, he flew up to Alaska to recuperate and never went back. He sold the Astoria system soon afterward. When interviewed for his oral history, Parsons didn’t think the CATV system was the most important work he’d done; rather, he considered the crowning achievement of his life to be his development in Alaska of a polar communications system that was crucial for operating regularly scheduled commercial airline flights over the Arctic Circle. Parsons was unconcerned with his place in cable history. “I don’t make any claim to being first, because the technology was there for anybody to get it,” Parsons said. “I did it simply because of a demanding wife.” (In fact, the community-aerial idea wasn’t completely new. Several companies were marketing master antenna systems for sharing an aerial within an apartment building, and for many years wired radio systems had operated in England. But Parsons’s system was the first large-scale cable-television operation anywhere.)
THOUGH COMMUNITY-ANTENNA television may have been born in Astoria, Oregon, the cradle of the business turned out to be in the East—specifically, Pennsylvania. When a group of community-antenna operators gathered in September 1951 to form a trade association—an organization that forty-five years later is the central industry group for cable TV—they met at a hotel in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. A few months later, when the newsletter Television Digest listed all the CATV systems believed to be in operation or under construction, more than half of them were in Pennsylvania—thanks to hilly terrain, proximity to cities such as Philadelphia, and news of successful CATV systems nearby.
A typical example was the community-antenna system that began service in the fall of 1950 in the coal-mining town of Lansford, Pennsylvania, about seventy miles from Philadelphia. The system was spearheaded, as usual, by an appliance dealer who wanted to increase local demand for television sets. At the same time, it was envisioned as a moneymaking venture that would be profitable on its own.
The operator, Robert J. Tarlton, was born in Lansford in 1914 and set up shop as a radio repairman when he graduated from high school in 1932. A few years later he started selling radios and other appliances. After serving in the Army during World War II, he went back to selling appliances, adding televisions to his line. Unfortunately he could sell televisions only to residents of Summit Hill, a community half a mile south of Lansford. He couldn’t show or sell sets in Lansford itself because there was no reception; the town was in a valley shielded from Philadelphia by a range of the Appalachians. Tarlton gave a set to his great-uncle, who lived in Summit Hill, so that he could watch it himself.
His next idea was to run twinlead cable from an antenna on Summit Hill to his store, which was not far away. Twin-lead—a version of the ribbon cable still used today for connecting set-top antennas to televisions—was easy to deploy. But it was extremely sensitive to the weather; a simple rainfall could knock out the picture.
Late in 1949 Tarlton started experimenting with coaxial cable instead. That type of cable, often called “coax” (pronounced with two syllables), has a ring-shaped cross section. A center strand of wire is surrounded by a thick insulating layer, which is in turn jacketed by a metal sheath. Parsons had used coaxial cable too, and the cable-TV industry still relies on it. “The coaxial cable is impervious to weather; it’s impervious generally to outside influence,” Tarlton says. “It’s like water pipe: What runs through is confined and delivered on the other end.”
THE PROBLEM WAS THAT A SIG nal transmitted via coax wouldn’t travel as far as would one via twin-lead. To get the signal to cover significant distances, Tarlton would have to amplify it. A Philadelphia-based company called Jerrold Electronics was already manufacturing television amplifiers that could be used to distribute signals from a master antenna in an apartment building. Jerrold also sold gear to department stores and appliance shops for feeding several demonstration sets from a single antenna.
So Tarlton started experimenting with Jerrold boosters. They were designed for no more than a few hundred feet of cable within a building, and Tarlton needed to send signals from a mountaintop antenna to homes nearly a mile away. That meant cascading amplifiers—boosting a signal, then reamplifying it 1,000 feet farther down the cable.
After tweaking his equipment, Tarlton formed the Panther Valley Television Company with four other partners, three of whom were also radio and appliance dealers (the fourth was a state assemblyman). With $2,500 in seed money, supplemented later by two $10,000 loans, they started constructing the system in 1950, hiring electricians from a local power company to string cables in their spare time.
