Interview Date: October 04, 1991
Interviewer: Bob Allen
Both Roy Bliss (senior) and Tom Mitchell are interviewed on this tape. They remember and describe the beginnings of a cable system in Worland, Wyoming, bank financing, demonstrations for the community, and expansion to six systems. They recall assistance from the Schneiders and Bill Daniels in Casper, the use of broadband amplifiers and microwave, and the formation of the Carter Mountain Transmission Corporation. They talk about a protest by a local broadcaster, wrong public impressions about CATV, and explore the logistics of operating the highest microwave relay station in the world. Bliss and Mitchell comment on the denial by the FCC, describe selling the systems in 1965, and their next careers in operations and engineering. They concludes with thoughts about regulation, perceptions, progress in the industry, and final reflections on the Carter Mountain decision.
BOB ALLEN: This is Tape 1, Side A of an oral history interview with Roy Bliss and Tom Mitchell. This interview is part of a series of oral history interviews being conducted under the auspices of The National Cable Television Center and Museum at Penn State University. Today is October 4, 1991, and we are taping this interview in Mesa, Arizona.
Mr. Bliss, if we can start with you, and get an idea of where … you said you were born in Illinois.
ROY E. BLISS: Right.
ALLEN: Where in Illinois?
BLISS: Bloomington–central Illinois. On a farm.
ALLEN: And your parents’ names?
BLISS: Emory and Ethel Bliss. I attended school locally and then went a year and a half to Illinois State and then to a business college for a year and a half. After that I got a job in Peoria at a farm implement company as a credit manager. I had a low draft number so volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps. In 1945, I went to my wife’s ranch up in Wyoming for about a year.
ALLEN: Were you married at that time?
BLISS: Yes. We were married in ’42.
ALLEN: How did you meet her?
BLISS: We met in Phoenix.
ALLEN: You went to the ranch …
BLISS: Okay. We went to the ranch and then I worked for my brother-in-law for a while in Gillette, Wyoming, at an automobile agency. Then we moved to Worland where I started a Culligan soft water business and operated that until ’52 when we decided to get into the cable business.
ALLEN: How long were you operating the Culligan business?
BLISS: About two years.
ALLEN: What was it that attracted you to the cable business?
BLISS: Well, Billings, Montana, came on the air–one station–and Worland, the town where we were down in the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming, was about 125 airline miles from Billings, 165 miles by road. And so a friend of mine with some test equipment and a dipole antenna took off in my Cessna airplane to look for the Billings signal even though it was that far away and there were mountains in between. I had to climb up to 8,000 feet before we could even get a weak signal. So we more or less gave it up. But he left the equipment on. They were drilling an oil well–a wildcat–west of town so I said, “Well, we’ll just go down by that oil well.” So we went down and we were buzzing along this ridge just about 25 feet off the ground and all at once he said, “I’ve got a signal.” He got very excited. So we parked the airplane back at the airport and then we got Tom Mitchell into it and we did some more looking.
ALLEN: Okay. Well let’s turn to Mr. Mitchell. Where were you born, Mr. Mitchell?
TOM MITCHELL: I was born in Oklahoma–a little town called Chandler. I lived there through high school.
ALLEN: Your parents’ names?
MITCHELL: My parents were Thomas W. Sr. and Elizabeth Mitchell.
ALLEN: You went to high school there?
MITCHELL: I went to high school there in Oklahoma. Then it was in the Depression time and I couldn’t get a job so I joined the Civilian Conservation Corps–if you’ve ever heard of it.
MITCHELL: I was with them for three years. I went back to the East Coast and went to work for the government in Washington, D. C.
ALLEN: Where were you with the CCC?
MITCHELL: In Worland, Wyoming. That’s how we happened to get acquainted there. I spent five years in the service working in radar. In the meantime I picked up enough electronics and radio knowledge that I was able to get into the Coast Artillery Communications Schools.
BLISS: He did go to MIT.
MITCHELL: I spent some time at MIT with the developmental team there–early-day radar. And then was overseas with experimental radar for the rest of the war.
ALLEN: Where were you stationed overseas?
MITCHELL: In the Pacific–Oahu to Iwo Jima–different places. We were experimenting with prototype radar built by MIT and Bendix. Anyway, since I was acquainted in Worland I came back to Worland after the war–liked it there. Came back there, worked for an electronics repair service for a year or so and then went into my own business as an electrical contractor. That’s where I was. I met Roy there. That’s where I was when they built the first little TV station in Billings, Montana. I thought I was going to sell equipment and TV sets and antennas and so on. I bought this crank-up tower and all the paraphernalia to look for signals and didn’t find any. About that time was when Roy and John Huff flew around with the airplane and discovered that out in the hills, five or six miles from town, there was a viewable television picture. The one and only in northern Wyoming at that time, of course.
ALLEN: Did you figure out why you could pick it up at that spot and nowhere else?
MITCHELL: We soon did determine that it was a knife edge effect over the Pryor Mountains. It was not line of sight but due to a propagation oddity known as an knife edge or obstacle gain, the signal would strike the top of these mountains and then deflect down into that valley. It was only a very few places that the correct conditions would occur that this signal would strike down into the ground. This happened to be five or six miles west of the town of Worland. With that as a start and hearing about cable television in the northwest and going out there and looking at some of the operations out there in …
BLISS: This was in ’52.
MITCHELL: … in Walla Walla and other towns that had started a cable system.
ALLEN: How big a footprint did that …
MITCHELL: Very small. It was only a matter of 1,000 feet in circumference, probably. Very small footprint.
ALLEN: Did you find any other locations around where the knife edge had deposited a signal?
MITCHELL: There were none usable. Just that one place.
ALLEN: And if they hadn’t been doing the wildcat drilling … your whole world would have been different.
BLISS: You might mention how that dished up to that ridge …
MITCHELL: It happened that we were also on the apex of a natural parabolic ground reflector and the strongest signals were only just about three feet off the ground. We could plot it like this, you know, up and down.
ALLEN: So other people were putting thousand-foot towers and you had a three foot tower.
BLISS: Actually, his antennas were pointed–instead of being horizontal–they were pointed down, looking down into that valley.
MITCHELL: Well, a little bowl. Well, then that was in ’53.
ALLEN: So you were acquainted by that time.
MITCHELL: Yes. In fact we’d been in the CAP together and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. It was a small town–everybody knew everybody in Worland, at that time anyway.
BLISS: The next thing was … what do you do with it. We were out west of town–no electricity. So we put some funds in and we built a little building, made a little theater-type thing. Put an old couch in there, got a generator. He got all this and then we started inviting people out.
MITCHELL: In 1953 no one living in Worland had even seen television–or maybe a very few had been in Denver or somewhere like that.
BLISS: We tried to get a TV set in Billings and being so new there we couldn’t even get a TV so we finally ordered one out of Denver–a DuMont–and put that in there and started inviting the public out, four or five people at a time.
ALLEN: Did you charge them to watch the TV.
BLISS: No, no. You can’t imagine the response we got.
MITCHELL: It was just dirt road and by that time it was wintertime. Well, we went along then and we learned how to build a cable system.
ALLEN: Who did you visit when you went out to the northwest? Do you recall some of the people?
