Threads of Correspondence: Washington Channels


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Threads: Washington Channels

Letters written by me, updated December 2002
to include the period 1974-1980

More About Threads



Background:  My second job in broadcasting brought me from Ohio to Pennsylvania.  I became the program director at TV-3, part of the cable system in the small city of Washington, the home of Washington & Jefferson College.  I would stay with TV-3 for six years.

The letters that I wrote during this period, to friends as well as to my supervisors and other business associates, make a rather lengthy article.  I've broken it into four quarters.  Highlights include:

 
Start of 1st Quarter . . .

Saturday, February 16, 1974

Just to keep the records straight, I thought I'd better write to tell you that I now (as you can tell from the letterhead) have a new job.  I'm the program director here in Washington, Pennsylvania.

As you probably surmised from my letters over the last year or two, I was getting dissatisfied at Marion, but was still hanging on.  However, around Christmas the regional office indicated they were planning on cutting off all studio programs at Marion as of March 1.  They would continue movies and remotes, but they felt that keeping a studio staff was just too costly.  I was told that I would continue to have a job — others would not be so lucky — but my job would probably be answering service complaints and dispatching crews to fix the cable, which is not where my training and interests lie.

So, when a former Marion manager who now works for Tower Communications mentioned to me that Tower needed a program director for their Washington operation, I indicated to him that I was interested.  That was on January 11.

Washington is a town a little smaller than Marion, located about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.  On January 19, I came over here to look over the operation and found a well-planned, good-looking studio in a building that was new only a few months ago.  They aren't doing a great deal of programming now, but they hope to upgrade and expand it, and that's why they wanted me.  I was formally offered the job on January 21 and accepted.  I turned in my resignation on January 25, and my last day at Marion was two weeks later, February 8.  On February 10, last Sunday, I drove over here and got a motel room, and on February 11 I started work.  There you have the chronology.

I'm still in the learning stage, finding out what's going on.  In another week or two I'll start ordering people around, I guess.  The problem seems to be that they're willing to work, but need leadership and motivation.  I'll see what I can do.

Hopefully, next week I'll start apartment-hunting.

TV-3 has a daily hour-long show they call Greater Washington Today.  It consists of about 20 minutes of local news, followed by about 10 minutes of a news-type interview, followed by 30 minutes of additional talking.  This final half-hour is conducted by a set of five guest hosts, one for each night of the week; they all work without pay, just for the fun of being on TV.  The whole thing is done partly live and partly on tape between 5:00 and 6:00 in the evening, and replayed between 7:00 and 8:00.

This picture, taken before I arrived in Washington, shows the Greater Washington Today anchor desk in one corner of the TV-3 studio.  The cloud-shaped sign on the far left was part of the adjoining set for Bingo, while the carpet on the right was part of the interview set.

One of my jobs, I understand, will be to rejuvenate this program.  It was originally designed to emulate NBC's Today show, but it got sidetracked.  What I'd like to try to do is break everything up into units no longer than 8 to 10 minutes.  Instead of the half-hour interview, we might have an interview in three parts, interspersed with a few news items, a book review, the weather report, another short interview, the stock markets, and so on.  I'd also like to get some conversation going between the anchorman and the guest hosts during the transitions, to make the show more informal.  I may also suggest doing some of the commercials live.

Right now everything is still in the thinking stage, though.  It may take another three weeks to decide what we ought to do.  We're aiming for April 1 for a complete change, including a new set, new intros, and so on.


HIGH SCHOOL CAMERAMAN

Aside from GWT, we do two sports events a week here, taping them on Tuesday and Friday nights and showing the tapes on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings.

Surprisingly, the biggest high school sport in this part of the state is not football or basketball, but wrestling.

 

Saturday, February 23, 1974

As far as the [cable distribution] system itself is concerned, I haven't learned too much; I don't talk with the cable people very often.  I think the head-end uses Channel Commander I's, with Starline Twenty amplifiers.  I did find out that they run sound levels a little lower than Marion does, relative to picture levels.  Here, sound is 18 to 20 db down from picture.  They say they have fewer problems that way.  (This is a 12-channel system with two of the 12 not used at present, but they're hoping to get FCC permission to microwave in Channels 43 and 61 from Cleveland.)

