Out of the Vast Wasteland

The early years of public access cable television in New York City
by Leah Churner  posted June 18, 2009
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This is the first of two articles on the evolution of public access cable television in New York. Part 2 can be found here.

After decades of sawing away, the government finally severed the analog umbilical cord last Friday. The specific calendar date was arbitrary, as ceremonial as a knighting, bestowing official obsolescence on iconic junk: the cathode ray tube, the rooftop antenna, rabbit ears, and the VCR. Although anticipated by some media fanfare, in the form of public service announcements (“YOUR TELEVISION WILL GO DARK ON JUNE 12, 2009”) and portraits of crestfallen senior citizens posing with doily-draped, ’50s furniture-TVs in the newspaper, the analog apocalypse failed to galvanize New York in the manner of the 2008 Superbowl and Election. A few more CRTs littered the sidewalks than usual that day, and by some reports, J&R Music and Computer World by City Hall looked like a Bosch hellscape, but so does everything else below Chambers Street on a given afternoon. Everybody was home watching cable.

New York was the first American city to tangle with cable. The island was wired in 1970, and a fraction of its population has always refused to subscribe, relying on antennas for their television because they are too old, too poor, or just too cheap to make the switch. Opting for analog VHF over cable was never an aesthetic choice, like preferring film to video, or phonographs to mp3s; nobody champions rabbit-ear technology as a superior system to coaxial cable. So it’s remarkable that analog broadcasting held out as long as it did—as early as 1961, the broadcasters were suing cable companies for siphoning off and selling their copyrighted content and lobbying the FCC for protection. In 1964, a group calling itself the Citizens' Committee for Free TV launched an anti-cable advertising campaign. In one commercial, a masked burglar tiptoed into the living room of a little old lady and stole her set as she flailed in a rocking chair, with the message "SAVE FREE TV."

Of course, the concerned "citizens" of that committee were the National Association of Broadcasters, who feared "Pay TV" would offer better sports programming than network television, and the motion picture distributors who saw the danger of small-screen distribution of first-run movies. Cable wasn't endangering the elderly (think about the die hard TV watchers you know—are they not AARP-cardholders who subscribed to basic cable in the '80s?), but it was threatening the broadcasters. Like digital TV, it offered a bottom-line bandwidth advantage. For the cost of broadcasting 12 channels over the air, cable could transmit 30—more than doubling the channel capacity of the available spectrum. This allowed the government to recoup a portion of the airwaves for emergency systems and sell off the rest. As with HDTV, the image quality was better in cable, too.

"Pay TV" began as "Community Antenna Television," an ad-hoc solution to the fundamental inadequacy of terrestrial analog broadcast. The story begins in the late '40s, in the coal-rich mountains of Carbon County, Pennsylvania, where a man named Robert J. Tarlton ran a radio shop. Tarlton, who had served as a communications technician in Italy during World War II, found himself with an inventory of useless TV sets, since the topography of the town prevented locals from getting a signal with a rooftop antenna. He conceived of a retransmission apparatus that could relay television signals via wire, and installed a mammoth antenna on an unobstructed peak, stringing a wire over poles, down the mountain, and into his shop. Not only did the TVs work, but the picture was better than it would have been in Dallas or Chicago—suddenly he could count Milton Berle's eyelashes. Tarlton sold the sets, along with an initial charge for wiring his customers' homes and a subsequent monthly service fee. Through the ‘50s,
enterprising mom-and-pop outfits erected these systems in rural regions all over the country. In turn, cable tycoons called Multiple System Operators, with space-age names like TelePrompTer, Sterling Information Services and Teleglobe Cosmotronics, bought them out.

All three of those operators had their sights on Manhattan, where the tall buildings were interfering with reception. Black-and-white signals had always been robust, but color signals were no match for the skyscrapers—people living two blocks from the Rainbow Room couldn't make out the hues of NBC's peacock logo. The island had to be wired, under the streets, in order to sell color TVs. In 1970, after a decade-long courtship (during which one suitor, TelePrompTer, was sued by CBS for copyright infringement), Manhattan awarded 20-year franchises to two companies, Sterling and TelePrompTer, dividing the island between them. TelePrompTer took the top half, above 86th Street, and Sterling, which later changed its name to Manhattan Cable, took 86th Street and below. (Many neighborhoods didn't get wired for another 15 years, and the outer boroughs were not part of the equation.) Each would pay $30,000 in annual royalties. Subscribers paid $5 and got all the regular channels in color, plus Channel 10, the “flagship” station of the cable company, which offered about 12 hours of programming a day, including Knicks and Rangers games, uncut and uninterrupted foreign movies, a weekly show produced by New York magazine, and generic infotainment choices, such as “Everglades Safari,” "Saltwater Fishing," and “Land of a Thousand and One Cheeses.”

