Interview Date: March 2001
Interviewer: Rex Porter
Collection: Hauser Collection
PORTER: I’m Rex Porter and I’m here to interview Mr. Ted Hartson from the Scottsdale Television Laboratories. Good afternoon, Ted. Why don’t you just start us off by giving us a little of the background of where you grew up and how you got into cable television.
HARTSON: Well, Rex, thanks for inviting me. There are those that would tell you that I haven’t yet grown up, so I’ll just tell you about what’s happened so far. I was born in Battle Creek, Michigan – “crick”, as opposed to “creek”, and I grew up around there. I quit school when I was 15 to go work in a radio shop. Radio was always kind of my passion, and when I say ‘work in a radio shop’ that kind of overstates it because actually it was ‘hang around the radio shop and run and get coffee and cigarettes for the guys’. Eventually the old man that owned the place said, “If you want to take a couple of those barrels and put those barrels out in the garage and put that door across there, you can use that for a bench and you can work on the trade-ins, but if a customer comes in, just grab a broom or something and get away from there because we don’t want the customers thinking that kids are working on the radios.” But that was a great experience. I fixed a lot of radios and learned a lot of things that turned out to be remarkably useful in later life skills. We worked in the radio shop until we started doing a little bit of radio work, broadcasting, and then we got involved in television – doing engineering, transmitter supervisor, things like that – and got a phone call one day from my boss’s boss, who happened to be the president of the NAB that year, a guy by the name of Bill Schrader. Bill Schrader said, “Ted, we decided that we’re going to get in the cable television business.” I’m thinking, “Oh, geez, cable TV?” He said, “What we’d like you to do is go down and we’re going to start up some cable systems and we’d like you to spend about six months doing that. When you get those systems built, get those things started, there’s going to be some really good things happening for you in the broadcast division, I’m sure.”
PORTER: Now, did you have your FCC license by this time?
PORTER: Yeah. Your radio and telephone license.
HARTSON: Oh, you mean I should have a license. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, when I was 17, I got on a Greyhound bus – I think it was February – it was cold and winter and the sun never comes up in Michigan, and I went to Detroit. I had no license of any kind and I went to the FCC, and there was a long gray line of people, all trying to get their 3rd class licenses because they wanted to be disc jockeys and everything else. There were probably 200 people in line, so I get up to my time to come up to the top of the line and the examiner says, “What are you here for?” And I said, “Well, I’m here for a 1st class license and a ship Radar Endorsement.” He looks at me and he says, “Yeah, right.” It was $17 or $21 or whatever the hell it was to take the test, and so we wrote the 3rd – the 3rd takes an hour or so – and then we wrote the 2nd and the 2nd is done by noon or so, and now we’re down to about 50 people there, and I’m still standing. In those days, the reason that you would take the ship Radar Endorsement was not that you wanted it, but if you always took one more test, you knew that if you could see that test that you’d passed the preceding element, so that’s kind of where I was at. So, afternoon we’re setting down to write whatever element – element 4, I guess it is, for a 1st class license – and the examiner comes by and says, “Oh, you’re still here, kid?” I said, “Yeah, I’m still here.” About three o’clock in the afternoon, I’m thinking about the ride home on the Greyhound bus, and by golly, I get to see that ship Radar Endorsement, so I know I got my 1st. Now there’s three guys left in the room and I’m writing the ship Radar Endorsement, I get that done; I take it up to him and I walk a couple of steps away, and I say, “I don’t suppose you could give me an idea of how I did, do ya?” And he looked at me and he said, “Well, you’ll get a letter in a couple of weeks.” So I’m walking to the door and I get just about to the door and he says, “Hartson!” I turn around and he says (indicates thumbs up to the camera). So that’s how I got my license, that and eating a lot of Cracker Jacks.
PORTER: All the tests in one day, though?
HARTSON: Yes, sir.
PORTER: I went three times just to get right up to 2nd.
HARTSON: Well, then I started unloading all of that knowledge and I’m right back to where I don’t know any of it now, but that was a good experience and that opened a lot of doors because that could let you go molest transmitters that you were not otherwise welcome to go see. I was kind of a transmitter molester.
PORTER: So now you got a call from your boss to go into cable television.
HARTSON: Cable TV. Go down and we had these leaseback deals, and the leaseback deals were where the telephone company owned the plant, we built the tower, we built the microwave, we did the drops, but they owned the outside plant. That’s how it started out. That was that way up until, this was in ’66.
PORTER: But the customers were yours?
