Open Mic

When Cable TV Was Young, How Three Pioneers Worked Hard to Get Cable Programming Noticed

Chuck Ross Posted January 4, 2013 at 2:02 AM

With the winter 2013 edition of the Television Critics Association tour set to start today, Friday, Jan. 4, I was struck recently that most of the TV shows nominated recently for Golden Globes this year -- as well as for the just announced Producers Guild Awards -- are on cable.

When TV critics -- and the general public -- think of quality TV shows these days, many, if not most of them, are on basic and pay cable.

‘Twasn’t always so.

Back when I was selling cable TV subscriptions door-to-door in Los Angeles and Santa Monica in the mid-70s until the early 1980s, my sales pitch generally consisted of two things. If you didn’t get good TV reception, cable would help. And if you liked movies, we had a service called the Z Channel that basically put a screening room into your home. After Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in April 1978 -- almost a year after its release to theaters -- I would quote Charles Jaffe, one of the film’s producers, saying that he attributed the movie’s Best Picture Oscar to the screenings the film received on the Z Channel during the time Academy voters were marking their ballots.

Since we had the Z Channel to sell, for many years the cable company -- Theta Cable -- didn’t carry either HBO or Showtime. So I couldn’t hawk the shows on those two premium services. And most of what was on the basic cable networks at that time wasn’t really worth writing home about.

But that was soon to change. When I left Theta I was hired as a reporter at the trade magazine Cablevision, and then as the cable reporter at The Hollywood Reporter. And cable programming started getting better. However, it took awhile before TV critics, the Hollywood guilds, and the general public realized it.

And it took the efforts of some cable pioneers to make it happen. Three of them were Char Beales, Louise Rauscher and Jim Mooney.

Beales currently runs the cable marketing organization CTAM, which will be shepherding the cable part of the TCA tour starting today. Char was interviewed in 2008 by the Cable Center, and here’s an excerpt. [Please go to the Cable Center site to read the entire interview with Char.] We pick up the interview when Char starts talking about working at the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) in Washington, D.C., and taking over the management of the ACE Awards in the early 1980s. The ACE Awards were the cable industry’s way to honor -- and publicize -- the best of its programming.

       CHAR BEALES: [The] ACE Awards were a convention kind of award where we'd give it out at the NCTA show. We started saying, gee, maybe we could turn this into a little bit more; perhaps we ought to take it a little more Hollywood. Showtime had launched and once they started there was some competition to HBO for high profile programming. [The first big competition between HBO and Showtime was 1982, when HBO had Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park and Showtime had Diana Ross in Las Vegas.]

       We used to get hundreds of entries in those days, and the judging process was we'd box them all up and we'd ship them to an exotic resort in Florida. We'd bring twenty industry producers and network executives to the resort, and sit in rooms for 20 hours a day, watching the TV programs, judging, and never take advantage of the resort. So I changed that, and we moved the judging back to Washington.

       By then Tom Wheeler had left NCTA and Jim Mooney had become the president. He saw some real value in promoting programming, getting the word out. He particularly wanted to promote local origination C-SPAN and CNN, but he understood that consumers were really keen on the emerging cable network programming. So we took the ACE Awards to Beverly Hills.

       For our first show [Turner executive] Robert Wussler persuaded Ted Turner put up the money to produce it and broadcast it on TBS in primetime. We really struggled in those early days getting talent for the show. They hadn't really heard of cable out there in Hollywood and we were busy violating everything the Director's Guild and the Writer's Guild wanted, and so it was a little contentious. For that first show I think actually the only talent we had that was a household name was Mickey Mouse.

       STEVE NELSON, for the Cable Center: Did he make a personal appearance?

       BEALES: He did, he did. I learned all about the union requirements for the mouse.

       NELSON: And there was obviously Disney Channel at this point.

       BEALES: Disney Channel was huge. I think at the last minute we persuaded Cloris Leachman to be the host, and we had a lot of folks nobody had ever heard of yet. Of course they went on to be very well known. I mean, Bernie Shaw was in that first show, and at that time nobody knew Bernie Shaw, but of course after the first war in Iraq everybody knew Bernie Shaw. We had Chris Berman, the MTV VJs, etc. So they were the up and coming talent, but it was pretty exciting that we produced that first show.

       …We were all over LA with the ACE Awards as the years went on... I think all of us in those early days had a sense that we were there to change television, and I don't think any of us thought we would ever do it so fast, and we really did. Cable has just changed the face of television. It's so exciting to see. At the same time, though, on the cable company side, they were delivering this new programming that was popular with consumers -- they had gotten deregulation through Congress, so financing now was becoming available.

       They won franchises in the urban markets, they were starting to build them out, when CTAM was founded. Of course it was a very small organization that had been founded in 1976 when HBO went on the satellite and the marketers all looked at each other and said, whoa, we've got to get consumers to pay for something that they can get for free from ABC, CBS, and NBC. How are we going to do that? Let's get together and share information.

Around 1982 or 1983, Beales, still working at NCTA, was simultaneously made a board member of CTAM.

       BEALES: And so [CTAM, was made up of] marketers, of course, [who were] trying to launch cable in these urban markets, [and] they're struggling. They've got a whole set of programming that we know is great but consumers have never heard of. Marketers had to figure out how to sell this stuff. So of course they all wanted research, and so I said, no problem! I do research. I'll do a research project and NCTA will contribute this to the marketers. Jim Mooney backed me and funded a major study. I don't remember now how much it was, but at the time it was an enormous amount of money.

