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The History of Cable TV in New York City

Cable television had been around since the late 1940′s when someone figured out how to import over-the-air signals to non-receiving areas. Usually, this was behind a hill or mountain. In 1957, the first premium cable-movie service began in Oklahoma. In fact, between 1945 and 1960, the number of television sets in the United States increased from a few thousand to about 60 million. Most early cable systems used the 12-channel VHF spectrum, so – there was always an empty channel. It wasn’t long before someone figured out – they could offer alternative programming even with this limited channel space.

In places such as Philadelphia, where, all-of-a-sudden, there were three commercial UHF -TV stations, cable proved to be a huge benefit to those stations and viewers. Over-the-air UHF required more “technical” skills to warrant a clear picture. With cable – no such thing – as VHF and UHF came in clear.

However, when the 1960s came, a lot of people noticed something about cable TV, which was, it is not available in many big cities, including New York City, where many of the programs originated. The reason behind this is because of the new buildings in the vertically growing city that either obscured or reflected over-the-air signals, resulting in blurred, distorted, or speared pictures. With this, how do you think did cable TV started in New York? If you’re wondering about it too, read on as we are giving you a short history of cable TV in New York City.

How Cable TV Began in New York City

person watching television

In the 1960s, microwave paths were enabling cable systems to carry “out-of-town” TV stations – and, you could charge a premium for such a service. By the end of the 1960′s, it was clear that you could offer premium (almost) first-run movies and charge even more. Home Box Office saw this potential. By using microwave transmission (and wide-band phone lines), it began offering premium service to independent cable operators.

It was in 1962 when cable television in New York began. That year, Sterling Information Services, which is a subsidiary of Sterling Movies USA (later changed to Sterling Communications, Inc.), created a television studio and installed a coaxial cable system. This system is connected via the existing ducts of the Empire City Subway Company to different hotels in Manhattan. It provided information to tourists and other guests from different towns and countries. It served to advertise different events and attractions that New York offers that time.

The new service became very useful in the 1964 to 1965 New York World’s Fair. It has encouraged the adaptation of similar systems in other major cities, as well. This success led to Sterling’s application to give residential cable television services throughout Manhattan.

In 1965, a franchise to three companies to go ahead with the scheme was granted by the Board of Estimate. This had split Manhattan in two between Sterling and TelePrompTer, the third company, which is CATV Enterprises, Inc, got a franchise for the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Under the granted authorization, the three companies were given the right to use the streets of New York City to operate their systems. New York, on the other hand, maintained control of rates and performance standards. Aside from that, the city also received a percentage of the monthly charges being paid by subscribers. The Manhattan Cable Television, which is a subsidiary created by Sterling, extended its area from 86th Street on the Eastside and 79th Street on the Westside going to the Battery.

Installing wires in New York City was expensive. Sterling had spent about 2 million dollars by mid-1967, just to wire 34 blocks while serving only 400 subscribers. To be able to finance the costly process, the company required investors, in which Time Inc. obliged, giving millions of dollars to Sterling.

Many competitors were attracted to the potential of the new field, including Bell Telephone Company, which began offering their own cable service around Manhattan. However, the two authorized franchises, Sterling and TelePrompTer, protested, which led to legal action against Bell by the City. But New Yorkers embraced the competition in order to get better deals. With this, Sterling kept an active lookout for the infringements of Bell on its territory.

To fight the increasing competition, the head of Sterling, Charles F. Dolan, had a plan to offer a unique service to their subscribers. During these times, sports games were not televised in New York. This means that those without tickets are unable to see the game firsthand. With this, Dolan actively negotiated to secure the rights to televise home games on Sterling Manhattan Cable. This move led to a lot of new subscribers who tuned in to watch home games of the Knicks and Rangers. From 1972, cable-TV became a part of pop culture.

Even with the increasing subscription base, in 1973, Manhattan Cable Television and its parent company Sterling Communications were still struggling. There was a recently launched pay cable channel that looked promising, which is the Home Box Office or HBO. But it would be years before it grew to the heights of its success today.

The continuous funding of Time Inc. made them a major stakeholder. This led Time Inc. to take over Sterling by purchasing the remaining investors and dissolving the parent company. With this, Sterling Manhattan Cable became a solely owned subsidiary of Time Inc., which continued to provide cable TV services in New York City. Eventually, it evolved into Time Warner Cable.

In the mid-1970s, while New York is gradually plunging into what would become the fiscal crisis, Sterling Manhattan Cable advertised the fact that even though a lot of things in the City did not work anymore, cable TV could be considered as one of the pleasant retreats from everyday stresses.