History of Cable Television
The Early Days
More than a half-century ago, a single technology was developed and introduced in Pennsylvania that has provided entertainment, education and information for tens of millions of Americans. What began as a local Community Antenna Television service to improve reception of over-the-air broadcast signals has transformed into 24/7 pipeline of video, data and voice services that eight out of ten Pennsylvania households enjoy. Cable television, formally known as Community Antenna Television or CATV, was born in the mountains of Pennsylvania in the late 1940s. At the time, there were only a few television stations, located mostly in larger cities. People who didn't live in a city, or in a location where signals could be received easily, were unable to watch television.
John Walson, an appliance store owner in the small town of Mahanoy City (Schuylkill County), had difficulty selling television sets to local residents because reception in the area was so poor. The problem was the location of the town in a valley almost 90 air miles from the Philadelphia television transmitters. Naturally, the signals could not pass through the mountain and clear reception was virtually impossible, except on the ridges outside of town. To solve his reception problem, Mr. Walson - in June 1948 - put an antenna on top of a nearby mountain. Television signals were received and transported over twin-lead antenna wires directly to his store. Once local residents saw these early results, television sales soared. Walson worked to improve the picture quality by using coaxial cable and self-manufactured "boosters" (amplifiers) to bring CATV to the homes of customers who bought television sets. In Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, cable television was born.
Milton Jerrold Shapp, who later was elected governor of Pennsylvania during the 1970s, developed a master antenna television system to eliminate the forest of antennas for city department stores and apartment buildings. Mr. Shapp's system used coaxial cable and signal boosters, capable of carrying multiple signals at once.
At about the same time in the nearby town of Lansford, another appliance salesman named Robert Tarlton experienced the same problem as Mr. Walson. He read about Mr. Shapp's new system and thought if it worked for apartment houses and department stores, it could work for his own town as well. Mr. Walson in the early 1950s and later other system owners like Joseph Gans of Hazleton and Claude Reinhard of Palmerton soon began to experiment with microwave to bring the signals from distant cities. Pennsylvania systems that only had three channels--one for each network--soon had six, seven or more channels as operators imported programs from independent stations in New York and Philadelphia. Because of the variety it offered viewers, cable became more attractive and eventually moved into cities as people recognized it provided clearer reception (free of shadows and ghosts caused by signals reflecting off downtown buildings) and wanted more viewing choice.
...and, in 1957, the first state association
To advance the interests of this emerging industry, cable operators like George and Yolanda Barco, Joe and Irene Gans, George Gardner, Claude Reinhard, John Rigas, Bob Tarlton, and others worked to form two trade associations, first a national association and later a state association.
Mr. Tarlton described the first days of BCAP during a 1993 "Oral History" interview with The Cable Center: "I called all the Pennsylvania operators together for a breakfast, including Marty Malarkey. I said, 'Look, we've got enough problems here in Pennsylvania, unique to Pennsylvania, to warrant an organization, an association.' I guess Pennsylvania was really the first state association. I don't want to be too firm on this, but I think it was. Other states followed but Pennsylvania was the first. We had formed a state association which moved to Washington and became the national association, so we then organized a Pennsylvania association. I was elected president for the first two years and then I served on the board of directors for a number of years."
"...Later, I can't remember the dates, I was asked to take over as executive director because we needed day-to-day contact with Harrisburg. That was my first experience as an unofficial lobbyist in Harrisburg. It wasn't because I was so familiar with Harrisburg politics, but largely because my friend Bill Scott, an owner of our company, was active in the Republican party. He was first a representative and then elected to the Senate. He was very influential in the legislature and the assembly and he became majority caucus chairman. That was the Republican party. So he was influential in the party and in the political structure there. He kept me informed and advised me what to do. Consequently, others would turn to me for, 'Bob Tarlton knows what's going on in Harrisburg.' I was a registered lobbyist of the association. A few years ago they retained an executive director and I stepped aside. That's the extent of the Pennsylvania association. The forerunner of it was the national association and it was natural that we organized the Pennsylvania association."
"...I can recall that the first meeting was called together because of the possibility of an 8 percent federal excise tax. We discussed any number of things and I think that's why it was originally called a council. We'd had a council for discussions. We might be able to purchase equipment more economically as a group. Things like that. Anything of mutual interest. That's what prompted the national organization. When the national moved out, there was a void in Pennsylvania. I remember I was acting kind of as an executive director without any organization whatsoever. And that's what prompted me to say we'd better organize. I had been alerting cable systems across the state about relative legislation in Harrisburg, explaining it and suggesting they contact their own representatives with their thoughts. I found myself functioning without having any real authority or responsibility. That's what prompted the organization." (The Cable Center, Oral and Video History Program, Robert J. Tarlton Oral History Interview)
Mr. Tarlton became president of the Pennsylvania Community Antenna Television Association in 1957, later renamed the Pennsylvania Cable Television Association (PCTA). With legal help from the Barcos and grassroots lobbying help from many cable operators, the association fostered some of the landmark court decisions and crafted some of the early legislation that allowed the industry to evolve to be the leader in telecommunication it is today. Changing its name to the Pennsylvania Cable & Telecommunications Association in 1995, the association formally adopted its current "broadband" identity as BCAP in 2004.