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Blue Skies

Blue Skies: A History of Cable Television

Patrick R. Parsons
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 816
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  • Book Info
    Blue Skies
    Book Description:

    Cable television is arguably the dominant mass media technology in the U.S. today.Blue Skiestraces its history in detail, depicting the important events and people that shaped its development, from the precursors of cable TV in the 1920s and '30s to the first community antenna systems in the 1950s, and from the creation of the national satellite-distributed cable networks in the 1970s to the current incarnation of "info-structure" that dominates our lives. Author Patrick Parsons also considers the ways that economics, public perception, public policy, entrepreneurial personalities, the social construction of the possibilities of cable, and simple chance all influenced the development of cable TV.Since the 1960s, one of the pervasive visions of "cable" has been of a ubiquitous, flexible, interactive communications system capable of providing news, information, entertainment, diverse local programming, and even social services. That set of utopian hopes became known as the "Blue Sky" vision of cable television, from which the book takes its title.Thoroughly documented and carefully researched, yet lively, occasionally humorous, and consistently insightful,Blue Skiesis the genealogy of our media society.

    eISBN: 978-1-59213-706-0
    Subjects: Business, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 The Evolution of a Revolution (Origins–1930s)
    (pp. 1-36)

    George Gardner was young, ambitious, and willing to take a chance. He was also cold, tired, and perhaps a little frustrated. The night sky above sparkled with stars and, to him, possibilities. Still, it had been a long, sweaty, dusty day, and he had not yet found that for which he had come searching in the night sky. Gardner and three friends had begun early at the base of Jacks Mountain just north of Lewistown, Pennsylvania. They carried the heavy equipment on their backs, trekking up the rocky slopes of the mountain, through the low brush, sometimes following old trails,...

  5. 2 Pioneering Efforts (1930s–1952)
    (pp. 37-76)

    The young man was focused and busy. He was clinging to the top of a power pole in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, on a sunny autumn day, working on the coaxial line for the community aerial that the Shen-Heights TV Association was running through town. He was new with the small company, just learning the tricky business of connecting cables, and he didn’t need unnecessary interruptions. He was a bit frustrated, therefore, when a couple from the neighborhood began shouting at him from the street below. They were spirited and didn’t look as if they would go away soon. His initial thought...

  6. 3 The Mom ‘n’ Pop Business (1951–1958)
    (pp. 77-121)

    Marty Malarkey was a young man managing a family business, Malarkey Music Co., in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. He sold musical instruments, sheet music, radios, and when he could, which was not often, TV sets. Pottsville is not far from Lansford and Mahanoy City, and the same hills that blocked TV signals from reaching those towns also stymied reception in Pottsville. In 1949, Malarkey took a business trip to New York City and happened to check into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The hotel, of course, had been equipped with a sophisticated radio master antenna system in 1930, and that system had subsequently been...

  7. 4 Abel Cable Goes to Washington (1950–1960)
    (pp. 122-169)

    The FCC was aware of community antenna television from the start. L. E. Parsons, of course, had written the FCC early on in his experiments, describing the technology, the results, and the prospects. He had actively, albeit unsuccessfully, sought approval for a broadcast retransmission system to replace his coaxial cable. While the agency rejected his request, it did send a field engineer to visit Parsons’ system. The engineer’s report ended up on the desk of a young FCC staff attorney. E. Stratford Smith would later become the NCTA’s chief legal counsel and first executive director, but he got his start...

  8. 5 Cable’s New Frontier (1960–1966)
    (pp. 170-231)

    If Al Malin was a little nervous, he had a right to be. He had received the standard introduction, the biography and small accolades, and now approached the podium to address the Ninth Annual Exhibit and Symposium of the National Community Television Association. As out-going president, it was his job to help heal the still bleeding political wounds, mostly self-inflicted, that the Association had sustained in the prior six months. Bruised egos and smoldering grudges were endemic. Moving the group ahead, after what he understatedly described as his “controversial year in office,” would be a tall order.

    It was June...

  9. 6 The Wired Nation (1966–1972)
    (pp. 232-296)

    It was a new vision: television programming on demand, teleconferencing, electronic banking, shopping, and health care assistance; an electronic town square dedicated to democratic discourse, the advancement of local and national governance; instant news, information, and educational opportunity. It was an electronic cornucopia of communications goods and services. It was the utopian ideal of communications technology. It was “the wired nation,” and the wired nation was the new model for cable television.