In the studio, many of the technical problems are familiar ones.  For example, the Diamond Power cameras were not designed with external black-level controls, so the ones they have here have been modified by installing a pot with its shaft sticking out of the bottom of the camera.  Toggle switches have been added at the back of the camera for switching to composite operation and for switching to internal drives.  There already was, however, a toggle switch which turns control over to the control room for the target, beam, and focus settings, plus also now black level.

Both cameras were recently aligned by the local engineers, but one of them stretches out the picture on the left side.  Also, one is smearing intermittently, just like one of the Ampexes in Marion; and one is sometimes changing vertical size with flashing, again like a problem I've seen before.  And the tilt lock on the tripods doesn't work properly.

So really, then, conditions aren't all that much better here; it's more of the same sort of struggle of which I was a part for three and a half years at Marion.  But the big difference is that here we're still doing programming, with a commitment from the home office to do more and better programming.  My move here wasn't a big step forward, but rather a step sideways in order to stay on the ladder.

And by the way, with gasoline stations going out on strike this weekend [to protest high wholesale prices], the manager says that in another week when someone calls up for service he's going to have to tell them "We'll come out if you'll sent us a couple of gallons of gas."  Don't make any trips to this part of the country to visit; you may not be able to get back to Ohio.  I'm enjoying myself, though; I'm getting back into my collegiate habit of walking a mile or so to lunch.

 

A revised studio layout for Greater Washington Today, March, 1974.  Our two black-and-white cameras are highlighted in yellow.  There are three sets:  a news desk (unfortunately without backlight), a formal interview area with a desk and two or three chairs, and an informal interview area with a dark curtain and three armchairs.  Most of the other marks on this diagram indicate the location of the lighting instruments:  two "scoops" for overall illumination, two 650-watt spotlights, four 1000-watt spotlights, three backlights for the interview areas, and two set lights to throw highlights on the curtain.

 

Saturday, March 16, 1974

Among the Democratic candidates challenging the incumbent state senator from this area in the May primary is the sheriff, Alex Debreczeni.  That's a hard name to remember.  So, the way politics works around here, the incumbent's supporters got out their list of registered Democrats and talked three additional men into running:  cosmetologist Alex Dombrowsky, student Robert Dominski, and retiree Anthony Dobrinski.  The incumbent's supporters hope that many of the voters who back Sheriff Debreczeni will become confused and vote for one of the ringers by mistake, thereby reducing the sheriff's chances.  Isn't politics wonderful?

 

Sunday, April 14, 1974

Two weeks ago today, at the studio we had a six-hour TV auction to benefit a boys' baseball tournament that will be held here in August.  We raised just a few dollars short of $2,000.  I put in a lot or work to organize the auction, and as a result won myself an unasked-for raise.

Photographed in the TV-3 studio are my boss Jim Loker, the operations manager of Washington Channels; John Duskey, chairman of the Bronco Series committee; me; and Anthony Spossey, president of Washington's Bronco League. The picture ran in the Washington Observer-Reporter to promote our upcoming fundraising event.

The next big project is a Red Cross telethon, next Sunday from 2 until 10.  We shouldn't have to do as much work on this one, as the Red Cross seems to be doing most of the organizing.

I'm also scheduled to give the talk at the weekly Lions Club meeting this coming Wednesday.  And I'm now a scoutmaster; we have an Explorers post meeting at the studio once every two weeks, with a handful of high school kids learning about the workings of TV.

 

My high school friend Terry Rockhold was at this time working for Price Waterhouse as an auditor.  His employer distributed some guidelines about auditing MSO's, or Multiple System Operators, which are large companies that own and operate a number of cable TV systems in various cities.  Since I worked for such a cable TV system, he asked if I had any comments, and I replied as follows.

