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Republic on the Wire

Cable Television, Pluralism, and the Politics of New Technologies, 1948-1984

John McMurria

Publication Year: 2017

The history of cable television in America is far older than networks like MTV, ESPN, and HBO, which are so familiar to us today. Tracing the origins of cable TV back to the late 1940s, media scholar John McMurria also locates the roots of many current debates about premium television, cultural elitism, minority programming, content restriction, and corporate ownership. 
 
Republic on the Wire takes us back to the pivotal years in which media regulators and members of the viewing public presciently weighed the potential benefits and risks of a two-tiered television system, split between free broadcasts and pay cable service. Digging into rare archives, McMurria reconstructs the arguments of policymakers, whose often sincere advocacy for the public benefits of cable television were fueled by cultural elitism and the priority to maintain order during a period of urban Black rebellions. He also tells the story of the people of color, rural residents, women’s groups, veterans, seniors, and low-income viewers who challenged this reasoning and demanded an equal say over the future of television. 
 
By excavating this early cable history, and placing equality at the center of our understanding of media democracy, Republic on the Wire is a real eye-opener as it develops a new methodology for studying media policy in the past and present.  
 
 

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Cover

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Title page, Copyright page, Dedication

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pp. i-v

Contents

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pp. vi-viii

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xiv

I wrote this book within supportive communities of mentors, colleagues, co-workers, archivists, friends, and family. I am especially indebted to Toby Miller. Since taking his graduate course on cultural studies many years ago, he has inspired and supported me in my academic and life pursuits. His unwavering political commitments to thinking about the complexities of power and subjectivity continually remind me of the value of academic labor. While I was a graduate student, his invitation to join him and others on a collaborative writing...

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Introduction. American Pluralism, Television Policy, and the Method of Equality

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pp. 1-33

In 1955 the former soap opera scriptwriter and Cincinnati Post radio and television columnist Mary Wood asked her readers what they thought about a proposal to bring “pay-as-you-see TV” to the area. From the over two thousand readers who responded, Wood concluded that “Greater Cincinnati viewers are overwhelmingly against” this method of distributing television that required viewers to pay between twenty-five cents and two dollars for programs including, as the pay-TV proposal promised, “current motion pictures, dramatic and musical stage shows, educational and cultural programs, sporting events,...

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1. Broadcast Policy, Television Spectrum, and the Pluralist Logics of Inequality

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pp. 34-61

Beginning in 1948, radio station operator L. E. Parsons in Astoria, Oregon, television set retailer Bob Tarlton in Lansford, Pennsylvania, and antenna manufacturer Milton Jerrold Shapp erected antennas on tall buildings or mountaintops in locations on the fringe of television reception to capture television signals from distant cities. From these antennas they strung coaxial cables to television appliances stores, town bars, and individual homes. Historians have narrated these cable television beginnings as a “technical evolution” of wired communications led by the “pioneering efforts” of “entrepreneurs” including Parsons,...

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2. Contesting (In)Equality at the Margins of Television Reception

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pp. 62-86

At the U.S. Senate Communications Subcommittee on Commerce hearing held at the City-County Building in Casper, Wyoming, on December 15, 1959, Edward Craney, owner of several broadcast television stations in Montana, testified that the Helena cable television system was jeopardizing the financial viability of his Helena station, the only existing station serving the state’s capital.1 The Helena cable operator was importing signals from three network-affiliated stations in Spokane, Washington, some 250 miles away, using a series of microwave towers. As these microwave systems increasingly dotted the expansive terrain of western states to relay television signals from big cities to small towns across the...

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3. Pay-TV Orders

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pp. 87-110

In the 1930s, long before the pay-TV channel HBO launched its service in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on November 8, 1972, with a hockey game and a Hollywood movie, a number of electronics developers created signal scrambling devices that enabled broadcasters to charge individuals to pay to unscramble programming. In 1949 and 1950 these pay-TV device-makers petitioned the FCC to authorize technical tests and later to conduct more extensive tests, including a three-year trial in Hartford, Connecticut, that began in 1962.1 In addition to these pay-TV trials that used over-the-air broadcasts, experiments in pay-TV using cable wires were conducted in Palm...

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4. Local Origination, Public Access, and the Hierarchical Logics of Civic Culture

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pp. 111-136

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s the belief in the cultural value of television as a medium for local community expression continued to inform the FCC’s rationale for cable television policy. Notably, when in 1966 the FCC implemented new rules that virtually banned cable television from importing distant broadcast signals into the nation’s one hundred largest cities, it claimed it did so to protect UHF stations in these cities as outlets “for local self-expression.”1 The cable industry responded through promoting cable television as a medium that too could originate local programming, as many cable operators had since the late 1950s. In response, in December 1968 the FCC proposed that all but the smallest cable systems must originate local programming as a condition...

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5. Blue Skies, Black Cultures

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pp. 137-169

In a special issue of the politically left-leaning weekly newsmagazine The Nation dated May 18, 1970, freelance writer Ralph Lee Smith wrote a twenty-four-page exposé on the revolutionary potential for cable television to “influence every aspect of private and community life.” “As cable systems are installed in major U.S. cities and metropolitan areas,” he wrote, “the stage is being set for a communications revolution—a revolution that some experts call ‘The Wired Nation.’” The revolutionary cable wire “will provide newspapers, mail service, banking and shopping facilities, data from libraries and other storage centers, school curricula and other forms of information too numerous to specify.” The cable will “cater to specialized community, minority, and individual needs and...

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Epilogue. Neutrality, Connectivity, or Equality When Media Converge

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pp. 170-190

In this book I have posed questions about equality and inequality to engage with the cultural politics of early cable television. These questions exposed connections between television policy and American pluralism, the prevalent post-war orientation to democracy that rationalized hierarchies of class, gender, and race. Situating television policy within the contexts of pluralism revealed the ways in which public interest norms such as competition, community building, localism, civic participation, and diversity were intertwined with hierarchical assumptions about the capacity of people to make aesthetic judgments and participate in defining the socioeconomic relations of television. Questions of equality too prioritized locating the moments when low-income...

Notes

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pp. 191-222

Select Bibliography

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pp. 223-236

Index

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pp. 237-250

About the Author

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pp. 251-252


E-ISBN-13: 9780813585321
E-ISBN-10: 0813585325
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813585307

Page Count: 240
Illustrations:
Publication Year: 2017

OCLC Number: 971891535
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