Wednesday, June 13, 2007

QUBE TV: 25 years later

I completely missed the 25 year anniversary of Cable TV in the City of Pittsburgh. Technically it was last April, but still worth a post. Most have forgotten that QUBE was the first cable system installed in the City of Pittsburgh and provided a nearly revolutionary two-way data service to the home in 1982. QUBE may just be another odd bit of Pittsburgh trivia I suppose, but it is a lot more important than that. The process that awarded the first Cable TV license for the City of Pittsburgh has an awful lot of similarities with how the casino license was awarded last year.

What am I talking about? In a PG business oped a couple years ago I explain some of the history of Pittsburgh's cable franchise. Basically, there was no cable tv service in the city of Pittsburgh into the beginning of the 1980's. Why not? Cable TV actually grew out of the need to provide service to areas where signal strength was low. A lot of big urban centers, being well served by terrestrial (i.e. antenna's) service would not have cable tv long after many suburban and rural areas had it. The growth of additional content had created the demand for cable service even in urban areas. Pittsburgh was one of the last major markets not to have an installed cable infrastructure.. as such it represented a big new valuable market for the growing cable industry.

But it's not like you can just go start your own cable tv service most anywhere. The cable comes on poles and is regulated as a utility most everywhere. When the decision was made to allow cable in the City, the decision was that there would be a single cable provider as was common. Thus the question: who would get the license.

At that point, you could switch 'casino' with 'cable' in the history and much of it would read the same. In neither case was any set auction put in place for the license (casino or cable). By that I mean the license was not offered to the bidder who offered to pay the most for it. Thus the competition evolved by other means. Each major cable operator teamed up with significant community groups, or coalition of groups, which would get certain defined benefits if 'their' operator won the license. Some of the other benefits that were promised to the community at large included the creation of Pittsburgh Community TV (PCTV) which exists to this day and the promise of more channels than were typical for cable systems of the day.

But the biggest selling point in the end was Warner Cable's QUBE operation which promised to put in something beyond regular cable tv, but interactive TV. So long before WebTV, or most of what we call the Internet or the web there was interactive data service into the home. Interactive tv was not new, having been put in place in Columbus in1977 and some other areas before then. It was still a big deal that needed a lot of bandwidth into the home for the extra chennels and interactivity (thus why the old analog cable in a lot of Pittsburgh homes still has two coax cables, not one). The content included a lot of things that would take off unto themselves: home shopping, home polling and potentially a of other things that really wouldn't happen until the internet took off.

The technology story is a big story unto itself. I still think the story about the politics of the process is important to this day. You would have thought some of the lessons of the period would have been remembered. In the end Warner TV won with its promise of interactive TV which it did install and build. The problem was the business model failed and within a few years the system would be scrapped for a more traditional one-way system. Did the committee awarding the license award take into account the possibility that the system would not last? Was there a better way to award a license than by pure government fiat?

The casino license in the end has everyone upset which came about because the award criteria sure seemed disconnected from the local criteria for what was important. I still find the repercussions of the whole casino license award to be corrosive on local civics. Why should the community be divided as it was into those for and against an arena, for and against one casino operator or the other, and the worst part of all, divided between different community groups that were aligned with one proposal or another. There has to be a better way to do this, just as there should have been 25 years ago. But some lessons have to be learned over and over again.


Blogger EdHeath said...

Right around the same time as Qube the French launched the Minitel. I actually thought the Minitel had started in the seventies (I was wrong). It was a terminal hooked up to your telephone, where you could access lots of services (such as travel, banking, shooping and the White Pages). You can read about it here ( The funny thing is that, unlike QUBE, Minitel is still limping along. I gather it has better security that the internet, and it probably meets the needs of a lot of ordinary consumers. FWIW

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 10:01:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I agree it seems like it was earlier. I distinctly remember learning about the minitel in high school french class.

I think the history of technology people really need to write more on the general topic of what the minitel did well and succeeded at and conversely what it didn't do well compared to the internet.

but it did start as a way to cut down on the printing and distribution of phone books. I think we now have more phone books than we had before the internet really took off. go figure.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 11:10:00 PM  
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Well your op-ed was an interesting "history of tech" of the PIT QUBE, it really did not give much detail about how the franchise was awarded.

Clearly the casino franchise being awarded was model on a good old boy political spoils system. Come up with a small trivial license fee for a valuable franchise, and turn it into a long drawn out political cluster f*ck.

What should have been done is what every other place with limited casino franchises has done. Open it to bid. Highest qualified bidder wins. Simple, straight forward. No political blackmail. No need to revisited the process, because everybody gets a fair shot at it, and when it is done, it is done.

Turning things into a weird never ending lawsuit political spoils blancmange seems to be what we do best here.

Thursday, June 14, 2007 3:43:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

cool use of the word... I would place good money that no talking head will use blancmange in any commentary around here, political or otherwise.

Thursday, June 14, 2007 6:27:00 PM  
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

I only remember the word from a Monty Python bit where the aliens were blancmange shaped that ate world class tennis players, and turned anyone else into Scotsmen in order to win Wimbeldon, only to be eatten by other boring alien tourists with spoons.

Monday, June 18, 2007 5:34:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

and I thought it was the foodie in you.

Monday, June 18, 2007 8:09:00 AM  
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

One can be a gourmand and a fan of Monty Python (Is there a term for that like Trekkie?) at the same time. Besides, when I first saw the sketch in 1974ish on WQED, I really did not have any idea what it was, but I did like the sound of the word, and it stuck. Clearly, I can be tracked down by asking series of people if they every heard anyone say the word "blancmange" in conversation.

Monday, June 18, 2007 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, somebody else remembers QUBE. I was employed by Warner Amex in Cincinnati and was one of the people who programmed the computers for the QUBE tv shows. I remember that my counterpart in Pittsburg, whose name is escaping me at the moment, developed stand-alone interactive games that were completely done with computer graphics. It was about 15 years ahead of its time. And you are quite right, the political story is an important one. The cynics inside the company were forcasting that QUBE two-way interactivity would eventually be dropped, even as it was first going up. Still, we in production went to great lenghts to make it work, and there were some incredibly well done programs on QUBE. Last point: Warner never dropped the two way part of the system that made sense -- pay per view!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pretty late to the game here seeing as how this blog entry is about 10 years old, but I need to square a bit of history. Warner did not create PCTV at the time of the franchise negotiations, rather, it pitched 5 SPCAs (Separately Programmable Community Areas) with a "Community Communications" public access studio as the hub of each for the creation of community television programming. These 5 production facilities (Oakland, Banksville, South Side, North Side and Homewood) operated as a part of Warner's system on Channels 12 and 21 until the sale of the system to TCI. It was at the time of the sale when TCI agreed to consolidate the public access operations to a single location and spin it off into a 501c3 non-profit corporation. PCTV was officially created and they remain in the original North Side location on Western Avenue. I worked in Warner's Community Communications department/PCTV from 1982 until 1988 and again from 2004 to 2010. I also had the distinction of being one of the last people to see Master Control on Penn Avenue in full operation before TCI pulled the plug.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 8:43:00 PM  

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