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Coaxial connection: Spokane’s addicted

August 2, 1981

By Tom Sowa
The Spokesman-Review

Five years after plugging in, the Spokane area is starting to see its first clear view of the future age of cable.

Within the past year, the long-promised batch of cable TV goodies finally began appearing on local TV screens. In those past 12 months the Spokane cable market, with the aid of satellites, acquired five new channels of heretofore-unavailable sports, news and entertainment programming.

And, in some of those instances, the offerings are arriving around-the-clock.

The social effects of this new, constantly growing technology of cable television are slow but cumulative. Five years ago few people in Spokane knew what cable TV was. Even three years ago, cable television was something treated either as some pie-in-the-sky new technology or a trendy gimmick to help improve antenna reception.

But by next year, at least 40,000 homes in the Spokane area will be plugged into “the wired nation.”

Cable TV, for many families, has become the new window on the world of entertainment and information.

Now five years and counting, Spokane, like many other parts of the country, has decided the cable connection is a healthy and addictive one.

It’s not a question of whether the age of cable will change the way people spend time at home. The question is how vast those changes will be.

If the publicity about the video revolution is to be trusted, the world will never be the same because of cable. The little coaxial cable, about the diameter of a pencil when it reaches your home, is about to shake us into the 21st century, the experts predict.

But what’s in it for us? If you listen to the advocates of cable TV, what has happened to cable TV in the last year is just a taste of better things to come. The future will provide a magazine rack of television programs, the futurists say. Instead of a handful of stations to choose from, the new cable technology will eventually allow selection from up to 100 channels.

Spokane’s response to the addition of five new special cable features has been a buzz of approval. The new features, according to Derek White, general manager of Cox Cable of Spokane, accounted for the company’s best year of growth in its five years of operation here.

Those additions – which don’t cost the basic cable subscriber an additional cost like Home Box Office or Showtime – now allow local viewers to get CNN, the 24-hour Ted Turner news network; WTBS, the late-night, independent “superstation” out of Atlanta that provides older films and classic TV serials; Nickelodeon, a 14-hour-per-day service aimed primarily for teens and youngsters; and two sports networks, USA and ESPN.

At the most basic level, these changes indicate a transformation in television viewing habits. The passive role of viewer can now be modified. With the advent also of video tape players, the viewer picks the type of program he wants to watch and doesn’t need to be at home while the show is transmitted.

The prospects for the future? At one extreme are descriptions of how cable will become a new pathway to our entire lifestyle. Some cable planners like to say the future of “interactive,” two-way cable will make leaving our homes old-fashioned: Just flip on the screen, shop at your favorite store by viewing a screen display, find what you want, press a button on a panel at home, and you’ve become a cable consumer.

Home security or banking, as two other examples, can also be handled by cable. Soon, we’ll all be hooked together via two-way cable television, able to send as well as receive a wide range of electronic messages.

But on a more practical level, the future promises to bring more of what TV now provides: More satellite hookups bringing in more programs that will turn the home television into a window on the world.

Where cable differs from regular network TV is choice – the presentation of specialized programs for just about any particular audience. Cable will – and already does to some extent – offer classes (in cooking for dieters, karate and dance), around-the-clock schooling for youngsters who are ill, first-run foreign film and operas from across the ocean.

The only limits are the number of channels a system can carry and the interest in the viewing audience.

Spokane’s first peek through the new video window occurred in 1975, when the City Council granted a 15-year franchise to operate an exclusive cable system here to Cox Cable Communications of Atlanta. Cox, known in the video industry as an MSO (multiple system operator), is the fourth-largest cable system in the country. It operates 58 other cable systems, including the largest in the country, in San Diego, Calif., where Cox has 207,000 subscribers.

Cox Cable TV of Spokane offers 28 channels of entertainment and information – from 24-hour weather to recent first-run movies, from broadcasts of City Council meetings to the all-news Turner Cable News Network, from 24-hour financial data to around-the-clock sports.

Two of those channels – Home Box Office and Showtime – are called pay-cable services, meaning you pay extra for that commercial-free service. If you pay a basic monthly fee ($8.50), you get the other 26.

In the immediate future, the Cox system here can add six new channels, says Derek White. That extra capacity – plus the option Cox has to replace existing programs with more varied offerings – is what will make cable television attractive to consumers, says White.

The ideal, then, is a rack of up to 34 different channels of entertainment, public affairs programming, sports and community access. They will also be more specialized in their appeal, White says.

While some of the Cox channels offer nothing more than reader-board data (news or weather off the wire-service machines), those will give way, he says, to specially produced programming developed for cable.

An example can be found on Channel 25. Until recently, it provided an automated-message text of state and local news. But three weeks ago it became an old-movie entertainment station.

If you’re among those who think that three over-the-air channels are already too many, you’ve joined the immovable minority. Compare what’s offered in Spokane with other major cities. In the Westchester area of Los Angeles, a TV addict can get 35 programs. In the San Fernando Valley, 37 different channels are available.

Some new systems now being installed in other parts of the country have a capacity for more than 100 channels.

The growth nationally in the last five years is also significant. Cable subscribers amounted to 14 percent of the available TV homes in 1977. At present, about 17 million homes in the country – 22 percent – are served by some form of cable system.

In Spokane the track record is impressive. The Cox system now has 37,000 subscribers out of 89,000 homes that can receive the service. That 42 percent figure is a little above the national “penetration” average – the word used to describe how many people in a market have cable.

Since 1977, the cable growth here has been steady and strong. In mid-1977, only 9,180 homes had cable. As the service area expanded, the growth has been approximately 8,000 new subscribers per year.

The growth, he says, has to reflect the better quality now going through the cable pipeline.

When the system began in Spokane in 1976, a subscriber could only get HBO, the local channels and two imported stations – one from Tacoma, the other from Canada.

But new technology, plus some loosened federal regulations, have made it easier for cable operators to offer a diverse package of programming. The main technological development has been the advent of transceiver satellites that are used by cable systems to create efficient hookups between other distant cable systems throughout the country.

That’s permitted Spokane to get Atlanta “superstation” WTBS. The same technology, says Cox marketing director Skip Harris, probably will bring in other stations via satellite. All that’s needed is FCC easing of current restrictions before Spokane cable viewers can also get two other distant stations, WGN in Chicago and WOR in New York.

For a little spice, Harris noted the Cox system also plans to add Escapade, a pay-cable service, in October. That national channel provides late-night airing of R-rated recent films.

But the real changes, he predicts, will take place within five to 10 years. Then Cox can begin using addressable converters, a device allowing central control of what the individual subscribers’ cable connections are.

“It’s what the telephone company now can provide. They can address certain telephone services for your home directly from your offices.” The advantage is not just flexibility; this will save the cost of traveling to and from a home any time a customer wants a modification in his program package, Harris says.

Applied to cable television, that will allow viewers to receive any number of special-ordered entertainment packages. The office computer will deliver to your home set the channels you’ve purchased. And periodically it will send you a bill for the service.

By then, your TV will probably be part of a home-video game circuit, letting you use the box to play fantasy games or Space Invaders with your neighbors or chess against a computer.

And, by that time, cable will be moving toward pie-in-the-sky. Home security, home banking and two-way communication will largely be done through cable.

Sunday, August 2, 1981

From → Cable Television

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