ONTV (pay TV)

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ONTV
ONTV Logo
Launched 1977
Closed 1985
Owned by Oak Communications Inc.
Picture format 480i (SDTV)
Country United States
Language English
Broadcast area Nationwide (available in select areas)
Headquarters New York City, New York

ONTV, also known as National Subscription Television, was an American subscription television service that was launched in 1977 as a joint venture between Oak Industries, Norman Lear's Chartwell Enterprises and Jerry Perenchio. Oak was a manufacturer of satellite and pay-TV decoders and equipment. ONTV operated in such major markets as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.

Origins[edit]

ONTV was one of many “scrambled UHF” services in many major markets around the country in the era before multi-channel cable television became widely available. Others included SelecTV, PRISM, Starcase, Spectrum, Preview, VEU, SuperTV and Z Channel. During the 1980s, cable television increasingly became available in the United States and rendered "over-the-air" subscription television obsolete.

Programming[edit]

ONTV, like other pay television networks, aired a mixture of movies, sports events and concerts. For example, the Los Angeles-area service showed many home games from the Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Kings, as well as some era's biggest championship boxing matches. In Chicago, ONTV aired Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks games (which eventually migrated over to a second ONTV-owned service, Sportsvision). In Detroit, it aired the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, but was soon replaced by another premium channel, the cable-only service PASS Sports.

ONTV not only aired mainstream films, but much like Z Channel, also aired more unique films and concerts, featuring such acts as Todd Rundgren, Talking Heads and Siouxsie and the Banshees. ONTV also opted for a uniquely New Wave and heavy metal-dominated music video lineup between films, including acts such as Oingo Boingo, Slade, Adam and the Ants, Devo, Men Without Hats, Rush, Utopia, The Police, The J. Geils Band, Wall of Voodoo, Bonnie Tyler and Queen.

The cult film Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, featuring a very young Diane Lane, Laura Dern and various members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, also aired on the service. Another cult item, the slasher film My Bloody Valentine was shown with several minutes that were never seen theatrically (they were edited out to avoid an X rating) – a rare showing of the film in its entirety. ONTV was also the first network to broadcast the uncut version of the original Dawn of the Dead. Between films, ONTV favored artistically-driven film shorts and the oddball Canadian comics Roger and Roger, who aired daily in an afternoon timeslot.

In 1982, ONTV's executives convinced George Lucas to sell them the rights for the very first television broadcast of the first Star Wars film. The rights to broadcast Star Wars were obtained by ONTV for a one-time pay-per-view showing in September 1982, available for a one-time fee of $7 to $8[1] (Lucas would do the same favor for L.A.'s Z Channel by granting them the rights to air The Empire Strikes Back in January 1985).

Basic service fees[edit]

Service fees for the subscription varied by market. In Los Angeles, the basic service was $19 a month, plus an extra charge for a selection of softcore pornography marketed as "ON Plus." Plans were made to develop a second ONTV channel, which never launched (Chicago did have somewhat of a sibling service, tied in Sportsvision, that operated as its own channel). In Detroit, the service cost a flat fee of $22.50 a month for all programming. Many subscribers also received a monthly program guide called SeasON Ticket.

In the South Florida market, the basic fee was $19.95 a month with an additional fee for the optional late night "adult" programming. Softcore pornography was broadcast in earlier years of the service, but by 1983, ON would begin to broadcast hardcore features as part of its "Adults Only" service late at night. Consequently, this would play a part in several lawsuits regarding the programming since it was broadcast "over the air".

There were two steps to access ONTV programming:

  • Pay a monthly subscription fee to National Subscription Television, the parent company of the service.
  • Receive a converter box (a box with a knob that had two settings, OFF and ON) which decoded a picture sent to the TV.

