CHICAGO TELEVISION HISTORY CONTINUES AT THE VIDEO VETERAN
As the late seventies came to a close, the television industry had seen the beginnings of a new era. Since 1948 when commercial television hit it big, the house rules were pretty much set. Viewers were expected to follow whatever schedule the networks or local stations decided upon. So called "good taste" and later the formation of The National Association of Broadcasters, a voluntary group of network and station owners banded together to provide for the continuation of "wholesomeness" on television, was standard fare. No swearing, no nudity, no questionable subject matter to pollute the viewer's mind. Television was, according to its earliest opponents, a common source for juvenile delinquency.
But the generation that grew up on television wanted more and with the advent of Home Box Office and the explosion of cable television they got it. Cable's biggest draws were flexible scheduling, running uncut uncensored recent movies several times during the month at various times throughout the day, allowing the chance for most anyone to catch their favorite flick when they wanted, not when the station dictated. And original programming from sources unavailable to broadcast television such as The Arts & Entertainment Network, The Entertainment & Sports Programming Network, and Music Television. Now the public was finally offered a choice that looked to be a commercial success, unlike the ill-fated Phonevision experiment of 1951.
The burgeoning cable television industry had little problem signing up rural and suburban areas. But the big cities were something different all together. While politics had a role in bringing cable TV to the burbs, the logistics of wiring up the homes were not nearly as astronomical as it would be to do a city, say the size of Chicago. And true to Chicago, the powers-that-be debated and argued long and hard as to what companies would be awarded contracts, what could and would be transmitted, how much it would cost the viewers, and how much the city would make off the enterprise.
While the local politicians shuffled their collective feet, salvation for city dwellers came in the form of subscription broadcast television using a method referred to by the industry as "narrowcasting." Employing this method, a station would transmit a scrambled picture along with a code that was encoded in a single sideband of the audio signal. A set top decoder (yes, another one!) would read the code and descramble the picture. There were different "levels" of service (in reality differing codes) that would allow the subscriber access to the service's regular programming, special events, and late night adult programming.
In Chicago, viewers were offered three choices in subscription television: a service called Sportsvision, which had been formed by a partnership between White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn and media mogul Fred Eychaner, who through a series of intricate deals, brought WPWR- channel 60 to the Chicago airwaves and split the license with Marcello Miyares who ran WBBS; ON-TV, a service of Oak Communications Inc., which purchased forty-nine per cent of struggling UHF outlet WSNS- channel 44 to air its content on that station as well as others in large metropolitan areas across the country; and Spectrum, a division of United Cable, that purchased airtime from WFBN- channel 66, which was actually licensed to Joliet.
On paper the idea couldn't have been better. Cable companies involved in narrowcasting, such as United Cable, were able to penetrate the larger cities not wired for cable while subscribers were offered many of the perks their suburban neighbors enjoyed with cable. Start up costs were minimal. The stations were already in place (as in channel 44's WSNS) or new stations (WPWR and WFBN) hungry for programming. Unfortunately what looks good on paper usually does not pan out that way in the real world. Some of the biggest problems were legal and technical.
Almost immediately WSNS was put under legal scrutiny for airing "indecent and pornographic" content and offering no news or public affairs programming, a FCC stipulation for license ownership. Although the concept of pay television was not new, until the 1980s it was virtually non existent and no law had been drafted to address the medium. Since narrowcasting was not available to the general public, the stations broadcasting the scrambled signals felt that the FCC regulations provided for conventional broadcast stations, did not apply to them. Video 44 Inc., the licensee to WSNS was knee-deep in lawsuits throughout the entire time ON-TV was on the air and for several years after the service was abandoned.
Over at WPWR and Sportsvision, the problems were not legal ones but rather a lackluster baseball team that didn't do much to attract an audience. People were reluctant to shell out extra cash to watch a team that hardly ever won. Eventually Sportsvision went to cable (while for a short time, still narrowcast on WPWR). The service gradually expanded their programming to include more than just the Sox and today is known as Fox Sportsnet, a major regional cable service.
WFBN and Spectrum suffered from a technical problem. Though its transmitter was housed on the 93rd floor of the John Hancock building (next to WGN's facilities), it only transmitted its signal to the eastern antenna mast which severely curtailed its broadcast signal to the west. Spectrum, always a distant second to Oak's ON-TV, eventually cited the recession and the upcoming entrance of cable television into the city, and withdrew in 1983. Its subscriber list was sold to Oak's ON-TV who offered to take on former Spectrum viewers for a discounted price. The surviving service was re-christened On Subscription Television in perhaps a last ditch effort to save a sinking ship. WFBN stumbled on for a few more years (changing its calls to WGBO in the process) before becoming a major affiliate of the Spanish language Univision Network, which currently owns the station.
By 1985, only Oak's Chicago version of its ON-TV service was still operating. Its Los Angeles station had closed down months earlier as that city allowed cable in. Here in the Windy City, the city council had finally come to a decision as to how to regulate the cable industry in their city. Once cable was o.k.'d, subscription television in Chicago had met its fate. Faced with the changes in the city's politics toward cable television and the endless litigation against WSNS (that actually continued beyond ON-TV's lifespan), Oak shut down the last of its nationwide affiliates and the era of subscription broadcast television in Chicago came to a unceremonious end. Like WFBN, WSNS continued for a short time airing tired old reruns before eventually becoming an outlet for the Spanish speaking community first with Univision and later and longer with The Telemundo Network. Today Telemundo is owned by NBC which also owns WSNS.
Spanish language television in Chicago had a home at WCIU channel 26 since 1964. As the decade passed into the seventies the small station was airing more Spanish programs than any other language. By the time the eighties rolled in the market looked ripe for some new blood. Already by 1982, WCIU saw its first real competition in part-timer WBBS on channel 60. Then after just barely surviving bouts with subscription television, WSNS channel 44 and the newly managed newly christened WGBO channel 66 flip to Spanish. Read who's standing after the dust settles in U H F WARS. Turning back the clock, take a look at the early days of Chicago television with WBKB CHANNEL 4, the city's first commercial station. MINUTEMEN recalls early advertising on Chicago television. The WEBMAP is a roadmap to the entire site.
copyright 2001 Steve Jajkowski all rights reserved