Video Store Day V: The Gold Mine of Cable & Pay TV

October 12, 2015 | By

Saturday October 17th is the 5th annual Video Store Day [VSD], and this is kind of a follow-up to a series of posts from VSD IV, this time focusing on the gold mine of programming that came into my world via cable TV and pay TV.



The 5th Annual International Independent Video Store Day.


Commercial-free pay TV came to Canada much later than in the U.S. – the big launch happened around 1983, the year my dad finally took the mighty leap and bought a RCA VCR and colour TV – and not unlike the debut of Blu-ray and rival HD-DVD, the offerings were a mishmash of genres and programming designed to snag as many people with various tastes.



First Choice pay TV, forerunner of TMN.


Super Channel pay TV.

"C-channel 1983logo" by Scanned from Winnipeg Sun article from January 1983.. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

C Channel pay TV, which stood for Culture, like the early years of A&E.


The American model – like HBO – similarly had feature films, fledgling original feature-length films, comedy specials, concerts, and sporting events, and that’s what the first stations offered, with the main roster being First Choice (and Quebec’s equivalent, Premiere Choix), Superchannel, and C Channel, the latter devoted to more arts-oriented fodder. Playboy also had their station, and the price package for the full lot was pretty steep, hence it taking almost a decade before I’d be able to afford Pay TV on my own dime.

That moment came in university, when 1) I had a job, 2) was studying film, and 3) could justify to my dad why I simply had to have Pay TV. By that point, the offerings had slimmed down with C Channel long dead (the production studio was sold off to the religious station 100 Huntley Street, I think), Playboy driven out of the market (which, I’d argue, came from conservative snots who felt adult-oriented programs were inappropriate for Ontario, which is nonsense), and First Choice & Superchannel choosing to halve their take of the small Canadian market instead of trying to kill each other.

The two stations were in fact very similar, carrying not so different material, making it silly to pick one over the other. By bisecting the market into east and west, they could spin-off specialty channels, and go after more unique genres.

First Choice headlined the eastern market, and soon became The Movie Network. Its spin-off was Moviepix, specializing in classics of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but as happens with CanCon rules, with so little indigenous product in circulation, Canadian offerings started to ease into the 90s because, well, to meet the minimum Canadian content rules for Pay TV, they had to drift a little into the next decade.

Moviepix also carried rare widescreen versions of films, a nice test that gradually increased letterboxed movies within a short time. These airings came as movie connoisseurs were snapping up pricey widescreen laserdiscs, slowly proving people did in fact want movies shown in their original aspect ratios.

The 12” laserdisc format was effectively doomed when DVDs emerged – giving people either full and widescreen films, or just widescreen – but at least in 1991, when I bought my first surround sound / laserdisc / Betamax SP setup, it was the ultimate way to enjoy films in one’s home a manner close to the theatrical experience. You could pack a bedroom with all that gear, dim the lights, and voila – a setup better than the rear projection Cineplex setups of the late seventies (and maybe eighties).

Having Pay TV while in film school was a genuine boon to the knowledge base, and the massive offerings of new, specialty, and classic films was akin to the mass of films prior generations had to catch on original late night airings in the 60s and 70s, the movies that flooded the home video market in the 70s and 80s, and in later years saturated peer-to-peer networks and torrent sites.

In each of those cases, Hollywood tried to fight the wide availability, get a piece of the rental income, corner the sales market, and quash the digital versions available for free online, and had varying success in each stage. What’s important is that for specific generations, the availability of movies exposed them to a variety of genres, filmmakers, and styles that proved influential in their film and writing careers – either in film production, film writing, or theoretical endeavours.

Rogers was the primary cable TV provider in North York, that section of Toronto which comprised the north eastern nosebleed section of Toronto in the 70s. When my family moved to our first house in 1972, I was four years old, and I remember this wire sticking out from under the gold carpet in the third bedroom which functioned as a kind of guest bedroom / leisure room.

That wire proved to be an early version of cable TV – a coax cable that delivered about 12 channels to our B&W Admiral TV set. We got the major Canadian networks (CBC, CTV, CHCH), U.S. stations (NBC, fuzzy CBS, and perpetually ghosting ABC, because channel 9 on the dial was always fighting against community channel 10’s signal), plus TVOntario – our version of PBS.

City TV (then known as Channel 79) came later, as did more U.S. channels via the UHF line that one could get via rabbit ears, or by renting a Jerrold switchbox from Rogers, whose push-buttons brought Channel 29 from Buffalo. WUTV was then an indie station, and before it became a Fox affiliate, it aired weekly themed offerings. Monday to Friday may have brought out screwball comedies, B-movie shockers, or other classics which may have been available on tape, but were essentially free. (I say essentially, because basic cable on the VHF dial cost about $8.95 in the late 70s, if I recall.)

