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QUBE was a cable television system that played a pivotal role in the history of American cable television. Launched in Columbus, Ohiomarker in December 1977, QUBE introduced viewers, and the international press, to several concepts that became central to the future development of cable television: pay-per-view programs, special-interest cable television networks, and interactive services.

History

A closed-circuit television system at the Otani Hotel in Japanmarker inspired Steve Ross, Chairman of Warner Communications, to wonder what could be done to improve the performance of Warner’s tiny cable television division. Ross was intrigued by the potential of delivering Warner Bros. movies directly to home subscribers.

At the time, Warner Cable was a tiny division of Warner Communications, run by a former Western Union telecommunications executive and attorney, Gus Hauser. Ross surrounded Hauser with entertainment industry executives—Jac Holzman, who had sold his Elektra Records to Ross in 1967; Mike Dann, the CBS programming wizard responsible for The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres; former CBS general counsel Spencer Harrison, who was the primary reason why My Fair Lady got produced on Broadway; and super-agent Ted Ashley, whose talent agency was Ross’s first show-biz acquisition.

Pioneer Electronics was hired to "build the box" that would transform the cable TV service in a few hundred thousand households into a device that was intended to change the entire entertainment landscape.

The service was first launched in Columbus, Ohio amidst considerable national and international press coverage. There were 30 channels (a comparatively large number for 1977) including 10 pay-per-view movie channels (a new feature for cable TV); 10 broadcast channels (from Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Cleveland); and 10 community channels. Among the community channels was Pinwheel, later reworked to become Nickelodeon, a weather channel, a learning channel, and a channel filled with locally produced programs that showed off QUBE's interactivity.

The success of QUBE

To 30,000 homes scattered around the city and its suburbs, the goal of the QUBE was rather simple: "To create a faster method for groups to communicate and interact, across distance."

The system allowed Warner Cable to acquire valuable cable franchises. This made it possible for the company to build and create cable monopolies in several large markets throughout the country. Warner QUBE was “awarded” cable franchises in cities such as Houston, Milwaukee, Dallas, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Although the QUBE was discontinued before it became widespread, many of its fundamental aspects became important parts of television: pay-per-view and On Demand, MTV and Nickelodeon. QUBE itself was successfully installed and used in half the homes in Columbus, and the interactive results showed a high volume of participation from viewers who had the QUBE box and remote. The later remotes added five additional buttons for a total of ten options, and became wireless.

After the other systems were launched beyond Columbus, QUBE Columbus created an interactive network that sent live, interactive programming to each of the QUBE systems for two hours five nights a week. One of the most popular programs was called "Soap Scoop", which wrapped up the daily events on each of the national soap operas. Guests included producers and actors from the various programs, and often viewers were polled on their opinions regarding characters and plots.

The failures of QUBE

However, building new cable systems caused Warner Cable to rack up significant losses. By 1982, Warner Cable was running a $99 million loss, and by 1983, the total debt was $875 million. Consequently, cash-rich American Express was brought in as an investor. Warner-Amex Cable Communications was formed with a stellar board of directors, including American Express chairman Jim Robinson and President Lou Gerstner, and the former head of Shearson/American Express, Sanford Weill. However, conflicts between Warner and American Express led American Express to make an offer to buy Warner’s position. Instead, Warner chose to buy out American Express.

By this time, MTV and Nickelodeon were becoming meaningful endeavors in their own right, with powerful leaders in Bob Pittman and Geraldine Layborne. And QUBE was either up and running or already built in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Dallas, Houston, and St. Louis. Warner Cable was no longer a fledgling 200,000-subscriber operation; there were 2 million subscribers, roughly 1/10 of the entire cable subscriber universe. Pittman led an unsuccessful effort to buy MTV; there was also an unsuccessful attempt at a public offering. Gus Hauser was gone, replaced by Reagan’s future Transportation Secretary, Drew Lewis.

Lewis renegotiated with municipalities to ease the burden to Warner of some of the cable franchise deals, but in order to keep the cable operation going, Warner Cable had to sell MTV and Nickelodeon to Viacom, and the QUBE systems were phased out over a period of years, with the last QUBE boxes being phased out in 1994.

Post-QUBE

Despite its shortcomings and short existence, QUBE occupied a unique place in media history: it was a venture that encouraged entrepreneurial media activities, and so, it provided a unique foundation for a disproportionately large number of media innovators.

Some examples of people who worked on QUBE moving on to other television innovations are:



QUBE programming

  • Talent Search (produced by Emmy-award winning producer Robert Morton, who subsequently produced Late Night with David Letterman), was a variety show featuring local talent; audiences rated each performer and, when the score dropped below an acceptable level, the performance was stopped.
  • Columbus Alive was a homey talk show (produced and co-hosted by Ron Giles, who subsequently developed QVC's format for television).
  • Larry's Room was an interactive children's show hosted by Larry Odebrecht.
  • Flippo's Magic Circus was a children's series that featured in-studio and play-at-home interactive games.
  • How Do You Like Your Eggs? was a four-episode game show hosted by Bill Cullen in which two couples would predict how the home audience responded to questions.


QUBE remote

The QUBE remote was a small box that had 18 buttons on it, all which sent signals across a wire to a cable box on top of the television. The buttons were split up on the remote: with ten buttons on the left hand side, five larger buttons on the right hand side, and three buttons on the bottom of the remotes. The three big buttons on the bottom chose which type of channel the viewer would watch: pay-per-view, broadcast, or community broadcasting. The ten buttons on the left accessed individually accessed each of the ten channels in each television setting. The row of 5 buttons on the right hand side corresponded with the interactive aspect of the QUBE. This meant that the television program could ask the viewer a question with five possible answers. Answers to polls taken via the QUBE "could be collected from the set-top boxes in six seconds." A computer would record the information, and then display the results on the television screen for everyone to see.

See also



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