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Launched 1981
Closed 1986
Owned by Subscription TV of Greater Washington, Inc.
Picture format 480i (SDTV)
Country United States
Language English
Broadcast area Washington, D.C., Capital and Central regions of Maryland and Northern Virginia

SuperTV was an early form of subscription television in the United States that was offered to the public as either a standalone service to the many customers at that time who did not have access to full-blown pay-cable television services in their area (such as HBO and Showtime), or as an additional viewing alternative thereto.


In the days before home videocassettes and discs had made large forays into the home-entertainment market, SuperTV, like its competitors, ONTV, SelecTV and Spectrum served as the only available outlet in order to see recent movies, various music specials, and late-night adult entertainment presented unedited and commercial-free. After originally operating in the Washington, D.C. market beginning in November 1981 on WFTY (channel 50, now CW affiliate WDCW), SuperTV expanded into the Baltimore market in July 1982 on WNUV (channel 54). Unlike other pay television channels, SuperTV only broadcast Monday-Fridays from 7:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. and on weekends from 3:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. throughout its entire run and never switched to a 24-hour schedule.

Subscribers received a 12-inch by 12-inch brown decoder box and a dedicated UHF antenna, which was installed atop a roof or on a balcony and aimed at the station's transmitter. When attached to a television, the box would filter in SuperTV's programming. In the evening, subscribers could view a host of movies that were scheduled to play at that time.

A wide variety of films from the 1970s and 1980s including The China Syndrome, Ordinary People, Private Benjamin, 9 to 5, The Exorcist, Diner, Flashdance, On Golden Pond, Ran, 48 Hrs. and Poltergeist were some of the more popular films that aired.

The channel also featured foreign and independent films, as well as the occasional horror film, but the service primarily stayed away from films that were part of the slasher genre, which was enormously popular at the time.

For an additional monthly charge, SuperTV also aired an after-hours program block titled Night Life, which aired softcore versions of adult-oriented series and movies; this service typically ran from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. on Thursday through Sunday nights. Customers who did not pay for the service found their signals scrambled shortly after the beginning of the Night Life opening introduction.

Since both the Baltimore as well as the Washington stations provided different programming at the same time, those outside the immediate coverage area were able to subscribe to BOTH stations for the same price, as a limited-edition run of decoders featured the ability to choose between an A-feed (the primary station for the area in question) and the B-feed (the primary station for the opposite area).

This meant that for accounts which featured Washington as a primary and Baltimore as a secondary feed, a 378-384 MHz fixed-frequency crystal was installed in the A-feed line to pick up Channel 50 and a 402-408 crystal was installed in the B-feed line for Channel 54.

Customers with the opposite arrangement simply had the two crystals reversed in their respective feeds and the switch was accomplished by having an additional front-panel pushbutton in either the in (A) or out (B) position to receive the programming.

These special decoders were only available for a short time, and only in areas such as Anne Arundel County which by the then-current Federal definition of a Designated Market Area covered both the Washington as well as Baltimore areas.

This feature makes SuperTV unique among all the other over-the-air Pay-TV services of the late 70's and early 80's due to the fact that none of the other companies had services in neighboring markets, such as the situation in Chicago/Milwaukee and Phoenix/Tucson where one market had OnTV while the other market had SelecTV.

One reason for the early demise of the dual-station format in the case of SuperTV was the fact that, for those customers who DID have a VCR (a steadily increasing number in well-to-do areas such as that between Northeast Washington DC and Southwest Baltimore), it was impossible to record one SuperTV feed while watching the other direct-from-air without paying a second subscription fee and receiving a second decoder, attached to a second TV with a second VCR - thereby defeating the purpose.

SuperTV subscribers also received a monthly or weekly movie guide, in a catalog format, featuring a schedule of films that were scheduled to be playing. Because of its limited broadcast hours, they often limited repeat runs of certain films to once or twice a month.

The decoder used was the Zenith SSAVI (sync suppression and video inversion) decoder and had no external controls other than a small chrome-colored button on its top to select normal television signals or SuperTV.

In a then-pioneering effort at thwarting piracy, the station could address each box individually to authorize decoding of programs, including one-time pay-per-view broadcasts or adult program options.

In addition, to defeat simple home-engineer descrambling techniques, video inversion was done selectively, often when the video frame was light overall, thus causing the scrambled picture to remain darker than the elevated sync pulses. In certain cases, video was inverted on alternate frames.

The audio transmitted on the standard audio channel was a "barker" announcement, informing would-be customers that SuperTV was a scrambled service and required a subscription.

Early barker announcements spoofed the introduction to The Outer Limits by explaining to viewers that the station was now controlling the transmission and that for a low, low monthly fee, they could regain control of their televisions.

This was brought to the attention of the FCC in 1982 which ruled the practice as false advertising and subsequently ordered the practice discontinued, even as a Federal Court was about to decree that SuperTV as well as all its' competitors were not covered under the FCC's restrictions which applied to over-the-air broadcasts, forcing it under the more liberal definition of cablecasting and rendering that ruling moot.

The monaural audio for the SuperTV movies was transmitted on a subcarrier which would later be used to transmit the difference signal of multichannel television sound (MTS) after 1984. Until 1985 when the first MTS sets became available, normal televisions would not decode the audio, however shortly afterward, the barker channel would play on the right and the monoural movie sound would play on the left.

Like its' cousins in other cities, SuperTV was popular until many issues rendered it obsolete in 1986. In addition to the MTS-capable televisions being able to receive the audio, a few set manufacturers attempted to incorporate the circuitry normally found in popular cable-descrambler boxes right inside their sets, eliminating the need for set-top boxes and making recording off the air a lot easier. These sets were quickly legislated out of existence, but by then the damage had been done, with the decoding circuitry being published in magazines such as Popular Science for any and all to construct from commonly available components.

But by 1986, cable television services had started their rapid expansion and began to be available in areas not previously covered. The popularity of video rentals took off at an enormous rate a couple of years earlier, so by 1987 the home entertainment choices went from zero to plenty and fewer people cared about $11.95 a month for one channel five hours a night anymore.

Moreover, pay television giants like HBO and Showtime were now heavily buying film packages from the major studios, and declaring them as exclusives and off-limits to channels like SuperTV (cable service Spotlight and Los Angeles' Z Channel which were the two other major casualties at the time).

Eventually, pay TV operators began launching second, but unrelated services in the same city, for example in Chicago, the main OnTV channel played movies while it's one-time crosstown rival played mostly sports until the sports channel was incorporated into the main company, but these attempts to partner SuperTV with other similar services or with a sports programmer were ultimately unsuccessful.

Eventually its own two UHF affiliates (WFTY and WNUV) were once again turned into full-time general entertainment independent stations. WFTY Channel 50 in Washington, DC evolved into mostly paid programming by 1990 but then evolved back to general entertainment by 1993 and joined the WB Network in the spring of 1995. That station sold to Tribune and became WBDC by the late 90's. When WB was sold to CBS, owners of UPN, both networks were combined into the CW Network and Channel 50 became WDCW. Channel 54 Baltimore remained an independent as well and joined the UPN Network in 1995, then switched to WB in 1998. Today that station is also an affiliate of the CW Network. That station is currently owned by Sinclair. Today, very few items of SuperTV memorabilia, such as T-shirts and movie guides, exist on the collector's market.

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