Before the Internet became a limitless font of pornography just a mouse click away, late-night premium cable TV was pretty much the best thing ever invented, as far as teenage boys were concerned. And, okay, all those hundreds of other cable channels weren’t bad either.
Cable TV started way back in the late 1940s as a way of getting television to rural areas: receiving towers picked up distant signals and distributed them to local subscribers via cable. Because the receiving towers could pick up broadcasts from hundreds of miles away, many cable subscribers actually had more viewing choices than households with plain old “bunny ears” broadcast TV. Local broadcasters supported by the Big Three Networks complained about the new competition, prompting the FCC to clamp down on cable in the 1960s.
But it’s hard to stop a good idea, especially when it has the potential to deliver porn to private households. 1972 brought the beginning of cable deregulation and the first premium pay cable company, HBO. The creators envisioned a cable network allowing wealthy Manhattanites to watch movies in the comfort of their own luxury apartments. It was bought by Time, Inc., and went national in September 1975.
In December 1976, a man who owned a local Atlanta-based station wanted to use satellite to achieve national reach for programming. The man’s name? R.E. “Ted” Turner. Ted’s channels were dominated by sitcoms, cartoons, old movies, and sports. But unlike HBO, Turner distributed his content for free, making money by selling advertising at cheaper rates than the broadcast networks.
The late part of the decade brought a flurry of new cable networks both free and premium, and couch potatoes couldn’t have been happier: Showtime debuted in March 1978, The Movie Channel in January 1979, and the Entertainment and Sports Network in September 1979. In June 1980 Ted Turner revolutionized TV (again) with the launch of CNN, providing 24-hour news coverage. Two months later HBO launched Cinemax to compete with The Movie Channel and Showtime. Before long, the intensifying competition pushed all four movie channels to switch to round-the-clock programming.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that these vast media empires were built to a considerable degree on smut. HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs himself told a new employee that “randy guys are a major part of our demographic.” In the early 1980s, The Movie Channel enjoyed rapid growth as the only premium movie channel to show R-rated movies in daytime, prompting Showtime and Cinemax to do the same. In 1982 the Playboy Channel launched with 340,000 subscribers, which jumped to 750,000 by 1985 — but when execs foolishly tried to take the channel more “mainstream,” subscribers tumbled to 400,000 by 1988. Meanwhile, competitors clearly understood the formula for Playboy’s success: in 1984 Bridget Potter, the head of original programming for HBO, issued a directive that Cinemax would focus on classy softcore porn. Her exact instructions? “Spicy but not obscene.”
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