HARTSON: Our customers, yeah. The telephone company was supposed to take care of the outside plant and they did a terrible job of doing that and their service was just abysmal, and that would be the kindest thing I could say about it. You never could get them to return your phone calls, or they’d put you on hold or something. So for years I had on my office wall the duplicate copy – I called Western Union, Western Union was still in business, so I called Western Union and sent a telegram to the telephone company saying “I’m holding on line two.” So you know that they have a long heritage of this “good” service. They didn’t learn to perform like this in the last 30 years; they knew how to do this a long time ago. They had their own private forces. It was kind of like, you remember in the ’50s and ’60s there were still tons of teletype machines around. The teletype guys were like special guys – they wouldn’t park in the same parking lot, they wouldn’t drink “your” coffee, they had to drive their trucks, they had all their little machines and little springs and balances and things, and the cable guys kind of imagined they were that way, some sort of a Green Beret team, or something, but the reality is that they knew less about the business than we did, and that was a pretty sorry comment because we didn’t know a damn things about it, but we were in it, and over a period of time we started doing more and more work. There were union considerations to getting fully into the plant, but we wound up training the telephone guys to do a lot of things, and it was a good relationship ultimately. I think that probably, and I’m referring now to Michigan Bell, and down in Indiana Time Life broadcast, Time Life Cable (TLC). In those days we had Marion and Terre Haute, Indiana; we had Ashtabula, Ohio. Lower Bucks over in Pennsylvania was off my watch, that wasn’t mine. We had Jackson, Albion, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo, Michigan in various ownerships. There was a little bit of slave trading going on. Back in the Mid-West there was an entrepreneur engineer by the name of John Fetzer, and John Fetzer was an early broadcaster. He owned the Tigers back in the last time the Tigers won the World Series, which was one or two centuries ago, I don’t remember exactly, but it was a long time ago. They traded these franchises around. There was always kind of a beneficial ownership between them, although I think that maybe Time Life Cable may have actually only owned Battle Creek and Albion by the time that we actually started building them. These were twelve-channel systems. They were all built Star Line One, Jerrold twelve-channel, single ended, slightly in front of the envelope because it wasn’t really ready for primetime yet. You remember in that era that there were some great tube type amps, the old SKL 222s, you know, we would use those once in a while when we’d just say this is not a Star Line location. So we had those systems running and built the headends and had just a huge amount of reception problems, as you can imagine. We put together a microwave network that went from just outside of Detroit to down very close to the Illinois-Indiana lines down in the southwest corner of Michigan, and that was a twelve gigahertz CARS network for our, three companies. My boss said, “You really need to be careful when you buy these radios because they’ve got to last for a very long time.” And so I went to Microwave Associates and looked at their radios and they were nice guys, but they hadn’t been in business only a few hundred years; they weren’t like RCA. So I went down to Collins down in Dallas and they had their microwaves in Dallas, and looked at their radios. They had nice radios. So I come back to my boss and I said, “Well, you know these guys have got transistorized radios, but I think I’m going to go with RCA. RCA’s got the Klystron Amps, RCA’s got vacuum tubes, but the one thing you know is that RCA’s going to be in business.” One year later, the warranty stickers are still on the radios and RCA says, “We’re getting out of the microwave business.” Now the sidebar story to that, in the same period of time, my boss decides to buy a billing computer for the TV station, he buys an RCA Spectra-70. One and a half years later, RCA gets out of the computer business. So he never knocked on me for my microwave and I never knocked on him for his computer. We built the system and we would drag Detroit signals towards the west and we’d drag Chicago signals towards the east, and pick up as much as we could off the air. In February of 1967 was the Second Report and Order, which basically was a freeze on importing distant signals, and we were all racing around trying to get signals on the air. A couple of things happened in that timeframe. There was a program called MPATI – Mid-West Program on Airborne Television Instruction, and the government had underwritten this in conjunction with Purdue University, and they had a couple of kilowatt UHF transmitters. They actually had six transmitters, as I recall, in three planes, and the planes would go up over central Indiana maybe 25,000 feet, fairly high, and they would fly a triangle and they would operate on channel 72 and 76, and they had videotape. This was an idea to get a greater outreach for distance learning that was just starting then. The Feds in the worst way wanted me to carry these signals, so they said “You’re flush with bandwidth; you’ve got twelve channels. What the hell are you going to do with twelve channels? Why don’t you put two of these educationals on?” I remember that I went with my boss and we had a meeting in Detroit and we said, “What we really want to do is pick up South Bend. WNDU, Notre Dame basketball, football, all the things that are on that station.” We had missed the window for the Second Report and Order. I wasn’t as suave as I am now, I just said what I think. I said, “What we’d really like to do is work a trade with you guys.” I can remember the commission guy saying, “You don’t negotiate with the commission!” Well, we didn’t negotiate with the commission, but we did put on South Bend. We did put on all the stations in South Bend, and never got in any trouble from the commission and we did carry MPATI until it finally went off the air, so maybe you do get to negotiate with the commission after all. Then a little later, over towards the east side of the state, I really desperately needed an ABC affiliate, and there was an ABC affiliate that was just long over the horizon and you could get it on good days, Channel 13, and there was an NBC down in Toledo on Channel 13 that was a hell of a lot closer, and constantly fighting the co-channel on that. So, I decided that I’m going to build the world’s biggest and best Channel 13 antenna. I guess I had… I guess it might have been a 400-foot tower, and so I made my plans to build a 16 yagi double gate array at the top of this thing. TACO (Technical Assurance Corp, a Jerrold holding) Antennas – I probably bought them from you.
PORTER: You didn’t buy’em from me.
HARTSON: Oh, okay. So I had taken a single antenna and a modulator, an old TM and a motor generator set and took it out a couple of miles and put it on the radial where Toledo comes from when the co-channel was on and let that run for days at a time running a carrier there, and I built this huge array – four and four on one side and four and four on the other side on gates, Bolson chairs, me and my 704 on a return loss bridge and fiddling around getting all these things dialed in, and this was the most wonderful antenna in the world. The co-channel could come up and there was nothing that could stop this antenna from getting the ABC picture from Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids was running 10% sound, Toledo was running 20% sound, so you’d get the ABC programming and you’d get the NBC sound when the co-channel would come in. Now this presents a problem – customers don’t understand this. I’ll tell you that the way we wound up getting out of that, that the antenna worked wonderfully, happened that one of our office girls had a sister that was living in Toledo and we actually put together a dial up thing so that when this went up she could dial her sister, we would take a long distance phone call and we would bring the audio up on a dial up phone line and stick it into the modulator until the co-channel went away. So that was creative engineering. That’s the kind of stuff that mercifully we don’t have to do anymore.
PORTER: Did you have eight antennas on a boom? Eight on one side of the tower and eight on the other?
HARTSON: Yeah, I had four and four on two gates, and then four and four on two gates, and then both gates…. So first you tuned this and then you tuned that, and then you tuned all this and then you went back and tuned that over again because you thought you did that wrong. So, I spent a lot of time hanging in my Bolson chair putting all of that together. I didn’t put any Dow Corning in the connectors.
PORTER: So now we go from those leaseback systems…
HARTSON: Yeah, building. In the meantime, we start to build.
PORTER: So this is Time Life?
HARTSON: Well, it’s actually ATC by now. Time Life had an epiphany that they ought to be out of things that didn’t have ink. Time Life decided they wanted to get out of the television business, and I recall they had five television stations and they sold four of them for 75 million dollars, and before they could sell the NBC affiliate in Grand Rapids, my old Channel 8 up there, they got 80 million dollars for just that. Stations were going straight up. Time Life decided they did not want to be in the cable television business, so they sold their properties to Monty Rifkin. Monty Rifkin said, “I’ll take all of these things you can get me.” As you know, they eventually bought back Monty and ATC and they’ve been in and out of the business at least three times that I know of. But we started building systems, started expanding, after ’72, was the Bell divestiture, the 214s where Bell had to get out of these systems and we bought these systems and took them over ourselves. A lot of them were co-lashed. They were lashed right directly on the strand with the telephone. More than once I had a tech that would go out to cut in a tap and he would call on the radio or call on the telephone if the telephone was working and say, “I’m ready to cut in the tap but I don’t know which one of these wires is the center conductor.” I’d say, “What do you mean ‘which one of these wires’?” And he’d say, “Well, there’s about 50 of them in here and they’re all foreign code.” So more than once we wound up doing that. More than once we wound up… we lashed a transportation trunk on a power neutral one time because they said, “Well, we thought that was the strand.”