The history of cable access TV, a forum best known today as the freakshow forefather of YouTube, is a tale of bastardized intentions that begins with the "vast wasteland" thesis. In his oft-quoted 1961 speech, FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow told the National Association of Broadcasters, in so many words, that it was their fault the Soviets were winning the space race. Television, he charged, was to blame for the passivity, blandness, laziness, and stupidity of Americans, a nation of couch potatoes, drinking from an incessant faucet of sounds and images, with no ability or incentive to retain information or talk back. With a handful of channels, all watered down to be pleasing to everybody, challenging viewpoints were mere tokens and freedom of speech was in atrophy. He called for an overhaul of programming to make the landscape more diverse, but with the VHF signal limited to 12 channels, this was unlikely.

Two major books were published on the revolutionary potential of cable as an interactive medium a decade later. Michael Shamberg’s Guerrilla Television (1971) and Ralph Lee Smith’s The Wired Nation (1972) prophesied cable's transformation of the shoddy one-way road of traditional broadcasting into an “information highway.” A direct connection between two points, coaxial cable had real potential for two-way communication. Not only would cable topple the oligarchy of ABC, CBS, and NBC; it would allow viewers to interact with the screen—to shop, to bank from home, to vote in polls, and to order the programs of their choice. Smith and Shamberg also pointed out the logical conclusion of cable's infinitely expandable cornucopia of channels: one day, every American would have his or her own TV show.

Manhattan was really avant-garde at that point: not only was it already wired, it had established the world's first public access channels. Under the terms of the franchise, Sterling and TelePrompTer agreed to pay $30,000 to the city in annual royalties apiece, and also consented to reserve two channels for the direct participation of the public. The cable companies would provide studio space, training, equipment, and airtime for free, to anyone who wanted it, on a first-come, first-served basis. Other than a ban on advertising, patrons would enjoy full First Amendment protection, with no restrictions on content. The New York Times hailed cable access as a landmark civic experiment with nationwide ramifications, and indeed, here was an opportunity to transform a mass medium of one-way communication into an electronic democracy. By opening up airtime for community dialogue, access would infuse every home (or at least every cable subscriber's home) with messages from the rainbow melting pot. Channels C and D premiered one year after the start of the franchise, in 1971. Activists George Stoney and Theodora Sklover founded nonprofit organizations (the Alternate Media Center at New York University and Open Channel, respectively) to promote the use of the channels as a platform for fringe speech. 

The fringe showed up—frayed, batty, self indulgent, ready-to-hit-the-big-time sidewalk caricatures of New York City. With its low production values and hypnotic banality, public access harnessed opaque mysteries of human nature never before seen on television. An anthropologist named J. Enos, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, marveled at the strange behavior of the stars of public access. In his dissertation, Public Access Cable TV in New York City 1971-1975, he described a program on Channel C called Sharon Hanson With Love:

Sharon would talk to a restaurant owner and promote his particular establishment, then talk to two people about the power and importance of the I Ching, without ever explaining what the I Ching is or how it works, then finally she would get up and dance in a manner which was neither provocative sexually nor artistically stylized.

Enos conducted several public opinion polls. He found only 35 percent of cable subscribers, and 27 percent of non-subscribers "correctly identified access channels," while 76 percent of subscribers and 56 percent of non-subscribers admitted to having watched public access. Non-subscribers were more likely than subscribers to "believe cable programs can help solve community problems," while the inverse was true for "personal problems." A combined 70 percent of New Yorkers identified the primary motivation of public access producers as the yen for money, fame, or ego satisfaction. Not only were they shameless strivers, according to his sample; their shows were boring and displayed no concern for the "needs of the audience."

In a 1973 report to the mayor, The Wired Island: The First Two Years of Public Access to Cable Television in Manhattan, David Othmer described a typical day on public access:

Technical quality ranges from excellent to abysmal. Some programs are so flawed they are literally painful to watch—the picture is muddy, lines constantly flash across the screen, snow dominates. Others cannot be distinguished from network productions. The viewer seldom knows what is coming next or how long he many have to wait for it...there may be a 15 minute break between [shows], with only a "Public Access C" logo on the screen. At times a program may start and be cut off halfway through—sometimes to be continued shortly, sometimes never to appear again.

Viewers frequently complained about poor image quality, which wasn't the fault of the cable company. Most of the shows arrived at the station on half-inch open-reel video, the consumer-grade Portapak format, which had never been used in television production before. (The format is also chemically unstable and difficult to copy, and as a result most of the early public access shows mentioned here have disappeared. Print sources are the only records of their existence.) Journalists, for their part, expressed boredom and disappointment: “Nearly four months after it began its widely heralded experiment in electronic democracy, Public Access Television is barely mumbling in the variegated community accents for which it was designed,” said The New York Times.

