PRISM (TV network)

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Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies
Launched September 1, 1976
Closed October 1, 1997
Owned by Spectacor/20th Century Fox (1976–1981)
Spectacor (1981–1983)
Rainbow Media/The Washington Post Company (1983–1985)
Rainbow Media/The Washington Post Company/CBS (1985–1987)
Rainbow Media (1987–1997)
Picture format 480i (SDTV)
Country United States
Language English
Broadcast area Philadelphia metropolitan area
Headquarters Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania
Replaced by Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia
Sister channel(s) SportsChannel Philadelphia

PRISM (Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies) was an American regional premium cable television channel intended for cable customers in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania metropolitan area. Launched in September 1976, PRISM was primarily distributed through area cable systems, although it was also available through a scrambled signal on WWSG-TV (channel 57, now WPSG) from 1983 to 1985. The channel's programming consisted primarily of theatrically released motion pictures released by Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros Pictures, and 20th Century Fox, although it was most well known for its telecasts of sporting events, particularly those featuring Philadelphia's Major League Baseball, NHL and NBA sports franchises.[1]


Launch and early years[edit]

PRISM launched at 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time on September 1, 1976; it debuted with a message by announcer Hugh Gannon: "Good evening, everyone. PRISM, the pay-television network, is on the air."[1] Following this was the first movie to be broadcast on PRISM, the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion. Ten days later on September 10, the first sports telecast on the channel aired: a Major League Baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs. At its launch, PRISM only had six subscribers, all located in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.[1]

The network was founded by Edward M. Snider, the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers NHL team and Spectacor, co-owner of PRISM as well as the owner of the Flyers and The Spectrum; 20th Century Fox initially held a 50% ownership interest in the channel. PRISM suffered from profit losses until 1981.[1] PRISM's administrative offices were located on City Avenue in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, while its studios, production and master control facilities were all situated at the event level of The Spectrum at Broad Street and Pattison Avenue in South Philadelphia.

What differentiated PRISM from other subscription television services – some of which included ONTV, SelecTV and Z Channel, and to some extent, national services such as HBO and Showtime – was that it broadcast exclusive and extensive sports coverage, which included Flyers, Phillies and Philadelphia 76ers games, Big 5 college basketball and live World Wrestling Federation events held at The Spectrum (the venue itself lending to the channel's tongue-in-cheek naming as viewing a "prism" allowed one to see "the spectrum"). Its sports coverage extended to sports-based original programming, such as Broad & Pattison (named after the South Philadelphia intersection where the Spectrum complex was located), The Great Sports Debate and the monthly series Sports Scrapbook (the latter of which was hosted by the channel's sports director Jim Barniak, who also was a play-by-play announcer for 76ers game telecasts on PRISM and previously served as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin).[1] PRISM also broadcast a selection of other programs outside of sports, the most prominent being theatrically released feature films, along with specialized programs such as Live At Rafters and the children's program block "PRISM Kids". 76ers telecasts on PRISM during the run of the channel featured several professional basketball coaches as analysts including Chuck Daly, Gene Shue, Hubie Brown, Matty Guokas and Jack Ramsey.[1]

On November 6, 1981, Spectacor launched PRISM New England (now Comcast SportsNet New England), which carried games from the Hartford Whalers, Boston Celtics, Boston Breakers and various New England college sports teams. In 1982, Snider bought out Fox's half-stake in the channel.[1]

Rainbow Media ownership[edit]

In 1983, PRISM and PRISM New England were sold to a joint venture between Rainbow Media (now AMC Networks) and The Washington Post Company; only the flagship Philadelphia service retained the PRISM name and format, with PRISM New England becoming an all-sports service as SportsChannel New England, an affiliate of the Rainbow-owned regional sports network SportsChannel. That year, PRISM began to be transmitted over-the-air through a scrambled signal on WWSG-TV (channel 57; now CW owned-and-operated station WPSG), requiring the use of decoding equipment in order to view PRISM's programming over the station. This only lasted for two years, ending when WWSG was sold to the Grant Broadcasting System in 1985 and was converted into a general entertainment independent station as WGBS-TV.

