Two Davids Walk Into A Bar: History of Cable (Audio Only)

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar: History of Cable “HBO”

Home Box Office (HBO) is an American premium cable and satellite television network that is owned by the namesake unit Home Box Office, Inc., a division of AT&T’s WarnerMedia. The program which featured on the network consists primarily of theatrically released motion pictures and original television shows, along with made-for-cable movies, documentaries and occasional comedy and concert specials.

HBO is the oldest and longest continuously operating pay television service (basic or premium) in the United States. In 1965, Charles Dolan, who had already done pioneering work in the commercial use of cables and had developed Teleguide, a closed-circuit tourist information television system distributed to hotels in the New York metropolitan area—won a franchise to build a cable television system in the Lower Manhattan section of New York City. The new system, which Dolan named “Sterling Information Services” (later to be known as Sterling Manhattan Cable, and eventually becoming the then Time Warner Cable which merged into Charter Communications in 2016), became the first urban underground cable television system in the United States.

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar: History of Cable “Pay-As-You-Look”

Cable television is a system of delivering television programming to consumers via radio frequency (RF) signals transmitted through coaxial cables, or in more recent systems, light pulses through fiber-optic cables. This contrasts with broadcast television (also known as terrestrial television), in which the television signal is transmitted over the air by radio waves and received by a television antenna attached to the television; or satellite television, in which the television signal is transmitted by a communications satellite orbiting the Earth and received by a satellite dish on the roof.

Cable television began in the United States as a commercial business in 1950, although there were small-scale systems by hobbyists in the 1940s.

The early systems simply received weak (broadcast) channels, amplified them, and sent them over unshielded wires to the subscribers, limited to a community or to adjacent communities. The receiving antenna would be higher than any individual subscriber could afford, thus bringing in stronger signals; in hilly or mountainous terrain it would be placed at a high elevation.

At the outset, cable systems only served smaller communities without television stations of their own, and which could not easily receive signals from stations in cities because of distance or hilly terrain. In Canada, however, communities with their own signals were fertile cable markets, as viewers wanted to receive American signals. Rarely, as in the college town of Alfred, New York, U.S. cable systems retransmitted Canadian channels.

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Vintage Cable Box: Of Unknown Origin, 1983

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“Watch and weep, you furry fucker.”

Of Unknown Origin, 1983 (Peter Weller), Warner Bros.

1983 was the year of the yuppie. The unusual, one-line Google search engine description defines “yuppie” as a well-paid young middle-class professional who works in a city job and has a luxurious lifestyle. The term, being coined in 1982 by Joseph Epstein, points to the rise of baby-boomers finding employment (usually along executive, financial, and administrative lines) in the big cities; many of them living there, but others succumbing to the phenomena of white flight, the grand mass-exodus of white people to the suburbs when inner-city crime and racial tension was at an all time high. Peter Weller’s Bart Hughes is the test-case of encroaching yuppiedom in New York City (although expertly shot in Montreal).

Living with his wife, Meg (Playmate Shannon Tweed, in her first film), and their son, Peter, in a renovated brownstone, his apartment is astonishingly beautiful, tastefully decorated, with lots of space.  Bart has his sights set on a raise and promotion which will enable him to buy the apartment, and from the beginning of the film, he is depicted as straightlaced, clean-shaven, rocking suits and ties, and glad-handing everybody he comes across (but also, strangely, obsessive-compulsive as my wife observed).  His wife and child take off for a vacation and leave Daddy in the big city to make the money.  This movie is a kind-of Seven Year Itch but with a pesky rodent subbing for Marilyn Monroe.

It only takes a couple of days for Weller to lose the fragile grip he thought he possessed with regard to his controlled world.  It turns out he has a rodent problem.  Contacting exterminators proves futile, as the city is overrun.  With the help of his Super, he starts doing his own research, and in a very interesting scene (a dinner party with guests chewing on Cornish hen), he disgusts attendees with admittedly interesting factoids about rats, about the diseases they spread, about the food they consume.  The scene is revealing to me because the director, George P. Cosmatos, and screenwriter Brian Taggert, are obviously citing parallels between rats and yuppies.

Earlier this month, I chose to watch and review another horror movie about rats called Deadly Eyes.  Compared to Deadly Eyes, Of Unknown Origin is a virtual masterpiece of form.  Deadly Eyes is absolutely dreadful and silly, mainly because the visual representation of the monster in question looks so damned silly.  Little dogs, covered with “rat-like” fur but wiggling and moving like dogs.  As if the obsessive Weller at the end of his rope isn’t enough, we have more parallels; as in when he pounds on his ceiling with a thick copy of Melville’s Moby Dick.

