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Popular Science

How Pay-Per-View Television Worked in 1951

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Popular Science

Eugene McDonald enjoyed taking risks. He was an avid outboard motor racer who was fond of arduous polar expeditions and showing off his collection of gangster-used firearms. In the late 1940s, what he was proposing to do may have been the most radical idea of them all: getting people to pay for television, one program at a time.

McDonald was chairman of Zenith, a radio and television manufacturer since the 1920s. At the end of World War II, the company was able to revisit concepts they had been stockpiling. Among them was McDonald’s plan for something called Phonevision. A box would sit on top of a television and connect to a phone line; the viewer would be given a schedule for feature films. If they wanted to watch something, they’d dial a dedicated call center and request the signal be unscrambled—more specifically, that several key frequencies missing in the signal be sent over the telephone line. Each time they phoned in, one dollar would be added to their phone bill.

Phonevision, McDonald asserted, was the answer to television’s inability to secure theatrical films. They were too costly, with advertisers who paid for conventional programming unable to afford the rights. But with the consumer paying, that hurdle would be eliminated. Better, viewers wouldn’t have to suffer through advertising. The films would be commercial-free.

There was just one problem: the movie studios.

McDonald was turned down flat by the major film players of the era; they were beholden to theater owners, who were soured by the notion of having to compete with television for film audiences. One studio, 20th Century Fox, even went so far as to spread word they’d be screening television signals in theaters, reversing McDonald’s idea.

Eventually, McDonald managed to secure the rights for a handful of forgettable titles for a test run. In 1951, Zenith installed Phonevision into 300 Chicago-area households for 90 days to assess whether the idea had any merit. One movie a day was shown in the afternoon, evening, and late night. Almost immediately, the company found that people were tinkering with the boxes in an early form of content pirating; others were happy to watch a scrambled picture with clear sound.

The grand experiment didn’t prove much of anything. While households ordered an average of 1.7 movies per week, the fare was mediocre: 1945’s The Enchanted Cottage or the 1947 Alan Ladd vehicle Wild Harvest failed to attract attention. Worse, the distorted signals were subject to further interruption by passing planes or trucks. Zenith would later toy with Phonevision in New York and even Australia, but nothing seemed to gain traction; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had jurisdiction over a nationwide rollout and appeared unable to come to a decision.

Despite the hurdles, Zenith wasn’t without imitators. Skiatron was launched in 1952 and used IBM punch cards for orders and billing; Telemeter, which was owned in part by an enlightened Paramount Pictures, had a coin-operated device for the home. Zenith itself re-entered the market in 1961, this time armed with an RKO studio partnership and a sizable library of movies. But color television hadn’t yet reached a wide audience, and viewers were reluctant to pay for older films in black and white when they could catch newer films in theaters. Phonevision floated along at a loss until 1969.

Zenith had nonetheless proved “pay as you go” television was a viable business model. When cable boxes became more pervasive in the late 1980s, professional wrestling and boxing found a lucrative new source of income. But programming that strayed from combat sports was often a bust: a pay-per-view course on taking the SAT exams was a flop, as was NBC’s attempt to monetize the 1992 Olympic Games. Infamously, a deal for O.J. Simpson to be interviewed following his murder trial in 1995 was canned when boycotts were threatened.

Even in today’s fractured programming landscape, the right prizefight can still entice people into paying as much as $89.95 for a single evening’s entertainment. Maybe the next boxer who offers his thanks to trainers and sponsors should also mention Eugene McDonald, yet another man who suffered from the unfortunate condition of being ahead of his time.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]


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