Saturday, April 20, 1974

I'm not sure exactly what "decentralized" accounting records are, but usually with regard to accounts receivable, the records of an MSO company are kept in another state.  In Marion the records were kept in a computer in Kentucky, which issued a run every ten days or so.  In Washington the records are kept in a computer in Ohio.  The reason for this, or course, is that a computer is necessary to keep track of some ten thousand different accounts, each of which has one or two transactions each month; but still an individual system can't afford its own computer, so it has to time-share with the MSO's other geographically-scattered systems.

Trying to confirm accounts receivable would be interesting.  There are roughly ten thousand different accounts, but the average balance would be only seven dollars or so.  Very few accounts would have a balance of over 15 dollars; if an account got that high, service would be terminated.  And if you, as an auditor, sent out letters asking for confirmation of an account's balance, you might get a lot of responses like this:

"Dear Mr. Waterhouse:

"No, I do not owe Cable TV the amount of $4.95, as you accuse me of.  I always pay my bill on the 25th of the month, and I've never missed a month since we've had the cable, and this is only the 16th today.  So please do not send me any more letters.

"I think it's terrible that the cable company has to hire bill collectors like you to harass its customers into paying $4.95 which they don't even owe yet.  Why don't they spend their money to fix up the pictures?  We haven't been able to watch Ch. 9 since that big storm last month.  What are you going to do about it???"

On SIPENT 5600.3, a test is described to "determine that all customers receiving service are billed."  In Marion, we had to do an "internal audit" of sorts, every few years, to make this same determination.  Partly we feared an accounting error, in which the records of a customer would be lost and he would no longer be billed.  But mostly we were checking for "bootleggers," non-customers who nevertheless were receiving service because they'd hooked themselves up.  Rather than making a selection of customers, we made a complete survey of all the customers and all the houses in the city.  This required hiring part-time help to walk the streets and record who was hooked up and who wasn't.  (We weren't interested in testing to see whether we had a significant number of non-paying customers, because we knew we did.  What we were interested in was finding these bootleggers and cutting them all off.)

And, as I mentioned to you before, whoever audited our parent company for 1972 and 1973 didn't bother to come to Marion to do any checking.  This was despite the fact that Marion was among the largest of the hundred or so systems owned by Tele-Communications.

 

Saturday, April 20, 1974

One of the most satisfying parts of my daily work is making out the format for the Greater Washington Today show.  Roughly 30 minutes of each 60-minute program is provided by the volunteer hosts, who bring in guests and interview them.  We also have about six minutes of news, six of sports, four of commercials, three of stock markets and weather, and two of community announcements.

We fill the remaining nine minutes with various inserts, almost always on tape.  For example, once a week we have a book report; we do man-on-the-street interviews and other features with the Rover [see below]; we have some short interviews taped in the studio; and we run the Tandar Four films.  I keep a calendar listing all these inserts and the time of each.  Naturally, they don't always add up to exactly nine minutes.

You recall that on Marion Today we made our adjustments by varying the number of times Judy D played the piano; on Greater Washington Today, we vary the exact length of the volunteer host's interview.  A final "fine tuning" adjustment can be made by cutting part of the Community Bulletin Board, which we save until the end of the show.  With these procedures, we always stay within a couple of minutes of schedule, and we always end the show smoothly and on time.  I take great pride in that.

What was "the Rover"?  This model is demonstrating.  She's holding a black-and-white vidicon camera with a zoom lens, microphone, and electronic viewfinder.  It's connected to a battery-powered video tape recorder that is hanging from a shoulder strap like a very bulky purse.  The recorder uses 5"-diameter reels of ½" videotape.

The Rover gave us the mobility to tape short events outside the studio, something that had not been practical at my previous job in Marion.  No longer was it necessary to transport a bulky studio camera to the scene.

Unfortunately, when playing back that ½" tape we didn't have a frame synchronizer or even a Time Base Corrector.  As the tape deck aged and its tensions got out of adjustment, the picture became unstable.  Some of our subscribers' TV sets couldn't handle it, and the upper half of their screens showed only diagonal lines.

Lacking the budget for a TBC that could have solved the problem, we resorted to a makeshift fix.  We fed the ½" tape's signal to a studio monitor which was able to display it properly, aimed a studio camera at that monitor, and recorded the studio camera onto a relatively stable ¾" cassette.  The result was a much-degraded picture (blurry, not much detail in the blacks, and so on), but at least it was viewable.