MITCHELL: George Freeze, an old name in the cable industry, and a man named Myron Sargeant and we went to the system that was being built in Walla Walla. Anyway, we learned how to build a cable system. We built a system in Worland and immediately had demand to build another system in towns just north of Worland–Basin and Greybull.
ALLEN: What kind of technology did you use to build the system?
MITCHELL: We used an amplifier built by International Telemeter. They had a company–they’re not in business any longer–but in those days they built an amplifier they called Amplivision.
BLISS: Wasn’t that affiliated with Paramount Pictures?
MITCHELL: Yes, it was a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures.
ALLEN: And what were you using for cable?
MITCHELL: RG-11 was the only thing available in large supply, anyway, and sometimes it was hard to get. But anyway, RG-11 with a braided shield and loss of about 2 dB at 6, I think. We built six systems in that area–about one right after the other–about one a year, I guess.
ALLEN: In a town … what was the population of Worland?
MITCHELL: Worland at that time was probably 7,000.
BLISS: About that.
ALLEN: Seven thousand people in what 2,000 homes?
BLISS: Yes, about that.
ALLEN: What percentage of those people signed on?
MITCHELL: It was slow because we only had one channel. It came on at four o’clock in the afternoon. It didn’t have a national feed so everything was … It wasn’t tape even, it was old kinescopes. And signed off at probably eleven o’clock and no one had a television set so in order to interest them in the cable, they first had to buy a television set. Television sets were much more expensive in those days than they are now.
ALLEN: Were you selling the TV sets then?
MITCHELL: No. We left that to other people more as a public relations thing than anything. We didn’t sell television sets but it was slow getting started. I remember it was into late summer–we finally got into operation there early in the year of ’54.
BLISS: Well, we borrowed an idea from the power companies. They would get aid in construction–$150, you know. That’s how we raised a lot of our money. At the beginning, that customer had to pay $150 as a contribution-in-aid-of-construction.
ALLEN: To hook on.
BLISS: Strat Smith spearheaded some of that idea. It worked out very well for us at the beginning because we … The bankers really didn’t know much about cable and they were very skittish about it.
ALLEN: Bankers in Worland, Wyoming, were probably a little conservative. Would you agree with that?
MITCHELL: I would agree with that. I remember it was late summer before we had 100 subscribers.
ALLEN: But you did get most of your financing right out of Worland from the local banks?
BLISS: All of it.
MITCHELL: One bank didn’t go so we went to the other bank and he went along. He said that if you can get that signal off of that hill and get it into the community hall and I get a chance to see how the public is receiving it … I’ll go with you. Well, we packed that for two or three nights. This was in May of ’53 that we put that show on.
BLISS: I believe it was ’53.
ALLEN: So that was what convinced the banker that you were a good risk. That and the fact that you were both known.
MITCHELL: It was so new and so unusual that we got probably thirty or forty television sets–had a big community hall–thirty or forty television sets. Set them up around the circumference of that room. We got time on the air in Billings. I went to Billings and got on the air and I guess the whole county was in that building.
ALLEN: What did you tell them from Billings?
MITCHELL: Billings was very friendly–it was just some more coverage for them. That’s the way the broadcaster looked at it in those days.
ALLEN: But when you were on the air, what were you saying to the people?
MITCHELL: Well, I took the head of the power company and the mayor and we told them all about the town of Worland and all about the cable industry because no one … even the people in Billings didn’t know about cable either in those days.
ALLEN: Did you both continue with your business?
MITCHELL: For awhile.
BLISS: For awhile we did. It just kept taking more and more time.
ALLEN: You were, Mr. Bliss, the business end and Mr. Mitchell?
MITCHELL: I was the engineer and he did most of the business–all of the business.
ALLEN: What kind of a crew did you have to build the system?
MITCHELL: I think we built that system with two men and myself, didn’t we?
BLISS: Yes, but their background was … one had been with the telephone company–a good pole climber and all that kind of… you know. We got good people to work for us.
MITCHELL: Anyway, we had no trouble building the system. We had to go through all the telephone clearance problems, clearing the way on the poles and so forth.
ALLEN: Did you put up your own poles or did you …
MITCHELL: Oh, no. We rented the poles from the telephone company.
ALLEN: And they didn’t give you a hard time the way they did in some parts?
MITCHELL: A few years later we had trouble, but not at that time. We continued then to build other systems and when we got to the town of Riverton for some reason, not locally but in the hierarchy somewhere, the decision had been made “don’t rent anymore space to cable people.” I think it may have been pressure from broadcasters by that time. So in the town of Riverton, which came two or three years later, we did have to put in our own poles but not in Worland.
ALLEN: How long did it take you to build Worland?
MITCHELL: Oh, it was a matter of months–six or eight months.
ALLEN: And then the next one that you went to was …
MITCHELL: The little town of Basin; and then Greybull, which is a little town just eight miles from Basin.
ALLEN: Were you finished with Worland before you started Basin and Greybull?
MITCHELL: More or less.
BLISS: Except for hookups.
ALLEN: Now when you say little towns–we have to describe how little they were.
MITCHELL: Well, Basin was the smallest one of all. It was 1,500 people.
ALLEN: Uh huh. So that was between 300 and 400 homes.
BLISS: The city council came down and demanded that we come up.
MITCHELL: You didn’t have trouble getting franchises in those days.
ALLEN: You weren’t bidding against anybody.
BLISS: The franchise was about three pages and we just about wrote our own ticket. We could put in poles, we could do anything we wanted to, really, that uses streets and alleys. The next one was Thermopolis.
ALLEN: Was Worland the first cable system in the state of Wyoming?
MITCHELL: No. Casper was either with us or maybe a little ahead of us.
MITCHELL: That was Gene and Richard Schneider’s and Bill Daniels’ operation.
BLISS: I think we had the first picture …
MITCHELL: We may have had the first picture but …
BLISS: … at that community hall thing.
MITCHELL: We learned a lot of things from the Schneider boys in those days.
BLISS: Yes, we did.
MITCHELL: We were very close. I mean, we’d consult back and forth almost daily if we could afford the phone call. .
ALLEN: The Wyoming Cable Television Association was formed.
BLISS: Yes, we formed that. We got that started.
ALLEN: How big a town was Casper then?
MITCHELL: Oh, Casper was …
MITCHELL: … for Wyoming, a large town … I guess the largest town.
ALLEN: So you did Basin and then Greybull and then went on the Thermopolis?
MITCHELL: Then Thermopolis, then Riverton, then Lander.
ALLEN: Let’s put some timeframes on when you were in …
MITCHELL: We were just in the finishing process in Lander about the time the Carter Mountain operation came to …
ALLEN: Okay, Worland started in ’53 …
BLISS: There was just about one a year then.
ALLEN: Okay, so Basin in ’54, ’55 in Greybull, and then Lander in ’56, Thermopolis … Now were you the only owner in Thermopolis?
BLISS: Well, there was a previous owner.
MITCHELL: That was the only system we didn’t do from scratch. There had been a system started there–it was hardly operable–and they ran out of money and they also had a radio station operation. They couldn’t manage both and got in financial troubles and finally the whole thing went to a sheriff auction. We bought the thing …
BLISS: … on the courthouse steps …
MITCHELL: … and kept the cable system and disposed of the radio station. So we didn’t really start that from scratch but we had very little when we bought it. Just had a start.
