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Tales of ’78
Written March 2016


I had nothing to do with the mixup.

I admit that I once had been present in the NBC videotape center at 30 Rock in New York City while a prime-time program was being fed to stations in the eastern two-thirds of the country.  But I didn’t touch anything.  Besides, that was eight years before this incident.

And I also admit that I was in another NBC control facility at the International Broadcast Center in Korea where my colleagues and I were busy winning Emmys for our Olympics graphics.  I observed carts being shuttled from one room to another, filled with carefully labeled tape cassettes in the Panasonic MII format.  But I didn’t touch any of them.  Besides, that was ten years after this incident.

More importantly, I have an iron-tight alibi for the date of the actual incident.  I was in Arizona on vacation.  I didn’t even see it happen.

So what was the incident?  On Monday, February 26, 1978, at 9:17 pm Eastern time, NBC was in the midst of airing Loose Change, a six-hour miniseries (two hours on each of three nights).  That evening they’d scheduled the second of the three parts.  But many viewers were having trouble following the plot.

Then suddenly the network cut to this slide.  Was happened?  Was there a shocking news bulletin?

Booth announcer Howard Reig solemnly intoned from New York, “Ladies and gentlemen, uh, we find that for the past 17 minutes we have been bringing you Part 3 of Loose Change (which was scheduled for tomorrow night), due to a technical error.  We are going to bring you Part 2 in its entirety.  Please stay tuned.”

The Associated Press got an explanation from NBC operations supervisor James Bess.  “A technician whom he declined to identify took the wrong episode out of a locker.  Bess said the network was deluged with calls immediately, but by the time the correct reels were located and set up, 16 minutes and 36 seconds had elapsed.”


As I say, I had nothing to do with that incident.  So where was I in 1978?  I was in Washington, Pennsylvania, the program director of a local origination channel.  We made our share of little mistakes.  (The whole six-year story is here.)  Thus it was only natural that we experienced schadenfreude when the people running the national networks showed they were human, too.

Our Cable TV-3 had been limping along for several years losing money until March of 1978, when we hired a new salesman, Lee Rizor.  Lee was a local resident who had graduated from Wash High six years before.

I have no 1978 photo, but at classmates.com I found these pictures of him as a high school junior in 1971 and as a cat wrangler in 2009.

When Lee started peddling advertising time for us, our revenues began a steady climb.

For example, that summer we sold commercials at $11.67 per minute for a couple of tennis matches:  men's in June and women's in July.  We placed our single black-and-white camera in a shelter at the position marked with a yellow triangle in the view below of Washington Park.

A local expert was enlisted to describe the action; perhaps it was Chuck Ream’s wife Marian.  But I also had a microphone.  I was the “host,” leading into and out of commercials.  Sitting to my left was a flirtatious young female tennis player, not part of our crew.  However, we never struck up a real conversation because I don’t know much about the sport.

I don’t know much about fire hydrants, either, as became apparent when the Pennsylvania State Firemen’s Association came to our city for their annual convention at the end of September.

The volunteer firefighters were not above a little mischief.

One night as I tried to leave the station and drive home, I found the exit of the parking lot blocked by an iron hydrant (seen here in a recent photo).  It was just lying there on its side in a small puddle.

I got out of my car and dragged it onto the grass, where the local fire department could find it and reinstall it.

The convention climaxed on Saturday, September 30, 1978, with a big parade that looked something like this.  We borrowed a color camera from our Communications Properties Inc. home office in Newark, Ohio, and part of our crew set it up at the reviewing stand in front of the courthouse to tape the festivities.  Meanwhile, Lee and I jumped into his car and headed to where the parade was forming near the high school.  The main streets were blocked, but he knew how to get through the alleys.  I interviewed a few visiting firemen with my audio cassette recorder.

The question that had been puzzling me was this:  Why would anybody in their right mind want to be a volunteer fireman?  You have to be “on call” around the clock.  At a moment’s notice, you have to drop what you’re doing and rush into a dangerous situation.  You may be overcome by heat in the summer or covered in ice in the winter.  And you don’t even get paid for your labors!

However, I didn’t phrase the question quite like that.  The answers I received involved camaraderie, and excitement, and a sense of civic duty.

Four decades later, according to a 2017 article by former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey and three others, “The number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania is rapidly shrinking.”  In the 1970s there were about 300,000 volunteers in the state.  Now there are about 50,000.

UPDATE:  A 2018 report puts the number at fewer than 38,000, which is nearly a 90 percent decrease over the last forty years.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, “More than 90 percent of the state's roughly 2,400 fire companies are staffed by volunteers.  ...Meanwhile, the number of calls to which firefighters respond has increased with more medical, hazardous-material, false-alarm, and faulty smoke-detector calls, but communities have few trained personnel available to respond.”

“In today’s world of multiple demands and options,” said the 2017 article, “young people no longer have the time or interest in being firefighters.  Also, many young volunteers are disappointed when they often find themselves spending more time raising money to defray some of the fire company’s cost than they spend training or responding to fires.”

