The past future of television.

Friday, September 18th, 1998

I watched a tape of the future of television the other day–but it was an old tape of an old future. My friend had been to a reunion for employees of the first experiment in interactive television, and he brought back a dusty VHS filled with 1977-vintage optimism (and fashions).

They called it Qube (pronounced as if they had meant to type a ‘C’), and it was run by what is now Time Warner out of a remodeled appliance store in Columbus, Ohio. It would qualify as mediocre cable today–offering an then-unprecedented 30 channels of television. Ten ‘premium’, or pay-per-views. Ten local and regional channels. And since there was no national programming to speak of– HBO was a newborn, and WTBS (then called WTCG) snuck into a few cable homes via satellite–the Qubians spent what was then a bundle concocting hours of original, often-live, local programming to fill up those last ten blank spaces.

Imagine how stunning this was at the time–thirty channels! Why, that was, like, unlimited choice! Endless entertainment! This ancient tape showed interviews with experts who sagely predicted that this might just be too much of a good thing, that people couldn’t cope with that many channels of television. But heads didn’t explode, at least as far as I remember. Those same predictors added, by the way, that no matter how popular cable became, it would never make much of a dent in the audience share of the big three networks.

This bounty of choice was dialed up by proto-couch-potato Ohioans on a chunky remote control the size of a fat Bible, wired, yes, wired to a large set-top box. But what was cool, what made this must-have TV was a row of five buttons down the right side that gave viewers–gasp!–the ability to “talk back to their television set.” At any time, the hosts of “Columbus Alive!” or “Mr. Qubesumer” (terrifyingly and unquestionably Clark Howard’s direct ancestor) could ask the viewers of America’s Most Generic City their opinions on…well, how they liked their eggs. “Touch now!”, the flashing screen commanded, and moments later, the breathless hosts reported that 32% like them sunny side up, and…gee, it’s hard to see why this two way TV never caught on.

The real irony is, in and around the “Touch now” crap, there was actual, watchable (if uneven) locally-produced programming, including a channel for kids that evolved into Nickelodeon, sports coverage and local politics. It was stuff that hasn’t been consulted into a national melange that looks the same whether you’re in Georgia, Oregon, or Kansas. The local programming isn’t why they did it–the two-way features gave them a great excuse to wire the city into the impulse-buy heaven of pay-per-view, and in the days before video stores, that was a very attractive deal.

But it did fill a void, and here and now, in our city, amidst dozens of channels of indigestible “choice”, I’d touch any button you’ve got for some local programming that feels like here…like us, like how we like our eggs.