Studio That Would Never Be
The enterprise we call cable TV, which has been around since 1948, used to be known as Community Antenna Television. There were two key elements: a tall antenna (perhaps on a hill) to pick up non-snowy broadcasts from distant TV stations, and an arterial system of amplifiers and coaxial cables to distribute those signals to homes all across town. Subscribers could then dispense with their own individual rooftop aerials and rely on the community's antenna.
Not every possible channel on the coaxial cable carried a TV broadcaster. Perhaps the CATV company could fill unused channels with signals from other video sources, such as a camera at City Hall. Sometime in the far distant future, there might be communication satellites! On those satellites there could someday be premium programming not broadcast over the air, such as HBO or CNN, and maybe CATV could carry those services as well!
However, the Federal Communications Commission might frown on that sort of thing. Extra cable channels, like illegal pirate radio stations, could be considered unfair competition to the FCC's officially licensed TV stations.
The 6,000-subscriber cable system in Marion, Ohio, was known as Marion CATV. One of its twelve channels was empty until an automated service was added. Anyone tuning to Channel 3 heard FM background music and saw video from a TeleMation Weather Channel gizmo like this, which was wired up to a wind gauge and other instruments on the cable company's roof. The weatherscan camera slowly panned back and forth across the analog clock, dials, and ads.
Marion CATV also sometimes took a camera to events at the local Coliseum. They considered investing in additional equipment to create an actual television studio and produce their own programs on a regular basis. But what if the FCC should decide to forbid it?
On October 24, 1969, the Commission issued a ruling. Far from outlawing non-broadcast channels, it mandated them! The FCC adopted a requirement that any cable television system with 3,500 or more subscribers must also cablecast. By 1971, such systems would be required to have facilities for local production and presentation of programs.
According to the local newspaper, that meant that Marion CATV could now go into locally-originated programming in a much bigger way. My parents lived only 15 miles from Marion. They mailed a clipping to me at Syracuse University where I was studying for a Master's degree in broadcasting, learning TV production in a small studio with three black-and-white cameras in the basement of the library.
The pace picked up in 1970.
March: Marion CATV began constructing a two-camera studio down the hall from their customer lobby. I wrote to offer my services to help run it, once I'd finished my degree.
June: More than 20 hours of local programming a week began appearing on Channel 3. Having visited Marion during a semester break, I noted, It's a crude operation, much less sophisticated than even our lab setup here at Syracuse. But it looked like fun.
July: The FCC's ruling was being appealed, so the effective date was postponed. Nevertheless, Marion continued cablecasting.
Television production costs money. If it's to be supported by advertising, the sponsors need to pay Big Bucks for the opportunity to air their commercials, and they won't do so unless the ads reach a Big Audience. The economics didn't work out for most little cable systems. Ours, though we grew to 7,000 subscribers, was no exception.
In 1973, TV-3 would spend $62,500 and make only $20,600 by selling advertising time. The net loss, $41,900, amounted to 50 cents per month per subscriber. Due to inflation, that would be $3 per month per subscriber today. (That's slightly on the expensive side. Most outside program services today charge the cable operator less than $2 per month per subscriber to carry them and many cost less than $1, though ESPN has been reported to average $7.21.)
We might have been willing to write off a small loss as public relations, but the financial picture was becoming tighter throughout the CATV industry. We didn't feel we could raise monthly cable rates by 50 cents to subsidize TV-3. Therefore, we still hoped to sell enough advertising on the channel to make a profit in another year or two. In the meantime, although most local residents were already cable subscribers, we hoped TV-3's presence might entice a few more to sign up.
The next year, TCI was starting up four more new systems in southwest Ohio. They had a money-saving plan to meet their local-origination requirements: all four systems could be served from a single centrally-located studio, no more than a relatively short drive away. Maybe I would be a good choice to run it, considering my experience in Marion.
Hoping to have the studio up and running in six months, TCI obtained a proposal in January for equipment from Dayton Communication Company (DCC). The plan was to construct a two-camera studio in a 35' by 60' section of the garage in the cable TV building.
On the south, southeast, and east walls are backgrounds for small performance areas. I envisioned a nine-by-nine pipe grid near the ceiling from which lighting instruments could be hung, with a socket at each intersection. The whole arrangement was similar to the one we had in Marion and the one I would find at my next job in Washington, PA, a year later, except Middletown would have color cameras.
After our Marion Today show on Friday morning, January 26, I stowed a typewriter in my trunk and returned to Middletown for an official visit. I toured the cable office on North Main Street, presented the above sketch, and looked over the equipment proposals from DCC. That evening the local manager took me to dinner. (I think he was the son of the regional manager who also oversaw Marion.) We arranged to meet again on Saturday morning after I'd typed up a hard copy of my reactions.
In case you're curious, the banks of square buttons labeled "A," "B," and "PreVieW" each select from any of six video sources: a Video Tape Recorder (VTR), an adjustable color background, and four cameras including one for a weatherscan and another for films and slides. I learned that each of the four systems would have its own local weatherscan, so I suggested replacing the "weatherscan" source with a second VTR.
output bank of buttons, "ProGraM," has a seventh button
marked EFFects. Effects involve mixing and combining two
sources in various artistic ways including fades, dissolves, keys,
and wipes, with the amounts of A and of B controlled by the fader
bars in the middle of the drawing.
My comments rambled on for nearly 2,000 words, including many other details.
I prepared directions for their 140-mile journey. I restricted myself to nothing but four-lane highways, ending on a boulevard probably named for the executive who ran the local steel mill from 1923 to 1956, Leo F. Reinartz. My final step:
But the planned opening date of the studio had slipped from June 1973 to September. And when June arrived, I wrote, By now it's probably 1974. If they're that reluctant to spend the money even to get the project off the ground, I wonder whether we'll be able to get the money needed to do things right once the studio is in operation. In August I opined, They're more interested in acquiring new systems than in taking care of the ones they've got.
TCI continued to drag its feet, and I moved to Pennsylvania the following February.
In April of 1974, the FCC admitted there had been a marked upward trend in origination costs from those upon which our earlier action was predicted. Also, considerations have been raised as to whether it is appropriate for us to force a cable system into local program origination and to require the cable operator against his will to become a broadcaster. They withdrew the order in 1975. In Pennsylvania, the CATV system where I now worked finally gave up on producing local programs in 1980.