The very beautiful Ms. Shannon Tweed.

By the final third of the film, Weller has completely lost it.  His work is suffering.  He earns the sympathy of his secretary, the ire of his rivals, and the befuddlement of his boss.  He constructs a torture and killing device out of a baseball bat, and he becomes completely obsessed with the idea of destroying the rat, even at the cost of his apartment and sanity.  He learns the logic of his enemy, and he revises his attack, eventually emerging victorious.  The movie reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) wherein our protagonist must dispense with his own logic in order to survive his ordeal.  This is such a fun popcorn movie, and Weller (as my wife noted, a child of James Woods and Jeff Goldblum in his unique mannerisms) is immensely entertaining to watch.

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release (Canadian release – the paper is flimsy and oil-stained, I’ve noted this on the Canadian videos).  Also released on Beta, this movie did not have a release on Laserdisc, but it was produced for DVD.  As of this writing, the movie has not yet been released on Blu Ray,  The accompanying essay claims, “If it can’t scare them to death, it will find another way!”  The essay calls the movie, “… provocative and shocking suspense …”  Next time, we wrap up Vintage Cable Box’s Halloween 2016 Horror Movie Coverage with Drew Barrymore in Mark Lester’s Firestarter from 1984.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Strange Brew, 1983”

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“If I didn’t have puke breath, I’d kiss you.”

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Strange Brew (1983), (Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas), MGM/UA

We start on the big silver screen with a belching MGM lion, and that pretty much sets the tone for the motion picture debut of beer-drinking hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis); ostensibly a set-up for their movie-within-a-movie, Mutants of 2051 A.D., a hilarious no-budget sci-fi exercise that references Planet Of The Apes and The Omega Man. The crowd watching the movie grows restless and walks out demanding refunds. Moved by a distraught father’s story, Bob gives the man his Dad’s beer money.

Dad (voiced by Mel Blanc) demands beer. They try to scam their way into a free 24-pack of Elsinore with the old mouse-in-a-bottle trick, but they’re referred to the brewery. At the gated, electrified entrance, they rescue Pam Elsinore (the fetching Lynne Griffin) when the gates close on her car. Pam is there to receive compensation for the suspicious death of her father, John Elsinore, the former brewmaster. Bob and Doug fall backwards into jobs at the brewery, checking bottles for mice.

Brewmeister Smith (a fantastic Max Von Sydow) is making a mind-altering drug, which he will use to control the population of Elsinore beer drinkers with violent impulses.  After viewing “improvements” made by Smith (surveillance cameras, an empty cafeteria, and lack of employees), Pam gives him two weeks notice to pack up.  Brewmeister Smith orders Pam’s Uncle Claude (toadie Paul Dooley) to kill her, or at least incapacitate her.  Smith is using inmates from a nearby sanitarium to test his concoction, with orchestrated games of hockey, and it’s up to Bob and Doug to save the day.

Hosehead saves the day
It’s actually Hosehead who saves the day!

This is such a fun movie! After all these years, the material (originally a series of sketches for SCTV) holds up and is given the appropriate celluloid treatment. The characters break the fourth wall. There’s even a brief intermission. One of my favorite gags occurs right after the intermission. After Bob and Doug’s van plummets into the river and they are presumed dead, scuba divers are amazed to find them just fine underwater, drinking bottles of beer. When the diver flashes his badge, Doug reaches into his pocket and produces his driver’s license – all of this underwater!

Bob and Doug are framed for the attempted kidnapping of Pam. They are remanded to the sanitarium after being diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics by the Court. With the help of retired hockey star Jean LeRose and the electronic “ghost” of Pam’s deceased father (not to mention Bob and Doug’s superhero dog, Hosehead), they rescue Pam and foil Brewmeister Smith’s plan to sabotage the upcoming Oktoberfest.

As directed by Moranis and Thomas, the scenes effortlessly transition, and the narrative is fast-paced. This is serious filmmaking, for a completely ridiculous story. A great deal of the dialogue feels largely improvised. While a sequel was planned (and eventually abandoned) for release in 1999, Moranis and Thomas never directed again, and that is unfortunate because they are gifted comedians, actors, and storytellers. A year or so after the release of Strange Brew, they would famously appear in Pizza Hut commercials.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.