 

Monday, May 27, 1974

You wrote me a note earlier this month asking about our TV auction.  I understand that you and your husband are interested in this idea as a possible fund-raiser for the Jaycees in Coshocton, Ohio.

I've worked on two different types of auction in cable TV.  In Marion, Ohio, where I worked before coming here, the local Jaycees had an auction in the fall.  It usually was held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, or thereabouts.  Here in Washington, our effort in March was the first in this city, and it was put on not by the Jaycees but by the Bronco League World Series organization.

Both auctions had about 80 items of merchandise, donated by local merchants and other interested persons.  Both lasted about five hours.  But the formats were different.

In Marion, all 80 items were shown and described in the first hour of the program.  The remainder of the program was spent in reviewing these items.  On any particular item, the bids would come in rather slowly, but after a few hours they were all at respectable levels.

In Washington, only about five items at a time were shown.  We divided the studio into two halves, with a table on each side.  If the items on Table A were introduced to the audience at 1:15, they would remain open for bids until 1:45.  But meanwhile another group of five items on Table B would be introduced at 1:35, to remain up for bids until 2:05.  And when Table A's bids closed at 1:45, the items would be cleared off and another five put on for introduction at 1:55.  It sounds kind of complicated, and in fact we had to make detailed minute-by-minute charts of what was supposed to happen.

The Washington plan had the advantage of fewer items at a time, which in theory made it easier for the viewers to bid.  In Marion, however, we had the advantage of a printed list of all 80 items with their bidding numbers, which was contained in a half-page ad in the local newspaper.  Such an ad was impossible in Washington, because the people who were out begging for merchandise didn't get their soliciting completed until a day or two before the auction.

Another problem in Washington was that our timetable was too slow.  Last week, WQED-TV (the public station in Pittsburgh) had their annual auction, and they left a table up for bids for only about ten minutes.  We had ours up for 30 minutes.  And we found that bids didn't really start coming in until we were down to about a minute to go.  The best way to get the bids higher, we found, was to keep saying for a period of two or three minutes, "The bids are going to close in just 30 seconds!"

I've found that it works better to have two announcers on camera at the same time (since a single announcer hits "dead spots" when he can't think of anything to say).  And there should be another pair of announcers waiting in the wings at all times, too.  You don't want real auctioneers; viewers react better to the simple, sincere approach.  However, even the down-to-earth announcers have to do some hard selling to coax higher bids.

In an effort to extend the bidding audience beyond our cable service area, we made arrangements with the two local radio stations.  Each station made six announcements each hour, describing the items that were up for bids.  These announcements also included the latest bids, which were relayed to the stations by a liaison man who made six phone calls to each station each hour.  Writing the 48-page script for these announcements took quite a bit of my time, and it didn't seem to be worth it, as few if any of our winning bidders came from outside our service area.

In Washington, the man who posted bids on the blackboard and the ladies who answered the phones set up shop just outside the studio (seen in the background).

Half a dozen phones were specially hooked up for the occasion by the phone company, and volunteers manned each phone.  When a bid came in, the operator would have to check the blackboard in front of the telephone table to make sure that no higher bid had come in.  Then the operator would write down the bid, along with name and address, and it would be posted on the board.

After bids closed on an item, another operator had to call the winning bidders back, to make sure that they had in fact bid on that item.  (Some bids are hoaxes.)  Then within a few hours the winners were supposed to come to the studio to pay their money and pick up the merchandise.

What kind of merchandise can you get?  Well, here's a sampling of the 76 items in the Washington auction this spring.  The total retail value was $2559, for an average of $33.67 per item.