By the beginning of 1951 the community-antenna system had about a hundred subscribers receiving channels 3, 6, and 10 from Philadelphia. Households paid a service charge of three dollars a month. Finding customers was easy, Tarlton said: “You had to keep your door locked because the people were clamoring for service. You certainly didn’t have to advertise.”
One reason the Lansford system is historically significant is that it attracted the curiosity of Milton J. Shapp, the president of Jerrold Electronics, who wanted to see what Tarlton was using so many of his company’s amplifiers for. After visiting Tarlton on Thanksgiving Day 1950, Shapp got hooked on the possibilities of CATV. Focusing his company’s efforts on the nascent industry, he built Jerrold into the cable-television industry’s premier equipment supplier, a position.still held today by Jerrold’s parent, General Instrument. Shapp later became governor of Pennsylvania.
The Panther Valley system enjoyed a flurry of national publicity not long after Shapp’s visit. On December 22, 1950, The New York Times wrote about the system, erroneously calling it “the country’s first ‘community aerial.’” An extensive front-page article in the January 3, 1951, Wall Street Journal identified other systems—not just the one in Astoria but also operations in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, fifteen miles from Lansford; Honesdale, Pennsylvania; and Bellingham, Washington. The article said that “the community aerial … is like manna from heaven to television-starved electrical appliance retailers.” Newsweek covered the system in its January 15 issue. The January 13 Television Digest called CATV a “sort of ‘antidote to the [FCC] freeze’—limited, to be sure, but possessing intriguing possibilities.”
As publicity grew for community-antenna television, so did the number of systems. A little more than a year later, when Television Digest attempted a comprehensive list of CATV systems, it found sixty-six in operation or under construction. Another sixty were in the planning stages.
In the archives of the cable-television center at Penn State University, improvisation, luck, and struggle are constant themes of the stories told about early CATV systems. They battled with telephone and power companies for the right to attach cables and amplifiers to utility poles. They banded together in a trade association to fight an 8 percent federal excise tax imposed on CATV revenues.
They also suffered at the hands of nature. While checking an antenna site for a system in Harrisburg, Jerrold’s Milton Shapp watched a serviceman on a 125-foot tower open up a cabinet containing an amplifier. The man “almost immediately let out a scream, covered his face with his hands, fell off the tower, and dangled in midair about five feet below the amplifiers, held only by his safety belt.” Shapp and other witnesses discovered the man had been stung by a swarm of wasps that lived in the shelter of the cabinet, entering and exiting through its ventilating louvers. The next day Jerrold started installing screens over the louvers in all its cabinets.
Weather was as much of a problem as wildlife. Benjamin J. Conroy, Jr., who launched a system in Uvalde, Texas, in the summer of 1955, brought in stations WOAI and KENS from San Antonio, ninety miles to the east. In hot, dry summer weather a 135,000volt power line near his antenna site interfered with picture and sound. During springtime storms stations from the Rio Grande Valley, Dallas, or as far away as Florida interfered with the signals he was trying to receive. “The phone used to ring off the hook,” Conroy said, reliving the conversations. “‘We’re supposed to get perfect reception here! This is just like our old antennas! What are you doing about it?’ I used to tell them, Tm praying!’”
Daily temperature swings caused problems too. Signals in the coaxial cables were stronger in cold weather than in warm, and the amplifiers of the time could not compensate for the variations. A TV picture that looked good at night might be snowy in the heat of the afternoon, while a picture that was satisfactory when the weather was warm might start breaking apart in a jagged mess as the temperature fell.
That was when the amplifiers were working. System operators had another problem to contend with in the days before transistors were widely used: vacuum tubes. Roy E. Bliss, who ran a system in Worland, Wyoming, in the early 1950s, remembers that it took eight amplifiers, each with twelve tubes, to bring a signal from the community antenna two and a half or three miles into town. If any one of those tubes failed, so would the picture. The engineer who built and maintained the system always had blistered fingers from pulling hot tubes out of amplifiers and replacing them with new ones. “The vacuum tubes—we’d buy them by the gross,” Bliss said.