The channel's programming was transmitted over-the-air on a UHF station. The decoder box would receive the signal from the broadcast station and the viewer was required to tune the television to channel 3 to view the broadcast (much like viewing from a VCR or a modern cable box). The technology was sometimes called a multipoint distribution system. Viewers without decoder boxes saw a scrambled, flickering picture and garbled or substituted audio. Some older models of black-and-white (and some color) television sets were able to receive a clear signal, due to a fluke with the older technology. These older sets received garbled or no audio.

The broadcast signal was a relatively simple analog scramble over the UHF spectrum; therefore, it was a popular target for signal pirates. In most broadcast pay television markets across the United States, viewers could purchase descrambler kits from various specialty retailers or through a mail order service advertised in magazines.

Unfortunately, in addition to the increased availability of cable television, the relative ease of obtaining descramblers contributed to a significant loss of revenue. Station operators in Chicago estimated that there were two thefts of service through piracy for every one of their 90,000 subscribing customers in 1984.

Stations transmitting ONTV programs[edit]

Among the stations that transmitted ONTV programs were:

An updated logo used until final broadcasts.

Chicago[edit]

ONTV began broadcasting in Chicago in 1980, airing on WSNS-TV (channel 44), and competing directly with the similar Spectrum service, which was owned by United Cable. The service went dark in May 1985, largely due to the long-awaited entrance of cable television into the city. Chicago was the last remaining ONTV market to go under due to the city's overlong debate over how to divide itself up for cable distribution in order to avoid a monopoly. Initially, in 1980, Channel 44 WSNS remained a commercial independent station until 7 p.m. weekdays and 3 p.m. weekends. In the fall of 1981, WSNS began running ON-TV at 5 p.m. weekdays and noon weekends. In January of 1982, WSNS offered ON TV the maximum amount of hours a day allowed by law, 20 hours, keeping 4 hours daily for religious and public affairs programming. At the end of 1982, the FCC ended a law requiring Subscription TV stations to broadcast at least 20 hours a week of free TV. So in January of 1983, WSNS took ON-TV programming 24/7.

Additional services[edit]

Outside of being the last remaining ONTV market, another unique characteristic of ONTV Chicago was that it was the only over-the-air "subscription television" service worldwide that owned and distributed three different pay networks in the same market. Not only was WSNS an ONTV affiliate, but it also distributed Sportsvision for 21 months from March 1982 to December 1983. In addition, WFBN (channel 66) aired the ON Subscription Service in late 1983 and early 1984 before WFBN replaced its schedule with music videos and later general entertainment programming. This third expansion effort was unique to Chicago due to their pennies-to-the-dollar purchase of Spectrum’s customer base during Spectrum's 1983 bankruptcy. At that point in time, ONTV had no financial capability to expand to a third network in any other market because ONTV suffered as its competitors did from the imminent threat of cable television encroaching on their service territories nationwide.

Enormous class action lawsuits based around airing late night "adult" material over the public airwaves became common, even though the FCC had previously issued an amendment to the term "public airwaves" declaring that "broadcasts which could not be seen and heard in the clear by an ordinary viewer with an ordinary television" were exempt from those rules. Lawsuits were still filed against the company, but by then, all was moot anyway as subscribership substantially eroded, with customers defecting to the newly introduced multi-channel cable television, and severe signal piracy issues arose for the few people that were left who were interested in the service.

ONTV was only able to pull off a third pay service in the Chicago market simply because of the enormous customer base in existence due to the large population that had little or no access to cable television until the summer of 1985. The purchase of Spectrum brought in over 40,000 new customers.

Instead of migrating the new subscriber network to their own existing network which would have saved costs, ONTV strangely chose this opportunity to expand into a second movie/entertainment network, resulting in a "third" pay service. With some notable power moves like this one, ONTV Chicago's then-general manager Kent Hauver fought to keep the last dying bastion of what was once a strong national subscription service alive in the Chicago market until the bitter end.

In addition, even though magazines such as Popular Science and Electronics Monthly published schematics for his new system even before he had a chance to implement it, Hauver also made a notable effort of abolishing a majority of the piracy happening at the time with stronger signal scrambling and changing the algorithm of the signal code so the "black boxes" would regularly fail, discouraging continued piracy efforts.

