Who Stole My Country 119 – When Cable Wasn’t Cool

Hodding Carter and I formed a production company with a lawyer friend of Hodding, Ron Goldfarb. It seemed like a good combination for a television production company, but it was hard sledding. We did a series for PBS that Hodding hosted called Capitol Journal. The idea was much like F.Y.I. Report on stories around the country and then sees how Washington was dealing with them. It was woefully under funded which made us rely heavily on interviews with Washington politicians, lobbyists and staff members, none likely to speak frankly on camera.

We produced other PBS specials, but PBS was on the run and we resorted to industrials to keep going. After a few years, we dissolved the company and I formed a new company with my wife, Susan.  We began producing for a whole new market, cable television companies. Cable began in the Sixties as a way to relay broadcast television signals to customers who couldn’t pick them up with an antenna. In the Seventies, satellite distribution of television signals gave cable companies access to programming from all over the country, and it began to offer a lot more programming choices than over the air broadcasting. Cable subscriptions surged and the revenue gave the cable companies the money to go produce their own programs.

HBO was the first cable program company, launched to a few hundred viewers in 1972. Most of its programming for the first five years consisted of re-runs of movies and sports. When HBO began distributing its programs on satellites in 1975, Ted Turned convinced HBO to let him piggy back off their signal. He sent programming from his local station, WTBS, nation wide.

In 1980 Turner founded CNN, the Cable News Network. Showtime, The Movie Channel, Bravo, The Entertainment Channel, The Disney Channel, Playboy Channel, ESPN, Black Entertainment Television, Christian Broadcasting Network, Nickelodeon all launched their cable channels in the early Eighties.

The 1984 Cable Act ended most cable regulations, stimulating an unprecedented investment in cable plant and programming. From 1984 through 1992, the industry spent more than $15 billion on wiring the United States, the largest private construction project since World War II. Billions more were spent on program development.

In January of 1987, the recently launched Discovery Channel called and asked us to produce a program about Soviet News coverage. Discovery, then in Landover, Maryland, had 36 employees. They had obtained rights to rebroadcast live Soviet television. We arranged to have the news shows translated and we brought in a group of experts to talk with Hodding about their content. Live from Inside the Soviet Union premiered on Sunday, February 15, 1987. For the first time in history, Americans could watch unedited Soviet television.

By mid-1988 Discovery was profitable and they hired Tim Cowling, an award-winning executive producer at National Geographic Television, to head up their production effort. Friends and colleagues were struggling to get funded by PBS or a foundation, a tedious and usually disappointing process, but they still were universally shocked that we would produce for cable! No one took cable seriously. As a famous song about Ted Turner put it, “We were cable, when cable wasn’t cool!”

David Macaulay had come out with a popular book in 1988 called The Way Things Work.” Tim said Discovery wanted a series based on the same idea, but we thought viewers would quickly get bored watching the way mechanical objects worked. People were interested in other people. We suggested a program based on the inventors, with the objects of their creation only a part of the package. Invention was a co-production with the Smithsonian Institution.

Paul Moller’s Flying Car

 Invention, hosted by NBC correspondent Lucky Severson, premiered on Discovery on October 2nd, 1990 at 9:30 p.m. The first show featured Paul Moller’s flying car. For that story, in addition to Moller, we interviewed Gore Vidal. As a boy, Vidal helped his inventive father test an earlier attempt at a flying car, the Pitcairn autogiro. For a segment on the invention of the juke box, we interviewed BB King on its importance to the evolution of African-American music.

Invention was a ratings dynamo. The ad sales staff in New York told us that they could run Invention segments multiple times and charge the same ad rate because audience numbers stood up so well. Inventors were fascinating, always intelligent, frequently colorful and sometimes brilliant. We aimed to produce shows that a reasonably intelligent fourteen year old could understand and experts would say got it right.

Invention seemed to us to prove that intelligent programming, aimed at viewers’ curiosity and desire to understand the world, could be commercially successful. Like Inside Story I thought it would go on forever. The series lasted five seasons under our guidance, broadcasting 59 half hour programs and a one-hour special on Leonard da Vinci.

In 1995 Discovery cancelled our work-for-hire contract and turned the show over to an Australian production company. They never explained why. Our ratings had remained exceptional. We offered to meet the Australian’s budget, if that were the issue. The show sold internationally. When our host Lucky Severson began to introduce himself to his Japanese hosts on a field shoot, they replied, “No need. You are the invention man!” I thought John Hendricks might save it but we never heard a word from him.

The Australians apparently hoped to make the show even more popular by taking it down market, with pieces like, How Does Foam Get on Your Beer. They replaced Lucky with an older host. Discovery canceled the Australian version after one season.


One response to “Who Stole My Country 119 – When Cable Wasn’t Cool

  1. Chris, we’ve both been lucky to get into that narrow time slot between invention and degradation.

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