ALLEN: What had they done to that point?
MITCHELL: They had found an antenna site and got a signal into town and wired a few homes.
ALLEN: Were all of these bringing in the Billings station?
MITCHELL: Yes, up until Thermopolis. Now when we got over to Riverton we were operating from the Casper station. In the meantime there had been a station built in Casper. And we were operating there again with just one channel.
ALLEN: You couldn’t get Billings?
MITCHELL: Billings was not available there.
ALLEN: So you were the multiple system operator in the state?
MITCHELL: I guess we were the only multiple system operator there was. Sheridan had a system; Cody had a system by that time; Rock Springs was building a system; Laramie had a system; and Casper had a system.
BLISS: See we had an office and a manager in every one of those towns except that Greybull and Basin were together.
MITCHELL: Just as small an operation as possible but you had to have a local person.
ALLEN: Did any of those local people stay in the cable business for any length of time?
MITCHELL: Yes. Bill Ross, who’s still in the cable business, was our manager and engineer and everything else in Riverton. He’s fairly well known in the industry.
ALLEN: Where is he now?
MITCHELL: He’s in Billings or somewhere around in that area.
BLISS: And Slim Jenkins …
MITCHELL: Charles Jenkins, who later became the chief TV engineer for Daniels. We trained him in Lander. James Crouse, who was the multiple system operator in Illinois, or was until he sold out. We trained him in Thermopolis. In those days there just wasn’t anybody and it so happened that we got hold of good people and people that loved the industry and stayed with it.
ALLEN: And you gave them good training, obviously.
MITCHELL: Apparently. We also had a man named Leo Levesy who was pretty well known in the industry.
BLISS: He built systems.
MITCHELL: Well, he was the manager in Mobile, Alabama, for TelePrompTer and in Liberal, Kansas, for TelePrompTer. We had a number of people who started with us.
ALLEN: What was happening with the technology as you were adding these systems? Were you changing?
MITCHELL: Well, it was running away from us. Technology was ahead of us all the time. We started out in the very early days thinking that you could only carry one channel through one amplifier. In fact the Jerrold Company went through that for many years but the difference was that some people, Telemeter among them, had decided that you could use broadband technology. The amplifiers we used, luckily, were broadband amplifiers. So when we started adding channels, we didn’t have to change that equipment. But the main tremendous gain was in the cable–the properties of the cable and the durability of the cable connectors–and then before very long the transistor. The transistor came out and started being used in CATV equipment about 1958. That was a big gain.
BLISS: After we did Lander, we then got the idea that KID, Idaho Falls, that maybe if we got over the west side of the Bighorn Basin that we might be able to pick up KID. We were looking for more channels.
ALLEN: So you had six systems at that time and all of them were one-channel systems? Were the stations on the air a little bit longer now?
MITCHELL: Oh, yes, of course. A little bit.
ALLEN: But the public still wanted more variety.
MITCHELL: Oh, yes. But we still had no network feed. We couldn’t get the World Series ball games then.
BLISS: See, Casper would get Denver with microwave. That was terrific. We wanted that so bad but, you know, to try to get that microwave on up into the Bighorn Basin from Casper wasn’t feasible at that time.
MITCHELL: So that never developed. We did, again with an airplane, a lot of searching. We found a signal high on the top of Carter Mountain. Up near the town of Cody, or twenty-five miles from the town of Cody. It was at 12,000 feet. It was up where there was snow the year round–well almost. By that time, though, it had been determined that it would be legal to use microwave to transport CATV signals–cable television signals–if you operated as a common carrier. Now you couldn’t own private microwave, as you can now, but you could have a common carrier microwave system. So we formed a common carrier company.
ALLEN: Now when you say we, who was involved in the company besides the two of you?
MITCHELL: All right, by that time there was a system in Cody also operating off of Billings. There were two owners there. A man named Brick Melbraeten and Harry Moore. And there was the two of us. They also needed signals. We formed a common carrier with four of us as the principals and had, to begin with, our systems and the Cody systems as customers. This qualified us as common carriers. The requirement was that you had to serve someone other than yourself. We got the application, put that system in, and got it in operation without problems.
ALLEN: Okay. You got the microwave system in operation?
BLISS: Off of Carter Mountain, into Cody and into Worland with the KID, Idaho Falls, station.
MITCHELL: And also Basin and Greybull. We couldn’t get it into Thermopolis, but we got it into those towns. By this time there was a system in Rock Springs. Al Carollo had a system in Rock Springs. He had built a system in Rock Springs and Green River and had put in a microwave system that brought Salt Lake City channels from Evanston into Rock Springs. We wanted to get those four channels from Salt Lake City into those towns. So we engineered and devised a system that would pick up off of White Mountain at Rock Springs, go to South Pass, repeat at South Pass into Copper Mountain, and from Copper Mountain spread into Riverton, Lander, Thermopolis, Worland, Basin and Greybull. Also over to Cedar Mountain and into Cody and Powell, Wyoming. And also from Copper Mountain to Dome Mountain and into the town of Sheridan which was in operation by that time. It was an elaborate system. And a lot of expense.
BLISS: $250,000 to $300,000
MITCHELL: A lot of expense for those days.
BLISS: Raytheon equipment.
MITCHELL: We applied for the license and …
ALLEN: Now this was … the company was called what–Western?
MITCHELL: No. We called the transmission company Carter Mountain Transmission Corp.
ALLEN: Okay. Carter Mountain Transmission.
MITCHELL: It was a separate company–it was still required in those days. Our company was Western Television, serving these six towns. Then there was a company in Sheridan–Bighorn … Don Tannenhill and Company. Anyway, we had quite a thing going there. We had outside customers and we had a five-channel system running all this distance.
ALLEN: So you really were a common carrier because you had a lot of different systems.
MITCHELL: In the meantime we had also served the TV station at Billings. We were serving off-the-air KID signals into the broadcast station in Billings and that qualified us better yet, you see, to be serving a broadcaster. Anyway, we applied for this permit, got it, and we had …
ALLEN: Okay, now, which permit are you?
MITCHELL: The permit for this … the Salt Lake complex … while the other was in operation.
BLISS: When was that, Tom? I was trying to think …
MITCHELL: Well, I can’t tell you what year exactly but I think probably …
ALLEN: Probably 1957 or ’58.
BLISS: Yes, I think that’s it.
MITCHELL: I can’t remember exactly what year that was. Anyway, we had worked on it, of course, all that year and we finally received the permits in August, I believe. We had ordered equipment, contingent on grant, and it was shipped immediately. It came within a few days. Because we were looking to winter weather, even though we weren’t ready to put it in operation, we actually separated it out and immediately carried it up on the mountain sites to get it up there in case of bad weather. So we were caught with this order revoking the permit, with the sites all built, buildings up there, equipment in the buildings but not on the air.
ALLEN: What was the first inkling that you two had that there was a problem with the permit?
BLISS: A call from Smith.
ALLEN: Strat was your Washington attorney at that time?
BLISS: Had been.
MITCHELL: He had filed all the applications and permits and gotten us through to that point.
BLISS: We were well acquainted because we would go to all the NCTA meetings. It was just a roomful of people.
