ON-TV Type Pay television network (movies, sports) Country Availability United States, national Headquarters New York, NY Owner Oak Communications Inc. Key people Jerry Perenchio Launch date 1977 Dissolved 1985
ON-TV, also known as National Subscription Television, was a subscription television service launched in 1977 by Oak Industries, Norman Lear's Chartwell Enterprises and Jerry Perenchio. Oak was a manufacturer of satellite and pay-TV decoders and equipment. ON-TV operated in major markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.
ON-TV was one of many "scrambled UHF" services in many major markets around the country in the era before multi-channel cable television became widely available. Others included SelecTV, Prism, Starcase, Spectrum, Preview, VEU, and SuperTV. During the 1980s, cable television became more available in the United States and rendered "over the air" subscription television obsolete.
ON-TV, like other pay-TV networks, aired a mixture of movies, sports events, and concerts. For example, the Los Angeles-area service showed many home games of the Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels, Los Angeles Lakers, and Los Angeles Kings, as well as some of the era's biggest championship boxing matches. In Chicago, ON-TV aired Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks games (which eventually migrated over to a second ON-TV owned station, Sportsvision.) In Detroit, it aired the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, but was soon replaced by another premium channel, PASS Sports.
ON-TV not only aired mainstream films, but much like Z Channel, also aired more unique films and concerts, featuring such acts as Todd Rundgren, Talking Heads and Siouxsie and the Banshees. ON-TV also opted for a uniquely New Wave and heavy metal-dominated music video lineup between films, including acts such as Oingo Boingo, Slade, Adam and the Ants, Devo, Men Without Hats, Rush, Utopia, The Police, The J. Geils Band, Wall of Voodoo, Bonnie Tyler, Queen, and many others.
The cult film Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, featuring a very young Diane Lane, Laura Dern and various members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, also aired on the service. Another cult item, slasher film My Bloody Valentine was shown with several minutes that were never seen theatrically (they were edited out to avoid an X rating) - a rare showing of the film in its entirety. ON-TV was also the first network to broadcast the uncut version of the original Dawn of the Dead. Between films, ON-TV favored artistically-driven film shorts and the oddball Canadian comics Roger and Roger, who aired daily in an afternoon time slot.
In 1982, ON-TV's executives convinced George Lucas to sell them the rights for the very first TV broadcast of the first Star Wars film as a means to "help a pioneering PayTV technology fight the likes of HBO and Showtime cable networks from taking over." The rights to broadcast Star Wars were obtained by ON-TV for a one time pay-per-view showing in September 1982, available for a one-time fee of $7 to $8. (Lucas would do the same favor for LA's Z Channel by granting them the rights to air The Empire Strikes Back in January 1985.)
Basic service fees
Service fees for the subscription varied by market.
In Los Angeles, basic service was $19 a month, plus an extra charge for a selection of softcore pornography marketed as "ON Plus." Plans were developed for a second ON-TV channel, which never appeared (Chicago did have a somewhat tied in Sportsvision that had its own channel). In Detroit, the service cost $22.50 a month flat for all programming. Many subscribers also received a monthly program guide called SeasON Ticket.
In the South Florida market, the basic fee was $19.95 a month. Softcore pornography was broadcast in earlier years of the service, but ON would eventually broadcast hardcore features as part of its optional "Adults Only" service. Some titles would include uncut versions of Debbie Does Dallas and Taboo, for example. This would be a large part of the lawsuits following the end of the service.
There were two basic steps to access ON-TV programming:
- Pay a monthly subscription fee to NSTV, the parent company of the service.
- Receive a converter box (a box with a knob that had two settings, OFF and ON) which decoded a picture sent to the TV.
The picture was transmitted over-the-air on a UHF station. The technology was sometimes called multipoint distribution system. Viewers without decoder boxes saw a scrambled, flickering picture and garbled or substituted audio. However, some older models of black-and-white (and some color) TV sets were able to receive a clear signal, due to a fluke with the older technology. These older sets still received garbled or no audio.
Since the signal went out over-the-air, it was a popular target for signal pirates. This was especially true in the Detroit market, where many Windsor, Ontario residents built homemade decoder boxes. The boxes were also popular on the American side, and hobbyists sold them for as much as $150 each.