Although PRISM was a premium service, it eventually took on the unconventional model of operating as a part advertiser-supported/part commercial-free service. The channel was forced to incorporate commercials within its sports telecasts in 1984 during a tough year for the cable television industry that saw several cable channels (such as ESPN, USA Network, Lifetime and The Weather Channel) endure major profit losses; the channel opted to include commercials in its sports events because management did not believe it could be able to raise subscription rates at that time without potentially alienating its subscriber base. Movies airing on the channel continued to be broadcast without any commercial interruption whatsoever, and breaks between films also did not feature any traditional advertising, showing only promotions for programs that were being broadcast on the channel and behind-the-scenes featurettes.[1]

In 1985, CBS (which owned present-day NBC owned-and-operated station WCAU, channel 10, at the time) acquired a minority stake in PRISM. Both CBS and The Washington Post Company sold their interests in the channel to Rainbow Media in 1987, giving the latter company full control of the channel.[1] By the late 1980s, the channel's full name, Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies, was fully deemphasized in favor of branding solely by its acronym. In 1989, Cablevision announced a partnership with NBC in which the latter would acquire a stake in PRISM, as part of a later aborted deal that was part of their then-joint ownership of upstart business news channel CNBC (which NBC would ultimately launch on its own). PRISM was priced at $12 a month on average, 70¢ of the revenue it accrued from each subscriber of the channel was used to acquire film and sports programming rights; the rest of the revenue was divided as compensation between film distributors and local sports teams.[1]

In 1990, Rainbow Media launched a companion basic cable channel to PRISM: SportsChannel Philadelphia, which also served as an affiliate of the company's SportsChannel network.[1] Both channels maintained separate graphics, music packages and announcing teams until 1995, when all sports presentations on PRISM and SportsChannel Philadelphia adopted a uniform on-air appearance and began using the same announcers.

PRISM changes its colors and then meets its end[edit]

The second and last logo for PRISM, used from the channel's rebrand in 1993 until the channel shut down in October 1997.

The original three-stripe rainbow-colored logo that PRISM had used since the channel's 1976 launch was retired in the summer of 1993, in favor of a modernized logo and on-air identity as part of a rebranding effort that attempted to increase focus on PRISM's programming outside of its sports coverage, particularly its feature film content (the new look utilized the Univers typeface for its entire revamped appearance, that was used for all aspects of its on-air look from the logo to text during sports coverage).

Rainbow Media launched websites for all of its television channels, including PRISM, in 1996.[2] That same year, Comcast acquired a majority stake in PRISM's original (part-)owner Spectacor to form Comcast Spectacor, which immediately purchased the 76ers. It then announced plans to create a new all-sports network centered around those teams, effectively driving a stake through the heart of PRISM and SportsChannel Philadelphia.

After a year of uncertainty (which included plans for PRISM and SportsChannel to affiliate with Fox SportsNet), Comcast reached agreements with Liberty Media and Rainbow Media that resulted in a major change to Philadelphia's cable television landscape. Rainbow officially shut down PRISM and SportsChannel on October 1, 1997, but both channels were given designated successors: PRISM would be replaced with the Liberty-owned premium movie channel Starz! (which at the time, was starting to expand its carriage outside of systems operated by its then co-owner Tele-Communications, Inc.).[3] The new Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia (which would eventually become the flagship of its own slate of regional sports networks) also replaced SportsChannel Philadelphia on local cable systems within the Philadelphia metropolitan area.[4]


PRISM's legacy is noteworthy because Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia continues to distribute its signal to cable television providers through terrestrial infrastructure using only microwave and fiber optic relays, and is not uplinked to satellite. A controversial guideline imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (known as the "terrestrial exception"), that was implemented to encourage investments in local programming, stated that a television channel does not have to make its programming available to satellite providers if it does not use satellites for their transmission.

This guideline has allowed Comcast to block DirecTV and Dish Network from carrying Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, but it has offered the sports network to Verizon's FiOS service.[5] Consequently, market penetration by direct broadcast satellite providers in the Philadelphia area is much lower than in other cities within the United States.[6] The "terrestrial exception" loophole was closed by the FCC in a 4-1 vote on January 20, 2010; however, Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia remains unavailable on direct broadcast satellite providers within the Philadelphia market or nationwide.[7]

See also[edit]