       NELSON: Because CTAM itself couldn't possibly have done...

       BEALES: Or even the companies themselves at that point didn't invest in research. I commissioned Opinion Research Corporation in New Jersey to talk to consumers and find out what they were looking for and identify messaging that could get across to them. The project leader on that study was Howard Horowitz and his colleague was Grace Ascolese, and they came up with the term 'truck chaser’ for the phenomenon that was going on in the market because people were so anxious for program choice that they would chase the cable truck down the street in order to sign up. That really was a turning point in a lot of ways in the marketing because it gave us all enormous confidence that we had something that consumers really wanted. We just had to tell them about it and we had to be clear about the virtues of this great new programming that we were delivering. By then MTV had signed on and USA was becoming powerful, BET moved from sharing time on USA to their own channel. So we had programming that appealed to different target segments, of course ‘truck chasers’ was a clever name, but it also captured the excitement of the moment.

       ….And the ACE Awards were growing. We started to poke around and said, gee, it would really be better if we won awards through the Emmy process because it would be better to beat them at their own game on their own air, and get exposed to a broader audience. We knew we needed a bigger audience for the ACE Awards, and we really needed a way to figure out how to get in the Emmys because they would not allow cable to even enter.

       They had a wonderful rule that as a national network you had to reach 20% of the country, and of course no cable network reached 20% of the country, not the least of which was HBO and Showtime because they were premium networks. So we thought, oh my goodness, this is an insurmountable barrier. How will we get in?

       We said, well, why don't we start our own academy? And so we created the National Academy of Cable Programming. Our first chairman was Ralph Baruch, who was chairman of Viacom, and they owned Showtime. Ralph was an historic joiner and organizer, and we put together a pretty darn impressive board of the heads of all the cable networks – Michael Fuchs, Tony Cox and John Cooke, who was at the Disney Channel. Studio executives like Jonathan Dolgen who went on to be the chairman of Paramount, [and Mel Harris.] Producers like Don Ohlmeyer.

       ….We were still miniscule, absolutely miniscule, but it taught us that we could work together, even on the cable network side. It taught us that there was some value in collaboration even though the networks were competing. I think those lessons have laid the groundwork for a lot of the things that we ended up doing today.

       Back then we were forming, out of that collaboration, a really healthy partnership to go before the television critics because we knew that was the other piece of the puzzle. Louise Rauscher had a PR firm in LA, and she had the idea to bring all the networks together before the critics. Louise inspired us to show what's happening with cable programming. We started, through my department, this outreach to the TCA that still goes on, and lived at NCTA for a long time. Ironically, it's full circle back with CTAM now and I'm back with the television critics. But it was important to reach that audience as another avenue to reach consumers. We would invite those critics to come be final judges in the ACE Awards so that they would have to watch the programs.

Louise Rauscher was (and is) a force of nature. She liked and respected reporters and critics, and loved hanging out with us. And we loved hanging out with her.

Seeing how smart and effective Louise was, Jim Mooney eventually offered her the job of running industry communications for the NCTA.

Louise and I kept in touch after she left L.A. and moved to Washington. Several years after she was there I was talking to her on the phone one day when she told me she had exciting news: she and Mooney were getting married.

A day or two later I was talking on the phone to Jim Boyle, who worked for Louise at NCTA, about some information I was seeking. As I recall, the end of that phone conversation went something like this:

       ME: Well, I guess you’re all excited there about the wedding.

       BOYLE: What wedding?

       ME: You know.

       BOYLE: No, really, I don’t know.

       ME: Louise and Jim.

       BOYLE: Very funny.

       ME: Really.

       BOYLE: Look I’ve gotta go. Tell me. What wedding?

       ME: Louise and Jim.

       BOYLE: Chuck, if that were happening, I’d know. They’ve never even dated. Are you serious?

       ME: Yes.

       BOYLE: Someone’s pulling your leg.

       ME: Check it out.

A few hours later Boyle called me back to say, “My god, you’re right. We’re all stunned here. We hadn’t a clue.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen two people more in love. Jim and Louise eventually moved to one of the most beautiful spots anywhere to live: Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle. Their wonderful son, James P. Mooney IV, was born in 1991.

I was deeply saddened some time ago when Louise told me that Jim was battling kidney cancer. Jim, 69, lost that fight a few weeks ago, on Dec. 21.

Char and I emailed each other that day. She said, “Everyone in the fledging cable biz assumed 40-something Jim Mooney was a confirmed bachelor. He was set in his ways with old world manners and a colonial mansion. Louise owned a trendy PR boutique flacking for MTV, the Western Cable Show and ACE Awards. She lived on the cutting edge of the cable revolution. In their case opposites did attract. They skipped dating and went straight to engagement, shocking us all. It was a 24-year love affair as strong at the end of Jim's life as it was in the rosy beginning.”

Next time you watch a cable TV show you fall in love with, please take a moment to think of three of the pioneers who championed cable programming when almost no one else was paying attention: Char, Louise, and Jim.

Char Beales:                                       Jim and Louise Mooney in 2009:

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