This curious advertisement has been floating around since 1964. Titled “Keep TV Free,” it paints a dire picture of a future with only pay television and asks the citizens of California to become involved. So what was happening in California at that time deemed so threatening to free television?
The advertisement refers to a nearly forgotten chapter in television history: a pay television service sold by Subscription Television, Inc., more commonly known as STV. STV was headed by Sylvester (Pat) Weaver, previously the chairman at NBC. Weaver was responsible for many television milestones at NBC, including the creation of the “Today” show and “participation advertising,” the practice of networks selling advertising within shows. In the early 1960’s, he became interested in creating a pay television service to potentially rival the networks. STV began wiring up houses in San Francisco and Los Angeles with plans to ultimately expand the service nationwide.
The STV system sounds as though it was quite ambitious. It consisted of three channels with entirely original programming. In modern language, I think it would be called a pay-per-view rather than pay-TV service, with most users expected to pay between $10 and $20 a month for programming ($68 to $136 in inflation adjusted dollars). According to a 1964 LIFE article, the biggest draws were baseball games from the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Other highlights included an education series called Primer for Moderns, concerts by Arthur Rubinstein and Van Cliburn, a children’s show called Cable Kindergarten, and a recording of the off-Broadway play The Trojan Women. There were also plans for movies created exclusively for STV.
Projections were for 40,000 subscribers upon launch, although actual totals turned out to be closer to 9,400. But the biggest unexpected obstacle was the concerted opposition from owners of movie theaters and television stations. A 1964 TIME magazine article described some of the criticisms:
The argument they offered was that pay-TV customers would one day find themselves paying to see shows they now see for nothing. And carrying the argument a bit farther, they also warned that pay TV could become just as commercial as contemporary network television.
(It’s interesting to note that both of these scenarios did eventually happen, just decades later.)
Through groups such as “Citizens Committee for Free TV,” they organized a very effective campaign to rally support for a California ballot measure banning pay television. Using advertisements, such as the one above intended for movie theaters, they gathered enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot. Proposition 15 passed by a two to one margin on November 3, 1964 and STV was forced to shut down.
STV promptly sued to overturn Proposition 15. The California Supreme Court eventually ruled Proposition 15 unconstitutional in March 1966, calling it “an abridgment of the free speech guaranties of state and federal Constitutions.” But STV was long out of money by that time and the service never resumed.
I think this quote from television producer Sheldon Leonard best summed up the problem with STV:
I think the people at STV are operating under two erroneous assumptions: 1) that they will find new lodes of talent, and 2) that the television audience wants something essentially different than it is getting now.
Successful pay television would have to wait until the creation of HBO in November 1972.