ALLEN: Did you know the protestants at that time?
MITCHELL: In fact, I’d worked for them–Mildred and Joe Ernst–in the early years when they first came to the Worland area. I helped them build their radio stations.
BLISS: They were Alaskan Natives.
MITCHELL: Anyway, yes, I knew them very well.
ALLEN: They had been primarily in the radio business.
MITCHELL: They had radio stations until they decided to build this little television station up on top of Boysen Peak.
BLISS: Out of used GE equipment.
MITCHELL: The basis of the protest, of course, was economic injury. They said, if you let these cable people bring these television signals into “our town” … They actually considered that they were the off-air communications agent in that area.
ALLEN: Were they on the air at that time?
MITCHELL: I don’t believe they had actually gotten on the air. I’m not sure about that, though. I can’t remember whether they had actually put a signal on the air or whether they were under construction. I guess it’s in the records somewhere.
ALLEN: When they filed the protest?
BLISS: I don’t believe they were.
MITCHELL: I don’t know. If they were, they had just barely made it.
BLISS: See, their transmitter was on Boysen Peak but it was just on a telephone pole and it was used General Electric equipment that they’d picked up somewhere.
MITCHELL: Nothing against that but we did feel like that if anybody was first comer it would have had to been us.
BLISS: Well, one other argument they said, we serve all the ranchers and the cable company can’t do that.
MITCHELL: I mean, I had no animosity against them really, but it just really threw the monkey wrench into the operation. It really put a halt to things. We then went ahead and did serve Cody which was out of the station’s range and Sheridan which was out of range, also. But we couldn’t serve our own systems.
ALLEN: Uh huh. So Carter Mountain Transmission was an active, on-going business serving Sheridan and Cody?
MITCHELL: Serving Cody and …?
BLISS: But not with the Salt Lake.
MITCHELL: Yes, we put Salt Lake into Cody and Sheridan.
BLISS: That’s right.
ALLEN: So you took all that equipment that you had put up on top of mountains …
MITCHELL: We were able to return it to Raytheon–the equipment that we didn’t use. We did use some of it, of course, because it was that backbone that was in operation. Whatever that amounted to … I think it was $175,000 worth … we had to return it. Then we never were able to reverse that decision. It was later, after we had sold the systems, it was later reversed. We sold it to what is now TCI.
ALLEN: Had you been upgrading the systems in Worland and Greybull and everything to accept the five channels at that time?
BLISS: We could have done that with a broadband amplifier, but …
MITCHELL: We were already carrying, let’s see …
BLISS: One, two, three … We were carrying three channels.
MITCHELL: We could only carry five channels.
BLISS: But we had KWOR on, too.
MITCHELL: Yes, we were carrying the local and we were carrying KID, of course, at that time. And we were carrying Billings …
BLISS: And Casper.
MITCHELL: No, we weren’t carrying Casper until later.
BLISS: Oh, was it a little later. Anyway, we started feeling the pinch, especially in Riverton and Lander.
MITCHELL: You see, also, the translator had arrived.
BLISS: The off-air.
MITCHELL: The translators were picking up signals, approximately the same thing that we were picking up and distributing into those towns. So, and this was long before satellite was ever even in operation. So, we were there with cable systems carrying the same things for $5 a month that the antenna … we could get off an antenna with the translator–essentially the same thing. Business wasn’t too good.
ALLEN: You began to lose subscribers.
BLISS: Not … we were just holding on, kind of.
MITCHELL: I don’t know whether or not we actually lost very many but we didn’t gain any.
BLISS: Yes, it was just hanging on.
MITCHELL: None of the systems were very well saturated at that time–maybe 20 to 30 percent.
BLISS: We knew we had to do something so we got in my Bonanza and we tried to raise money to buy KWOR out. Our lawyer was dickering with her about this. Bankers you know … you’d walk in and they’d say, “What is cable TV?” That’s where you’d start, see. We even had our local banker with us. We went to San Francisco–we went everywhere–Denver, all over, trying to borrow enough funds to … But then they’d look at her operation–the reason I brought up about the used–they’d say, “Why will you give her all this money, you know, to buy this used … you know. All we wanted was to get her out of the picture. But they couldn’t understand it. They thought we were buying a TV station.
ALLEN: And she set a fairly substantial price, I suspect.
BLISS: Well, by today’s standards, it wasn’t.
MITCHELL: I think it run about $500,000. But anyway, it wasn’t raisable on that kind of a deal.
BLISS: See along with buying that out and the microwave, it was a substantial sum. So what year is this, now.
MITCHELL: Well, we made it along there for two or three years.
BLISS: We were in debt. Not bad, though. But we were treading water, really. That’s what we were doing.
ALLEN: Now did you two go to Washington to appear before the Commission yourselves, or did Strat do all that?
MITCHELL: No, we didn’t personally appear before the Commission.
MITCHELL: I don’t remember going back there for that. We were back there for other things but not that.
ALLEN: It was fairly unusual for the Commission to overrule one of the examiners, was it not?
BLISS: Oh, Strat, he couldn’t believe that it was happening. In fact, he said, “This can’t stand.” That was the impression that we got from him–surely, you know, there’s some mistake here.
ALLEN: Who was the leading person on the Commission at that point that … apparently there was some desire on the part of the Commission to begin to regulate cable, and this was a way of doing it.
BLISS: Yes.. Well, we just felt they were in the broadcasters’ pocket.
MITCHELL: I don’t recall who was …
BLISS: I forget who the chief commissioner was.
ALLEN: Cox is one name that comes up. [Editors Note: Cox was then General Counsel of the FCC.]
MITCHELL: Probably. He was, no doubt, one member but I don’t know whether he was key or not.
BLISS: I think there was maybe one or two that could see the unfairness of it but the Chairman and two or three others were siding with the broadcasters.
MITCHELL: You see cable was at an extreme disadvantage in the first place. Everybody could understand the broadcaster–they knew what he was doing. They couldn’t understand what the cable system was doing. If there was a public interest validity, it was the fact that, of course, the cable system didn’t reach 100 percent of the population even in Wyoming.
ALLEN: Particularly, I would think, in Wyoming, because of the wide open spaces.
MITCHELL: Yes, and scattered ranches. That argument was true, whether it was valid or not …
ALLEN: Whether it should have been the overriding reason but there was no way that you could ever extend cable to those ranches.
MITCHELL: No, not even today.
ALLEN: They can do it with a satellite downlink now. Well, both the NAB and the Tri-State TV Translator Association entered in on behalf of the protestants. Who was Tri-State TV Translator? NAB I think we know about but that’s a group I’m not familiar with.
MITCHELL: Well, there was an outfit in Rapid City. What did they call it? There was a manufacturer in Rapid City that manufactured the translator repeaters–probably most of them that were bought in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado area. But anyway they were the spearheaders, the so-called Tri-State Translator.
MITCHELL: And their interest was, of course, they wanted to sell them their translator.
ALLEN: The Tri-State would be South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado?
MITCHELL: I think probably was Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Although they were in Rapid City. I’ll think of the name of that company maybe in a minute, but anyway. That’s who Tri-State was, as well as I know. It was tied together by the fact that these people had bought equipment from this company and they wanted to sell some more.