Then, in 1973, a Yugoslavian-born artist caused a scandal, making a name for himself as the first celebrity of public access. “Danny F. was about to put a light bulb coated with Vaseline up Sami M’s ass when my television screen went blank,” wrote Richard Robinson in The Village Voice. The program, Anton Perich Presents, appeared on Channel C on the evening of Sunday, February 4, 1973. It was the first time such an activity had been televised and also the first time a public access tape was censored (people claiming First Amendment rights are still subject to obscenity and libel laws). The Times took the tone of an Old West “Wanted” bill, listing Perich’s associates (“several persons identified with Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory,’ including Taylor Mead and the transvestite who calls himself Candy Darling”) and elaborating on the group’s offenses (they “exposed themselves, shamelessly groped at one another and turned the air blue with their language”). Perich responded, “TelePrompTer asks me, ‘Is it art?’ I say, no. It is satire, scandal.” Whatever it was, it was a preview of things to come.

In 1976, the cable companies added a third public access outlet: Channel J, the world’s first “leased access channel,” wherein producers could purchase weekly time slots at a bargain rate ($50/hour) and advertise. In theory, J would be a stepping stone to the commercial cable stations: given the opportunity to subsidize their own efforts, talented performers would rise to the surface and go on to produce original programs for the content-starved stations. As it turned out, J was a benchmark in the annals of adult entertainment, arriving slightly before the invention of home video and porn pay-per-view, as the first outlet for sex on the small screen. J was a pornographer's dream, as the Internet would be later: entrepreneurs could provide a discreet, in-home service with low overhead costs, sell plenty of ads, reach a potential audience in the tens of thousands, and remain immune to FCC censorship. The era of public smut (the porn theater, the peep show, the incriminating magazine stash) was coming to an end. 

To 21st century eyes, Channel J’s cavalcade is an untapped pop-culture goldmine: The Ugly George Hour (precursor to Girls Gone Wild, hosted by a man in a silver-lame suit attached to a Portapak rig), Interludes After Midnight (the nude talk show for swingers), and Al Goldstein’s Midnight Blue. Ridiculously naughty and slightly sad, such a lineup proves how completely the neurotic, political spirit of the sexual revolution fizzled out in this city after AIDS and the Giuliani municipal cleanup, only to be replaced by such comparatively lame fetishes as local food, pharmacology, and eco-totes. 

After running Midnight Blue on Channel C for a year, Goldstein got in on the ground floor at J, operating there from 1976 to 1990. He and his co-producer, radio celebrity Alex Bennett, made one show a week and booked it three times a week at midnight. For each airing, they lined up 10 advertisers at a cost of $350 per minute—and still managed to lose money in the tens of thousands of dollars. Blue, which Goldstein described as “an erotic 60 Minutes,” teetered on the far end of a hard R. (The host frequently reminded viewers that if they wanted dirty stuff, they’d have to go to the newsstand and buy a copy of his magazine, Screw.) Common elements of the show were performances by strippers of both sexes, visits to the swingers’ disco Plato’s Retreat, intimate interviews with porn stars, Annie Sprinkle’s consumer guide to sex toys, and, most important, the classifieds.

The media uproar about the "Craigslist Killer" is mistaken in crediting that website with the invention of the electronic brothel—that honor goes to Goldstein, who put hard-sell hooker commercials on TV. The advertisements in the back of Screw had made him a rich man, and he sought to replicate that lucrative model on cable. During a typical commercial break, a vague ripoff of Blondie’s “Atomic” plays over stills of a Debbie Harry lookalike, accompanied by a flashing phone number and the words “HOURLY FROM $110.” Next, oddly enough, a spot for Sammy’s Romanian Steakhouse on Chrystie Street.

Time-Life Inc., the majority owner of Manhattan Cable (formerly Sterling Manhattan), was mortified. Two months after the launch of J, the cable company imposed a "ban on obscenity," facilitating the temporary suspension of Midnight Blue. "The show may be ribald, but it's not obscene," Alex Bennett told the Wall Street Journal. He also threatened legal action and predicted that the ban would result in a drop in subscriptions for the cable company. Manhattan Cable was ultimately unable to can the lewdness, hampered by the loose language of the 1970 franchise agreement. New York State law decreed that cable companies had no liability for, and hence no right to censor, the content of public access shows, even if they were deemed obscene. On the other hand, the FCC insisted that cable operators should establish policies to prevent obscene material from appearing on their stations. The franchise offered no clarification on these conflicting strictures, stating that “cable companies can only censor to conform with the applicable law” without specifying which law was applicable. Moreover, the cable access shows, which were all softcore anyway, had the First Amendment on their side.

If Midnight Blue wasn't what the cable crusaders had in mind when they embarked on their experiment in electronic democracy, at least it provoked debate. But it fell short in terms of fulfilling cable's potential as a communications medium, because it was still a one-way street. Like mainstream programs, it was pre-taped. Escorts were certainly standing by during the show, presumably at their apartments, but you couldn't interact with them with your TV, nor could you call up Al Goldstein and discuss the Second Avenue Deli live on the air.

As long as Manhattan was the only city with public access channels, the cable company could afford to refuse access to live studio facilities. However, in the late 1970s, a new era of nationwide wiring began. Carried by a national frenzy over interactive television, denizens of C, D, and J started pumping their fists and chanting for live TV, and they got it. 


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Leah Churner is a film/video archivist and curator. She curated the series "Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s" at Anthology Film Archives.

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