The final month and the 'film clubs'[edit]

The only new film ONTV purchased rights to and televised in May 1985 was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes; however, as a farewell and thank you to its Chicago subscribers, ONTV filled the remainder of the schedule with what seemed to be their entire back-catalog of films, a different set of programs every day, with no authorization from any of the related film studios. The motto that entire month was "Get your VCRs ready, because you, our last devoted subscribers, are in for a treat with a new lineup of programs every single day!" The only film actually repeated that month was, ironically, Greystoke; the others only aired one time each (oddly, no studio ever lodged any complaints with ONTV, probably because the service was in the process of shutting down).

Many subscribers were alarmed with both the shutdown of ONTV and the lack of forewarning about the bonanza of films being shown. The only indication that ONTV was doing anything unusual were the on-air announcements and in the May issue of ONTV's program guide; any earlier advertising of that month's schedule risked raising red flags. But as the word got out about the film bonanza, by the second week of May, VCR tapes (both VHS and Betamax) were becoming scarce in the Chicago area.

To record the movies, some hit upon the idea of borrowing their local school's 3/4-inch U-Matic video recorders, erasing and re-using old B&W school videos that were gathering dust. Others dragged out their old Cartrivision or V-Cord recorders from the 1970s, buying tapes at swap meets. Brief "film clubs" were formed between neighbors and co-workers, some having a "scheduling captain" so that all VCRs would be recording as much as possible. This was when a single movie on video could cost over $100 (even though LaserDisc and SelectaVision videodiscs were priced at a third of that).

Eventually, the "masters" were often taken to the duplication centers of the local public school media libraries, which ran off hundreds at a time (as they did for educational videos). After each of the "film club" members had received theirs and traded in kind, the leftovers from this process were sold in swap meets for a reduced price as "blank tapes", once the shortage of videocassettes had been alleviated.

During ONTV's six years in Chicago (and for several years thereafter), WSNS was constantly embroiled in numerous lawsuits related to late-night adult programming from the service, but nothing ever resulted from their final month of unauthorized back-catalog programming.[2]

Detroit[edit]

In 1979, ONTV came to Detroit on WXON (channel 20, now WMYD). Like the services in other cities, ONTV in Detroit carried local sports events (such as Detroit Red Wings hockey and Detroit Tigers baseball) in addition to movies and specials, but soon ran into a problem: ONTV did not begin transmitting until 8 p.m. At first, since many games began before 8 p.m., fans missed the start of many contests: in one famous incident, the Red Wings racked up a 5-0 lead in a game against the Calgary Flames before ONTV began its broadcast day. After that, WXON carried the first part of earlier games free and after the designated time scrambled them. By the end of 1982, WXON began running ON TV at 6 p.m. weekdays.

In 1982, WXON began airing ONTV on weekend afternoons and soon faced challenges from In-Home Theatre (which aired 24 hours a day on what is now WPXD in Ann Arbor) as well as a Livonia, Michigan-based service entitled MORE-TV, which was a precursor to the later wireless cable services and today's DSS services like Dish Network and DirecTV (MORE-TV, like its microwave cousins in other cities, beamed HBO directly to viewer's houses via microwave relay, utilizing the frequencies of the former Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) used in schools in the 1970s). WXON dropped ONTV on March 31, 1983. Unlike most other ON TV affiliates, WXON never went all Subscription TV and continued to run entertainment free programming 13 hours a day.

This market also faced challenges from being close to Canada, a country that did have subscription television. Canadian electronics dabblers soon learned how to make ONTV boxes and sold them for a flat fee of $75, allowing unlimited access to ONTV's programming. While the channel tried several times to re-scramble the signal – particularly before showings of big-name films such as The Wiz and Star Wars – their efforts ultimately failed, as the boxes easily found their way into the Detroit market from Windsor, Ontario (hobbyists on the American side made and sold boxes as well, charging up to $150).

