Has cable gotten out of control?
It started off innocently enough: a clever method of delivering television to areas that had trouble getting clear signals. Eventually HBO, TBS, C-Span and Nickelodeon came along and subscribers realized the true potential of cable television: more choices. And it was wonderful.
By 1990, there were almost 80 channels to supplement the typical offering of CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, PBS and a handful of independent stations. Many of them offered up programming to satisfy specific niches: news, music, movies, politics, sex. And it was still wonderful.
Cable channels kept multiplying like two rabbits doing math. By the end of the millennium, the number of channels crept closer to 200. While it seems like something for everyone, many of these networks were just copying each other’s playbooks. If your cable network didn’t have some form of reality show, it would seem, you might as well just run a perpetual slideshow of test patterns set to Bulgarian folk music. As a consequence, finding what you wanted to watch was much more challenging.
Too Many Choices
Today, with every network having several “sub-channels”, you’re looking at close to 1000 choices. It’s as if the cable companies are dishing out some ironic punishment to couch potatoes. “You like surfing through channels all afternoon? See how you like flipping channels for eternity!” Indeed, by the time you find something you want to watch in the program listings, it’s already half-over.
I hate to sound like that old man complaining about the entitlement issues exhibited by today’s park pigeons, but I really do miss quality-over-quantity. That likely explains my fascination with the pamphlets my friend Bill lent to me. (And I am so grateful to him for sharing that I will give a link to his music blog.)
Cable: Yesterday and Today
BQ Cable (later Time Warner, now Spectrum) was the provider that served (as the name implies) the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs of New York City. New installations came with a lovely assortment of manuals and guides to help customers and their equipment get well acquainted.
Thumbing through these brought me back to a somewhat simpler time. Don’t let the youngsters fool you. Modern digital cable is not all unicorns and jellybeans. Have you ever had to reboot your digital cable box? If you have, then it should be done by around next week. Those old tan boxes were ugly, but fast. Changing the channel? Boom, done! Just plugged in the box? Boom, ready! Need to know what’s on? Boom, TV Guide – cable edition!
Meanwhile, my digital cable box frequently craps the bed and rolls around in it afterwards. Changing channels is like steering a tugboat. For some reason, CBS almost entirely refuses to participate in TV time, deciding instead to display digital gibberish. And sometimes, the program data and channel guide randomly vacate their posts, leaving behind a middle finger in its place. Is it any wonder why an estimated 95% of my television watching involves streaming services?
I got myself so worked up that I forgot my original objective. And that was to share you some cable company ephemera from the past. I apologize. I’ll yell at my cable box later, on my own time.
Channel Selection Guides
The material below dates back to around 1988/89. Let’s start with the most crucial piece of paper for any couch jockey – the channel guide. (Click to enlarge. Warning: large file.)
There’s a lot of interesting pieces of cable history happening on this single sheet. They refer to Channel 5 WNYW as an “independent station” even though it became a Fox network station in 1986. The description for The Learning Channel (channel 28) will confuse modern viewers: all learning, no sister wives. And it’s odd to see Bravo (channel 49) serving up opera and dance, free from any and all Real Housewives and Vanderpumps.
While there were constants in the line-up (e.g. MTV and VH1 were always 6 and 16 for as long as I remember), change was inevitable and often. Channels get dropped, new ones get added and everything gets re-arranged for efficiency. From late 1989/early 1990: an updated channel guide. (Click to enlarge. Warning: comically huge file.)
You will notice a few changes. Tempo (originally Channel 38) and their programming for the middle-aged were shown the door. Channel 5 is now referred to as the Fox network. And a brand new network took up residence on Channel 40.
The Comedy Channel, owned by HBO, premiered in November of 1989. Its programming consisted mostly of stand-up and movie clips, all presented by up-and-coming personalities (including Jon Stewart) on low-budget sets. They also served as the original home (well, nationally, at least) for Mystery Science Theater 3000. In 1991, they merged with Viacom-owned “Ha!” to form CTV: The Comedy Network, renamed Comedy Central shortly thereafter.
On a less interesting note, Lifetime (channel 20) changed its logo to look less like the label inside a woman’s business suit.
VCR, Cable & You
It is curious how BQ Cable was invested in getting customers to record their programs. Only a few short years prior (1984 to be precise), there was a battle in the Supreme Court over home users rights to record television for personal use. It was formally known as “Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.” and casually known as “The Betamax Case”. You can thank Mr. Fred Rogers and his testimony for persuading the court to rule in Sony’s favor. He recognized the benefits of being able to watch his program at a more convenient time. Were it not for him, we never would have had all those wonderful jokes about one’s hilarious inability to program a VCR. (It’s always 12:00 in my living room – arf arf arf.)
Perhaps Warner Communications realized that home recording was crucial for documenting all those once-in-a-lifetime television events, such as The Cable Ace Awards, The Cable Ace Awards Pre-Show, The Cable Ace Awards Recap and The Cable Ace Awards’ Deadliest Bloopers and Practical Jokes. Or maybe they just wanted to sell more equipment and earn revenue by sending technicians to hook everything up for the coaxial inept. Judging by the pamphlet below, probably the latter. (Click to enlarge. Warning: Ludicrously gigantic files.)
While VCR hookup instructions and prehistoric cable selection guides are all well and good, if you really want to delve into the wonderfully primitive technology of yesteryear’s cable box, you need the 30-page handbook.
Inside you’ll find nuggets of knowledge to feed your hungry brain gerbils. Well, okay, maybe not. But you will get valuable information about your box. These include how to operate parental controls, thinly-veiled monetary threats should you destroy equipment, a troubleshooting guide that utilizes bad caricatures of the late Hervé Villechaize for illustrative purposes and the many ways stealing cable will send you straight to hell.
There are plenty of more items in this museum of outdated cable documentation. So much, in fact, that I decided to scan it all into a PDF file. It contains both channel guide pamphlets, two VCR pamphlets, rate guide and the entire handbook. Please don’t call any of the company phone numbers listed though. You will be placed on a very long “brief” hold.
Download the BQ Cable documents. (PDF file – requires Adobe Reader)