Rogers grew from a fledgling cable TV provider and installer of propriety lines to the name in Pay TV offerings in Toronto, followed by phone service, then internet, and ultimately sports – both in broadcasting and later full ownership of what was The Dome – the Rogers Centre that was snapped by for a song when the government sold the taxpayer funded sports venue after blowing a fortune in construction.

My best friend down the street had that Jerrold box, and circa 1979, I could watch more cartoons and see more movies because her dad was an early adopter of both ‘higher grade’ TV with that extra channel lineup, plus a Betamax player that enabled us to watch The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) as many times as we wanted.

When she moved north of the city, her dad was able to snag ‘under the counter’ films from the local video shop – those movies not quite yet on video, but available to a select few of renters the owner trusted. It wasn’t exactly morally correct, but there was something dangerous & exciting in being able to watch Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the James Bond classic For Your Eyes Only (1981) at home – the latter reportedly the first movie to be broadcast on FC.

Those who might remember those days of forbidden fruit might recall how each time something exploded in Empire, the picture would go kergorbadleefrtzzt! – the analogue equivalent to stuttering streaming, or a bad block of data in a digital file someone didn’t bother to quality control.

Eyes look like a watercolour painting, but it was James Bond on tape in one’s living room, so who cared? You could also blast it loud on TV, and while in mono, my Sony’s ‘matrix sound’ created a faux stereo effect that sounded great in the mid-eighties.

Rogers coax cable also contained radio stations – you could connect it to the rear of an amp / tuner and get clean stereo sound – but to do that you’d need a splitter, one of many wonderful gizmos available from Radio Shack.

IMG_3255_sThis might be a handy point to stop reading and jump to a related prose & stills blog at Big Head Amusements, where I chronicle some of the doodads that were pivotal in accessing the programming from nascent cable and pay TV channels, as carried by Rogers Cable TV when they were much smaller, but very proactive in building valuable multimedia infrastructure in newly erected suburbs.

Finished reading the BHA piece and seen the pictures of CATV doodads from The Hasonian? Okay. Let’s move on.

You’ve no idea how many people saved money using Radio Shack doodads. Fuck descramblers legal and hacked; what the layman needed was simple connective gear that would enable cable TV in every room. A cable provider would install a second outlet in the house and you could maintain it for an additional cost… or you could drive down to RS and grab a splitter (or a coax switch box with a built-in amplifier), some extra coax cable, and voila – TV in the bedroom, the bathroom, or the kitchen.

Tin Lee Electronics was one of many companies that offered connectors as well as standalone cable TV amplifiers so 1) the signal wouldn’t degenerate too much from all that splitting, and 2) the cable company wouldn’t fully suspect you’d wired the house for TV from a line tap. I remember when a buddy in Brampton got a notice that essentially said ‘Hey, we know you’ve wired the house up the wazoo for cable but are paying for 1 line. Cut the extra lines, buy a second outlet from us, or you’re banned.)

Those amps weren’t cheap: the first we got came from Triple Crown Electronics which was apparently used by cable companies in houses with weak signals. I made my dad – really, I forced him by whining & complaining incessantly – to drive to Rexdale for a personal pickup. Decades later I grabbed a Tin Lee model because it had a potentiometer (knob) that allowed one to adjust the gain and avoid over-boosting the signal and getting bad noise.

Cable TV wasn’t perfect – there could be noise from bad external connections as well as internal, and I remember lines did corrode, and the main junction box was damaged by rain one summer. Interference from other sources would also muck up the underground signal, and I’d like to think my bitching ensured fellow subscribers on the street (and years later, in a condo) benefitted from my watchdog approach to preventing shitty signals.

Because I noticed, they gained. See?

It is ironic that what began in 1972 has evolved to something less necessary. Cable TV’s initial, highly modest offerings were a window into the world of clean TV reception. Pay TV was the gold mine of movies that aired not once, but often. Specialty channels like Moviepix and later TCM Canada fattened personal libraries of movies into the thousands, and yet today the need to have so many channels is (personally) nil.

I specifically scaled back on TV when the offerings became too huge, when stations lost their focus and created sub-specialty channels that in turn fragmented into further niche offerings. Long time ago, there was one Discovery Channel. One.

I never bought a hacked descrambler because it was a huge outlay and kind of a waste, whereas the rented Rogers Wonderbox worked and could be exchanged for a newer model.


The Rogers Wonderbox (courtesy of Zenith, apparently).

I’ve plopped some archival promo material from an old, olde Rogers promo campaign that’s separaretly archived due to the size of the 9 pages, but here’s some quick thoughts on the Wonderbox and pay TV.

