I’m fascinated by dead technology, and I’ve recently become enamored by Zenith Phonevision, an early, primitive experiment in pay-per-view television that got its start in Chicago in the 1950s. In 1951, after two decades of research, Zenith rolled out 300 TV sets to Lincoln Park and Lakeview, modified with a descrambler and a dedicated phone line. The 300 families watched 1.73 first-run movies a week, without commercial interruption, at $1 per.
What’s fun about the story is how much it reflects everything that always happens when a new entertainment technology is introduced. Seriously, not that much has changed.
1. The studios initially flipped out, blocking the release of their films, delaying FCC approval and sending the Zenith subsidiary stock tumbling (Daily Tribune, May 26, 1950).
2. Then the studios took a familiar “we’ll wait and see but it’s going to fail anyway” attitude: “[Paramount Pictures president Barney] Balaban told Paramount shareholders at their annual meeting in New York that the company, after giving careful study to every aspect of phonevision, doubts its basic technical and economic feasibility. He asserted that ‘we believe that these technical and economic objections are inherent in the device. . .’ Balaban reiterated assertions that there is no direct relationship between the increase in sales of television sets and a decrease in the film business.” (June 7, 1950)
3. Zenith countered by claiming Phonevision was the future of the movie business: “Eugene F. McDonald Jr., Zenith president, at a meeting with film industry executives early this year asserted that phonevision ‘will save the film industry financially unless somebody fumbles the ball.'” (June 7, 1950)
4. Gadget critics rejoiced about a convenient, inferior product! “Our viewing group sat absorbed. For 90 minutes no one left the living room. While pictures on a 16 inch screen are not comparable to theater sized pictures, the group was pretty well agreed this is the way to see movies. . . . ‘It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,’ he said afterward. ‘This is it.'” (January 2, 1951)
5. Wall Street rejoiced! “Radio-television issues were early risers, with Zenith ahead $3.50 at $65.50 on enthusiastic ‘phonevision’ reports.” (Feburary 9, 1951)
6. People enjoyed crappy, free versions: “Phonevision parties are the latest fad and you don’t even have to have PV on your TV to enjoy it. . . . The pictures come in jiggly–but not so jiggly that a lot of people aren’t watching them, since the sound track comes in fine.” (January 14, 1951)
7. Content merchants felt shafted by technology and content providers: “Not so backward in giving their views on phonevision are the theater owners. They don’t like it. Summed up, their opinion is that ‘phonevision is the greatest threat to exhibitors conceived to date.'” (April 15, 1951)
8. The NCAA looked to Phonevision as a way of making buckets of money! “Tom Hamilton, University of Pittsburgh athletic director and member of the N.C.A.A. video committee spoke for the majority when he said ‘We are not required to give football away to the public. . . .’ Phonevision won’t satisfy everyone and many technical problems are involved in its use, but it would provide more potential revenue to colleges than they have ever dreamed of siphoning thru stadia box offices.” (December 9, 1950; Cf. the Big Ten Network scrum)