IF SOMEONE CALLED IN TO THE cable company to complain about his or her picture, an operator might call the customers on either side of that house to see if they had a problem with their signal too. But if more than one customer was affected, the operators would know about it soon enough. Ray V. Schneider, who managed a system in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, recalled: “A system will go off the air, and I’d guarantee you, if you were sitting there with your feet on the desk, you couldn’t get your feet on the floor before the phone rang and somebody was calling because they lost their picture.”
Two or three years after the Williamsport system started operations, Schneider said, the operators discovered that non-subscribers were stealing signals. Some would cut into the cable that ran down the street and stick in pins, so that the signal would radiate out of the cable. “If the pin did not short out against the center conductor and the outer conductor, they had no problem,” Schneider said. “But once they’d short it out, that’ll knock everybody’s system out. We found a lot of that.”
OUT WEST, CABLE OPERATORS occasionally clashed with operators of illegal boosters and translators. These systems resembled Ed Parsons’s idea of a replacement for his Astoria system: A strategically located community antenna might pick up a distant signal, but instead of being piped down a cable, it would be amplified and broadcast. Parsons never built his system, because the FCC wouldn’t give him a license, but local television clubs, formed to build and maintain these boosters, did not let that stop them. “I knew an FCC field inspector in the state of Washington who would not go near one of them by himself in the mountains of Oregon and Washington,” said E. Stratford Smith, a cable-industry lawyer who now directs the cable-TV oral histories and teaches at Penn State. “Some of those booster people threatened to protect their boosters with guns.”
Community antennas and boosters were a help, but some areas were too isolated for any antenna to be useful. So in the early 1950s CATV operators started to bring in distant signals using high-frequency pointto-point microwave transmissions, technology that was already being used to link conventional broadcast television stations. Probably the first system to use microwave opened for business in December 1953 in the oil town of Casper, Wyoming. It was operated by two engineers from Texas named Gene and Richard Schneider (no relation to Ray V. Schneider of Williamsport), along with Bill Daniels, an oil-field insurance salesman who later became a CATV system broker. It started by offering four television channels from Denver, about 230 miles to the south. But because of the high cost of transmitting signals, the Casper system could bring its viewers only one of those four stations at a time.
Getting television from Denver to Casper required a big investment. The system operators erected an antenna on a 12,000-foot peak outside Laramie, about a hundred miles north of Denver. Then they contracted with an AT&T subsidiary to relay a single channel via microwave to Casper. AT&T charged $7,800 a month for that link, and the group had to line up an additional $125,000 cash bond. (Prices later came down; in 1965, for example, the operation in Williamsport was paying only $350 per channel for a microwave feed of three broadcast stations from New York City.)
TO SQUEEZE SEVERAL DENVER STA tions into the single microwave link, the operators installed a switch on the Laramie mountaintop for transmitting different channels at different times and hired college students to operate it manually. To decide which channels to tune in, system operators polled customers on what they wanted to watch. “We sent that thing out every month or every two months and let the subscribers vote on what programs they would like for us to select,” Schneider said. “Of course, when the voting was all done, we picked up what we liked.” Eventually the system expanded its microwave link.
The costs of the link translated into high prices for customers. To get one channel of television for part of the day, subscribers paid $7.50 a month—more than $40.00 in current dollars. But one year after their grand opening—a three-day affair in January 1954 that drew a crowd of 12,000 to the local armory—the CATV system had 4,000 customers in a town of 20,000. “They didn’t really care what it cost,” Gene Schneider said. “They just wanted it.”
Wyoming winters took their toll on picture quality. “I can recall times when the wind was moving the [microwave] dishes and the picture was flopping in and out and stuff like that,” Schneider said. “But … in those days, when you had a picture compared to nothing, that makes it look pretty good even if it isn’t the best.”
