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History of Cable Television: Threats Turned into Opportunities

The history of cable television has its beginning as many creations have: It is the needs and adverse circumstances that motivate innovations.

In the case of cable television, everything began in the late 1940s in Pennsylvania (United States). At that time, the few television antennas that existed were located only in large cities, as was the case in Philadelphia, and the towns had difficulty receiving the signal that was broadcast from there.

In Mahanoy, lived Mr. John Walson, owner of an electrical goods store, who had difficulty selling his televisions because the villagers were not interested since the signal was very poor. Then he thought that the key to increasing his sales was to improve the television signal, so he placed an antenna on top of a tower, installed it on a nearby mountain and, upon receiving the signal, transported it to his warehouse by means of a cable, achieving very good results. As you might expect, sales of their TVs increased. This fact prompted him to seek to perfect his achievement through the use of a coaxial cable and signal amplifiers, elaborated by himself.

As a complement to this, Milton Jerrold Shapp, who was later governor of the state of Pennsylvania, structured a system to consolidate the number of antennas that were in both stores and apartment buildings. In this way, a master antenna (MATV) served to be used by all televisions in the same building. His secret was the use of coaxial cable and amplifiers, capable of carrying the signal to several places at once.

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In Lansford, a nearby town, Robert Tarlton, based on the same principle of Shapp laid a line around the whole village, giving rise to the cable television we know today. With the help of Shapp's innovations, cable television quickly spread to remote cities and rural areas far from the transmission point. For many years the cable was simply a kind of community antenna because its main objective was to improve the reception of the transmissions made by the national television networks.

It was in the month of June 1948 when cable television began. In the fifties Walson began experimenting with microwaves to carry the signal from distant cities. In this way, Pennsylvania's systems, which had only three channels, increased to six or more channels imported from independent stations in New York and Philadelphia. This modality was expanding to other cities, motivating a great growth of the television industry.

In November 1972, pay television began when Service Electric offered Home Box Office (HBO) on its cable system in a town called Wilkes-Barre, also in the state of Pennsylvania, becoming the first paid cable television service in the United States and the first to also use a satellite to distribute its programming. Today it is considered the largest cable television system in the world with more than eleven million viewers.

In the same way as in the United States and Belgium, cable television was born in Latin America with the purpose of bringing television to areas that lacked free-to-air television signals. In Argentina – a country whose technological infrastructure is considered one of the most advanced in the world – this phenomenon occurs at the beginning of the 60s, as a response to the need to overcome no longer the mountainous heights but the great distances that represented an impediment to the television signals sent by the few stations of the moment.

Then the first closed circuit television was born that offered a single signal generated thanks to a simple surveillance camera and, little by little, both closed circuit television and community antennas were multiplying in the interior of the country.

During the first decade, largely due to the fact that the radio spectrum was not used, it was enough to ask for a municipal permit to be able to use the airspace for the installation of a cable system. It was not until 1972 that cable television began to be considered as a special broadcasting service, with the creation of COMFER.

There is no certainty about where the first coaxial cable was laid or who did it. Marcos Huller – who installed the first closed circuit in the city of Salta – says he did it in October 1962. However, as stated in the Resolution of the Deliberative Council of Mercedes of December 23, 1963 and as published by the newspapers of the time, the Engineer Edsel Aeschlimann installed the system in Villa Mercedes (San Luis) in November of that year, a system that had 50 subscribers since its inception.

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The first long-distance cable transmission was carried out on November 4, 1963 in the city of Córdoba and consisted of transmitting the signal of a television channel to several televisions installed on the road by means of a transistorized modulator located a thousand meters away, with an RG11 coaxial cable and a transistorized amplifier with several descents, according to the number of televisions.

As published by the magazine of the Argentine Association of Cable Television -ATVC- engineers Edsel Aeschlimann and Carlos Muscio explain how they handcrafted the equipment to be able to assemble a cable system. To cite an example, the amplifiers they used in the year 62 were amplifiers to a valve and in the line of the coaxial cable were sent, along with the television signal, 110 volts, to power the amplifiers. These also had other limitations: the number of televisions to which they could carry the signal – maximum 10 – and their distance from the head (Head end) that could not be more than six blocks. It was with the implementation of the transistorized system that the voltage was reduced to 48 volts and, therefore, the danger it represented for the technicians.

But these weren't the only drawbacks. There was another aspect that had to be overcome and that was the generation of the signal, an issue that was complicated due to the high costs of videotape machines and the complexity of the systems. To overcome these obstacles, the signal was emitted by using a small surveillance camera: the Phillips Compact El 8000. Early cable operators projected 16mm black-and-white films or slides onto a screen, took the images with the small camera, and transmitted them.

Initially, to carry the signal to the televisions, 300 ohms parallel tape was used which captured all kinds of noises. It was later replaced by coaxial cable.

With regard to amplifiers, single-channel tube amplifiers were used since video recorders did not exist either. This system was maintained until the 70s when the first videocassette player appeared – the U-Matic – which allowed to overcome the technical and financial obstacles.

The role of the Argentine industry in the growth of cable has been very important. Suffice it to mention that, according to experts, until a few years ago ninety-nine percent of cables used materials manufactured in the country.

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