Larry Satkowiak

Daniel J. Boorstin, the prominent historian, once commented that historians like to “…bundle years in ways that makes sense, provide continuity and link past to present.”  When I began to study the cable industry from an historical perspective, I did not find a workable historical model that was useful in separating what the cable industry “was” compared to what it “is.” The books I read on the history of American television were useless in that many discounted the role of cable altogether, were network-centric, and the timelines simply did not apply to the cable industry. So, I developed my own framework to move the work of The Cable Center forward, and although I have refined the timeline somewhat since its first iteration, this is the basic model I still use today.

Cable’s First Generation solved a basic need for people to receive a television signal by placing a cable inside a person’s home. We have called this the “age of the pioneering cable entrepreneur," between 1948 and 1972. Sadly, if you were to read general television histories, you are likely to find that the pioneers are hardly mentioned–even though there were 6,000,000 cable subscribers by 1972. Cable did not have original programming in those days and simply retransmitted the signal it received over the air. However, people across America had the opportunity to watch I Love Lucy, The Tonight Show, and Bonanza thanks to their local cable operator.

Cable’s Second Generation saw the development of satellite technology and the rise of cable programming between 1972 and 1995. Satellite technology was a real game-changer for the industry as they finally broke the oligopoly of the networks and multichannel programming became a reality. First and Second Generation cable comprise what we call the “historical period of the industry." This was a period of tremendous growth and creativity as cable established television programming that would change our society in profound ways. Most significantly, by the end of this period, the industry started thinking about a vision for the future that extended beyond television. The culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that it developed during the historical period would create the next generation of cable.

Recently, I revised my timeline to establish the start of the Third Generation of cable in 1995. At that time, the cable industry introduced the cable modem and spurred a revolution that eventually created whole new industries. The Third Generation is labeled the “age of innovation” and it continues into our current time. Cable was certainly a leader in the broadband revolution, and as the number of software engineers employed by the industry today demonstrates, it is certainly a high-technology business. It is also a period of competition, where the industry has numerous competitors in a multitude of markets. There is no doubt that the cable industry will emerge from this period in a much different place than where it entered.

What will mark the end of Third Generation cable? History can only comment on what was in the past, not what will be in the future. But, cable seems to reinvent itself about every 20 or 25 years, which could possibly indicate a new era by the end of this decade. Can we still call this industry cable? I would think that the term “cable” better describes the historical past and not the technology-centered future. What will we call this new industry? That seems to be the question of the hour. This is an industry that is redefining itself today and will be a topic for historians tomorrow.

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