The following Monday and Tuesday, we played back our hours of videotape in prime time.  Jerry Polen and I sat in the studio adding commentary describing the parade.  During lulls I inserted my audio sound bites.  As I've explained elsewhere, not everything went perfectly, but all in all it wasn’t bad.

Here we see two desktop telephones, one using the Touch-Tone signaling technology that was the latest thing back then.  General Telephone promoted the more efficient design with the 1978 newspaper copy below.  Avoiding commas.  Using sentence fragments instead.  Apparently written with broadcast in mind.

Phones with pushbuttons are showing up everywhere.  In more and more homes and offices every day.  And still you hesitate to get one.

Well, maybe you need a little push.  Next time you see a phone with pushbuttons, give it a try.  You’ll see that pushing buttons is so much faster than dialing.  So much more efficient.  And even more fun.

Phones with pushbuttons are available now in a considerable assortment of styles and colors (for a low monthly rate that really makes them a bargain).  So stop going around in circles with that old-fashioned dial of yours.  And call our business office soon.

Four decades later, we still “dial” phone numbers, but the dial itself has become extinct.  At the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society museum, a basement display of early 20th-century artifacts opened in 2016.  According to board president Dolly Mistrik, “When a child saw the phone booth for the first time, he could not figure out how it worked.  We explained you put your finger in the hole and turn it.”

Local channels like ours attracted local preachers who saw an opportunity to reach a broader audience at very little cost.  Typically, they’d pay a small amount for several months of a weekly half-hour.

One week, one of the evangelists brought along a pamphlet he’d printed up.  At his services, miracles happened!  The pamphlet contained testimonies from people who attended a couple of these services.  They saw the preacher empty a cup of wine and place it on the altar.  No one came near the cup, but several minutes later it was discovered to be half-full of wine again.  Praise the Lord!

I had read a book about magicians’ secrets, and from the witnesses’ descriptions, I discerned that this was a simple magic trick.

The evangelist must have obtained a piece of apparatus like this double-walled metal chalice.  After the gold inner cup had been drained, a tiny hole at the bottom allowed more wine to slowly refill it from the hidden reservoir between the cups.

I refrained from accusing the preacher of deceiving his followers.  But even in the Bible I had discovered descriptions of “miracles” that might have been mere illusions.  Years later, when I started this website, I took the opportunity to suggest alternate explanations for such stories as another wine trick (here) and another altar trick (here). 

Our cable system offered 12 channels:  nine nearby TV stations, a couple more from out of state, and our own TV-3.  That exactly matched the VHF tuner on each subscriber’s TV set, so there was a picture on every channel.

But then, around 1976 or 1977, we added a 13th channel that subscribers could receive if they paid an extra fee.  It was called Home Box Office.

If I remember correctly, we transmitted HBO on a special frequency in the gap between channels 6 and 7.  When somebody signed up for the service, we loaned them a box to convert that frequency to channel 3.  They also received a switch.  In one position, they could watch the converter output if their TV was tuned to channel 3.  In the other position, they could watch the regular 12 channels.

A pirate might be able to steal Home Box Office by building his own converter box or buying one on the black market.  Therefore, we planned to visit every home that subscribed to cable but not to HBO.  (There were thousands of homes in this category, and I don’t know whether we actually visited them all.)  At the “drop” on the side of the house, our technician would filter out HBO’s special frequency by inserting a “trap” that could not be unscrewed without a special tool. 

Another stratagem for persuading customers to pay for Home Box Office was to offer them a free sample.  I recall one weekend in December 1978.  All day Saturday and Sunday, subscribers could tune in to Cable TV-3 and watch HBO programs free of charge.

During prime time, we treated it like a telethon, with viewers calling in to sign up.  We borrowed that color camera again.  We gave Lee a microphone and had him stand near the lobby Christmas tree.  During “interstitials” (those gaps of 20 minutes or so between movies), he gave a sales pitch for the new service.  He occasionally walked over to the counter and interviewed the girls working the phones.  I was back in the Cable TV-3 control room, waiting to switch back to the network at the appointed time.

One of the shows was a comedy special from Robin Williams that first aired on October 27.  People who were actually paying for HBO had already had multiple opportunities to see this show, but now it was being offered for free to the rabble.

The program was uncensored.

Ramsey Ess described part of it this way:  “Williams has to work to get the crowd on his side.  He releases his subconscious mind who flips the audience the double-bird and shouts ‘F*** you! What do you want from me anyway?!’

“The crowd explodes, and Robin’s got them back for good.”

I was sitting in the control room enjoying the performance when our manager stomped in.  He didn't say anything, but I could tell from his grim face that he was not enjoying the language that was going out on our local origination channel for anybody and everybody to hear.

However, I don’t recall any subsequent subscriber complaints.  Our channel survived until 1980, and HBO survived much longer.



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