Stations transmitting ON-TV programs
Among the stations that transmitted ON-TV programs were:
- KBSC Los Angeles (now Telemundo affiliate KVEA)
- WSNS Chicago (also a Telemundo station)
- WSMW Boston (now Univision affiliate WUNI)
- KTXA Dallas/Fort Worth (later UPN, now independent again)
- WBTI Cincinnati (now MyNetworkTV station WSTR)
- WXON Detroit (now WMYD, also an MNTV affiliate)
- WKID Fort Lauderdale (now Telemundo affiliate WSCV)
- KNXV Phoenix (now an ABC affiliate)
- KECH Salem/Portland, Oregon (now KPXG, an Ion Television station)
- KTSF San Francisco (now an independent airing multiple language programming)
ON-TV began broadcasting in Chicago in 1980, airing on Channel 44, WSNS and competing directly with the similar Spectrum service, which was owned by United Cable. The service went dark in May 1985, largely due to the long-awaited entrance of cable television into the city. Chicago was the last remaining ON-TV market to go under due to the city's overlong debate over how to divide itself up for cable distribution in order to avoid a monopoly.
Outside of being the last remaining ON-TV market, another unique characteristic of ON-TV Chicago was that it was the only 'Subscription Television' over-the-airwaves service worldwide that owned and distributed three different pay networks in the same market. Not only was WSNS channel 44 Chicago an ON-TV network, but they also distributed SportsVision for 21 months between March 1982 to December 1983. In addition, WFBN Channel 66 aired 'ON Subscription Service' for fourteen months between March 1984 to May 1985. This third expansion effort was unique to Chicago due to their pennies-to-the-dollar purchase of Spectrum’s customer base during the Spectrum Bankruptcy of 1983. At that point in time, ON-TV had no financial capability to expand to a third network in any other market because ON-TV suffered as its competitors did from the imminent threat of Cable TV encroaching in on their service territories nationwide.
Enormous class action lawsuits based around airing late night 'adult' material over the public airwaves became common, even though the FCC had previously issued an amendment to the term 'public airwaves' declaring that 'broadcasts which could not be seen and heard in the clear by an ordinary viewer with an ordinary television', were exempt from those rules, lawsuits were still filed against the company. But by then, all was moot anyway as customers dropped like flies, defecting to the newly-introduced multi-channel cable TV, and severe signal piracy issues arose for the few people that were left who were interested in the service.
ON-TV was only able to pull off a third pay service in the Chicago market simply because of the enormous customer base in existence due to the large population that had little or no access to cable television until the summer of 1985. The purchase of Spectrum brought in over 40,000 new customers, and in March 1984, ON Subscription Television on WFBN Channel 66 was born. ON Subscription Service 66 was a completely different Channel from ON-TV 44 with a completely different lineup of entertainment, with the less-expensive monthly subscription price of $19.95 versus ON-TV’s $29.95.
Instead of migrating the new subscriber network into their own existing network which would have saved costs, ON-TV strangely chose this opportunity to expand into a second movie/entertainment network, resulting in a third pay service. With some notable power moves like this one, Kent Hauver, then General Manager of ON-TV Chicago, fought to keep the last dying bastion of what was once a strong national subscription service alive in the Chicago market til the bitter end.
In addition, even though magazines such as Popular Science and Electronics Monthly published schematics for his new system even before he had a chance to implement it, Hauver also made a notable effort of abolishing a majority of the piracy happening at the time with stronger signal scrambling and changing the algorithm of the signal code so the "black boxes" would regularly fail discouraging continued piracy efforts.
The final month and the 'film clubs'
The only new film ON-TV purchased rights to and televised in May 1985 was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes; however, as a farewell and thank you to their Chicago subscribers, ON-TV filled the remainder of the schedule with what seemed to be their entire back-catalog of films, a different set of programs every day, with no authorization from any of the related film studios. The motto that entire month was "Get your VCRs ready, because you, our last devoted subscribers, are in for a treat with a new lineup of programs every single day!" The only film actually repeated that month was, ironically, Greystoke; the others only aired once each. (Oddly, no studio ever lodged any complaints with ON-TV, probably because the service was closing its doors.)
Many subscribers were alarmed with both the end of ON-TV and the lack of forewarning about the bonanza of films being shown. The only indication that ON-TV was doing anything unusual were the on-air announcements and in the May ON-TV Program Guide; any earlier advertising of that month's schedule risked raising red flags. But as the word got out about the film bonanza, by the second week of May, VCR tapes (both VHS and Betamax) were becoming hard to come by in Chicagoland.