PORTER: How long did they give you to get off of their telephone? You had to get off of the telephone line, right?
HARTSON: We never did get off. Long after I was gone, the system was rebuilt and it was banded in place, as I recall, but we stayed co-lashed for a very, very long time. That was a nice ride.
PORTER: Yeah, that’s unusual.
HARTSON: Certainly can afford the rearrangements. So, then we started building more properties and in the same ’72 timeframe, I get a call from New York and in those days, Herb Michaels is running engineering in New York – hi, Herb – and he said, “You’ve got to get up to Rochester right away because we’ve got a franchise in Rochester. We’re going to lose the franchise in Rochester if we don’t get a system running.” So, I got up at the end of October and I said, “There’s a lot of things to do up here. Man, I don’t know how you’re going to get this done.” He said, “Okay, we’re going to find somebody that knows how the hell to do it.” So they put somebody in and a month goes by. Now it’s the first of December and that guy walks off and says, “We can’t possibly do this.” So then they get me back up there and now I’ve got one month to do it instead of two. Don Guthrie was the general manager in those days. Don Guthrie had built some systems; he was working for Time Life, and I had known Don and he was running the shop up there and he says, “Please come up and let’s see what we can do.” So, I went up and we decided we would try to build 20 miles of system up around the Henrietta Bridge up on the north side of Rochester and the only guy I could find that would take on the construction work was Jimmy Nishamura, an old Jerrold player that I always called “Tokyo”.
PORTER: I know Jimmy.
HARTSON: So Jimmy allows that he’ll build the system. Jerrold allows that they’ll get us some hardware but we don’t know what it is, so they say “Guess what, guys? You’re going to get Star Line 20.” Hey, that’s great. So we’re splicing in Star Line 20 cases; we can’t get splitters, we can’t get DCs, so we’ve got splitters and DCs wrapped up in garbage bags, you know, inside splitters out in the plant with BAF connectors on the aluminum and we’re dying for amplifiers, and I’m dying for people and we’re running out of time, so I hire a kid. I hire a kid in the morning and he’s been to DeVry or something and he knows, at least, which way the electrons go, and I used to tell him that the signal goes in on the “J” and comes out on the “D” and payday is every other week. That’s all you need to know to be in the cable television business. So, I hire this kid and I get a phone call that says, “Your amps are ready,” and I want my amps in the worst way, and money is no object at this time. The stations are coming by interviewing us, “Are you trying to beat a deadline?” “No, we don’t know what you mean,” we’re just being mum about everything. So the kid comes to work; about noon time we go out to the airport. I hire a Lear Jet, put the kid in the Lear Jet, he flies down to Philadelphia, they meet him with the modules, the power supply, the equalizers – everything to light this baby up. We’re running out of time. He gets back that night and he says, “Well, I’m going home now. You know, I think I’m going to like this job.” (LAUGHTER) So, we’re building this system and coming down to the last couple of days and there was a retirement home called Seneca Towers, or something, and that’s where we had our headend – on top of it. Just cold, miserable, kind of upper New York kind of weather that you could expect just coming in on New Year’s, and we’re working straight around the clock and I had a battle office and I had cases of booze because booze buys things in New York. I got these guys building a big H-frame to put up antennas. We’re talking about serious antennas. We’re talking about sucking out Buffalo and Syracuse one way or another, kicking or screaming Buffalo and Syracuse are going to be on my system. So, we’re building these things – cold, steamy, rain, ice, sleet, everything – guys with arc welders up on the top of the building. I’m standing there and I look down one way as far as I can see and I see a fire truck, lights going around the fire truck. I look over the other way and I see a fire truck. Before long I discover that about in every direction I can look I see fire trucks and they’re all coming this way. It seems that somebody decided that Seneca Falls Towers was on fire because they could see the smoke, they could see the sparking and the light going on up there. The battalion chief comes up and says, “What’s going on here?” I said, “Well, come down to my office, I’ll tell you what’s going on here.” “Have you got a permit for this?” “Yeah, I’ve got a permit for that.” “You got a permit for this?” “Yeah, I got a permit for that.” Well, I had about three permits – if I needed ten, I had about three. Eventually, the old fire chief says, “Well, we’re going to have to shut you down because you’re out of order here.” I said, “Well, I’m real sorry for what’s going on. Obviously we didn’t mean any harm to anybody. You can see we’re working hard here. We are working on a deadline. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I’ve got this case of Cutty here, and if you’d take this case of Cutty, and whatever you want to do to me is up to you, but if you’d take this case of Cutty and take it back and split it with the guys, it’d be kind of a way of saying ‘thanks’ for coming out on a night like this.” He gets on the radio and he says, “Can you bring me a tarp up to the 24th floor?” So some guy brings him a tarp up to the 24th floor, he wraps up the case of Cutty in the tarp, carries it off, and that was the last I saw of the fire department and we were back in business. So the next morning we now have one day to go, and we have to get 50 customers on the air, and the only way we think we can comfortably do this is to get installers – and we’ve called and we’ve got installers to fly in – and every installer had a notary public with them. So you’d go out, you’d do the install, the notary public would get an affidavit from the customer that “Yeah, I can see Syracuse”; “Yeah, I can see Buffalo” and all of these things are together. So we managed to get this all done, and you know what? December 31st wasn’t the date anyway! The date turned out to be about six months later, so we found out that we broke our butt for nothing, but the original Rochester system started from that and that was Time Life. I think that I probably got two Christmas turkeys that year.
PORTER: So from Time Life where did you go?
HARTSON: Well, let’s see. That was Time Life ’72. There was a fair amount of Time Life. We started building Columbus then and there were four pieces of Columbus.
