Friday A/V Club: The Campaigns Against Cable TV

Movie theaters warn: Pay TV is a monster!


The early development of cable TV was famously hobbled by the broadcasters' lobby, which fought hard to keep the cable competition from emerging. But the broadcasters weren't alone: Owners of movie theaters worried they'd lose business if people could watch more films at home. As Glenn Garvin wrote recently in Reason,

Subscription Television, you were too beautiful for this world.
Subscription Television Inc.

a California outfit called Subscription Television Inc….offered a three-channel system featuring major-league baseball, first-run films, and a handful of tony cultural and educational programs. Put together by Pat Weaver, the disgruntled former NBC programmer who invented both the Today and Tonight shows, Subscription Television created so much buzz during its few months on the air in 1964 that it triggered the greatest Hollywood miracle since Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea: America's TV executives and movie-theater operators, blood enemies from birth, united to make war on the newcomer. Running ads with headlines like "This Could Be the Last World Series on Free TV," they launched a pogrom that ended with a public referendum outlawing pay TV in California.

The spectacle of industries using the ballot box to outlaw competitors without even the faintest pretext of nobler purpose was so appalling that Time was moved to wonder if it would become a regular feature of the American economy: "A united front of gluemakers, for example, might collect enough votes to ban the manufacture of Scotch tape. Chrysler could war on General Motors. Whichever collected the fewest votes would die a corporate death." Courts would eventually overturn the referendum, but by then Subscription Television's contractors and investors were gone with the regulatory wind.

In 1969, theater owners went on another "Save Free TV" crusade, lobbying congressmen for protection and showing anti-cable clips before features. Here's an artifact of that campaign:

The most transparently disingenuous line: "Pay TV and cable TV companies are seeking the right to charge you for the very programs you now get free!" Right. That's how companies planned to make money from cable: by persuading people to pay for shows they could already watch without paying. Not by offering them programs they otherwise couldn't see.

Bonus links: If you think these protectionist crusades are just a thing of the past, wise up here. For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.