ALLEN: Uh huh. So from the time the restraining order, or the denial, to build in ’59 until the final settlement of the court case in ’61, you were just hanging on and waiting for that to be reversed and struggling.
MITCHELL: It so happened that the repeater site on Copper Mountain was twenty-six miles from the town of Thermopolis–that was one of the towns we were going to serve. With nothing much else to do and lots of fool ambition, we built a landline from the top of Copper Mountain to the town of Thermopolis with open wire, which most people had never heard of twenty-six mile spaced open wire. And it did work. And there was a gray area there of whether it was legal to take signals from a repeater station–a common carrier repeater station–and landline it to somewhere or not. But we got by with it. It was never formally questioned. And we did finally get a signal down this open wire to put some Salt Lake channels into the town of Thermopolis. It was not possible to do it anywhere else.
ALLEN: Did that have a positive impact on your sales in Thermopolis?
MITCHELL: Of course. We even, at that time, signal compression, had maybe been thought of but never actually put into use where you could carry two channels on one bandwidth. Raytheon rigged up a thing that they were proposing to the military that would carry two channels–two pictures–on one channel. And we bought that and put that in operation to try to get … see we had one link of microwave … into Riverton carrying KTWO Casper. We tried to put the second channel on there. We couldn’t make it work because the sync timing was not the same. It was not common sync timing. But we went through all of that along the way.
ALLEN: And all this time, Mr. Bliss, you were out trying to sell more cable subscribers.
BLISS: Well, yes. You know, it’s hard to knock on a door and try to sell them something when we really don’t have anything more than what they’ve already got. That’s a difficult situation. We knew what we had to do and just were unable to do it.
MITCHELL: But we were alive and living but just barely. We had 2,500 subscribers in those six systems.
BLISS: We were paying off a debt.
MITCHELL: And we were paying off a little bit. The political situation then looked like, to us anyway, it wasn’t going to change for a long time.
ALLEN: We’re just about at the end of the first side of the tape. We’ll stop and turn the tape over.
End of Tape 1, Side A
ALLEN: This is Side B of Tape 1 of a conversation with Roy Bliss and Tom Mitchell in Mesa, Arizona, on the 4th of October 1991. While we were turning the tape over, you were talking about some of the adventures and misadventures on top of Carter Mountain. I think you indicated that was the highest microwave relay spot anywhere in the world at that time.
MITCHELL: I think that’s right. It was Raytheon equipment and Raytheon … we used Raytheon equipment up there and Raytheon used that in one of their ads for several years. The equipment worked remarkably well considering the elevation and the hardships it had to go through up there.
ALLEN: Did you have to take it up there by truck or … ?
MITCHELL: We took it up by truck.
ALLEN: And how many months of the year could you get into the site?
MITCHELL: You could only get in about, most summers, one month. And that one month we had to take up fuel and anything else heavy that was going to be taken in there.
ALLEN: You ran it on a what, diesel generator?
MITCHELL: On a diesel generator with a large supply of diesel. One year we ran out. The first year we miscalculated and we got the fuel in there on pack horses. We had a string of about thirty horses with ten gallon on a horse in two five-gallon cans and backpacked it in there — — that way one year.
BLISS: Then we put barrels in there and …
MITCHELL: … we increased the capacity and we didn’t have any more problems with fuel.
BLISS: Twenty-five hundred gallons wasn’t enough for 24-hour operation for one year.
ALLEN: Uh huh.
BLISS: It was a wonderful engine. The cylinder was about that big and …
ALLEN: That big being about eight or ten inches in diameter.
MITCHELL: Yes, a big old oil field type diesel.
ALLEN: It was equipment that was used to working constantly.
BLISS: Six hundred and twenty-five rpms was constant.
ALLEN: Did it ever break down?
MITCHELL: Surprisingly little after we finally figured out how to keep it cool. When we first started up we didn’t have adequate cooling capacity, but after we figured out how to keep it cool, I don’t think it quit, in fact, for some thirty months.
BLISS: We had a thermal siphon system. We took everything that could cause trouble–the radiator off, the fan belts, things like that–and we had a thermal siphon system of about 100 gallons of Prestone-water mix. As the heat would go up it would go outside into this tank and come back in. But we had a terrible time getting that started.
ALLEN: Who invented that? Was that something that you figured out, Tom?
MITCHELL: I think Roy figured that out. Didn’t you figure out that cooling system?
BLISS: Well, we’d been talking to Woody and they had told us, you know, it’ll work that way. And we even had a barrel of oil, a whole barrel of oil, with a float arrangement just to keep the oil level constant.
MITCHELL: We didn’t have to change oil that way.
BLISS: We didn’t have to change it. We did change it once a year. When we tore that engine down–let’s see– how did we operate when we … we did shut it down and he got in there and he couldn’t feel there was any wear after two years.
MITCHELL: We’d shut it down long enough to change the valve head once a year then we’d run on a little portable generator.
BLISS: Yes, right.
ALLEN: You’d bring a portable generator up on a four-wheel drive. You said there was an airstrip up there, too.
MITCHELL: There was a little airstrip.
BLISS: Not for my Bonanza, no way.
MITCHELL: Not for anything but Super Cubs or helicopters. We’d also use helicopters sometimes. And it was a windy, terrible place. It was the only place there was a signal from Idaho Falls.
BLISS: It came right across a wilderness area–hundreds of miles–the southern part of Yellowstone.
MITCHELL: That was, maybe, one of the longest successful air pickups for that matter (175 miles) worth picking up.
BLISS: He had a quad …
MITCHELL: It was a good signal.
BLISS: But there was nothing in between except bear and elk, you know. I can’t think of anything that would be in between that you could pick up that would be noise.
MITCHELL: No, except lightning. We had lightning problems, but other than that …
ALLEN: Did lightning ever strike the antenna up there.
BLISS: We don’t know. We found burned places.
MITCHELL: Probably did, no doubt. But I don’t believe we had any outages due to the lightning.
MITCHELL: I’ve been up there when it was storming. I was so scared I wanted to go somewhere but there was no place to go.
BLISS: If you’re up there in a lightning storm, it’ll make you want to go somewhere.
ALLEN: Tell the story again about the photographer who came up there.
MITCHELL: Raytheon wanted to get some pictures of this highest microwave in the world, at that time anyway. They sent a photographer out. He had so much equipment that he came on the train instead of flying in.
ALLEN: Into Worland?
MITCHELL: Into Worland on the train. It was late in the year. I can’t remember for sure whether we got in there with trucks or whether … We had an old converted snowmobile thing–an old Army duck converted into a snowmobile. We went in there with one or the other. Anyway, we got in there and there was, of course, no trees. This was the highest thing around–this little building setting on top of this little peak. And he said, “Well I need to get a picture from the air–from up above it.” It was out of the question to get a helicopter up there on that short notice anyway. So we had a long extension ladder, probably about thirty feet. I don’t know how we happened to have that long a ladder up there, but we did have. So we let the ladder up the full length and then tied it with chains or something onto this snowmobile so that it couldn’t … so it would stand straight up in the air. This guy shinnied up there with his fifteen or twenty pounds of cameras and all his equipment and everything and wobbled around in the wind up there–like a duck on a bush–and took these pictures. I wouldn’t have climbed up there myself. And I was worried about an accident in such a place as that. But I learned later that this was the same photographer that got on top of the Empire State Building in New York City–hung by his heels–and took a bird’s-eye shot straight down of the city of New York. So I guess it was nothing to him.