PORTER: Columbus, Ohio?
HARTSON: Yeah. There was Tom Suncini(Note::: I think it is Soncini) and the Coaxial crowd over on one side, and there was Warner, our mortal enemies, you had the lion lying down with the lamb. I still have a hard time saying Time Warner today. I still say Time Life if I don’t think about it. But Warner was on the other side, we were down in Germantown down on the south side and then there was Bob Johnson and BET, the black group, Inter-city Unity, or something, they were down in the middle of town. We were building that south side, and by that time I’m regional manager for divisional engineering grand poobah, or whatever it is, and I’ve got responsibility for this and the systems in Indiana, and we had built a big system. I guess that was built 270 megahertz, maybe, and no AGC. All the cable had too much loss. It was a fused disk system and all the fused disk had too much loss. RCA amplifiers didn’t have enough gain, so we basically wound up with about 500 miles of system running without any gain control on it for a year. I spent a lot of time down there.
PORTER: In Columbus?
HARTSON: Yeah, and had three engineers down there – I shouldn’t say engineers – technicians that I came to know, one of which left the industry, wisely. The other two were guys that were really completing to see who’s going to be the chief tech in Columbus. One guy was a little skinny guy that could climb a pole like a monkey, always carried cigarettes, and I was fond of cigarettes and I was fond of guys who could climb poles in a hurry. His name was Pete Smith. The other guy was kind of a bigger guy, more rotund is the word, I guess, would be more socially correct to say, and that was Russ Skinner. So, I had to promote one of these two guys to be the chief tech in Columbus, so eventually I promoted Skinner because he had a ham radio license. So it was just a subtle difference, and they both went on and did very well in the industry. As you know, Pete Smith stayed with Monty for a long time and Russ had a nice career in and around the industry, spent a lot of time at ATC, and we had a lot of fun together.
PORTER: And both still around.
HARTSON: Both still around! And the guy who left the industry is probably a multi-billionaire by now. Probably only has one wife. You know what cable utility is like. So that’s in the mid-70s and by that time I’m starting to do a few more things. People are inviting me to get involved in more things and John Evans wanted me to come to Denver. John Evans wanted me to come out and I don’t know if it was Director of Engineering, but some more important job, and I wasn’t in a position that I could leave Michigan. My grandmother was aged and my mother died when I was young – I may have mentioned that earlier on the tape – and she had kind of saved me from a bastard farm, so I figured that I owed her something, and so I turned that job down. I had been John’s friend and John and Joe Collins kind of got in a war over who was going to run ATC and when Joe Collins won, more Collins people started to get in, and it was probably time… I was starting to think maybe I ought to find a new career in my life, and there actually was a period of time that I briefly was made to work for Russ Skinner, which is a pretty insufferable thing. Hi, Russ! But we had a lot of fun with it and I said, “It’s time to move on. I’m going to move on to bigger and better things and I’m going to take my little consulting company and here comes Spectrum Measurements” and I resigned. How I resigned is a story almost by itself. Monty had decided that he was going to have a training school and I was a little upset in these days. I wasn’t the happiest camper in the world, so they had decided to have a beauty pageant to see who’s going to run the training school, and well, it was like ghostbusters, “Who you going to call?” because Ted’s always been the trainer. I train on anything. The less I know about something, the better I am at training on it because I know no shame when it comes to these things. So, they decided they’d have this training school and they said, “Okay, you can have the job as a director of the training school,” the job that Bob (maybe Ohdlan) eventually got. So, I accepted the job, they had this big dog and pony thing in Denver, and I go up to this meeting fully in my mind to resign because I’m going to get some retribution as we were wont to do. So, I see Jimmy Doolittle there and Jimmy says, “You’re coming out to Denver? That’s good.” I said, “No, I’m not coming out to Denver. I’m resigning.” He said, “You can’t resign. You just accepted this job.” I said, “Well, Lincoln freed the slaves. I guess I can resign if I want.” He said, “You’re going to have to tell Monty.” I said, “No, you’re going to have to tell Monty.” And nobody told me Monty, so very early in ’80 Monty decides that he wants to go up to Minneapolis to do some franchising up there, franchising is busting loose. Dave Kinley and Monty decide that they’re going to get all of Minneapolis for themselves and as I recall they didn’t get any of it. Monty says, “Get Hartson, go up there, let’s put together a thing.” Somebody said, “Well, it’s hard to get Hartson; he doesn’t work for us anymore.” But by that time I was gone and I started consulting. There were two guys, the general manager of Buckeye Cable in Toledo was a fellow by the name of Leo Hoarty, who is now my father-in-law, not at the time – we were always a friendly bunch, weren’t we? – and a guy from TelePrompTer that was down in Portsmouth, Ohio by the name of John Raines, and the two of them got together and they formed a group called Omnicom, and this was when franchising was just starting to move in the big cities, and so we went over to… I moved from Battle Creek to Plymouth, Michigan, which is a distant western suburb of Detroit, and by that time Frank Ragone’s running Comcast engineering and Frank says, “Why don’t you come to work for me?” And I said, “No, Frank, I don’t want to work for you guys. I just want to consult. I’m never going to have another job, I’m going to consult.” So, I get fifty or more thousand dollars into accounts receivable from Omnicom and Omnicom says, “Well, we’re not going to pay you, but we’ll give you a job.” So I figured, well, the only way I’m going to get out of this is to take the job as director of engineering at Omnicom. So I go to Omnicom and we start building and we built, I guess, 50 or 60 miles, and getting on the air was important because if they talk about vapor wear now, you know what the vapor wear was in the franchising days, that anything you could think of you could put on a piece of paper, you could win a franchise with, and then all you had to do was try to talk somebody out of it.
PORTER: Where was your 60 miles at with Omnicom?
