Historicist: The World's First Pay-Per-View TV Show
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Historicist: The World’s First Pay-Per-View TV Show

In 1961 all eyes were on Etobicoke for the world's first live pay-TV special, starring Bob Newhart.

“All right, let’s get up a bit more speed and gradually ease it into second,” Bob Newhart, as a soft-spoken driving instructor, explains to a student taking just her second lesson. “Well, I didn’t want to cover reverse this early, but as long as you shifted into it….Of course, you’re nervous. I’m nervous. I’m not just saying that, I’m really very nervous. Just don’t pay any attention to their honking. You’re doing fine….You’re not blocking anyone’s lane…..No, as long as you are here on the safety island, you are not blocking anyone’s lane.”

It was January 1961, and the show was An Evening with Bob Newhart on Trans-Canada Telemeter, an early experiment in coin-operated pay-television that took place in Etobicoke between 1960 and 1965. Filmed in a spartan Bloor Street West TV studio, because of Telemeter’s small catchment area the special was seen by fewer than 2,000 viewers. But, as the world’s first live (non-sports) pay-per-view production, the Newhart special captured the attention of heavy-hitters from the film and television industries—all eager to witness pay-TV’s revolutionary promise “of a splendorous new show business in the future,” as Variety (December 14, 1960) put it.

Telemeter advertisement from the Toronto Star (February 26, 1960)

Telemeter advertisement from the Toronto Star (February 26, 1960).

Trans-Canada Telemeter debuted its pay-TV services on February 26, 1960, capturing international attention from newspapers, trade journals, and magazines. After introductions and speeches by a variety of talking heads, the first program they aired was a brief tourist film, The Wonders of Ontario. Then, Telemeter’s opening-night audience of 1,000 subscribers could choose to watch The Journey to the Centre of the Earth or The Nun’s Story—uninterrupted and commercial-free.

Given that Trans-Canada Telemeter’s parent company, Famous Players Canadian Corp., was itself a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures, the venture was initiated as a transparent attempt to recover box office revenue being lost to television. After proposals to test pay-TV elsewhere fell through, Paramount selected Etobicoke because it offered the desired population density and per capita income level, as well as market competition from the handful of television stations available via rooftop antenna. Most importantly, the suburb was beyond the purview of the FCC and other American governmental agencies that had previously interfered with small-scale pay-TV field tests in the United States in the 1950s. As one Telemeter official put it, “if Pay-TV could be sold there, it could be sold anywhere.”

Within a year of launch, 13,000-14,000 homes, centered on the company’s facility at Bloor and Royal York Road, were wired with coaxial cable, buried or strung along telephone poles by the Bell telephone company. Of these potential subscribers, 5,000-6,000 paid the $5 installation fee for a device to access Telemeter’s service.

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After tuning the television to Channel 5, subscribers could select 5A, 5B, or 5C by turning a knob on the coin box: a device about the size of a mantle radio and connected to the television by two wires. Depositing the required coins—ranging from 75 cents to $2 depending on the program—at the appropriate time descrambled the television signal to give a crisper picture than that available by antenna alone. (Right: Telemeter advertisement from the Toronto Star [January 8, 1960].)

Broadcasting for about five hours each evening, and longer on weekends, Telemeter offered subscribers their choice of first-run and older movies (some of them available in colour), live sports, and public service programming.

From 1960 to 1961, film options ranged from The Ten Commandments, Psycho, Old Yeller, and Village of the Damned to the Presley-vehicle Flaming Star, as well as risqué fare targeted to an adult audience like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Baby Doll.

This being post-war Toronto, of course, it took less than a month for Telemeter to run afoul of the Lord’s Day Alliance, the moralistic do-gooders who slavishly ensured the Sunday closure of shops, children’s playgrounds, and just about everything else in Toronto. “This is, in a sense, paying for one’s entertainment,” an alliance spokesman argued of Telemeter, “and to pay for Sunday amusement is, with some notable exceptions, considered unlawful, if not sinful, in this province.” After some initial hand-wringing, the opposition quietly petered out.

From the Toronto Star (January 29, 1961)

From the Toronto Star (January 29, 1961).