ALLEN: So it turned out not to be a tenderfoot from New York who came out to take that picture.
MITCHELL: No. He was from New York but he wasn’t a tenderfoot.
ALLEN: You were in that parka and how long did he keep you there while he was taking the pictures? Long enough to be cold.
MITCHELL: Too long. It was a cold day up there. He was an exacting person. He had to have a red parka. When he came into Worland–he already knew what he wanted–he said, “Have you got a red parka?” “No,” I said, “I got parkas but they’re dark blue, they’re not red.” So we hunted all over town trying to find that red parka someplace.
BLISS: That’s what’s in that picture.
ALLEN: Yes.. Were you up on top of peaks with other microwave relays?
MITCHELL: Yes, but not that high. Copper Mountain is nine thousand something and South Pass, where we microwaved over South Pass, was nine to ten thousand but nothing like that.
ALLEN: But nothing quite as difficult to get to?
MITCHELL: Nothing as barren and hostile as Carter Mountain.
ALLEN: And you had to have a diesel on top of each of those, too, or was there power available?
MITCHELL: There was commercial power on Copper but we had our own power–diesel–same thing on South Pass.
ALLEN: Okay. So between 1959 and 1961 were you about ready to give up or did you still feel that you were going to win the case?
BLISS: Well, we hung in there until ’65. There were some things that happened. Is it ’65 or ’62 when …, ’65 when we left Worland, right?
MITCHELL: Sold out?
MITCHELL: Well, it was … as I said, we built this long transmission line from Copper Mountain to Thermopolis, circumvented rules in a way that way and got … and that was an ungodly project–to build twenty-six miles of line to a town of five or six thousand people. It had no power so it had to be battery operated open-wire. That would have been impossible with cable. But it was possible with open wire. We only had a few amplifiers three miles apart with the open wire. And we used transistors–some of the very early transistorized equipment–so we could power it with batteries. We did that for lack of anything much else we could do. You see legal counsel industry-wide kept saying, “Well, this can’t be, you can get out of this if you just hang around and wait long enough and work at it.” No, we weren’t exactly discouraged we were just doing what we could do and waiting to see if this really was true that …
ALLEN: Well, what was the NCTA’s role in litigation?
BLISS: Well, Bill Daniels tried to help us out. He could see that this was a landmark thing. This was something that’s going to affect everybody. He intervened on our behalf with NCTA. Of course, Strat, I think, you know, he could see. I thought at the beginning he thought this can’t be, you see. But as reality set in … NCTA did help us some.
MITCHELL: Yes.. We received some kind of financial help from the NCTA in expenses. I can’t give you the numbers or …
ALLEN: As far as legal expenses were concerned?
BLISS: The whole industry didn’t see the impact of it enough to get in there and really go to bat with us.
MITCHELL: They weren’t too many places like that, I guess, where there was going to be a problem, you see.
ALLEN: And the industry was still small enough that if it didn’t apply directly they didn’t …
BLISS: Right, right.
MITCHELL: Most people–it wasn’t bothering them.
BLISS: Looking back, you see, you can always look back … see if we could have just gotten someone who could have helped us with the financing to take her out of the picture. That’s all we lacked. We were ready to move. If we could have gotten the financing, we would have gone ahead. But we couldn’t get it.
ALLEN: Now, did you talk to Bill Daniels about that as a possibility?
MITCHELL: Well, we went through that whole thing with him. This was probably before Bill had talked to very many bankers either. Bill was having trouble out where he was.
BLISS: Then, you see, we starting talking about selling. Well, then Bill knew, you know, this is pretty bad. But still no help that way–to get financing.
ALLEN: While this was pending about two years. Did you think about building anymore systems?
BLISS: Yes, we were thinking about it. Remember Buffalo came along.
MITCHELL: We were still prospecting around. Close in, not very far out. We did, after we sold, we did get into other things, but we were too busy right there. We were pretty well hamstrung right where we were.
ALLEN: You didn’t go into anymore then, you just looked at some more.
BLISS: In ’65 that’s when we started in–’64 really.
MITCHELL: We sold in ’65, didn’t we?
MITCHELL: We sold the systems in ’65. Then we got out and starting looking for something.
ALLEN: Now you mentioned you had an opportunity to go in with Gene Schneider at one point.
BLISS: Well, just in passing. He said, “We’re going to go public. Do you want to work out an arrangement?” But at that time cable systems weren’t selling for much.
MITCHELL: It’s hard to realize now what the industry was then.
ALLEN: Yes. When was this conversation with Schneider?
BLISS: Must have been what …
ALLEN: After the ’61 court decision.
MITCHELL: About the time they went in with Livingston Oil.
BLISS: And moved to Tulsa.
ALLEN: Which would have been mid-’60s?
BLISS: No. It was before we sold out.
MITCHELL: It would have been maybe ’62 or ’63, something like that.
BLISS: Right in there.
ALLEN: So once the court affirmed the FCC and you found that nothing was going to be reversed, what was your thought process then? What did you decide was next on the agenda?
MITCHELL: Well, there again Bill Daniels had become a broker by that time. We sold through Bill Daniels as the broker.
ALLEN: But there was a period of what about four years from the time the court decision in ’61 until you sold in …
BLISS: Three years, that we were just kind of waiting to see if something would happen and nothing did. Trying everything in the world to get her out of the picture.
MITCHELL: We went through the thing of trying to find financing big enough to buy that TV station. That was one thing and that went on for months.
BLISS: She wasn’t talking to us. She was talking to our lawyer. We’d sent him down to talk to her. We didn’t … well, did you talk with her once?
MITCHELL: I might have, I don’t remember.
BLISS: I don’t think we did.
ALLEN: Now in the final FCC ruling, you had the opportunity to refile under a couple of conditions. One was you would have to carry her–carry that station–and that you couldn’t duplicate programming.
MITCHELL: Well, we were carrying her already so that was no problem. But I think the provision that we would never carry what she was carrying was a little bit too hard to swallow.
BLISS: Because she was getting it from everybody.
MITCHELL: Well, because she was cherry picking–moving from network to network. And also her signals were not that good. We didn’t want to have to pick her up. That would be the only ball game for us was on the cable system somewhere.
ALLEN: Let me see if I can understand here. On one hand you said you were carrying the signal but it wasn’t a good signal and, had you gotten the Salt Lake signals in, would have just knocked her off then?
MITCHELL: No, we wouldn’t have taken her off. We didn’t ever have any proposal not to carry her on the system. But as I remember it now, see, the signals coming in from Salt Lake were quite good and they were in color. They were state-of-the-art signals and the transmitters in Salt Lake City were good. If we had had the situation where we had to discontinue, say a network ball game, and take instead the signal which she was broadcasting and put in that hole on a channel, it would have been a bad deal. First of all, it wouldn’t have been in color and it would have been a mishandled signal, frankly.
BLISS: Did your question mean if we’d have gotten the Salt Lake in and we had bought her out, would we have taken the station off the air?
ALLEN: No. If she had maintained the station and you had brought Salt Lake in, would you have taken her off the system?