Cincinnati[edit]

ONTV was broadcast on independent station WBTI (channel 64, now WSTR-TV) starting in 1980 and ending in 1985 due to Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment's QUBE cable service becoming available within the Cincinnati city limits. WBTI ran general entertainment programming free until 7 p.m. weekdays and 4 p.m. weekends in 1980. Beginning in the fall of 1981, the station began ON TV programming at 6 p.m. weekdays and 2 p.m. weekends. In April of 1982, though, WBTI dropped all free entertainment programming and ran ON TV 20 hours a day. They ran free programming consisting of religious shows 4 hours a day 7 days a week, meeting the FCC requirement of 28 hours a week free programming. Even when the FCC allowed STV stations to scramble the entire day, WBTI still continued running the 700 Club Weekdays at 10 a.m. and a couple religious shows Sunday mornings. Other that that WBTI was STV full-time. QUBE's 60-channel service as well as its variety of programming made interest in ONTV slow to a halt. In January 1985, WBTI resumed airing a standard general entertainment schedule, with ONTV programming regulated to 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. weekdays and weekends 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. On June 1, 1985, ONTV went off the air, and this station changed calls to WIII and began to carry general entertainment programming full-time.

Fort Lauderdale[edit]

ONTV was broadcast on an existing independent station based in Hollywood, Florida, WKID (channel 51), that was purchased by Oak Industries in 1980. The ONTV service was carried on the station generally from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends with general entertainment programming airing at other hours. In the early days of the service, it proved to be successful. Unfortunately, cable television increased in availability as each year passed, rendering the service obsolete for most customers.

A 1980 newspaper advertisement for ONTV service in South Florida with Sears available for installation.

In 1984, ONTV had approximately 30,000 subscribers throughout Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. By the summer of 1984, many jobs at WKID were cut to help save the financially distressed station. Unfortunately, much like in other markets in the country, there was no recovery and the station was quickly sold to John Blair & Co. for $17.9 million. The sale was announced on December 9, 1984 and channel 51 went off the air immediately.[3]

Channel 51 remained off the air until June of 1985, when the station became WSCV, a Spanish-language independent station. In 1987, WSCV became a Telemundo owned-and-operated station.

Los Angeles[edit]

ONTV entered Los Angeles in April 1977 and grew to just over 430,000 subscribers at its peak. The network's Corona-licensed affiliate was KBSC (channel 52), which was originally owned by Kaiser Broadcasting. When Kaiser and Field Communications merged, KBSC was not included in the sale and sold to Oak Broadcasting, transmitting its signal from Mount Wilson with studios and offices in Glendale, California. Channel 52 dropped ethnic programming for ONTV at night and weekend evenings. They continued general entertainment programming until 6 p.m. weekdays and 4 p.m. weekends. ONTV L.A. had great success with pay-per-view films and sporting events, and for a while was the largest single-channel pay television service in the U.S. In 1979, KBSC dropped entertainment programming and began running ONTV 20 hours a day with religious and public affairs shows remaining for 4 hours a day due to the FCC's requirement that Over the Air TV stations carry free programming 28 hours a week. When this law ended in 1983, KBSC began running ONTV 24/7.

In 1985, ONTV merged its Los Angeles operations with SelecTV, a similar service that was carried on KWHY (now a MundoFox affiliate). However, the merger could not forestall the technological changes that made the service obsolete: as cable television became more widely available, ONTV's popularity declined. The last shows aired sometime around 1989.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ John Teets (oct 21, 1982). "Horror Gore releases hit rock bottom". Palm Beach Post. pp. B5. "oak industries bought the rights to show star wars once in September for pay per view" 
  2. ^ Chicago Television
  3. ^ The Miami News (12-07-1984). "Blair & Co. acquires Channel 51". 'The Miami News. pp. 10A. "John Blair & Co...$17.9 million." 

External links[edit]