Is coin-in-the-slot TV the answer? 

6 July 2015

Completing our recent mini-series of articles from the 13 February 1954 edition of TV Mirror comes this piece by the BBC’s Senior Superintendent Engineer of Television, MJL Pulling OBE, MA, MIEE. He discusses a forthcoming test of pay-TV, a new idea requiring mechanical solutions in those pre-transistor days. – Russ J Graham, Editor in chief

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AMERICA has something like 25 million television receivers in use. A top-line evening programme may be viewed by 15 million or more people – say, a tenth of the total population. No wonder that American TV is a powerful advertising medium, and no wonder that makers of goods for a nationwide market are prepared to pay large sums for its use.

But television advertising on a national basis costs today ten times as much as in 1949, and advertisers’ pockets are not limitlessly deep. This may be the reason why some top-line programmes are now jointly sponsored by two or more advertisers.

There are experts in the United States who think that sheer cost may force some of these more expensive programmes off the air. At the same time it appears that top-ranking sporting events – baseball, collegiate football, the Kentucky Derby – are being increasingly withdrawn from television because TV is emptying the sports arenas and is affecting the finances of clubs and sporting promoters.

Paramount-British Productions Ltd. hope to give a demonstration of Telemeter in this country in the near future. Meanwhile, in this special composite picture, we show you how it would operate. The voice of the announcer tells you what is to be shown on the screen, but the picture remains "scrambled" until the viewing fee is inserted in the coin-box on top of the set.

Paramount-British Productions Ltd. hope to give a demonstration of Telemeter in this country in the near future. Meanwhile, in this special composite picture, we show you how it would operate. The voice of the announcer tells you what is to be shown on the screen, but the picture remains “scrambled” until the viewing fee is inserted in the coin-box on top of the set.

Colour will be costly

If this is happening while television is still in monochrome, what will happen when it goes into the far more alluring but far, far more expensive realm of colour?

These are some of the problems which confront the purveyors of television programmes in the U.S.A. – and television on the other side of the Atlantic consumes as much programme material every day as television in Britain does in a month.

But a new technique, which may have a profound effect on the situation, is being given a test in the romantically-named modem town of Palm Springs, 100 miles from Los Angeles in California. It amounts in effect, to a means whereby a television viewer has a coin-box in his home, into which he pays a fee which permits him – and his family – to see a programme which otherwise they would be unable to see.

It is thought that, in this way, money paid by the viewers themselves would cover the cost of first-class talent, whether in sport or in entertainment.

Any programme for which a fee is to be demanded is transmitted in such a way that the viewer who picks it up on a normal receiver sees only a jumbled and unintelligible picture.

The viewer who decides to install a coin-box, however, is a different case. Besides the coin-box, he also has an attachment to his receiver which, when the coins have been inserted, immediately clears the picture.

But before this, he will have heard on his loudspeaker an announcement – the “barker” as it is usually called – giving him details of the programme, its starting time and its cost. When the fee has been paid the picture clears and the voice of the barker is replaced by the programme sound.

If the viewer switches on after the programme has started, the barker will probably be heard telling him what stage the programme has reached, or in the case of a sporting event, such as a baseball game, how long the game has been in progress and possibly what the score is.

Then he can judge whether it is worth while to pay for the remainder – the amount to be paid will, of course, be the same at whatever stage in the proceedings he joins the programme.

Told by the tape

The coin-box is an ingenious device which accepts coins of four denominations, a nickel (5 cents), a dime (10 cents), a quarter dollar and a half dollar, and the fee can be paid in any combination of these coins.

If the viewer overpays, the coin-box takes note of the fact and credits the overpayment to the next “pay” programme the viewer decides to take. To make things easier for the forgetful, there is a small window in the coin-box which shows the fee to be paid and, as each coin is inserted, it shows the sum still remaining unpaid.

Inside the box, these is also a magnetic tape recorder on which is recorded, in code form, a signal which identifies both the programme viewed and the sum paid. At intervals of, say, a month, a collector will call and open the coin-box, removing the lower component which contains the accumulated cash and the tape record. He replaces this by a fresh one.

These lower compartments are brought back to headquarters where the money is removed and the magnetic tape record examined. The information derived from the tape shows which programmes the viewer paid to see, and how much he paid.

The experiment which is being carried out at Palm Springs is on a small scale, and the pay-as-you-view programmes are not being broadcast in the normal sense, but sent by wire.

This, and the reason for it, requires a little explanation. Palm Springs is a town of recent growth and with a population of about 10,000. The nearest television transmitters are on the top of Mount Wilson (of observatory fame) overlooking Los Angeles.

