In its short, six-decade history, the cable television industry has dramatically changed the way people are entertained and communicate. The Cable Center's chronicle of the cable industry is generally split into three distinct generations: the pioneers, the programmers, and the innovators. Each generation has been dominated by an entrepreneurial spirit that exists to this day and will continue to impact consumers' lives for decades to come.
"The cable industry is just... a great American success story," says Jerry Kent, chairman/CEO of Suddenlink Communications and current board chair of The Cable Center. "We started with pioneers who used bootstrap financing to build out the cable infrastructure of the U.S. and we continued to use advances in technology, like satellite, to deliver enhanced programming."
Cable's First Generation legacy started in 1948, when a few enterprising businessmen strung coaxial cable in their towns to deliver TV signals not available otherwise. John Walson Sr. hooked up customers to his makeshift cable system when they purchased a television set from his appliance store in Mahoney City, Penn. "One of the best American stories to be told about cable entrepreneurs is that they brought television in homes that never had accessibility to it," says Italia Commisso Weinand, Mediacom Communications Corp.'s executive vice president of programming/human resources.
In his Cable Center oral history interview, Walson said, "One of the things that got me interested in going into cable TV in a large way, was the crowd that gathered in front of my store when I brought the three channels [from New York City] down on an experimental basis in 1948. When I first put those three channels on, the street was completely blocked with viewers; people watching the pictures in the window."
Meanwhile, Ed Parsons built a signal boosting device so he and his wife, Grace, could watch TV at home. They were the most popular people in Astoria, Ore. − all their neighbors crammed into the Parsons' living room every night to watch shows like "Actors Studio" and "Ed Sullivan's, Toast of the Town". Parsons was soon stringing cables to his neighbors' homes so they could watch TV.
Jim Davidson built a 100-foot tower on the roof of his building in Tuckerman, Ark., and connected his first cable customer who agreed to pay $150 for equipment installation and $3 a month for one Memphis TV signal, according to Davidson's Cable Center oral history. Dozens of similar systems were soon popping up all over the country.
It was the birth of an industry that today serves 54 million video customers, 52 million broadband customers and 27 million telephone customers, according to the National Cable Telecommunications Association (NCTA). "The cable industry isn't your grandfather's cable business anymore," Kent says.
The Second Generation of the cable industry got under way when Charles Dolan teamed up with Time Inc. to start Home Box Office (HBO), which launched on Nov. 8, 1972 in 325 Wilkes-Barre, Penn. − homes served by Walton's Service Electric Cable TV & Communications. Programming tapes were initially mailed or delivered via microwave.
But big changes were ahead. Scientific Atlanta Inc. CEO, Sid Topol, and TelePrompTer co-founder, Hub Schlafly, astounded the industry during the 1973 NCTA Show with their demo of the first portable satellite receiver designed to grab TV signals. Robert Rosencrans, who owned UA-Columbia Cablevision at the time, was the first operator to buy one of the 10-meter dishes that cost $100,000. Despite the extremely high price tag, other operators followed Rosencrans' lead. On Dec. 13, 1975 HBO began delivering its signal via satellite, which changed the industry forever.
A young maverick named Ted Turner put his small, independent Atlanta-based TV station WTCG-TV (later known as TBS) on the satellite in 1976. Four years later, he launched Cable News Network (CNN), saying at the time: "We won't be signing off until the world ends." Today, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. has over 160 channels in 200+ countries.
The Second Generation was certainly heady times for the cable industry. John Hendricks launched Discovery Channel; Bob Johnson created Black Entertainment Television; Brian Lamb started C-SPAN; and Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment created a slate of channels including Nickelodeon and MTV (Music Television). In 1980, there were 28 national networks, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. After Congress deregulated the cable industry in 1984, the number of programming networks exploded. By 1990, there were 79 national networks. Today, that number is over 900, according to the NCTA.
To accommodate the explosion in content, operators upgraded their networks. But, excessive rate hikes and customer complaints led Congress to re-regulate the industry in 1992. However, four years later Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 creating a new competitive landscape that gave birth to the latest generation of cable industry entrepreneurs and corporations.
Pivotal events went into high gear in 1997 and ushered in the Third Generation of Cable. Comcast Corporation's president, Brian Roberts, convinced Microsoft Inc. CEO, Bill Gates, to invest $1 billion in Comcast. Gates' support spurred other investments, which resulted in technological upgrades and new services. The first substantial residential broadband service -- @Home Network enabled operators to deliver high-speed Internet access to their customers. Today, the cable industry boasts almost as many broadband customers as video subscribers. Indeed, as consumers become more mobile and Internet-based video options flourish, experts expect the number of broadband customers to exceed the number of video customers in the next few years.
"Over the past 15 to 20 years, the cable industry has brought so many new innovations to the American public," says ARRIS Group, Inc. chairman/CEO, Robert Stanzione. "Probably the most important one in recent years has been the Internet [broadband service]."
As the Third Generation progresses, cable operators continue to upgrade and expand their services and programmers continue to magnify their content offerings to satiate consumers' appetites. The cable industry remains at the forefront of delivering entertainment, data and communications to the vast majority of Americans in ways never imagined when Walson, Parsons and Davidson were wiring their communities 66 years ago. Assuredly, the pace of innovation will continue at this breakneck speed for years to come.
"The cable entrepreneurs are the ones who built the pipe," Commisso Weinand says. "They are the ones who built the highway to the future that we live in today."