HARTSON: It was in Plymouth, Plymouth Township, Northville, and Canton, Michigan, all of which are just about the last western tier of suburbs in Detroit. You go any further you head for Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. I used to have lunch at the Machus Red Fox, and look for Jimmy Hoffa. So, we built this system and in the meantime, I hear that United was building down in Trenton, and United had scheduled a big dog and pony show and they had by the end of July said, “We’re going to turn on August 15th.” I said, “All right, we’re going to turn on August 14th.” Ted Turner has launched CNN by now. I saw Ted Turner someplace; he knew what we were doing. I had a little transportable downlink dish. Ted Turner said, “You know, I need that dish because I’ve got to go to the Detroit Athletic Club” to do a thing for the draft or the Braves or some dumb thing, and he says, “I need that dish.” I said, “I’ll tell you what. You can have that dish and we’ll come down, we’ll set it up, we’ll schlep it, we’ll do all the things for you, but I need something from you.” He said, “Whatever you need.” I said, “I need you to come to our grand opening.” Yeah, okay, fine. Right, sure, deal done. He’s gone. About a week before our grand opening, I get a phone call from a secretary in Atlanta that says, “Mr. Turner regrets that he won’t be able to attend your grand opening and he says whatever your customary fee is for the dish he’ll be happy to pay it.” I said, “Well, you know, he can’t rent that dish. All he can do is trade it.” So I might be the last man on the planet that ever held Ted Turner hostage, but he was a reluctant participant in our opening ceremony on August 14, 1980, and being a day before Trenton we stole the march on everybody. We were in the newspapers, “First System on in Wayne County”, a big dog deal. Ted Turner there, videotapes, Turner with his Cutty Sark in his pocket, just classic Turner in those days.
PORTER: Fighting with NBC even then.
HARTSON: Well, you know, that was when CBS had the, what was it? Satellite News Channel? It wasn’t a slam dunk; you had to work for it in those days. But that was how we got to Omnicom and then we got some financing from Capital Cities, and Tom Murphy and Dan Burke both liked the cable television business. They thought there was potential there and so they had a deal briefly with Comcast to do some joint venture stuff and that didn’t last too long, and then we were the fair haired boys. We were the fair haired boys. So, we were franchising in the Detroit market, we went to the Chicago market and as luck would have it, we won some stuff on the north shore of Chicago, and we won something around Indianapolis, around Corpus Christi, San Francisco, and we had all these things. We had a commitment that was about that big from Cap Cities, and we had about that many subscribers to bill. Nobody knew what was going to happen, so we eventually had to go to Cap Cities and say, “Guess what? We don’t have a 30,000 commitment anymore; we’ve got a 100,000 commitment.” They said, “Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. If we’re going to be in the cable business, we’re with you. We’re going to cover you guys in Chicago. Start building.”
PORTER: Now, did they own the Cable Comm General properties at that time?
HARTSON: Not yet. No, no. In fact, that’s where I’ll take the story. We’re building these things and we’re having good luck. In franchising – and Cap Cities was a just a terribly honest company, and I’m not leaving any inference, but hey, you know, it’s cable TV – we used to go out franchising and we used to look the city council in the eye and say, “When is less more? Less is more when you’re dealing with somebody that is going to keep their word.” No inference, obviously, but Cap Cities rode with us. They like the business, they liked what we were doing, and they wanted to expand. By that time, Cable Comm General was in trouble with the Feds and they’d lost WOR and everything was kind of unwrapping and they decided that they would be better off to be out of the cable television business. So, Tom Murphy and Dan Burke went and put the deal together with… oh, I can’t think of his name anymore. Can you think of who was the…? I’m blending too many names together, but he put the deal together, anyway, with Cable Comm General, and the plan was that the little start-up, we figured, hey, we’re going to cash out! We’ve all got equity here; we’re going to be on the beach. This is great, this is exactly the plan I had in mind. So here comes Cable Comm General and right off the bat it was a terribly – Dick Forsling! Dick Forsling was the chairman of Cable Comm General in those days. The very first meeting Forsling stands up with a drink in his hand and is talking about the merger – how great the merger is. Tom Murphy stands up and says, “It’s not a merger! You guys just got bought!” So it kind of sets the scene for what’s going to happen, you know? To shorten the story, we thought we’d be fed to Cable Comm and on the other hand, we wound up being the management cadre. We were all in Bloomfield Hills and we took over the operation of all the Cable Comm stuff, and the Cable Comm empire was vast and crazy and strung out all over hell. You know, Cable Comm went back to the Vuemar properties back in the very beginning of things, the clay centers.
PORTER: And RKO General.
HARTSON: RKO General, right. Real cool optics. You know what RKO means, right? Radio Kief Orpheum. That’s a good trivia question for you; you probably can cost somebody a drink over that.
PORTER: I will.
HARTSON: You will. Not if they’re watching this tape. So, we started running the systems and we had to go to all of them. I went to Childress and I went to Lampasas, and I went to places that I didn’t even know existed and they were a mess, for lack of a better word. There hadn’t been any capital going into them and Cap Cities just simply said, “Do what’s right. Fix these systems. We’re in the business; we’re going to stay here. We’re going to do what’s right. Clean them up.” Part of the cleaning them up, I started out by doing a physical audit of all the systems and part of the physical audit was there was a huge amount of microwave strung out around the country. We had common carrier, we had CARS band, we had a lot of common carrier in the Mid-West, and so I decide I’m going to survey all of the towers and all of the licenses and hold the license up to the light and see if any of this stuff matches. Regrettably, a lot of it didn’t match and the only way you can fix something like that and stay on the air is go into the commission and get a waiver or get an application down. If you file an application and you know something is out of bounds, the application is effectively bad. So I decided that what I had to do was go see the commission. Growing up in the broadcast business, there were three rules that you always learned. The first rule was never ask the commission, the second rule was that all not reserved is conferred, and the third rule was that it is easier to seek forgiveness than to gain approval. So the last thing you wanted to do was go talk to the commission, but in this case there was no way out. So I had to go to the commission and the commission guy in those days was Cliff Paul, and Cliff Paul was an ATC manager down in Venice and Okemos, Florida that I knew, so I figured this is going to be good, I’ll go talk to Cliff and tell him what’s going on here. And Cliff Paul says, “Actually, you should take this to my assistant. This is my assistant, he’s just starting here, and his name is John Wong. He’ll help you.” John Wong had an office about as big as a coat closet and he had a big ivy, a big poultice ivy that was growing up, he had coat hangers across the ceiling, down the hall, and he had this single ivy, so that it looked like a cave. If you can think of some of the Marlon Brando pictures and Apocalypse Now, here’s John Wong in his cave. So you’ve got to go talk to John. So, John says, “What are you here for?” I said, “Well, I’m here for a host of problems. I’ve got some towers that are in the wrong place. I’ve got some radios that are on some wrong frequencies. We’re doing some things we didn’t tell you about and we’re not doing some other things that we did tell you about.” I had this whole big book, dossier, of the sins and what I thought would be the appropriate contrition – none of which worked, by the way – so John says, “Well, let’s just pick one.” We open the book and he says, “Well, what’s going on here?” I said, “Well, this is Santa Rosa, California. There’s a microwave that comes from here to there and goes from there to here.” He says, “Well, what’s wrong with this one?” I said, “Well, the tower’s in the wrong place.” He said, “How far is the tower in the wrong place?” Because in those days they used to more or less say that if you go to the coordinates that you might not be standing on the tower, but you sure ought to be able to see it because, you know, the coordinates were kind of an inexact science. I said, “Well, it’s about 25 miles.” He said, “I don’t think I can see that. So the tower in Santa Rosa isn’t in Santa Rosa?” I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” “So where the hell is it?” I said, “Well, it’s in a little town called Agua Caliente, and actually I’m kind of in hot water, too.” And that kind of broke the ice with John and I, and it turned out to be a long, and certainly from my perspective, a wonderful relationship. He helped us clean up our licenses, and later on in my career I had the chance to repay a favor to the commission, and that’s the subject of another story, and we had a lot of fun. I was always on the compliance side, and being a broadcaster, broadcasters took their licensing obligations quite seriously, and so bringing that degree of attention to detail to the cable plants cost a lot of money, took a lot of time, but really it resulted in some pretty good plants. We were pretty proud with what we succeeded in building over a period of time.
