Yes, cable television history is still evolving. It will continue to evolve until there is no Cable TV anymore. Some of you, like me, may be old enough to remember the days before Cable TV. I remember growing up in the San Francisco area and having a whopping three TV stations to choose from, when we were lucky. As I got older, we got a few more, and we had to move an antenna, either on the roof or on top of the TV itself in order to (hopefully) clear up the reception.
By and large, those days are long gone now. We don’t even have to get off the couch (or the floor) to change channels anymore, just click the remote and channel surf.
Cable Television History in America
According to the National Cable Television Association, Cable TV started out in the late ’40s as a means to help people in rural areas get any sort of TV reception. These “Cable TV companies” served people in Oregon, Arkansas, and Oregon by placing large TV antennas on the tops of large mountains and then connecting the houses in the community to these “community antennas.” By about 1952, there were about 70 cable companies serving more than 14,000 subscribers.
Since these large antennas were situated very high and were not near major obstructions, they could pick up signals from TV stations that were hundreds of miles away. Soon, the people that ran these combines realized they could start delivering a variety of programming options to “subscribers.”
By the early ’60s, there were around 800 cable systems that had over 850,000 subscribers, with names like Westinghouse, TelePrompTer, and Cox starting to invest heavily in the business. In the ’70s, FCC regulations relaxed that restricted the type of programming the systems could deliver to their subscribers.
This is when the Cable TV industry really began to blossom. Subscribers could watch sporting events they normally didn’t have access to. Cable systems were able to start delivering new(er) movies to their subscribers. Times were good for viewers and system owners alike.
Around this time, the Cable TV industry started using satellites to move the TV signals around more readily and the explosion of networks we know now began, with HBO and Ted Turner’s WTBS “Superstation” being the first to hit the satellite airwaves.
The Explosion of Cable TV Networks
Almost anyone my age or older and has taken a look at the programming options that are available to Cable TV subscribers today is probably stupefied over the number of channels that we have to choose from. However, this explosion was relatively slow and subtle. First, we saw ESPN and CNN, then there were more, and more. Now, many of these networks have multiple options: ESPN, ESPN1, ESPN2, and ESPN3, as well as ESPN in multiple languages. Even HBO, the original, now has multiple options.
Approximately 20 years ago, we started seeing Cable TV networks convert their signals from the old analog to digital. Picture and audio quality started improving. Once we were used to the digital signals, they switched up and started offering programming in high definition. Now, for those of us with mobile devices, we can even take out HD Cable programming with us as we move around.
HBO: My First “Non-Broadcast” TV Network
I was in high school when my mom and dad brought home a box of parts and told me to help install it. Up on the roof I went to clamp something that looked like a broken pie tin with a pointer in the middle to the pole that supported the TV antenna on the roof, hook up a piece of cable to it and toss it off the roof and into the house to the TV. On top of the TV set, there was a small tuner that the wire from the roof was plugged into.
When we wanted to watch HBO, we turned the tuner on and turned the tuning dial until the picture cleared up. We didn’t always get the clearest of pictures, depending on the weather conditions, but we had HBO! I could invite my friends over to watch movies and go swimming, instead of having to ride our bikes across several busy streets to go to the movies.
Go check out the National Cable Television Association, NCTA site, it makes for some interesting reading and details the complete American cable television history in much more detail. There’s a bit of anti-regulatory propaganda embedded in the story, but, all in all, it makes for an informative read. There are also some informative pages that may help you figure out some of the more cryptic charges on your Cable TV bill.
What’s the next big step in the evolution of Cable television history? Only time will tell. Stay tuned.
Photo Credit: Baslev