Part of the reason I kind of like making glitchy video images stems from the years without Pay TV. See, your cable box could get the Pay channels, but the video was always scrambled. The audio was fine, and sometimes the first seconds of a movie stayed clean – the preceding trailers and promos might be clean purely to tease viewers – but everything was essentially scrambled.

You could hear, but not really see. Porn connoisseurs could make out assorted body parts amid the swirls of scrambled video, but it was something else with a regular movie. When A&E aired Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer Day (1960), I grabbed the audio on cassette tape and edited the material down to an album of the songs I liked, and played it often at the bookstore where I worked.

Pay TV was sometimes free. Rogers would offer free weekends where you could see a regular slate of programming gratis, although you’d get a tickertape text scrolling along the bottom urging you to register and subscribe.

It was a cruel tease, given one channel – ONE – cost roughly $15.95 in addition to whatever else you had.

There were package deals for the handful of Pay stations in the early 80s, but you could also get them a la carte, something the cable providers later nixed, creating splinter movie, news, and sports fan packages with names like VIP, Ultimate, etc., but they never quite had everything you wanted.

There were some good stations, but there was also banal fodder like the Golf Channel.

The irony is that the cable TV providers ultimately carried too much, forced packages that were insufficient or imbalanced, became more costly, and it took consumer protests to push the government to 1) put a stop to ‘negative billing’ (aka ‘If you don’t want the extra stuff, call us; otherwise, you’ll be automatically charged for the new stuff’), and 2) stop them from forcing package deals, and re-introduce an option to subscribe a la carte.

The cable TV providers ultimately became what are banks are: corporations with an architecture that always makes money – from little transactions as well as big. By becoming internet providers, they won’t, as media corporations, become obsolete.

Rogers learned a hard lesson when it realized its fledgling email & internet service via U.S.- based ‘at home’ wasn’t the answer to fighting Bell, who had the best delivery system and infrastructure at the time.

Rogers’ early internet was highly problematic – a colleague was losing email because the ‘at home’ backbone mandated emails be sent to the U.S. and re-routed back to Toronto – but soon after they took advantage of their existing coax network and used it for their proprietary internet delivery system that was robust and could pack a lot of material into one cable.

Bell found its lines and servers were becoming increasingly taxed by downloading and media streaming, and like Rogers it had to figure out ways to deliver with stability and reliability for increased multimedia content, and decades later the two rivals remain the chief players in what’s still a fairly monopolistic industry.

Both companies own the lines upon which third-party providers must ride, but just as home video provided an alternative to subscriber-based Pay TV, free digital signals have similarly enabled people to pause, reassess where their viewing priorities reside, and for some, ‘cut their cable’ and rely on free TV – selecting streaming or downloading via the lines owned by Bell and Rogers, respectively.

Like the banks, they’re still involved in the smallest of media transactions.

Perhaps what the promo above reflects is the genuine excitement that came with specialty programs we’ve taken for granted or no longer care about.

The relevancy of getting stereo is moot when 5.1 or simulated 5.1 comes from streaming the news. The need to seek out widescreen is redundant when ‘those damned black bars’ average people hated are the standard. And diving into a wealth of movie & TV via specialty channels is equally moot when almost everything is available – almost, because there’s the regular danger that the programs which becomes increasingly unknown to newer generations is forgotten and buried, falling out of circulation and being relegated to rare home tapings or copies on obsolete media.

Media – physical and digital – is more disposable because there’s too much, and as spacious homes are priced out of reach, condos are built with less square footage, and personal priorities change, the need to have a 1000+ collection of discs or digital files is becoming more rarified. People may not just cut the cable, but cut the bookshelf or hard drive space to store media.

I will say that there was a time when having a collection of movies taped off TV was as much of an impressive thing for a cineaste as having 16mm prints, VHS and Beta tapes, laserdiscs and CED, and DVD-Rs packed with files.


“Enjoy the Good Life with Pay TV” – another vintage Rogers Cable TV brochure.

More than home video, cable and Pay TV offered the biggest bang for the buck, and certainly between 1983-1992, I immersed myself in a world of movies during a formative period of movie watching. It may have begun with Elwy Yost’s Saturday Night at the Movies and Magic Shadows as a kid, but as a young adult and film student, I cherish that particular chunk of time when I gobbled up product at a crazy pace. 1989-1992 was sweet, and perhaps the only related tangent was the WeaselVision years, which is another story for another day.

In closing, however, here are scans from another vintage Rogers brochure, this one teasing people into enjoying ‘the good life’ with Pay TV via a deluxe contest. You too could’ve been as sedate and smiley-faced as this generic older white dude.

Coming next: soundtrack reviews, and a recap of last week’s Frizzi 2 Fulci concert at The Opera House.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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