Two Davids Walk Into A Bar: History of Cable (Audio Only)

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar: History of Cable “HBO”

Home Box Office (HBO) is an American premium cable and satellite television network that is owned by the namesake unit Home Box Office, Inc., a division of AT&T’s WarnerMedia. The program which featured on the network consists primarily of theatrically released motion pictures and original television shows, along with made-for-cable movies, documentaries and occasional comedy and concert specials.

HBO is the oldest and longest continuously operating pay television service (basic or premium) in the United States. In 1965, Charles Dolan, who had already done pioneering work in the commercial use of cables and had developed Teleguide, a closed-circuit tourist information television system distributed to hotels in the New York metropolitan area—won a franchise to build a cable television system in the Lower Manhattan section of New York City. The new system, which Dolan named “Sterling Information Services” (later to be known as Sterling Manhattan Cable, and eventually becoming the then Time Warner Cable which merged into Charter Communications in 2016), became the first urban underground cable television system in the United States.

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar: History of Cable “Pay-As-You-Look”

Cable television is a system of delivering television programming to consumers via radio frequency (RF) signals transmitted through coaxial cables, or in more recent systems, light pulses through fiber-optic cables. This contrasts with broadcast television (also known as terrestrial television), in which the television signal is transmitted over the air by radio waves and received by a television antenna attached to the television; or satellite television, in which the television signal is transmitted by a communications satellite orbiting the Earth and received by a satellite dish on the roof.

Cable television began in the United States as a commercial business in 1950, although there were small-scale systems by hobbyists in the 1940s.

The early systems simply received weak (broadcast) channels, amplified them, and sent them over unshielded wires to the subscribers, limited to a community or to adjacent communities. The receiving antenna would be higher than any individual subscriber could afford, thus bringing in stronger signals; in hilly or mountainous terrain it would be placed at a high elevation.

At the outset, cable systems only served smaller communities without television stations of their own, and which could not easily receive signals from stations in cities because of distance or hilly terrain. In Canada, however, communities with their own signals were fertile cable markets, as viewers wanted to receive American signals. Rarely, as in the college town of Alfred, New York, U.S. cable systems retransmitted Canadian channels.

Vintage Cable Box: “Twice Upon A Time, 1983”


“Do I get the job, or should we move right onto the shark infested waters test?”


Twice Upon A Time, 1983 (Lorenzo Music), Warner Bros.

There are strange creatures that appear at night when you sleep. The strange creature bring you sweet dreams. Sometimes those strange creatures, the Figmen of Imagination, are thwarted or subverted by evil creatures from the Murkworks (usually dark-winged birds) that bring you nightmares. Of course because this is a “war” story, the Murkworks are locked in a never-ending battle with the Figmen for domination of the night-time world. The leader of Murkworks, Synonamess Botch (a bizarre hedonistic variation on Salvador Dali), abducts Greensleeves of the Figmen. He sends a message back to Din, the sub-dimensional city that exists between the worlds of reality and fiction.

While on garbage detail after being punished by the Rushers of Din, All-Purpose-Animal Ralph (the voice of Lorenzo Music) and his Harpo-esque sidekick, Mumford, come across Greensleeves’ message. His niece, aspiring actress Flora Fauna plays the part of damsel-in-distress for Bosch’s nightmares. Bosch convinces Ralph and Mum to steal the mainspring from something called a Cosmic Clock. Ralph and Mum do not know that the Cosmic Clock controls all of time … everywhere, thus any alterations will affect the Universe. After liberating the spring from the Cosmic Clock, time freezes. A free-land Fairy Godmother commissions superhero Rod Rescueman, an egotistical muscle-head who spends more time washing his cape than rescuing people, but he is interested in the pretty Flora.

Watching this movie as a kid, I was mesmerized by the animation, which was a mixture of Yellow Submarine (the poster art of Klaus Voorman) and Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as black & white live-action sequences. I couldn’t follow the convoluted plot, but I enjoyed the (largely) improvised performances of the actors, and remember this was before the advent of “retro-scripting” in later animated works like Dr. Katz, Home Movies, Archer, and Bob’s Burgers. David Fincher and Henry Sellick were among the crew of talented animators who made this movie.

TWICE UPON A TIME, 1983, (c)Warner Bros.
TWICE UPON A TIME, 1983, (c)Warner Bros.

Two versions of this film exist: one with unaltered “adult” language, and the other a “sanitized” version – safe for kids personally approved by the director, John Korty. Korty preferred the “kid” version because it would, presumably, have a wider release at the time. He would be wrong on both counts, as Alan Ladd’s company (which released Twice Upon A Time) was nearing bankruptcy. The Ladd Company was (right up there with Cannon) a defining force in early eighties cinema, producing the titles Outland, Night Shift, Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner, and Once Upon a Time in America.

John Korty animated short films for Sesame Street, and worked for Lucasfilm. George Lucas co-produced Twice Upon A Time and used his influence to get a release for the movie. I saw the original cut of the film and snickered at the off-color dialogue. While younger children would not understand most of the adult humor, the movie was most definitely made for kids, but adults could enjoy it too. When Korty learned HBO had aired the “adult” version of the movie, he threatened lawsuits. Later, the cleaned-up version of the movie was substituted, but fans of the movie noticed the changes, and complained. This was an unusual case of mandated censorship, very much in the way George Lucas tends to alter his work (incidentally some of Lucas’ work appears in the movie via Ibor, the robot-gorilla with a television screen for a head – he shows scenes from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Some thirty years later, the film holds up. In fact, in my advanced years I can actually follow the plot. The film tends to only be available in truncated form, clocking in at a slender one hour and fifteen minute running time. I have a VHS version of the film that runs five minutes longer. I don’t understand the discrepancy, because this release appears to be Korty’s approved version of the film. In addition my version of the movie contains a song by Michael McDonald, which I have been unable to verify with other releases of the film, which contain only his sister, Maureen’s songs. Perhaps there is a third version of the film.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.