BLISS: Oh, no.
ALLEN: Because what the general implication is, as I read this, is this was really a must-carry ruling by the FCC.
BLISS: We wanted to carry her.
MITCHELL: We’d been carrying her in all the systems and as hard up as we were for signals, we would have carried anything we could get–good or bad.
MITCHELL: But we didn’t, I think …
ALLEN: The nonduplication of programming was the one …
MITCHELL: The nonduplication … having to take off a good signal that was coming in direct on microwave and carry in place a signal that had been through her transmitter and back out and picked up again when it probably wouldn’t have been near as good a signal and especially not in color. Color was just coming in in those days. As I remember it now. That would have been a thing that we …
ALLEN: Well, her point was that if you had the same picture in color from Salt Lake that she had in a deteriorated black and white that no one would watch her and, therefore, she would suffer economic consequences.
MITCHELL: Well, that was our contention, too. And even if we’d had nonduplication we’d have still had that situation. Anyway, we didn’t refile it and if we had we might have been able to do something.
BLISS: I don’t remember Strat ever mentioning that we could.
MITCHELL: Well, I think maybe … I don’t remember now … but maybe Strat didn’t have too much stomach for refiling it anyway.
ALLEN: What the reading here is that the request is denied without prejudice to refiling when a showing can be made that the duplication of programming is adequately avoided and a satisfactory arrangement is arrived at by which the cable system will carry the local KWRB-TV service. So it was, in fact, a must-carry ruling and apparently the first must- carry ruling …
MITCHELL: We were carrying it, of course.
ALLEN: … that dictated that you didn’t have any choice but to carry her.
MITCHELL: We were carrying her and that wasn’t the bone of contention … the nonduplication is where things hung up.
ALLEN: Yes. So then you said Bob Magness came to you and wanted to know if you were ready to sell?
BLISS: Well, we were working with Bill Daniels.
MITCHELL: We were getting assistance through Bill Daniels. Magness was just beginning to get together what is now TCI–it was something else then. And we sold the systems to TCI all except Basin and Greybull were sold to Carl Williams as an individual.
ALLEN: Uh huh.
BLISS: See he was working through the Salt Lake people.
ALLEN: What made the systems attractive to Magness? You were faced with the problems of not being able to bring the signals in with microwave and …
BLISS: Well, you’d have to ask him. I think with the Salt Lake connection and the fact it was going to bring the Salt Lake in, they could see that there was going to be no problem as far as they were concerned of taking her out of the picture.
BLISS: See, they had the money.
MITCHELL: And by that time, Magness and George Hatch, a broadcaster and newspaperman in Salt Lake City, were in a …
BLISS: Salt Lake Tribune, you know …
MITCHELL: … were in a partnership arrangement and already had acquired some franchises, I think, in the Utah basin area. I suppose, if I had to guess, that they figured that they had some way to make the political route or live with it until the political situation changed.
ALLEN: Uh huh.
MITCHELL: See it did change when the administration changed back to Republican in … when was that?
BLISS: When there was a change on the Commission, you mean.
MITCHELL: Anyway, it changed from … when Johnson came in, that’s when the change was, I believe. Anyway, they may have guessed better than we what the future political situation would be.
ALLEN: What happened to KWRB-TV?
MITCHELL: It’s still in operation.
ALLEN: It’s still in operation.
MITCHELL: The Earnsts are deceased but the station is still in operation.
BLISS: You sure of that?
BLISS: I didn’t know it was still operating. I thought that closed down.
MITCHELL: No, no. It’s in operation.
ALLEN: So they did manage to survive the competition of cable and satellite and everything else.
MITCHELL: Yes, they’re still there.
ALLEN: So, when you two sold out then in ’65, you sold all six of the systems–four to Magness and two to Carl Williams.
ALLEN: Then did you go your separate ways?
MITCHELL: Well, not immediately.
BLISS: No, not for awhile.
MITCHELL: We went and got …
BLISS: Well, Tom was working out west here and I was back there–back east in Illinois.
MITCHELL: We gradually separated. I went into engineering– freelance engineering, advisory and construction and things like that.
ALLEN: Of cable systems?
MITCHELL: Yes.. I formed a little construction company. Built some systems and in those days anybody that knew “boo” could be an engineer, you know. I helped a lot of systems get over problems of one kind or another. Put in microwave systems.
ALLEN: Mostly in the west?
MITCHELL: Mostly in the west–Texas and west. Ended up working almost continuously on a contractual basis for Televents which was Carl Williams’ systems and finally dropped everything else and went on their payroll as an engineer.
BLISS: But see, when I went back there in ’65 …
ALLEN: Back there being back to Illinois?
BLISS: To Illinois … the first franchise … he was still … were you still … ?
MITCHELL: I helped you get the first franchise.
BLISS: The first franchise he helped me get.
ALLEN: Which, what was … ?
BLISS: Fairbury, Illinois, downstate about 100 miles from Chicago, downstate. Then his outfit, the one he was working with, helped me build that first system. From then on he was out west and I was back there so I got four more towns back there. I finally got five towns.
ALLEN: What else did you build in Illinois besides Fairbury?
BLISS: We built Chenoa, Forest, Chatsworth and Gibson City–those five. We had them from … until 1980 is when I sold out back there. So I had those from ’65 until ’80.
ALLEN: And then is that when you moved to Mesa?
BLISS: Uh huh. We’d been coming down here in the winter. So we came back here in ’80 or ’81.
ALLEN: One of the things that I like to do as a part of these is to talk a little bit about what your perceptions are of the future of the cable industry. You grew up with the industry and you may have some thoughts about where things are going. Congress is looking at more and more regulation as a possibility. Now, what do you feel? Is it going to happen?
BLISS: I think if some of the cable operators don’t change their perception, you know. I think they should be thinking of their PR a little, you know. They more or less have a monopoly and you can abuse that and it will bring on regulation every time. I think they should be thinking about that. Maybe they will, too, as they see it imminent. They may back off.
MITCHELL: Well, in all fairness, there is some justification for some of the feelings of some of the legislature. They are not universal situations but there’s some places, and I know of them, some places where service and maintenance has not been what it should be. There are also places where there has been excessive rate conditions.
BLISS: Put the two together–bad service …
MITCHELL: It so happens that cable has always been a good political horse, you know. You can be against the cable system and get elected lots of places. So it’s not unjustified and I’d be the first one to say that. I’m still in the cable industry maybe more than Roy and from what I can see, if I had to guess, the regulation is not going to be restrictive or prohibitive or it’s not going to hurt the industry. A lot of people–the people that are not really too well understanding of the industry–fear it more, I think, than the people in the industry. In other words, it slows financing. Any kind of thing like that, the banker hears about it and it slows financing. If I had to guess, if there is regulation, it won’t be as strict–not enough to become serious.
ALLEN: It won’t become like a public service utility type regulation.
MITCHELL: I don’t think so. The more legislatures learn about the cable business, I think the less likely they are to want to regulate it. We’ve got lots of competition. We’ve got tape machines and home satellites and video stores and a lot of things. We’ve got a lot of competition that they don’t at first recognize as competition.
ALLEN: Do you see the telephone company getting into the act and becoming direct competition.