PORTER: So following that, there came a period of time where you guys would sell that company?
HARTSON: Yeah. This is in the early ’80s, and about ’82 or so, I’m getting in love with the MMDS business, and the E & F Group auctions are coming up and I talk my boss into going and making a presentation to Murphy and Burke and saying what we want to do is get in the MMDS business to build some of these inter-city markets that people haven’t built out to yet. They thought that was all right; they thought that was a good opportunity, so I went off to St. Louis and was working on a deal to lease some channels, and I’d leased a building, and I’d ordered some transmitters. So I get a call from my boss that says, “You’ve to get back here to Detroit because we’ve got to go to New York and we’ve got to talk about shutting down the MMDS business.” So I figure I’m going to lose my job. It’s going to cost a lot of money to shut this down, we’ve got commitments, and nobody would tell me what was going on. John Coleman was losing the Weather Channel and my boss was trying to buy a stake in Weather Channel. One of the other vice-presidents of the company was off trying to buy Orange County from Storer, or I guess maybe Long Beach from Storer, and all these things were stopping in a heartbeat. Everybody’s saying, “What’s going on here?” And what was going on here was that Leonard Goldenson and Tom Murphy had had lunch and Cap Cities had decided to buy ABC and ABC and Cap Cities needed a waiver. They had the TV station in Philadelphia, WPVI, and of course they had WABC in New York, and they needed a waiver to hold both of those and Cap Cities knew they’d only get one waiver and they weren’t going to spend that waiver on the cable division, so the cable division is now for sale. Warren Buffet was on the board of Cap Cities; Warren Buffet was on the board of Washington Post, so Warren Buffet basically said to Katharine Graham, “Here’s a wonderful opportunity for you to buy up a nice bite-size cable television division. All you need to do is just water it and keep it in the sun and it will do just fine.” So we all moved over to the Washington Post, and they paid a lot for that. Katharine Graham paid $925 a sub for that baby. That was probably 6 or 7 times cash flow, just to kind of put these things in perspective. It might have been a little more because cash flow was a little less, but it was just under $1,000. So that was where we ran afoul of the commission. First we ran afoul of the commission, we’d have had our company forever were it not for Cap Cities needing the waiver, now here we are fat, dumb and happy in Bloomfield Hills and as luck would have it, the Washington Post owns WDAV, Channel 4, in Detroit. So you can’t own a TV station, you can’t own cable in your same market, so we’ve now got to move the cable home office, and there was a selection committee and I was on the selection committee of where are we going to move poor Post-Newsweek Cable? Well, Denver came up, and people would say “Denver” and people would say “Stapleton”, then they’d say, “Okay, so we won’t go to Denver.” People would say “Kansas City. You know they had an office there once.” And others would say, “Not Kansas City!” There were seven cities that were in consideration, and it wasn’t that Phoenix ever won, it just never lost, and little by little we kind of backed into the notion that we’re all going to go to Phoenix. So that was a hard choice because I was not fond of moving to Arizona, but I was fond of the job and I enjoyed what I was doing and had a good team, and by that time the fruits of the labors of cleaning up the Cable Comm stuff was paying off, cash flow was coming in, we were expanding bandwidth and doing some really good stuff with the systems. It was a fun time to be in the business. So we all moved off in 1986 to Phoenix and I settled in Scottsdale; I’m still in Scottsdale today. So, without ever changing jobs, it’s a little bit like Time Life selling to ATC. It’s just a different name on the check; you’re still doing the same thing. So, without ever changing jobs, we all went in one door as Cap Cities and came out the other as the Washington Post. The Washington Post acquired some systems, we built some more systems, we started to do some fairly early consolidation. By the late ’80s there were a lot of the first generation guys that were starting to think about getting on the beach and you could buy some of those properties, and we did. In 1989, the Washington Post had a guy on the board, AJF Tony O’Reilly, who was on the board of Heinz, was Princess Newspapers in Ireland, and he wanted to get in the cable television business. So, first we went to Ireland to look at, there was a system in Cork, there was a system in Dublin, I’d looked at some of those systems and the prospects of acquisition. Then we thought, well, maybe we’ll get in the MMDS business in Ireland and somehow that never quite happened. Just about a year later, the U.K. decided that they would open up letting out some concessions which worked out well for franchises, and so I got involved as the Director of International Projects, still vice-president of engineering for the Washington Post, and I made just over 50 trips to the U.K. in two years. Every other week I’d be on a plane going to the U.K., and we set up and built seven systems in Scotland – Perth, Dundee, outside of Edinburgh, outside of Glasgow, around the Motherwell area, some other places in between – and I decided that what we needed was a way to interconnect the systems so I was involved with the Radio Communications Authority, which is their FCC, and we opened up the first 17 gigahertz microwave band over there with Tom Strauss and their microwave. Kind of put one over on them – I guess this is all kind of storytelling – the Brits were pretty heavily given to not invented here. They didn’t want much of what we were doing in the U.S. to find its way to their systems. So, especially when it comes to microwave they say, “No, we can’t possibly let you on 18 gigahertz,” because you might interfere with the Queen or something, I don’t remember what it was, but we don’t want you interfering with the Queen. “So, what we will do is consider another set of frequencies.” So, I say, “Okay, let’s get on a set of frequencies 17.2 to 17.7,” something like that, whatever it was. They said, “Well, thank you for being so cooperative. Would you care to join our committee?” “Well, yeah, I’ll join your committee.” And then before long, “Would you care to chair our committee?” “Well, yeah, I’ll chair your committee.” “Would you care to write a band plan for us?” “Yeah, I’ll write a band plan for you.” And all of this stuff is completely novel and independent and doesn’t have a scintilla of U.S. influence on it, and so there are two U.K. companies that say, “Boy, as soon as this band gets up we’re going to build radios for the 17 gigahertz span.” Meanwhile, Tom Strauss is helping me do everything and then people figure, well, you know, Hughes, they can probably build a 17 gigahertz radio but they don’t have one. You’re a radio man; you know what an image is. What I preceded to create was a complete spectrum plan for them that was the exact image of the 18 gigahertz band in the United States. We had to change one filter and we had radios over there in 30 days. They never quite got over that.
