TREotM: The Early Eighties and the Rise of Cable

By TREotM Archives
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Chapter 10, Part 6

This is a work in progress. Be sure to read “The Revolutionary Evolution of the Media” from the beginning.

In 1980, TVHH penetration pushed to 97.9% penetration, or 76.3million.  Cable hit 19.2million subscribers connected to 4,225 systems.

Warner Cable built the world’s first interactive cable television system.  They called it Qube, and soon introduced a bunch of channels that included these soon-to-be necessary everywhere (for a time) channels: MTV, Nickelodeon and The Movie Channel.  At first, the channels were limited to Columbus, Ohio, but it wasn’t long before they were syndicated to other cable systems.  Qube did more.  The system, the first fully two-way, allowed subscribers to vote; and they (non-binding except for Qube questions about programming) voted on just about everything.  The polls presaged the everyday surveys from Internet companies such as Survey Monkey.

“Who shot J.R.?” kept fans of “Dallas” guessing all summer as the cliff-hanger that worked was shown in April … sort of answers came that fall.

At 5:00 pm EDT on June 1, 1980 at a former country club in Atlanta that housed Turner Broadcasting, Ted Turner turned on the Cable News Network … and noted it would never turn off.  The husband/wife team of Lois Hart and David Walker anchored the first news hour.  The service debuted on most major MSO systems.  Turner, ever marketing, soon decided the US shouldn’t have CNN to itself.  Recognizing that satellites could cover the world, too, Ted began licensing the service to major hotels around the world almost right away.  That eventually led to CNNI, or CNN International.

In September, Multichannel News – covering cable distributors, programmers and other vendors – launched; it quickly became one of Fairchild Publications (and CapCities) more profitable performers.  It debuted with an exclusive on the explosion of Satcom III.

IBM commissioned Microsoft to build an operating system for personal computers.  And we spent too many years in DOS before Windows opened.

Early in the year, NBC, which had first broadcast the Summer Games in 1964, obtained the rights for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow … but after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott Moscow … and NBC was limited to some spotty coverage for the few affiliates that carried it during newscasts.  NBC didn’t give up; they have carried the Summer Games since 1988 and the Winter Games since 2002 and hold the rights for both through 2020.

In March, the late night ABC news update became a half hour called Nightline anchored by Ted Koppel (it lasted with Ted until November 2005).   Back near Iran, on April 24, Operation Eagle Claw failed resulting in the death of eight servicemen, one Iranian civilian and the loss of two helicopters.  During the crisis, the students released 14; 52 stayed until Ronald Reagan began his inaugural speech that Iran released the hostages on January 20, 1981.

Back on hostage-taking day, six diplomats evaded capture and hid at the home of a Canadian diplomat under the protection of the Canadian ambassador.  In 2012, the motion picture Argo won Academy Awards for its somewhat fictionalized version of their escape.

Nightline had a lasting impression on America well beyond the defeat of President Jimmy Carter by challenger Ronald Reagan.  Firsts included the first live broadcasts from the upper base at Mount Everest; from Antarctica; a 4+ hour special town hall meeting on AIDS, the admission by Presidential Candidate Gary Hart that he had been unfaithful; the racial admissions made by LA Dodgers manager and 40-year employee Al Campanis (he was fired the following morning); and the reading, in 2003, of the American dead from the Iraq War (to which Sinclair Broadcasting objected the mere reading of the names was “politics”).

MTV launched nationally with a video of the Buggles performing “Video Killed the Radio Star.”  The first home modem debuted (Hayes).

A flurry of cable networks launched across the decade:

In 1980: Cinemax, The Learning Channel and USA Network.

In 1981: Eternal Word TV Network

USA Today launched in front of hundreds of hotel room doors.  Crain Communications debuted Electronic Media to compete with other magazines covering broadcasting, cable and the new electronic news services connected via telephone and modem (its remnants turned into just Television Week in 2009).  Home Shopping Network went on the air in Miami (later via satellite everywhere).  Windows launched in 1983. 

The next year brought the Apple Macintosh and more GUIs (graphical user interfaces).  Multichannel News figured out how to move editorial and advertising copy piggy backing on US West’s internal communications system that functioned like a combination of primitive email and word processing systems.  The newspaper talked US West executives into testing regular communications from reporters in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC to Denver headquarters using terminals placed at their desks connected by 300 baud internal systems accessed by regular telephones using shoebox-sized modems.  News moved faster again.  The network launches propelled the advertising and HBO was the first advertiser.

In 1982: The Playboy Channel, The Weather Channel.

In 1983: Country Music TV

Next week: Chapter 10, Part 7 – The Mid-Eighties and More Cable Channels

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