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How Pay-Per-View Television Worked in 1951

Popular Science
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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How Google Chrome’s New Built-In Ad Blocker Will Change Your Browsing Experience
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If you can’t stand web ads that auto-play sound and pop up in front of what you’re trying to read, you have two options: Install an ad blocker on your browser or avoid the internet all together. Starting Thursday, February 15, Google Chrome is offering another tool to help you avoid the most annoying ads on the web, Tech Crunch reports. Here’s what Google Chrome users should expect from the new feature.

Chrome’s ad filtering has been in development for about a year, but the details of how it will work were only recently made public. “While most advertising on the web is respectful of user experience, over the years we've increasingly heard from our users that some advertising can be particularly intrusive,” Google wrote in a blog post. “As we announced last June, Chrome will tackle this issue by removing ads from sites that do not follow the Better Ads Standards.

That means the new feature won’t block all ads from publishers or even block most of them. Instead, it will specifically target ads that violate the Better Ad Standards that the Coalition for Better Ads recommends based on consumer data. On desktop, this includes auto-play videos with sound, sticky banners that follow you as you scroll, pop-ups, and prestitial ads that make you wait for a countdown to access the site. Mobile Chrome users will be spared these same types of ads as well as flashing animations, ads that take up more than 30 percent of the screen, and ads the fill the whole screen as you scroll past them.

These criteria still leave room for plenty of ads to show up online—the total amount of media blocked by the feature won’t even amount to 1 percent of all ads. So if web browsers are looking for an even more ad-free experience, they should use Chrome’s ad filter as a supplement to one of the many third-party ad blockers out there.

And if accessing content without navigating a digital obstacle course first doesn’t sound appealing to you, don’t worry: On sites where ads are blocked, Google Chrome will show a notification that lets you disable the feature.

[h/t Tech Crunch]

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Why Subliminal Messaging Doesn't Work (Unless You Want It To)
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Subliminal messages—hidden phrases in TV programs, movies, and ads—probably won't make you run out and join the Navy, appreciate a band's music, or start smoking. That's because these sneaky suggestions don't really change consumer behavior, even though many people believe otherwise, according to Sci Show Psych.

We say "don't really" because subliminal messages can sway the already motivated, research shows. For example, a 2002 study of 81 college students found that parched subjects drank more water after being subliminally primed with words like "dry" and "thirsty." (Participants who weren't already thirsty drank less.) A follow-up experiment involving 35 undergrads yielded similar results, with dehydrated students selecting sports drinks described as "thirst-quenching" over "electrolyte-restoring" after being primed for thirst. Experiments like these won't work on, say, chocolate-loving movie audiences who are subliminally instructed by advertisers to purchase popcorn instead.

Learn more about how subliminal messaging affects (or doesn't affect) our decision-making, and why you likely won't encounter ads with under-the-radar suggestions on the regular.

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