PORTER: Are they still using them?
HARTSON: Still using them. In fact, Telewest owns those licenses. I was talking to somebody in the last couple of months that is on the 17 gigahertz band in the U.K. So, that was our foray into international spectrum activities. So, there we were in the U.K. and we were having great luck building up our systems, building just some ‘plain Jane’ systems, you know, nothing fancy, and Telewest decided they wanted the systems more than we did. The Washington Post was not totally as adventuresome as some of the other entrepreneurs in the cable television business. My boss said to me one time, he said, “You know, why are we building just cable? Why aren’t we building telephone?” I said, “Well, I’m not ready to be in the telephone business over here yet.” He said, “Well, have you ever noticed that we’re the only company over here that’s not building a telephone plant?” I said to him, “Have you ever noticed we’re the only company over here building that’s not a telephone company?” So there was kind of this tension going on because the telephone companies were all trying to put their stake in over there. So, we decided to exit from the U.K. and that was kind of an epiphany in my life because we put in 30 million dollars and we got out 400 (million) in about 18 months. I’m beginning to think by now – I’ve been in the cable business 30 years – I’ve worked for big companies, all of which were kind of tangentially in the cable television business, you know. Time, Inc. never really thought of itself in the cable business, certainly in those days. Nobody thought of Cap Cities as a cable company, and certainly nobody thought of the Washington Post as a cable company, and my bonus that year was probably three big turkeys. So, I said it’s probably time to think about going on your own. Just exactly like what happened in 1980. Fifteen years later, here I am ready to go out and say time to go on my own again. I have a new boss by then, absolutely the best boss I ever had – hi, Tom (Might) – just a fine guy. Tom really doesn’t want me to leave so he says, “Why don’t you take three months off? Just kind of decompress.” By this time I’ve got the lab open and everybody knows about the lab. It’s not a secret. I have a successful patent – the side band interjection positive trap people are making these things, big checks are coming in. My accountant says basically, “Either get used to paying taxes or open a lab,” and I said, “I can figure that out. I know what I’m going to do.” So, I had the lab open and so Tom said, “Take three months off. Come in a day a week or a day every two weeks, just so we know where you are if we have big trouble, and you’ll get this out of your system.” So, I went back to work in three months and he says, “Here’s the deal. We’re going to give you some money – big money. Seven numbers – huge money – over the top of everything else, but you’ve got to stay here three years. Now, the only way you can stand to leave a three-year deal is at the beginning because at the end it’s worth a hundred thousand dollars to go take a whiz. It’s going up like this. So, I left. The long and short of it is after all of the years and a good boss and a company I was happy with, I just decided that there’re some things I want to do, and my severance was a case of whisky, but it was McAllen, it was 18 years old, it was worth every bit of it.
PORTER: But you just had to move over to the Scottsdale Air Park.
HARTSON: Yeah, I didn’t go very far. I just turned my car in the other direction and went up to my little office, and by that time I’m starting to get in love with an idea. I’d discovered what I called a little parlor trick, a little nuance of how NTSC television worked ten years before then that had to do a little bit with some of the patents that I held, and I decided that I wanted to build a company in addition to Scottsdale Television Labs, and we would consult, we’d cut your grass, we’d do anything. I’d do expert witness, I’d do a little franchise work, I would do some nuts and bolts stuff.
PORTER: Due diligence?
HARTSON: Yeah, due diligence, product evaluation, competitive evaluation, tearing somebody’s thing apart, seeing how it works, telling the other guys how somebody else’s thing worked – things like that. I used to always joke, “Do you want me to tell you about the list of my confidential clients?” So, here’s STL and STL, I think I can make a living out of STL alone, and so here comes this idea, then this idea starts chewing on me, and so at the Western Show, 1995, Bob Dickinson and I are sitting underneath the big reindeer talking about cabbages and kings, and I said, “Here’s what I think I want to do.” And he said, “Well, strange you’d say that because I’ve been thinking about that, too.” It’s kind of just like playing poker a little bit, I said, “Well, I can do this.” He said, “Well, I can do that.” And I said, “Well, I can do two of those and I’ll see you one of these.” And he said, “Well, I can do that and I’ll call you.” So eventually it turned out that we both had been working on ideas that were materially similar but were not mutually exclusive. The two ideas could go together and what that left us with was the capability of putting 4 ½ megabits of data along with a conventional NTSC television signal. 4 ½ megabits of data now is three complete MPEG pictures of good quality. In fact, you can do 480P. You can do the lowest form of high definition inside of this wasted space in the NTSC. So, Dickinson and I got together and said, “Let’s put together a little company.” We didn’t know what we were going to call it, so it was code word ‘Calzone’. It was ‘Calzone – You never know what’s inside until you take a byte’, B-Y-T-E. About two days later, we decided what we really needed to make our life more complete is we need a good front door guy because we’re both kind of backdoor guys. So we went to Walt Cicorra and we said to Walt, “Do you want to play with us?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll play with you.” So Walt got involved in the thing and we built some prototypes and by this time I’m answering the phone “Scottsdale Television Labs, screw you.”