MITCHELL: Very slowly.
BLISS: I’ve always felt that if they get in then cable is now big enough that they could start doing some communicating on a local basis themselves. I mean, what’s sauce for the goose. So, I don’t think the phone company will maybe go that far. I don’t know. Maybe there will be a marriage way down the road. Something like that.
MITCHELL: Cable is getting to where it’s a lot of other things besides just carrying television pictures. As cable broadens, they may step over into what now is kind of thought of as telephone territory. If they do, why then it might become a little bit blurry who’s the telephone company and who’s the cable company.
ALLEN: And this has been made possible because of the consolidation of the cable company so there’s a capital base …
BLISS: And the technology.
MITCHELL: Companies are large enough now that they can do a lot of R&D and new thinking without straining them financially. They can move into things that years ago you couldn’t afford to get into even if you thought you wanted to.
ALLEN: The cable industry is conditioned to rebuild periodically because they just kept going from three channels to five channels to twelve channels to thirty channels to sixty channels.
MITCHELL: Well, I think it’s always been that way and I suppose always will be. Many systems, in order to get the very, very highest quality pictures, are going into fiber optics and there’s going to be some kind of communications out of the home, back. That’s coming just as sure as anything and the ramifications for that are tremendous because if in a few seconds some big computer can say well this is what the people think about that … I mean, just say push the card in and then it’s all tabulated like that and they say, well that’s a bad idea. It’s just been voted on.
MITCHELL: There’s always been a lot of things we could do that we couldn’t afford to do in the industry, but as time goes on more and more of those things that we could do we now tend to be able to afford to do. Newspaper–you can put a newspaper in anybody’s basement but you can’t afford to. It’s not that you can’t technically to do it, you can’t afford to do it. But if the numbers get big enough so that just a few people out of the whole want something and that number’s big enough, then you put newspapers in the basement every morning and there’s all kind of other services that we couldn’t afford to do that we know how to do.
ALLEN: Technology can do a lot more than there’s dollars for right now.
ALLEN: Is it going to require fiber optic cabling to all the homes in order to close in?
MITCHELL: Well, as I see it now, fiber direct to the home is probably not necessary–maybe not even feasible– Not necessary. If the picture gets so good then from then on the human eye can’t perceive it anyway. But there’s more and more usage for fiber optics in the trunking, getting it somewhere near the home so that cable doesn’t have to reach very far from this point to the home.
BLISS: Fiber optics is actually ahead of the receiver. I mean, it could bring a prettier picture than that receiver can.
ALLEN: But, Roy, you’re talking about a signal going from the home, back. Is that …
BLISS: Some kind of communication.
ALLEN: Does that require fiber optics?
MITCHELL: No. We’ve done that for years in selected systems where it was necessary or feasible. It might be done with optics, too, but right now–what we’re doing now–we don’t need optics for that too much. It’s not pictures we’re transmitting backwards, it’s the narrow band signals and …
BLISS: This is way down the road but think what it would mean for any society to be able to tell the politicians what they think of a certain idea. It could be just like that. There’s many things that have happened that wouldn’t have happened here if they just knew–if they just communicated.
ALLEN: Well, as you look back now on Carter Mountain and all of the problems, what’s your general feeling?
BLISS: It was just something that the Commission went through–a phase, you know–where they were going to protect the broadcasters and we got caught in the middle. That’s what happened.
MITCHELL: Well, in reality, at least at this time, it’s the present that matters. But it was fun.
MITCHELL: It was fun. At the time it was heartbreaking sometimes. But now it was fun. We lived over it, the industry lived over it. Thank goodness it just was Carter Mountain–it didn’t carry very far–as far as I know, to hardly any other places. That philosophy that the broadcaster could control the cable system by pleading economic injury or some other such thing as that didn’t get very far. And it’s a good thing it didn’t.
BLISS: I don’t know what year it was that it filtered in and they could see this industry just becoming– all the people want cable. Then, you know, they started to …
MITCHELL: Well, it came with the satellite. If you had to figure out a point in time, it came when the cable had many things to offer that the broadcaster never could offer.
ALLEN: When it went from community antenna to cable was when the satellite became a reality.
MITCHELL: That’s right. That’s when the cable had a lot to offer–diverse things–and it was not technically possible to duplicate that on the air. That’s when all of a sudden everybody recognized us, I guess.
BLISS: What year was that … was that ’73 or ’74?
MITCHELL: It would have been about ’75.
ALLEN: Is that the first satellite?
MITCHELL: I think it would have been about the first. It first began with TelePrompTer and HBO.
ALLEN: Uh huh. It certainly made a big difference in that period of time.
MITCHELL: That was what made the cable industry. Up until that time just the layman observer would say the cable industry’s just riding the broadcaster. He’s just doing what the broadcaster can’t quite do. Picking up that signal and getting to where the broadcaster can’t quite get it. Or getting more of them there than the broadcaster can.
BLISS: We didn’t think so.
MITCHELL: We wouldn’t have thought it but a lot of people thought it–that they’re riding on that broadcaster’s back and the broadcaster, of course, didn’t hesitate to let everybody know that. In the very early days, we were standing under the covers of the broadcaster. Pretty soon we were competing with the broadcaster–at least in their view. Now we’re even with him but we also have things he doesn’t have.
BLISS: Yes, when it started moving into the hometown where the broadcaster was, that really was the change.
ALLEN: Well, I would say it was a two-way street because there were broadcasters who moved into town before cable was.
ALLEN: And those were some very interesting times. In fact that’s really what happened to you.
MITCHELL: That’s what happened to us. We had cable systems–crude and rudimentary as they were–we had cable systems in all those towns before there was a broadcast signal there.
BLISS: She … that was the smallest TV station in the world.
MITCHELL: Not in the world maybe but in the United States.
BLISS: I don’t know where you’d go to find any other one.
MITCHELL: There may be some figures there as to the number of households that station covered. It couldn’t have been over–I don’t think over 20,000.
BLISS: You can say the world.
ALLEN: Yes.. If you had to do one thing different related to Carter Mountain, what would it be?
MITCHELL: Oh, looking back see, we probably should have just hung on. That was probably what we should have done. We would have had lots of trouble. There would have been a lot of phone calls, you know–When are you going to do this? When are you going to do that? It’s possible we should have hung on.
ALLEN: What has happened to those systems since. Have you kept in touch with them.
BLISS: Oh yes.
MITCHELL: Oh yes. We go over there all the time. They’re all owned by TCI.
ALLEN: All six of them now?
MITCHELL: And they’re successful. They’re modern and they’ve got a probably 95 percent saturation.
BLISS: And they’re probably worth ten times more than what we got for them. At least, wouldn’t you say, Tom?
MITCHELL: Universally accepted. I go up there to visit friends all the time. They’re good pictures, they’re good systems.
BLISS: Doing a good job.
ALLEN: Well, on behalf of the National Cable Television Center and Museum, I want to say thanks to both of you. It’s been a very interesting period and I think it adds some additional background to the understanding of the Carter Mountain case which was so important to the cable industry. So, thanks again, to both of you.
BLISS: Well, thank you. I hope we’ve contributed something.
MITCHELL: We’re glad to do it.
ALLEN: Good. Thank you.
End of Tape 1, Side B