Two Pirates Tickets       $7
5-pound Rump Roast       $9
1/4" Drill     $10
Dinner for Two     $15
Garden Shears     $20
Five Cases of Coca-Cola     $23
Fire Extinguisher     $25
Afghan (Handmade)     $30
Electric Foot Massager     $30
20 Franklin Half-Dollars     $30
Toaster Oven     $35
Auto Tune-Up     $40
Four Gallons of Paint     $42
Handbag and Cosmetics     $45
Ladies Watch     $53
Two Tires     $58
GE Portable TV     $85
YMCA Family Membership   $100
Parrot in Cage (Live)   $100

Now you shouldn't expect to sell these items for their retail value.  The bidders are looking for bargains, so they won't pay as much as they would in a store (unless they're simply making a generous donation to the Jaycees).  We received total bids of $1909, which is about 75% of retail, which is better than we expected.

In Marion, not all the merchandise was donated outright in exchange for mentions on the program.  Some of it was donated on a consignment basis.  For example, we had a new Dodge and a camper trailer.  Say the Dodge retailed for $3400, but the wholesale value was $2500.  If the highest bid was less than $2500, no one won; we sent the car back to the dealer.  If the highest bid was $2700, however, we paid the dealer his $2500 for the car (plus the free advertising he received); the Jaycees got the other $200; and the bidder got a new car for a $700 discount.  Everyone was happy.

As you can probably tell, an auction is a lot of work.  It does raise money, but you probably could raise more money by taking the same number of volunteer man-hours and putting them to more profitable work, like hiring yourself out to mow lawns.  Nevertheless, an auction is fun, it's good PR for the cable system, and you'd be a lot more likely to get volunteers for this than for lawn-mowing.

 

Monday, June 3, 1974

Don't complain that your schedule for now till July 1 is chaotic.  At least you've got a week's vacation scheduled there!  Here in Western Pennsylvania, cable TV employees don't get luxuries like that, at least not until they've been with the firm for a year and a half.

Since May 15, I've been keeping track of my hours.  Of course, I'm on a fixed salary; but I just figured out that if I had been on wages and overtime for that time period, I would be making the fabulous sum of $2.41 per hour.  It's a good thing I enjoy this work.

 

Experimenting with a design for our on-air identification, I played with 90º rotations of characters like C and U, or W, 3, and M.

 

Sunday, June 9, 1974

Greetings from Western Pennsylvania!  I'm writing to you at the close of one of my rare days off; lately, I've been working most Saturdays and even some Sundays, as this is one of the busy seasons for cablecasting.

Every Saturday, we tape a boys' baseball game at the local park.  And for the past few weekends, we've also been covering commencement ceremonies.  We didn't do much with the college commencement; since only a handful of local kids attend W&J, we merely sent our newscaster there with the Rover to tape ten minutes or so of the ceremony.  But there are three local high schools, and we covered those three commencements in full.

Immaculate Conception

First was the Catholic school, with a graduating class of 84.  This was a fairly simple ceremony, but we were delayed in setting up because the ceremony was held in the Catholic church and was preceded by a baptismal service which nobody had told us about.  Fortunately, we had about 40 minutes between that service and the start of taping.  (Incidentally, I was surprised at the two hymns which were sung during the baptismal service, "Faith of Our Fathers" and "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  As you know, the latter hymn was written by Martin Luther.  I never thought I'd hear Catholics using it; but then, times are changing.)

Trinity

Then we covered the commencement for the suburban high school, with a class of over 400.  This had been scheduled for the tree-shaded hilltop campus of the school, but it rained and the ceremony had to be held in the gym, which turned out to be better for our cameras anyway.  We did this one both live and taped.

Wash Hi

Finally, we taped the inner-city high school commencement at the football stadium on a Monday evening.  The highlight of this event was the welcoming speech by the class president.  As he came to the podium, his hat started slipping off his head, so he laid down his notes in order to adjust the cap.  The wind then blew his notes away.  Seeing this, he remarked, "Aw, s--t," before realizing that the mike was on and all his family and friends in the stands were listening.  Needless to say, this flustered him a little bit.  Of course, when we played back the tape we "bleeped" the remark.  We were going to insert an announcer's voice saying EXPLETIVE DELETED, but we decided against that idea.

