support has been the foundation for American broadcast television
since the industry's beginnings. It is worth noting, however, that
many experiments with direct viewer payment for television programs
also have taken place throughout television history. The idea for
pay television (also known variously as "toll" or "subscription"
television) actually dates to television experiments of the 1920s
and 1930s (at which point the method of financing a national television
system had not yet been determined) and can be traced through various
developmental stages leading up to modern satellite-carried pay
cable program services.
pay television systems have been proposed over the years. Some have
been designed to transmit programming to subscribers' homes over
the air, typically on underutilized UHF frequencies. Other systems
have been designed to transmit by wire, sometimes wires shared by
community antenna or cable TV systems. Various methods have been
tested for ordering pay TV programming and descrambling the electronic
the proliferation of modern satellite-delivered pay-cable program
services, only a small portion of the many planned pay TV systems
ever reached the experimentation stage. Fewer still were used commercially.
Economics certainly have had an impact on the fortunes of pay TV,
as has the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) recurring hesitation
to approve the systems. Even when the Commission actually granted
permission for testing, final approval for commercial use tended
to take many years. Furthermore, no fewer than six major FCC rulings
on pay TV have been handed down over the years, only to be amended
in subsequent decisions. Regulators have been aware of ongoing opposition
to the various forms of pay TV on the part of commercial broadcasters
and networks, movie theater owners, citizens groups, and other constituencies.
In 1949, Zenith Radio Corporation petitioned the FCC for permission
to test an over-the-air pay system called Phonevision. The test
was run in 1951 with a group of 300 households in Chicago over a
period of 90 days. Phonevision was a system of pay television that
used telephone lines for both program ordering and decoding of its
scrambled broadcast signal.
In 1953, Skiatron Electronics and Television Corporation tested
a different over-the-air system, "Subscriber-Vision," that used
IBM punch cards for billing and descrambling. The programming was
transmitted on New York independent station WOR during off-hours.
in 1953, the International Telemeter Corporation, partly owned by
Paramount Pictures, launched a combination community antenna and
wired pay TV operation in Palm Springs, California. Broadcast signals
from Los Angeles were delivered without charge, and subscribers
paid for additional programming through coin boxes attached to their
television sets. This system lasted through 1955.
"Telemovies" system was launched in 1957 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma
by Video Independent Theatres (VIT). Telemovies offered a first-run
movie channel and a rerun movie channel. The movies originated from
a downtown studio, and, in the case of the first-run selections,
were shown concurrently in VIT's local movie theaters. Telemovies
charged a flat monthly rate rather than a per-program fee. After
undergoing several changes, including the addition of community
antenna service, the system ceased operations in summer 1958.
the late 1950s, in the wake of the much-publicized failure of the
Bartlesville system, International Telemeter announced its latest
coin-box system--designed to use either wires or broadcast signals
to transmit programming. The site chosen for a test of a wired version
of the system was Etobicoke, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, under
the auspices of Paramount's Canadian movie theater subsidiary. Service
began there on 26 February 1960, with 1,000 subscribers, and continued
29 June 1962, two years after its petition for an experimental license
had been filed with the FCC, a Phonevision system was launched in
Hartford, Connecticut. By this point, Phonevision had become a joint
venture between RKO and Zenith. Phonevision programming was broadcast
on WHCT, a UHF station licensed specifically for the Phonevision
trial. Although it never made a profit, the Hartford experiment
ran through 31 January 1969 and the system won FCC approval for
nationwide use in 1970.
Television Inc. (STV) was launched in July 1964 and continued through
November of that year--a short-lived but nonetheless highly touted
pay TV system. STV was the heir (through a complicated series of
stock transactions) to Skiatron's over-the-air system. The two major
figures behind STV were Skiatron's Matthew Fox and former adman
and NBC executive Sylvester L. (Pat) Weaver. STV had built wire
networks in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the company planned
eventually to wire major cities as well as to incorporate existing
CATV systems. While STV's three channels offered a mixture of sports,
movies, children's programs and theatrical performances--typical
of most pay TV systems--it was baseball that provided the foundation
for its programming.
wired and over-the-air pay television systems were launched in the
1970s. In 1977, over-the-air systems were started in Newark, N.J.,
by Wometco-Blonder-Tongue (over station WWHT) and in Corona (Los
Angeles), California, by Chartwell Communications (over station
KBSC). By 1980, eight others were in operation, with an additional
16 stations authorized and ready to launch. These over-the-air systems
were developing concurrently with satellite-delivered cable program
services, however, and were not able to compete with the wired medium
once it became available in major urban areas.
the early 1970s, cable had become the preferred vehicle for pay
television, with most startup pay ventures seeking to run their
services on local cable systems. Since the early 1950s, cable operators
had been experimenting with channels of locally originated programming
for their systems. While not directly a form of pay TV, these experiments
suggested the possibility that cable could offer more than simply
retransmitted broadcast signals--a potential not lost on pay TV
most notable early pay-cable operation was Home Box Office, which
launched in 1972 by providing cable systems with pay programming
via microwave relays in the Northeast. When HBO took its program
service to satellite in 1975, it gained the potential to reach virtually
any cable system in the United States. Other pay-cable program services
were to follow, including Showtime, The Movie Channel, and others.
Gould, Jack, "Pay-as-You-See TV -- The ABC's of the Controversy,"
New York Times (New York), 19 June 1955.
Howard, H.H., and S.L. Carroll. Subscription Television: History,
Current Status, and Economic Projections. Knoxville: University
of Tennessee, 1980.
also Cable Networks; Pay-Per-View Cable; United States: Cable