These are over 100 miles away, and the combination of extreme distance and intervening hills makes direct reception in Palm Springs a virtual impossibility. But the International Telemeter Corporation has set up a receiving station at the top of a hill a few miles outside the town, and at this vantage point the programmes from the Mount Wilson transmitters can be successfully picked up.

From then they are conveyed by cable to a point in the centre of the town. From here, the programmes are fed to individual homes by wire, a service for which the subscribers pay a rental. So far, the arrangement is in no way essentially different from that by which many listeners and viewers in this country and elsewhere receive their programmes by “relay.”

But now the wires which carry the normal television programmes relayed from Los Angeles, can also carry the pay-as-you-view programmes provided by the International Telemeter Corporation.

Foiling the pirates

These will consist in the first instance of films, which will be transmitted from the distribution centre in Palm Springs, outside broadcasts of sporting events and the like.

Naturally the Palm Springs experiment cannot on its own constitute a money-making proposition for either the International Telemeter Corporation, motion-picture producers or sporting promoters.

The next stage must clearly be to extend the system to normal television broadcasting. The technical problems are considerable, but are to all intents and purposes solved. They are principally concerned with the working out of a fool-proof means of “coding” (or ”scrambling”) the pictures at the transmitter and “decoding” them at the receiver.

“Coding” and “decoding” must be done in such a way as to defeat the clever fellows who will try and make a “decoder” which avoids the necessity of paying a fee into the coin-box.

Will it come to Britain?

But in America all forms of radio transmission are regulated by the State through a body known as the Federal Communications Commission, and in the sense that picture transmissions required by a pay-as-you-view system could not correspond to the approved American standards of television transmission, the Federal Communications Commission would have to sanction these special transmissions and they have not yet done so.

Does a pay-as-you-view system have any application to Great Britain? It’s very hard to say. The problems facing television in Britain have some features in common with those in America.

Although television is not yet so widespread here as there, it cannot help but appear as a menace to producers of first-grade films and the sponsors of important sporting events.

Pay-as-you-view could well transform television from their antagonist into a powerful money-making ally.

Editor’s note: The Palm Springs trials ended two months after this article appeared, having signed up less than 200 households and suffering from problems with distributors other than Paramount. The service restarted a few years later in Canada, where it was more successful, but folded in the mid-1960s. Similar over-the-air pay-TV services, without the coin-in-the-slot unit, would appear sporadically in the 1970s and 1980s in the US, including PRISM, Wometco and SuperTV, but it would take the arrival of HBO and the like on cable before pay-TV caught on. There were also some experiments in the UK, encouraged by the Post Office, but as in the US, these never took off.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Ewan Macdonald 10 July 2015 at 3:16 am

Ha, crazy technology for the time. It was never going to work, but love the composite image!

That said, in the United States coin-op TVs in public places like bus stations and airports, built into the armrest of seats, were used right through to the late 90s, although they peaked in the 70s/80s. These were all analog and the reception could be terrible, but nice to pass the time twisting the dial to find terrible local programming in places like Bangor, Maine. Sit down, put a dime in the slot, and enjoy!

Love the site, keep up the great work.

Andrew Bowden 29 July 2015 at 9:41 am

I do love the notion of people wandering around, collecting cash boxes out of peoples houses at regular intervals. Wonder how much collection costs amounted to as a proportion of the business.

Also have memories of staying in a B&B in the 1990s in Blackpool of all places, and finding the TV would only work if you put some money in a box! Can’t imagine you’d find that anywhere now.

Russ J Graham 29 July 2015 at 5:39 pm

I had a coin-in-the-slot TV from Granada when I was in college. Nobody ever came to empty it, so it got full of pound coins and I couldn’t get any more into it, thus rendering it useless. When I left those digs, I left the television behind. Always wondered what happened to it.

Joanne Gray 15 October 2015 at 7:09 pm

My grandparents rented a coin operated black and white telly in the 1970s from a North East company called Telebank and the mother of one of my schoolfriends had the job of emptying the coin boxes and arranging replacements and repairs for the Hartlepool area.

I can always remember my Grandad picking me up from nursery every lunchtime, a quick go on the swings in the park and a 2p ice lolly from the corner shop before back to their kitchen (they were of the last generation who lived in their kitchens “Jack and Vera” style, keeping the front room “for best”). While Grandma served up lunch, Grandad would put 10p in the slot amd the set would come on just in time for Rainbow, or Animal Kwackers or whatever Tyne Tees were showing for little kids that day. After that, Grandad would sit and listen to me read with the BBC 2 test card on in the background (that girl and her creepy clown doll scared the bejaysus out of me!)
until the racing came on for Nana (she put a bet on every day and had a love/hate affair with Red Rum throughout the 70s).

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