The Cable Wars: The Primordal Cable War for Dominance

ImageEmpires of Entertainment allows for the readers to delve into the world of television before the cable era and the changes that were brought about by the new market. The 1980s helped to shape the face of modern television by forming television into a more profitable medium. Amongst the various events and acquisitions that she mentions, perhaps the most significant was the dominance of HBO and Ted Turner’s Turner Entertainment for the majority of cable television’s history. The dominance of HBO in the 1980s allowed for the network to single-handedly slap the new market around and keep it in a stranglehold. HBO’s unique position intriguing as it was, allowed the network to get a foothold in the film industry as well as the cable industry, as Holt points out when she states that

WCI was the only conglomerate to have such significant interests in film and cable, placing Ross and the company well in front of the pack and definitely among the most forward-thinking in the business when it came to expanding the Warner Empire across media platforms.

This quote has shows the capacity that Warner had in the early cable industry to dominate the scene, and I found the fact that the failing studios put forth so much effort to stop HBO hilarious. While HBO was manhandling of the once dominant film industry almost single-handedly, the competition was hilariously scheming and working in collaboration with one another all to uproot the upstart. I found this history of a somewhat epic battle between the factions of the studios and the dominant HBO/Warner Cable intriguing. The fact that the industry went through such hurdles in order to even come into existence in the first place was what surprised me the most about this Holt reading.

As with most new markets, adaptability is always a concern, as the film and media industries were forever changed with the advent of file sharing and the availability of the internet. The new market of cable television understandably placed the old studio systems at a disadvantage, as noted by Holt who states that

“The release of two FCC studies in 1979— the Syndicated Exclusivity Report and the Economic Inquiry Report— was another boon to the cable industry. Initiated by Chairman Charles Ferris, who was in fact pursuing a deregulatory agenda even before his successor Mark Fowler, these studies concluded that cable television did not seriously threaten local broadcasting.”

The success of HBO and its dominance of cable had served to destabilize the studio system, which had become slow at adapting to the changes occurring in the industry. Another major modern example of an older medium facing elimination by a newer form shows itself in the form of the modern music industry, which has seen multiple changes in formats with the most recent being the shift away from physical music albums like CD’s and Records to digitized non-physical formats such as MP3s, MP4s and such.

While I personally will still purchase a CD on occasion, I cannot bring myself to actually purchase music online for my own reasons. I also never had cable television for the longest time and only got it recently, however Cable television was always something that intrigued me more so than regular broadcast because of the variety of programs that were available across a vast amount of channels, which seemed infinite in comparison to the normal broadcast television I was receiving. To think that had it not been for the efforts of the Department of Justice’s efforts to foster the cable industry, we may have a cable very different from the one that the majority of people enjoy and love today or no cable at all.

Another interesting aspect to Holt’s reading was the rivalry that finally developed as newer stations arose to challenge HBO and Warner/Turner’s dominance. The story of Ted Turner’s odd antics as told by Holt were especially noteworthy, as when she states

In 1983, a yacht sponsored by Rupert Murdoch crashed into Ted Turner’s vessel during the Sydney to Hobart race, causing Turner and his crew to run aground just six miles from the finish line. After returning to dry land, Turner challenged Murdoch to a live, televised fistfight in Las Vegas. While Murdoch did not take Turner up on his offer, this “exchange” between the two moguls in the early 1980s established the tone for their relationship over the next twenty years and kicked off the definitive rivalry in media industries— one that would even spur the pace of empire construction at times.

This rivalry amazingly helped shape modern cable, as Turner and Murdoch expanded each other’s influences. This history shows how things taken for granted today at one point struggled and fought even to exist in the first place, and became essential parts of American life.

Holt, Jennifer. Empires of Entertainment : Media Industries and the Politics of Deregulation, 1980-1996.

Piscataway, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2011. p 69.

Copyright © 2011. Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved.

Holt, Jennifer. Empires of Entertainment : Media Industries and the Politics of Deregulation, 1980-1996. Piscataway, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2011. p 24. Copyright © 2011. Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved.


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