My Analog Adventures - When Cable Came To Town - Part 2


James Layton

We now move on to Part Two of my early experiences with cable television. At first I thought to myself “I must be old”, telling these ancient stories. Then I realized that this is really about how quickly technology changes our life in many small ways. I'm not old, technology just moved fast!

I’ll pick up the story just after cable television was the new normal. By normal I mean everybody had it. The motels and hotels on the island advertised free color TV and cable in the guest rooms. Our local TV station managed a special information channel. It was a simple static screen, which displayed rotating messages. The messages were geared toward community announcements, firehouse breakfast events, weather and tides. There was an interesting musical backing track that played only easy listening material, like show and movie themes. Think Henry Mancini and The Mantovani Orchestra. Something like this...

and this.

Even though I was a 70’s rocker kid I found comfort is this peaceful soundtrack. It reminded me of a safe, loving home. It still does. In fact, the TV channel still exists and plays the same music. Even the design layout is the same. This “old people” music, as it was called in its day, is now cool retro and can be found in top films and series like Mad Men. Cable made this type of community bulletin board and message crawl possible long before we had on-line forums, group texts and e-mail.

Back then, you paid subscription fees based on how many TVs you had connected to the main cable. The whole cable thing was new technology for most people. No one knew what coax cable was. It had a weird stiff point that if broken (by fiddling around with the cable), signal was lost. The coax connected to a matching transformer that had two wires on the end. These two wires attached to your TV where an external antenna usually went. There was NO coax connector on those old televisions.

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The cable guy was like a modern day IT wizzard. He had all the tools, knew the tricks and was able to use them. There were no home center chains. You could not walk into a hardware store and buy coax cable, the fittings or even the tool to clamp the fittings onto the cable. I believe Radio Shack started carrying the gear later. In other words, getting your hands on this stuff was not easy. Why would you want to? To add more TVs to the cable network. If you knew how, you could, under the cover of darkness, sneak to the basement and make your own coax cables. But what about signal splitters? They were like some mystical key that unlocked a time-travel portal to television bliss. Yes. Radio Shack to the rescue but it was still “not allowed” by the cable company. I do not know if there were any actual laws back then about fooling with cable in your home.

Since cable-jacking materials were hard to come by, some people did some sketchy things to get the hardware needed to add cable TV outlets to their homes. I heard a story from one such individual. The cable guy would come into the small auto parts store to pick up supplies for the truck fleet. While a parts guy took the cable guy into the back room to keep him busy, another parts guy leapt into action. In a matter of 60 seconds the cable truck doors would be flung open and coax would be peeled off the reel. Hardware too. Then, like a NASCAR pit crew, it would all be over and the driver on his way. Yes, it was like that back then. But there is more.

Cable was run from the street pole to the home. Then the cable was brought to the side of the house where the TV was. The cable guy drilled a hole in the house and fed in the cable. If you wanted to hook up a second TV it required an outdoor water-proof splitter, like the cable company used. Where to find one? Easy. There were plenty of empty hotels during the winter months. Just disconnect a splitter and use it on your own home. There were tales of close neighbors sharing a single cable subscription between two houses or apartments. It was possible to degrade the signal, but no worries. Signal amplifiers, common on hotel systems, were to be had. Some guys actually climbed the electrical pole and tapped into the cable system directly. If you had the tools and know-how, you could do it. Later, as more pay channels came on-line, filters were added onto the cable distribution box, up on the pole. Want to add or remove a filter? Get a ladder, find your cable, and get the job done.

Cable television was a new and exciting technology for kids and adults back then. It was certainly a black box, full of magic and mystery that many found fun to open up and experiment with. I’m sure the cable company did not appreciate it. I have a feeling that they did not really have the time or technology to sniff out the offenders, like today. I’ll admit that as a child I ran some extra cable from our TV to my Soundesign stereo system.

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Why? If you connected the two wires from the coax adapter to the antenna input of an FM radio reception was incredible. Yet another cable secret from the past. If anyone asks, you did not hear it from me.


Yes. The internet is both a source of good and false information. I am amazed how many times I respond to my wife..."WHERE did you hear that? Facebook?." If yes, 50 50 chance it is false.