    It was a revolution not in the technology, but in the social meaning of the technology, and it arose with powerful and far-reaching effects in the mid- and...

  10. 7 The Cable Fable (1972–1975)
    (pp. 297-340)

    It was a story told by more than one cable executive and more than one banker, between 1973 and 1975. The cable company was in arrears; the lenders were demanding their money. The cable operator, saddled with a debt service that dwarfed cash flow, had no money to give them. Keys were dropping on conference tables across the country, as operators, with little real choice, were calling the bankers’ bluff. It usually worked, as it did with CPI’s Hughes and Fred Lieberman in 1975. Debt was restructured and operations continued, although in a few cases the lenders foreclosed and looked...

  11. 8 The Phoenix (1975–1980)
    (pp. 341-402)

    Irving Kahn looked out on the audience. It was the annual convention of the Texas Cable TV Association, February 27, 1975. He had been free from federal confinement for only a few months and this was his first public address in two years. He began:

    Now, as I was saying before I was interrupted … my name is Irving Kahn, my business is cable television, and I’m here to assure you that throughout the entire history of the Texas Cable Television Association, you have never had a speaker more pleased to be standing before you than the man you see...

  12. 9 Cablemania (1980–1984)
    (pp. 403-479)

    It was, as Yogi Berra famously put it, déjà vu all over again. Cable franchising activity, which had abated in the early 1970s, mushroomed in the last half of the decade and into the early 1980s. The tumbling of federal controls, the emergence of national cable programming, and the renewed flow of investment dollars meant that cable could try its luck once more in the major markets. Touting forty-, fifty-, and even eighty-channel or more systems carrying HBO, Showtime, ESPN, C-SPAN, and Nickelodeon, cable came back, pounding on the doors of city hall. Only the top MSOs had the resources...

  13. 10 The Cable Boom (1985–1992)
    (pp. 480-542)

    Just after 11:30 am on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle “Challenger” began its ascent from the launching pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It carried a crew of seven, including the nation’s first civilian astronaut, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. The booster and shuttle rose gracefully from the gantry, soaring spaceward, but at one minute into the flight, the shuttle burst into flame and exploded, as horrified crowds watch from the ground below. The launch was being televised live that morning and viewers across the nation, including McAuliffe’s students and colleagues, watched in shocked disbelief, then anguish. As it...

  14. 11 The Cable Cosa Nostra (1986–1992)
    (pp. 543-580)

    It was December 1986. In a matter of days, rate controls would come off and operators would be free to raise prices at will. Bill Daniels, the reigning godfather of cable television, was issuing a warning—do not abuse the privilege. Many operators paid heed. Many more did not.

    Rates began a steady uphill trek. The increases began outpacing inflation and consumers and lawmakers began to wince. Simple avarice was not the sole engine; costs were accelerating, especially for the new cable programming services. But the consumer saw only a swelling bill. Making matters worse, the average customer also discovered...

  15. 12 500 Channels (1992–1996)
    (pp. 581-635)

    In 1947, engineers working at Bell Laboratories created the first transistor. In the late 1950s, they developed methods to multiply the functions of many of these devices on a single silicon wafer, an integrated circuit, or chip. In 1968, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore founded Intel Development Corp. to improve and manufacture those chips. In 1975, a small businessman in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ed Roberts, placed an Intel chip at the heart of the first widely publicized personal computer, the Altair. Inspired by the Altair, two young computer enthusiasts, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, created and promoted the Apple computer....

  16. 13 “What’s Gonna Be Next?” (1997–2005)
    (pp. 636-700)

    Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, was having dinner with friends. The cable industry had about $38 billion in combined subscriber and advertising revenue in 1997. Gates himself was worth about $40 billion. Microsoft was awash in cash and Gates had $10 billion he did not quite know what to do with. One of the options was to put some of it into cable television and that was exactly what Brian Roberts, the young CEO of Comcast, had just suggested between bites. It was April 1997. Assembled at the table were Gates, Roberts, John Malone, Cox Communications head...

  17. Appendices
    (pp. 701-704)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 705-766)
  19. Index
    (pp. 767-804)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 805-806)