Though some early observers thought of cable as no more than a temporary solution to the FCC’s freeze on television, operators were optimistic. In 1952, just before the freeze was lifted, Television Digest noted, “There appears to be little fear [among CATV operators] that the advent of new stations and increased coverage of old ones spell doom to their operations or will seriously hamper expansion.” There were two reasons for this degree of confidence: Distant signals would never serve some valley towns adequately, they thought, and available signals would prove too few.
Indeed, CATV grew steadily along with broadcast television over the next twenty years. In 1959, seven years after Television Digest had found 66 CATV systems in the United States, the publication counted 560 systems with 550,000 customers. Pennsylvania had 102 systems, by far the most of any state. In 1970 A. C. Nielsen counted 4.5 million subscribers in 2,490 systems, or 7.5 percent of U.S. television households. As more systems used microwave to add distant stations, channel capacity grew too. In 1970 more than 70 percent of systems could hold at least six channels; 14 of the 15 largest were 12-channel systems offering selections of anywhere from 8 to 21 broadcast stations.
At first the FCC ignored community-antenna television, while broadcasters welcomed anything that increased their range. As the number of stations multiplied, however, local broadcasters began to resent the competition from faraway stations. In 1966 the FCC issued rules restricting CATV systems’ ability to import distant signals. The rules were relaxed in 1972 and amidst continuing battles with broadcasters, other regulations hampering CATV expansion were loosened over the next decade or so.
But the pivotal moment for CATV in the 1970s, the event that changed the medium forever, was the 1975 decision by the Home Box Office (HBO) programming service to beam its channel to local CATV systems via satellite. Since its founding in 1972 HBO had sent its signals to systems (which in turn had offered them to subscribers) via microwave—the same method used to transmit distant broadcast stations. With microwave transmission, each individual cable system required a separate link. But when HBO bounced its signal off a satellite that blanketed most of the United States, the service could reach thousands of systems for the cost of reaching a single one. With this new means of distribution, HBO paved the way for dozens of other nationally distributed programming services exclusive to wired television—services like MTV, CNN, and ESPN. Such services transformed community-antenna television into what we know today as cable TV. The wires and amplifiers bringing moving pictures into people’s homes are not just a tool for receiving distant stations; they’re an alternative medium.
Thanks to the popularity of this new generation of programming, cable television has overtaken America. In 1980, 22.6 percent of U.S. television households subscribed. In 1990, 59 percent did. As of November 1994, according to Nielsen, 60.5 million households subscribed to cable—63.4 percent of homes with television. More than 95 percent of cable customers have access to thirty or more channels. While people in the community-antenna business may have understood how much people wanted television, many of them underestimated how much television people wanted. “I remember when we went to seven channels,” recalled Shapp. “There was no doubt in our mind that was all we were ever going to need. I mean, who wants more than seven?”
As cable TV has grown, the large corporations known as multiple-system operators (MSOs) have grown to dominate the business of local system operation. But like the industry itself, these companies started small. In 1963 Ralph Roberts, formerly a manufacturer of belts and suspenders, bought a 1,200-subscriber CATV system in Tupelo, Mississippi. He built it into Comcast Corporation, which last fall had 3.5 million subscribers and was the fourth-largest MSO in the country. In 1956 a cottonseed salesman named Bob Magness and his wife, Betsy, finished building a 700-subscriber system in Memphis, Texas. The company they started is known today as TeleCommunications, Inc., the nation’s largest operator of cable systems. It has more than 11 million subscribers.
IN THE LATE 1940S AND EARLY 1950S , could anyone have imagined what a few community-antenna systems would ultimately become? No, said Robert J. Tarlton: “Anyone who would say they did at that time, I think, is just blowing air.” In hindsight, though, it all makes sense. The industry “came into being and flourished because there was a genuine need for it,” said Strat Smith of the National Cable Television Center and Museum. “It was not a better mousetrap. It was the mousetrap.”