Wave of the future 

11 November 2014 tbs.pm/5192


Cable and satellite – “multichannel” – broadcasting has been with us so long that we forget that it had to start somewhere.

While cable has never really caught light in the UK, it was always important in the United States. The US has the twin problem, for television broadcasting and reception, of having its population spread out with huge, empty spaces between them – hours upon hours of driving time to get from one midwest city to another. On the other hand, where the population does gather, it gathers tight, building upwards and living cheek-by-jowl with neighbours in highrises and compact communities in each city block.

Over-the-air television reaches the dispersed population of the middle of the country with difficulty. Long distances reduce the picture quality and invite interference. But in the cities, it is no better – the people have nowhere to put their aerials and what the can receive indoors has often “bounced” from block to block, leading to shadowing and yet more interference. Additionally, broadcasters in the States tend to own their own masts – unlike in Europe where the government usually built the broadcasting infrastructure. This means that changing channel can sometimes involve moving the aerial as well as moving the dial.

Cable is the answer to both of these problems. There’s no need for aerials, fixed or otherwise. There’s not much signal loss between broadcast and reception. A community can be quickly and easily added to the system without building a new mast and applying for an expensive new licence from the Federal Communications Commission.

And, above all, cable has bandwidth to spare. Most regions in the States were served by two high-power VHF services (usually NBC and CBS), one low-power VHF service (usually ABC) and a scattering of hard-to-receive, interference-prone UHF services (low budget independents, PBS and ABC filling in gaps). Cable brought NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS and the local independents direct to the viewer without distortion or aerial twiddling. There was also room for minority services in Spanish, or showing 24-hour religious programming, previously only to be found at the far end of the dial in low power.

But that was were it ended. Most viewers were satisfied with the five or six channels cable brought them – and only watched two most of the time anyway. They didn’t want extra services that they didn’t already have: who needs something new when you’re happy with what you’ve got? But, as in this TV Guide article from 1972, some people saw something bigger. With cable’s larger bandwidth, speciality channels could be launched. They would rely less on the tight, competitive advertising market that the three main networks had divided up between them and instead charge a small fee to unscramble to signal.

This article partially foresees this. Richard K Doan expects cable television of the future to be as much about local television and public access, which never really caught on – people will watch crap television, but not crappily-made television. But they will pay to see the New York Knicks and the Rangers live and uninterrupted by commercials directly from Madison Square Garden. As we would later find out, they would also pay for uninterrupted – and uncensored – movies from HBO and Showtime. They would pay to have 24-hour pop music from MTV and sports from ESPN.

The American people, it turned out, would pay for more television. In 1972, they just didn’t know they wanted to.

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Liverpool, Friday 12 July 2024