Often, a hunt for an obscure video will end in tears, possibly a dead end.
(Only occasionally, as a writer of mine did recently, will we uncover video after much looking.)
Sometimes, though, it might lead to something else just as interesting. That’s the situation I ran into recently when a reader asked if I could find any info on a public access show called “Tabloid TV,” a possible parody show that ran in Maryland or DC in the late ’80s or early ’90s. I did some looking, but have come up dry so far.
But in my search, I found something that’s possibly even crazier. Let’s talk about the time that UHF tried to compete with HBO. Which, yes, is something that actually happened.
Wait, why would people want to buy TV on UHF? Didn’t they have cable?
As it turns out, cable television just wasn’t moving fast enough for the tastes of the big-city American public, and the early structure of the cable television industry was a big reason why.
The industry wasn’t controlled by a handful of companies like Charter and Comcast; it was the realm of a country full of startups, all of which had to lay wire in homes around the country. Home Box Office, or HBO, was awesome, but it just wasn’t an option in most homes for more than a decade after its 1972 creation.
A good comparison point here is the drawn-out process to get fiber-optic cable installed in cities and neighborhoods around the country. We’ve made progress on this front, but we’re still decades off from full coverage. (Hong Kong had better luck.) Verizon FiOS is great if your neighborhood has it, but the company is weirdly slow about expanding its reach; Google has essentially given up on its fiber dreams.
Cable was a highly factionalized industry, and people willing to take crazy risks, like Ted Turner, were richly rewarded in the long run. But, in the short term, most of the public was left out, even in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington.
And that created an opportunity for UHF (ultra high frequency): a type of television signal that was, for a number of years, ignored by the TV-watching public despite the fact that it greatly expanded the number of options available via broadcast. In 1962, the federal government passed a law called the All-Channel Receiver Act that required new televisions to support UHF (ultra high frequency) signals. But even after that, UHF was treated as a second-class citizen on the television dial and it took some homes many years to upgrade to a set that could support the wider channel ranges.
Nonetheless, while it wasn’t perfect, UHF helped make room for public television stations, for locally-owned channels without any ties to a national network, for religious broadcasting, and for home-shopping services.
And for a time, UHF also made room for premium television.