 

Sunday, June 9, 1974

Well, our cable TV rate increase here in Washington has gone into effect.  Sort of.  It seems that back in March, City Council approved our company's proposal to raise the rate from its old $4.00 a month to $5.50 immediately, then to $6.00 on July 1, 1975, and again to $6.50 on July 1, 1976.  But when they got around to writing an ordinance to that effect, they made the first increase effective July 1, 1974, instead of in March.  We're already sending out bills at the $5.50 rate and telling people that we have Council's approval to do so, regardless of what the councilmen think or what the new ordinance says.  And the city solicitor seems to agree with us, so there's not likely to be a lawsuit.

Regardless of the legality of the rate, quite a few subscribers don't want to pay it.  We've received close to 200 disconnect requests.  The manager is sitting on them for two weeks; then, after the people have had a chance to cool off, we'll call them up, ask if they still want to be disconnected, and if they do, when they'd like the serviceman to come.  We're hoping that many will change their minds.  But even if we do have a temporary drop in number of subscribers, we'll still come out way ahead in revenue.  The rate increase is 37.5%, so with 7,400 subscribers we'd have to lose 2,800 of them before our revenues would go down as a result of the rate increase.

At the controls for GWT, April 1974.  It appears that we're in commercial.  On Camera 1 (leftmost monitor, middle row), Larry Schwingel is standing by on the news set.  On Camera 2, Bill Wilson and his guest are standing by on the informal interview set.

See the sheet of paper taped to the rack in front of me?  Everything to the left of that paper, including the switcher under my left hand, could be removed as a unit from the control room if we wanted to do a two-camera remote.  The rest of the equipment remained in the control room so that we could continue to air tapes, slides, and films.

We've been doing a lot of remotes lately:  three high school commencements, a series of golf lessons from a nearby country club, and a boys' baseball game every week.  About half of these are done with two cameras.  In that case, we disconnect one of the two control racks in the control room and take it with us; it has a sync generator, waveform monitor, audio board, special-effects unit, and intercom built in, so we can do just about everything on remote we could do in the studio.  There's just one camera cable for each camera, including drives, video, power, and intercom.  This makes it fairly simple to string the wires.

We did one of the commencements live, using the same method as at Marion, a second modulator.  Here, however, both modulators are on channel 3, so we didn't have to go to the head end at all.  We simply hooked the remote mod up to the same return line as the studio mod, and when the time came, we cut the power to the studio unit and turned on the remote one.  The line crews had figured out the levels just right, and everything worked beautifully.

Another interesting experiment is our slow-motion replays at the baseball games.  We record the program on not only the ¾" video cassette recorder, but also on a ½" recorder which can play back in slow motion.  After a play, we can stop the ½" machine, rewind it a couple of feet, play the slow-motion onto the ¾", and then return to regular coverage.  Of course, the slow motion is not very stable, but we haven't heard any complaints yet.  (Unfortunately, no compliments, either.)

 

Every day in July and August, we posted phone numbers on the automated "data-weather service" that was on channel 3 whenever TV-3 wasn't telecasting.  Viewers who recognized their phone numbers were invited to the studio, where I taped them selecting prizes (worth between $10 and $100) from "treasure chests."  The tape was shown on GWT that evening.

 

Sunday, July 28, 1974

Here in Washington, our office staff of three isn't very busy most of the time.  In the afternoons, the two girls at the counter sit around doing needlepoint or watching the Galloping Gourmet or General Hospital.  Occasionally the phone will ring, or one of the service trucks will call in on the radio, "Truck Three 10-7, Murtland Avenue" and one of the girls will mark it down and call back "10-4."  But most of the time they just seem to sit around—except around the first of the month, when the payments come in.

In an earlier letter I told you our rate went up from $4 a month to $5.50, and we expected maybe 200 disconnects.  It wasn't nearly that bad; I think we actually had only about 59 disconnects resulting from the rate increase.

 

In these pictures by Terry Rockhold, I'm taping a report from a street fair in downtown Washington.  Tim Verderber is the Rover cameraman.



Because of an unreliable connection between my microphone and its cable, I'm "strain-relieving" the cable by looping it around my ring finger so that it won't get yanked out of the microphone.

 

. . . End of
1st Quarter

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