PORTER: “I’m watching television.”
HARTSON: That’s right! I’m throwing customers away as fast as I can because I want to spend my time building En Camera. The story of En Camera – Calzone turned into En Camera, and En Camera is from the Latin term ‘en camera’ or done secretly. My grandmother was a Latin teacher. So, we started building En Camera, got prototypes running using my laboratory to do this and Walt’s doing Power Point presentations and Bob is building and I’m building, and the second place we go is to Intel, and we say to Intel, “We’ve got this wonderful idea for hiding all these bits in analog television signals,” and they say, “Haven’t you guys heard? Analog television is over. The world is going to be digital next Tuesday. You’re out. Too bad you didn’t think about this about ten years ago.” Well, I’ve been around the radio business quite awhile and it’s abundantly evident that there’s never been a successful industry that the commission didn’t first try to screw up. You know, you think about radio, you think about FM, you think about television, the channel freeze and the UHF intermix, and you think about all the things that happened to cable, so I bet that digital television couldn’t happen as quickly as the commission and the marketplace was saying it would happen. So we kept building En Camera, and we sold a license and then through a six month negotiation, starting just last year and closing in October of 2000, we sold the En Camera start-up and its employees and its building to a wholly owned company, privately held company, held by both Intel (finally got them!) and Disney, and so that basically brought me full circle. Now I’m out of a job. I’ve got a lab – a 3,000 square foot lab – and a bunch of equipment. I’ve always had a bunch of equipment around. So now I’m just trying to decide what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.
PORTER: I imagine you’ll find something just as interesting as the rest of it’s been. Before we finish this interview, there’s a couple of things that you’re well-known for out in the cable industry, and both of them have to do with nicknames that you picked up. The first one goes back quite a ways, I understand, and that’s the name “The Mad Scientist”. Can you tell us where you got the name “The Mad Scientist”?
HARTSON: Well, I’d been a ham radio operator for a long time, WA8ULG, the ugly little germ, everybody used to say, ugly little girl. So when I was living in Michigan, I had ten acres on a hill and I’d come to know of the University of Michigan having a 44 foot surplus radar dish – a FPS 3 dish – and you remember the FPS3. The first time you saw that picture you told me exactly what it was because…
PORTER: Because I worked on it.
HARTSON: You worked on one – during the Civil War, I think you told me. So I had this dish in my backyard bouncing signals off the moon. I had a lot of fun with that, and in fact my daughter’s a physicist now. She got her nose in all that. It’s like poison when it gets in your blood to play with radios and technology. Particular circumstances were that my lawn mower was broken. I’d taken my lawn mower down to the repair shop and the kid at the repair shop said, “Come back at noon, Mr. Hartson, and I’ll have your lawn mower ready for you.” So I go down there at noon and he says, “You know, the telephone’s been ringing all morning. I can fix it, I just haven’t had a chance to fix it. You tell me where you live and I’ll bring it to you this afternoon.” “Okay, fine. You go over that way, you go up that way, you go over this way and you go over there a little bit.” He says, “Oh! You live out by the mad scientist.” I said, “I AM the mad scientist.” So that’s where that came from.
PORTER: The other nickname that you picked up quite readily in the cable industry, and everybody refers to you with that name time and time again, is Dr. Strangeleak.
HARTSON: The problems that Cable Comm had were not limited just to bad plants. Their systems leaked like a sieve, and we had a huge amount of restoration work to do to get signal leakage under control. In 1980, there was an embarrassing incident that cast a doubt over cable’s ability to control its channels used in the aeronautical spectrum where we ran the risk of losing a lot of our mid-band channels and all of our hyper channels about 225 megahertz, above channel K – you know the letter channels. That’s old, right? Letter channels?
HARTSON: And I had written a paper for the NCTA in the mid-80s and it was a paper discussing the relative merits of leakage control and what was a leak like and what were the requirements imposed on other radio services, and it was basically intended to be a wake-up call to the industry and a petition to the commission that they shouldn’t kill cable television because while cable was capable of causing interference there were things that were capable of causing a lot more interference. The paper is done and I can’t think of a title for it. Just out of the blue, I put the title on the thing ‘Dr. Strangeleak – or how I quit worrying and love the bomb’ and the paper is accepted and so Katherine Rutkowski and Wendell Bailey are running the NCTA convention in those days and I call them up and I said, “Well, I think I’m ready for a better title for my paper,” and they said, “No way! The only way we’re going to accept that paper is with the title you put on it.”
PORTER: Well, you named yourself for the rest of your life, that’s for sure.
HARTSON: So I did, and the upshot of that was that was about ’87 or ’88 and there was the imposition of the CLI standards that occurred in ’89, ’90, perhaps, and the NCTA was looking for a vehicle to work on compliance because this was a high class problem. The cable industry was kind of hoping the problem would go away but it was pretty evident to me that this was a high class problem and that the alternative to compliance would be some serious enforcement action that would then damage the industry. So, I took the show on the road. The NCTA was gracious enough to fund me and I put together a group of presenters and we went off and did CLI seminars, both for the NCTA, for the states’ associations, and from every place from Boston to Hawaii and every place in between. I guess I did about 40 seminars in a year and a half with that Dr. Strangeleak theme, and that’s where that came from. There was a sidebar to that – when the re-imposition of the technical standards happened about ’92 or whenever that was, I made a return appearance as Dr. Strangelook, talking about bad pictures – not that cable television ever had any. So that’s the monikers that have been kind of laid on me over the years, and you can run but you can’t hide. They’re there now.
PORTER: Ted, I want to thank you for the interview. I’m sure it’s going to be a welcome addition to our archives at The Cable Center.
HARTSON: Rex, thank you for the hospitality. Good luck to you.
PORTER: Have a good next 50 years.
HARTSON: I’m working on it.