Great Movies, No Cables: ON TV Subscription Television, 1977 – 1985

Recollections / September 24, 2019 

ONTV was a “subscription television” service that would “unscramble” UHF channels in participating markets, including Los Angeles County, where I grew up. If you’re not sure what it means to unscramble a channel, let me tell you. Before cable TV and VCRs became commonplace, our viewing choices were limited to a handful of channels (including the “Big Three“) broadcast on VHF (very high frequency), and several UHF (ultra high frequency) channels that included PBS, other independents, and network affiliates. ONTV’s signal was broadcast in UHF, but it was intentionally scrambled, meaning audiences could hear everything (including porn, which ONTV offered for an additional charge), and kind of make out what was going on, and kind of clean up the picture a bit by fiddling with the UHF tuner—but really it was a miserable, humiliating experience. Which was made worse when occasionally these subscription services (there were a few) would unscramble “coming attractions” segments and the like, just so that you would know exactly what you were missing. That beautiful box (and I mean that literally) cleaned everything up.

We didn’t have a VCR yet, and ONTV was our first foray into pay TV. The only ad I could find (circa 1980) has the monthly cost at $19.95, and I am highly dubious that my parents would ever have paid that. There must have been some sort of special deal by the time we made the leap, probably late 1981. We didn’t have it all that long; when the prices dropped (early 1983?), my dad caved and we got a VCR. Whatever the case, for a short time we became sort of famous in our suburban neighborhood. You see, George Lucas gave ONTV permission to broadcast a little movie called Star Wars on television—for the very first time. It was one of the first pay-per-view movie events in the US, and the cost was $7 or $8, depending on your location. Star Wars had been released for rental on Beta and VHS just a few months earlier, in May 1982. As I said, though, we didn’t have a VCR, and nobody we knew had a VCR. So, on Saturday night, September 25th, a few of my friends and some of their families (who I’m guessing pitched in) came to our place, popcorn was popped, and we watched the spectacle on what could not have been bigger than a 19″ set (hey, at least it was color). The experience was, to put it mildly, sublime.

The only other memory I have of ONTV programming is painfully craning my head under the railing of the stairs to see what my parents were watching after I was supposed to be in bed, only to catch a few minutes of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (yawn). The logo and graphics of the various title sequences and promos and breaks captivated me, and still do. The entire visual marketing campaign, from beginning to end, was immaculate: lively, colorful, sharp, and in my opinion way cooler than what HBO was doing at the same time. Even the “Please Stand By” screen was mesmerizing. Watching those animated titles unfold and shimmer on that living room screen promised something I had been preparing for since the summer of 1977, when I first saw Star Wars and first played Atari: a neon- and chrome-enhanced future of thrills and opportunities that my terrestrial reality, with its roaming bullies and math tests and gas lines, could not reach.

UFOs Vallee 1977K.E. Roberts is Editor-in-Chief of We Are the Mutants and a freelance writer. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and the longest cat any of them have ever seen.


8 thoughts on “Great Movies, No Cables: ON TV Subscription Television, 1977 – 1985

  1. One of my sixth grade classmates who had cable recorded that 1982 Star Wars broadcast on their VCR, and towards the end of the school year, we were allowed to watch the tape in class. Being both a Star Wars nerd and audiophile, I got permission to bring my Radio Shack tape recorder to school to open-air record the audio on a cassette tape, which served as my only means of reliving the entire film at home for a good year or two. Captured on the tape, the period bell rang somewhere in the middle of the Death Star battle, and to this day I can sometimes hear that phantom tone sounding while watching that scene.

    • Incredible! One thing I didn’t mention here was how many times SW was re-released theatrically after 1977: In August 1979 (with an ESB trailer), in April 1981, and in August 1982 (ROTJ trailer, just before the ONTV showing). I was there in 1979, but why don’t I remember 1982?

  2. In San Antonio around the same time, there was a pay TV channel called Showbiz, if I remember the name correctly. It was broadcast via microwave, and you would rent the microwave antenna and set-top box from Showbiz for a monthly fee. This was before cable was in many homes in the city. Some enterprising hobbyists built their own equipment to watch the channel for “free,” and soon a store called Pirate TV opened in San Antonio where one could buy a compatible antenna and box for a one-time fee. This is of course what my dad did, and after he nearly fell off our roof installing the antenna, it actually worked and we watched Showbiz for free for a few years until the company ceased broadcasting. Showbiz showed movies, often the same handful over and over. We must have seen The In-Laws with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin a thousand times.

  3. Heavy Metal Magazine #292 (late 2018) has a feature “She Comes at Midnight” by Rob Sheridan that very much made me think of those days when supposedly you could fiddle with the tuning on the scrambled channel and maybe see a boob or something. Never really worked for me.

  4. Pingback: Wicked Good TV: Memories of Local Boston Broadcasting in the ’80s

  5. Pingback: “A Closer Look”: HBO Feature Presentation Sequence, 1982

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