In Depth

Extending Reach, Influence

Cable Grew From Distribution Booster to Entertainment Innovator Over 6 Decades

It began merely as a means for rural folks to receive a newfangled broadcast offering called television that people in big cities had.

Sixty years later, the history of cable TV is a combination of feats of engineering, breakthroughs of programming, hard-won regulation victories and a lot of good old-fashioned American entrepreneurship that combined to change entertainment, the medium and its technology, as well as the cultural landscape of the country.

“I think you can see cable in three phases,” said Larry Satkowiak, president-CEO of the Denver-based Cable Center, an educational and resource hub about the medium.

“There was phase one, which was the hilltop phase, when cable was for better transmission of distant signals,” he continued. “Then there was phase two, with the beginning of satellite transmission in the ’70s, and real beginning of cable programming in the ’80s. Then there’s phase three, which is the ’90s and after; that’s the most difficult to describe, but it’s cable settling in as a regular part of the lives of the viewer while at the same time driving both what we expect television to provide and its technology forward.”

Broadcast TV, as has been widely documented, began in earnest gradually after World War II. There was the financial investment by both the stations and the public, the laying of coaxial cables to create true coast-to-coast broadcasting, cautious regulation by the Federal Communications Commission and certainly the need for transmission that would make it easy for the audience to actually experience the medium.

On the latter there were often problems. If you lived too far from the transmission or the broadcast waves were blocked by something tall—natural or otherwise—or there was some other impediment to receiving the signal, you were passed by, and possibly left behind, by this revolution.

Various individuals saw an opportunity to provide television for those the signal did not reach. Put up a large community antenna to pull in far-away signals and run cable to individual homes. Since it costs money to pay for all this, you call viewers subscribers and charge them. And since this is America, you make a profit at it.

In this way early pioneers of Community Antenna Television (CATV) began. The pioneers were not people like broadcast TV visionaries William Sarnoff and William Paley, who already were titans of radio. They were locals, such as Ed Parsons in Astoria, Ore., Jim Y. Davidson of Tuckerman, Ark., Robert Tarlton of Lansford, Pa., John Walson of Mahanoy City, Pa., and Martin Malarkey Jr. of Pottsville, Pa.

They created a universe of systems that grew from the mom ’n’ pops to the conglomerate-owned multiple-system operators, but throughout, cable has remained a medium through which the community chooses its operator and community information can be spread. The Federal Communications Commission and other regulators quickly took note, and such demands as “must-carry” entered the equation in an ongoing catalog of legislative and sometimes judicial decisions.

Dr. Megan Mullen, the author of “Television in the Multichannel Age: A Brief History of Cable Television” and “The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution?” and associate professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, became intrigued with the cable universe as a child growing up in Oneonta, N.Y. There was an early system that, among other things, gave TV audiences strong reception and TV stations from Utica as well as downstate New York City.

“What’s fascinating about cable is that it was invented in obscure places,” she said. “When I was young and we visited my cousins in Washington, D.C., everything in their lives was more sophisticated and bigger—except their television. They had these sets with rabbit ears and UHF antenna and they had trouble getting many stations, and they didn’t even have 12 channels worth of programming. When it came to TV, they seemed so far behind.”

Of course, some local systems tried to offer original fare, but it was often unconventional. In one market an undertaker hosted a talk show about his profession.

Slowly, cable began to make inroads in the ’60s—a visionary named Charles “Chuck” Dolan started Sterling Manhattan Cable, the first cable system to have impact in an urban market, and then the same Mr. Dolan created a pay TV network called Home Box Office in 1972, eventually partnering with Time Life (now Time Warner).

Yet despite the introduction of microwave technology and satellite delivery, as well as some experimentation with the offering of feature films and some sports events, cable remained a retransmission entity.

“Cable needed something special, different, unique to get it really moving,” said Dr. Douglas Gomery, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, resident scholar of the Library of American Broadcasting and author of “A History of Broadcasting in the United States.” “That changed in 1975 with the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ on HBO—the title bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Now people saw there was a reason to pay money for cable, and HBO brought that reason to the suburbs. A gold rush followed.”

Indeed, within a few years such networks as USA, ESPN, BET, Nickelodeon, Bravo and more were born. Religious programming took on greater clout on the dial with Pat Robertson’s CBN. Showtime became HBO’s first strong competitor. Galavision was the first Spanish-language network, Ted Turner’s CNN the first all-news network.

In the public perception, cable had gone from what Dr. Patrick Parsons, author of “Blue Skies: A History of Cable Television” and associate professor of communications at Penn State, calls “a little clunky” into being the medium of the niche, or “narrowcasting”—mostly a collection of networks targeting a specific economic, gender, age or sometimes ethnic demographic.

“You really saw this with MTV,” said Dr. Parsons. “Here was a network running music videos and it was attracting a demographic—young people—that were the hardest to lure to TV.”

Still, cable was in many ways a medium of the haves and have-nots. Suburban areas were wired quickly, the less economically sound areas slowly. In Manhattan, the wires literally ended at the lower border of Harlem.

Yet even as the government moved to regulate subscription rates and more cable networks emerged, the wires and satellites had an impact on broadcast television. Dr. Parsons noted, “An argument can be made that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network turned TV into a more sensational medium than anything else. But were it not for cable, Fox probably would not have happened because it relied on the better-reception UHF and other formerly weaker stations cable was now giving the consumer.”

Cable eventually did penetrate all neighborhoods. Come the 1991 Persian Gulf War it was where America turned for continuous news. With the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, cable riveted America. With programs such as “The Real World,” it made clear that reality shows were feasible for broadcast networks, and with “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” it made an impact as great as the seminal broadcast series of the 1950s.

“Cable viewers are more flexible than broadcast viewers, and that’s changed the way everything is programmed,” said Rick Mitz, author of “The Great TV Sitcom Book.” “You have ‘South Park’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ that have changed TV comedy. And the technology that cable has brought with it has led to time-shifting, the TiVo experience. There’s [video-on-demand] and a lot more. TV has become a medium in which the consumer can self-program.”

“Cable is still driven by being quirky and different,” said Dr. Mullen. “They just have more money to do it with now.”