TV is not new, like Winky Dink and PayTV, but bright
ideas do not always survive.
television was essentially a one-way, passive medium. The
family gathered around the TV set as they had gathered
around the radio, like their ancestors had gathered
around the tribal storyteller at the campfire. Producers
of early television programs relied on this passivity to
sell advertising. They knew that once the family had
tuned in a channel and settled back on the comfortable
sofa, they were likely to stay watching that channel all
evening. There was no remote control yet, no channel
However, the idea
of interacting with the television screen was not unknown
to broadcast television pioneers. Like movies, the goal
of television has always been to build on the
psychological interaction with the viewer. That "one eyed
monster" or the "babble box" was intended to hold a whole
family enthralled, a captive audience for commercial
messages that massage their minds.
Still, some TV
pioneers were more visionary than others.
According to John
Carey at Greystone Communications in New York, a
consultancy for new media research, from 1953 to 1957,
the CBS television network broadcast the regular
children's series, "Winky Dink And You," which may have
been the very first truly interactive TV
. "The interaction
was created through the use of a special plastic sheet
that children could purchase at local stores or through
the mail," said Carey, who teaches media studies in the
business graduate school at Columbia University. "The
plastic sheet was attached to the household TV screen and
held in place by static electricity, created by rubbing
the screen with a special cloth."
In the show, the
Winky Dink cartoon character would encounter many
problems, like a tiger chasing him to the edge of a
cliff. The announcer then asked children to help Winky
Dink by using a special crayon to draw a bridge on the
plastic screen, so the hero could escape from the tiger.
"The technology was very crude," Carey said, "but the
children did experience a form of interaction with the
television content. They were able to see actions on the
screen that seemingly were in response to their
Yet there was a
problem with this format that ultimately drove the show
off the air. Some children did not purchase the plastic
sheets and special crayons. Instead they used their own
crayons to draw directly on the glass of the TV screen.
The precautonary reminders from the show announcer were
ignored. Parental complaints finally convinced CBS to
cancel the series.
Winky Dinky did not
survive, but the idea of interacting with the TV would
not die. Seedthoughts had been planted. People in the
television industry began to wonder if there wasn't some
way to make money by getting viewers more involved
The shift from free
terrestrial broadcast TV to subscription cable television
is personified in Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, who had made
broadcast TV history in the Fifties as the head of NBC.
He put on "The Tonight Show" with Steve
Allen , and
he created the "Today" show in the mornins with Dave
Garroway and his sidekick chimp named J. Fred Muggs.
These two live talk shows helped make the TV set a "must
have" for American households. Talks shows were the
"killer app" for early televsision.
On his own after
leaving NBC, Pat Weaver created "Pay TV" by launching
publicly-held Subscription Television (STV) in July 1964.
The three-channel coaxial cable network in Los Angeles
and San Francisco offered a movie channel, a cultural
events channel, and a sports channel -- long before HBO
or A&E or ESPN, long before anybody spoke of niche
programming. A one-off $5 fee connected you to the
service. A weekly $1 charge maintained your service.
Special programming could be viewed at 50 cents to $2.50
per selection By November 1964, STV had wired 6,000
homes. Not bad for four months of work.
scared the socks off local broadcasters and motion
picture theater owners. Theaters had been closing since
television started keeping people home, but now the
rivals found common cause, They joined forces to organize
a November 1964 ballot initiative to save "free TV" by
outlawing "Pay TV: in California.
fighting the populist campaign, yet the referendum
passed. Courts eventually ruled the measure was
unconstitutional, but STV had exhausted its cash reserves
long before the vote, so the business closed for both
political and economic reasons.
Forty years later
in 1994 at age 85, Weaver told Cablevision,, "In
the market economy, those already in one business and
doing it a certain way will fight against anybody who
want to come into their league and be competitive with
them. And if they can put them out of business before
they start, they will." Timeless words.