To record the movies, some hit upon the idea of borrowing their local school's 3/4-inch U-Matic video recorders, erasing and re-using old black-and-white school videos that were gathering dust. Others dragged out their old Cartrivision or V-Cord recorders from the 70's, picking up tapes at swap meets. Brief 'film clubs' were even formed between neighbors and co-workers, some even going so far as to have a "scheduling captain" so that all VCRs would be recording as much as possible; this was at a time when a single movie on video could cost upwards of $100 (even though LaserDisc and SelectaVision videodiscs could be had for a third of that).
Eventually, the 'masters' were often taken to the duplication centers of the local public school media libraries, which ran off hundreds at a time (as they did for educational videos) so each teacher could have their own copy. After each of the 'film club' members had received theirs and traded in kind, the leftovers from this process were then sold in swap meets for a reduced price as 'blank tape' once the shortage of videocassettes had been alleviated.
During ON-TV's six years in Chicago (and for several years thereafter), WSNS was constantly embroiled in numerous lawsuits related to late night adult programming from the service, but nothing ever came of their final month of unauthorized back-catalog programming.
In 1979, ON-TV came to Detroit on WXON (now WMYD), Channel 20. Like the services in other cities, ON-TV in Detroit carried local sports action (Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, etc.) in addition to movies and specials, but soon ran into a problem: ON-TV did not begin transmitting until 8PM. Since many games began before 8 PM, fans missed the start of many contests: in one famous incident, the Red Wings racked up a 5-0 lead in a game against the Calgary Flames before ON began its coverage.
In 1982, WXON began airing ON-TV on weekend afternoons and soon faced challenges from "In-Home Theatre" (which aired 24 hours a day on what is now WPXD in Ann Arbor) as well as a Livonia, Michigan-based service entitled MORE-TV which was a precursor to the later wireless cable services and today's DSS services like Dish Network and DirectTV.
MORE-TV like its' microwave cousins in other cities, beamed HBO directly to viewer's houses via microwave, utilizing the frequencies of the former Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) used in schools in the `70's. WXON dropped ON-TV on March 31, 1983.
ON-TV was broadcast on independent station WBTI Channel 64 starting in 1980 and ending in 1985 due to Warner Amex cable being available within the Cincinnati city limits. Warner Amex' 60 channels that were available as well as variety of programming made interest in ON-TV slow to a halt. In January 1985, WBTI became WIII and began airing a standard independent schedule, with ON-TV regulated to evenings and weekends. By June 1985 ON-TV was off the air, leading WIII to show standard programming full-time.
ON-TV was broadcast on an existing independent station based in Hollywood, Florida, WKID channel 51, that was purchased by Oak Industries in 1980. The ON-TV service was offered generally from 4pm to 2am in the South Florida market with independent programming during other hours. In the early days of the service, it proved to be successful. Unfortunately, cable television became more available as each year passed. This would make the service obsolete for most customers.
In 1984, ON-TV had approximately 30,000 subscribers throughout Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. By the summer of 1984, many jobs at the station were cut to help save the financially distressed station. Unfortunately, much like other markets in the country, there was no recovery and the station was quickly sold to John Blair & Co. for $17.9 million .
Shortly after the sale, ON-TV service as well as all other programming on WKID ceased broadcasting in late November 1984. Channel 51 remained off the air until 1985, when the station became WSCV, a Spanish-language station. In 1987, WSCV became a Telemundo affiliate.
In 1983, ON-TV merged its Los Angeles operations with SelecTV, a similar service that was carried on KWHY, now a Spanish-language independent. However, the merger could not forestall the technological changes that made the service obsolete: as cable TV became more widely available, ON-TV's popularity declined. The last shows aired sometime around 1985.
ON-TV Los Angeles started up in April 1977 and grew to just over 430,000 subscribers at its peak. The UHF station was KBSC, ch. 52, licenced to Oak broadcasting for Corona-Los Angeles and transmitted from Mount Wilson with studios and offices in Glendale California. ON-TV LA had great success with pay-per-view films and sporting events, and for a while was the biggest single channel pay TV service in the US.
- ^ John Teets (oct 21, 1982). "Horror Gore releases hit rock bottom". palm beach post '. pp. B5. "oak industries bought the rights to show star wars once in september for pay per view"
- ^ Chicago Television
- ^ The Miami News (12-07-1984). "Blair & Co. acquires Channel 51". 'The Miami News. pp. 10A. ""John Blair & Co...$17.9 million.""
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