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Cable Television

It all began on a wooden power pole

By Richard Wirth | December 02, 2013

As cable television’s customer base shrinks due to the rise in Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) delivery and driven by the use of mobile devices, it’s appropriate to look back at cable’s beginning.  Before there was HBO, Showtime, Superstations or CSpan, there was Community Antenna Television.

It’s hard to imagine the world of seemingly endless amounts of television programming in America was once limited to a maximum of seven but more likely only one to three choices.  In 1949, the latter was the norm in most cities as television stations went on the air as fast as they could build them.  But as one went farther out of metropolitan areas, stations became scarce and the variety of terrain across the USA stopped many television signals at the first large hill blocking their way.

The earth's curvature combined with mountainous terrain block the travel of VHF television signals.  From Wikipedia

Over the air VHF signals travel line of sight.  They don’t pass through mountains and the earth’s curvature makes them impossible to catch after a certain distance.  In places like the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, the Ozarks of Arkansas, or the Cascades in the Northwest, unless you lived on top of the mountain, there was no point in owning a TV.

Necessity is the mother of invention even if the necessity was early television.  With its dramatic rise and sudden demand, many small towns in mountainous areas felt left off the television bandwagon.  In addition, local electronics stores wanted to sell television sets and reap the rewards their counterparts closer to the bigger cities were getting.  And why not?  By all accounts, televisions were flying off the shelves.  Television quickly became a license to print money.  Except no one wanted to buy a television if there was nothing to see.

As in all stories where enterprising individuals see a need and step in to fill it, several individuals came up with a plan to access faraway television signals by erecting an antenna on top of a local mountain, running a wire down into the town and distributing the signal into people’s homes.  Hence the name - Community Antenna Television or CATV. 

According to most accounts, the three most likely contenders for the right to say “We Did it First” are Jim Davidson in Tuckeman, Arkansas, Leroy “Ed” Parsons of Astoria, Oregon, and John Walson of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.

To this day, there is still controversy over who did it first.  Each of these men began his service in 1948.  One author, Thomas P. Southwick in his book “Distant Signals” hands the award to Davidson in Arkansas.  Davidson began his system with one paying customer and one lone signal from WMC-TV in Memphis.  However, the decision is questionable as WMC-TV didn’t officially sign on until December of 1948.  All Davidson’s system provided his lone customer until then was WMC’s transmitter tests of a test pattern.

Ed Parsons in Astoria, Oregon, also had a system ready to go before the first television station in the Pacific northwest, KRSC-TV, Seattle (now KING-TV), signed on.  Parsons was relaying that test pattern as early as September, 1948.  He too, only had a single customer.

In both these cases, the argument for “Community Antenna” is lost since the service wasn’t being delivered to more than one party.  Also, only one station's signal was provided but and only test patterns with no programming until later.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the first television station went on the air as experimental station W3XE in 1932 and became WPTZ-TV (now KYW-TV) September 1, 1941, the third television station to be commercially licensed and the first one outside of NYC. The station, while curtailing programming during World War II, has been in continuous operation for 72 years.  Then came WFIL-TV (now WPVI) in September 13, 1947.  The last of the three original VHF stations, WCAU-TV, took to the air on May 23, 1948 with regular programming. 

All three networks broadcasting at that time were represented by these stations – NBC, CBS and DuMont.  ABC wouldn’t begin broadcast operations until April 19th, 1948 and WFIL-TV would carry both networks until DuMont closed down in 1956.

Stay with me here, this does come back around to CATV.

Shortly after World War II, homes began modernizing with new devices such as electric ranges and clothes dryers.  It was in power companies’ best interests to get electrically driven appliances into the hands of American consumers so they would consume more electricity.  So many of the companies became dealers for these new, labor saving appliances. 

Pennsylvania Power and Light Company (PP&L) was no exception.  Their service technicians would install and also repair these appliances.  This adjunct to their business didn’t last long as it became apparent it was a conflict of interest with department stores and appliance dealers across their territory. 

The 2005 Cable Hall of Fame Honoring John Walson

When PP&L got out of the appliance business in 1947, one of their service technicians in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles from Philadelphia, began moonlighting, opening his own small business.  When not climbing poles and stringing power lines, John Walson and his wife tended to their appliance shop after taking on franchises for various products including televisions.



Mahanoy, Pennsylvania, promotional video

The little town of Mahanoy is in a valley, completely blocked on all sides by mountains.  Needless to say, Walson was not able to exhibit working televisions in his shop at the corner of Main and Pine downtown.  In a recorded interview with researcher Mary Alice Mayer (and available online at The Cable Center Barco Oral History Collection), Walson tells the story of how he found a spot up on Broad mountain, purchased a 70 foot pole from the power company and installed an antenna on it.  He ran about a mile of twin lead cable down to his shop adding an amplifier every 500 feet.  Using this distant antenna, he could demonstrate all three Philadelphia television channels in the window of his store.

300 Ohm Twin Lead Antenna Wire commonly used as antenna wire in early television receiver installations.

In June of 1948, he became interested in selling the antenna service when he saw crowds gather in front of his store to watch the three sets.  He put speakers outside and people would bring lawn chairs and either sit or stand watching into the night until the stations signed off at midnight.

Walson’s experience and close relationship with the power company afforded him the knowledge of running cables and negotiating rights.  Initially, he wasn’t charged for pole access along the power company’s right of way.  His project was an immediate hit and before long he was serving over 700 customers.

It would seem the award of “first” should then fall to John Walson.

Continued on the next page.

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Richard Wirth: | December, 03, 2013

Many thanks to Steve McVoy of the Early Television Foundation for his added insight into the early days of cable:

“Prior to HBO’s launch on a satellite in 1975, CATV systems were for the most part extremely profitable, with an average of 60% of homes in a typical town subscribing. But cable was limited to towns and cities that could not receive all 3 networks over the air. These were primarily rural areas.

The problem that HBO solved (indirectly) was making cable profitable in large cities. FCC regulations in the 60s and early 70s were designed to protect local broadcasters, so cable systems were not allowed to import distant independent stations. As a result, a cable system in a large city couldn’t offer any new programming. In 1972 the FCC changed the rules to allow up to 3 independent stations. The system we owned in Columbus, for instance, could bring in independent stations from Cleveland and Cincinnati. That made us profitable almost overnight.

When HBO went on the satellite in 1975 it gave cable operators another revenue stream (we charged $5 a month for basic cable and $6.95 for HBO). That also helped our bottom line, but it wasn’t the main reason that cable took off in big cities.

The big thing that HBO did was spawn the creation of CNN, MTV, TBS, etc. Once a cable operator had invested in a satellite dish for HBO (very expensive at the time - you needed a 30 ft. diameter dish), it was cheap to add receivers for the new cable channels. Ted Turner quickly saw the opportunity, and the new channels were created.

This was the big innovation that allowed cable to prosper in major metropolitan areas. Now they could offer a dozen or so specialized channels that residents couldn’t get over the air.”

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