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Channeling cable’s past

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 11:18pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer

The long warfare between the cable and broadcast television industries – bruising battles around must-carry rules, retransmission consents, copyright mandates – obscures a fundamental consensus. Cable providers have always embraced a mainstay of the broadcasting world: the concept of a TV “channel.”

Video and audio information packed into 6 MHz of government-designated RF spectrum has long defined the playing field for cable. The original idea for community antenna television (CATV) was to retransmit existing overthe- air TV channels to homes in the hinterlands. Early cable pioneers openly accepted this existing framework as they devised ways to capture and distribute existing TV channels over coaxial cable.

Even the rhetoric of cable’s developmental days borrowed freely from existing broadcasting lexicon. Here’s cable technology pioneer Milton Shapp, the founder of Jerrold Electronics, talking about maximizing the channel capacity of CATV systems, in a conversation with Edward Bellamy, the author of the 1960 book "Looking Backward": “We started with three channels, then went to five, then to seven and then we went to 13. I remember when we went to seven channels.

There was no doubt in our mind that was all we were ever going to need. I mean, who wants more than seven?”

Channels, channels, channels. The urge to accommodate more of them drove almost every important advancement in cable technology and electronics: transistorized amplifiers that could inject power over broader frequency ranges, set-top converters that could capture signals from a wider RF spectrum, satellite receiving dishes that could fetch channels from the sky.

Taking a broadcast television concept and inflating it into something more was the formula behind a virtuous cycle where more channels produced more customers, more customers produced more revenue, and more revenue was plowed back into the creation of more channels that attracted more customers. You can see the progression in the trajectory of cable channel capacities in the U.S. In 1979 two-thirds of the nation’s cable systems still topped out at 12 channels. Six years later the range was 30 to 55, a product of cable’s original programming boom that began in the late 1970s with the launch of ESPN and other national cable networks.

A 1984 advertisement in cable trade publications by the converter manufacturer Tocom captured the vibe of the moment, trumpeting a breakthrough of “450 MHz operation with 66 channel capability.” That same summer, cable companies vying for big-city franchise rights were pushing the concept of 550 MHz systems that could deliver 80-plus television channels.

By 1995, according to an analysis of Warren Publishing data reproduced in Patrick Parsons’ 2008 book "Blue Skies," 14 percent of U.S. cable systems had broken past the 54-channel mark.

Shortly after that, video processing would blow up previous channel capacity models by squeezing as many as 12 television channels into the 6 MHz of space previously occupied by just one. Liberty Media chairman (and then Tele-Communications Inc. President and CEO) John Malone pronounced the opening of this new era of plenty, famously declaring in 1992 that the cable system of the future would deliver not 50 channels, but 500.

Throughout this progression, the one constant has been the notion of a channel – an understood concept for organizing content in a contained and identifiable package.

Even if cable had succeeded in redefining the amount of spectrum needed to transmit one of the things, the idea remained the same. AMC was a channel. CNN was a channel. The local WB-affiliated TV station was a channel. So was MTV Ritmo, part of a seven-channel digital multiplex suite MTV Networks introduced in 1997.

Much has been written about the supposed demise of the channel in a world where music videos, sports highlights and even scripted TV shows can be summoned as discrete experiences over TVs, smartphones and tablets. Yet the motif still prevails. Even YouTube, spouter of millions of individual videos, organizes its professionally produced partner content into “channels.” So does Fullscreen, the online-original video platform that’s now said to be attracting keen interest from possible buyers.

It’s true that the linear characteristic of TV channels – programs appearing only at prescribed intervals of time – may be waning. But the idea of the television channel as a brand, or a connective tissue for like-minded content, is still very much in vogue. Jerrold’s Milton Shapp had it right when he seized on the concept of a TV channel as the measuring stick for cable’s delivery prowess. He was wrong only about how many of them we’d need.

 

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