From its launch, Telemeter carried Maple Leafs’ road games for $1 a game, prompting some sceptical critics to question whether the public would pay for something available for free on Saturday nights. But avid sports fans also proved willing to pay for boxing and football games. Nearly a quarter of Telemeter’s subscribers paid a hefty $2 for live coverage of the CFL Argonauts’ exhibition games against the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Cardinals in the summer of 1960, and the regular season CFL games broadcast on Telemeter through the 1962 season.

Prior to Newhart’s appearance, Telemeter’s only experience in original television production came from each evening’s 15-minute Toronto Star News and the other public service programming that occasionally aired free-of-charge. Debates by local educationalists, clergymen, and charities were sometimes recorded for re-broadcast, municipal and Metro election results were carried live in December 1960, and eventually a series of documentaries explaining how local government worked aired beginning in April 1961.

Advertisement from the Toronto Star (December 31, 1960)

Advertisement from the Toronto Star (December 31, 1960).

Through its manager, William O. Crampton, Telemeter sought to create original programming that would differentiate pay-TV from regular broadcast television. A graduate of Toronto’s Central Tech and the Royal Conservatory of Music, Crampton had worked as a big band drummer and photographer before moving to New York City in 1948 to work in television. Described as “tough, shrewd, personable, and definitely experienced” by one Toronto television critic, Crampton had worked behind the scenes on a couple of variety shows before becoming a specialist in launching new television stations, which he helped do in Syracuse, Alabama, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. Returning to Toronto in 1955, he was a pioneer producer of television commercials at MacLaren Advertising before being hired by Telemeter.

Crampton called upon his industry contacts to secure rising comedy star Bob Newhart to star in Telemeter’s first live-to-air production. Newhart agreed to do the special for an estimated $2,500-$4,000—only a fraction of the $10,000 fee he regularly commanded for a week-long nightclub engagement. The potential of pay-television intrigues Bob,” his handlers explained to the press. “Being a studious and naturally curious young man he’s anxious to see for himself what pay-television is all about.” In reality, it was likely the potential royalties he’d earn each time the videotaped show was re-run that enticed him—as it was for numerous other stars who later accepted lower-than-usual fees to appear on Telemeter.

“It ought to have considerable guidepost value for both wary broadcasters and exuberant show-men,” Variety explained about the importance of the Newhart program, “whether or not it resolves the pro and con of paysee’s efficacy versus commercial tele.”

From the Toronto Star (January 7, 1961)

From the Toronto Star (January 7, 1961).

Along with Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, and Lenny Bruce, Newhart was part of a new wave of comedy in the Eisenhower years. Traditional comics continued to do dull “mother-in-law jokes and one-liners about their wives being bad cooks,” Newhart recalled in his autobiography. “Generally speaking, ours was a different kind of comedy than telling jokes,” he continued. “We did situational comedy. We told stories and did comedic vignettes.”

Just one year earlier, Newhart was an unknown in Chicago, doing stints as an accountant, a hardware salesman, a law student, and a bureaucrat in an unemployment benefits office—quitting the last when he realized he could make nearly as much money collecting instead of dispensing unemployment cheques. While working as an advertising copywriter in the late 1950s, Newhart and a co-worker entertained themselves composing absurdly comic situations over the telephone. Some taped samples wound up in the hands of Warner Brothers Records, and the unknown comic was signed to a record deal in 1959.

When Newhart recorded his first album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, over two weeks at a club in February 1960, it was the first time he’d ever performed before a live audience. The record was an immediate sensation, remaining the top seller for 14 weeks. Newhart became particularly popular among college students, who preferred having pizza and beer while listening to comedy records over an expensive evening watching a nightclub comedy act. Next for Newhart came a series of television appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, ever-more-lucrative nightclub engagements, and the release of two follow-up LPs.

An Evening with Bob Newhart was hyped in the local newspapers, on radio stations, and in the Telemeter Guide distributed to all subscribers. Although he declined an offer to autograph records at a local department store, the 31-year-old comic did advance press with journalists and radio personalities who visited the studio the afternoon before the show; a wise-cracking Newhart tried to not appear bored working with technical staff to test the audio-video equipment.

At 8:30 p.m. on January 5, he stepped in front of the cameras, performing his 70-minute show before a studio audience of 100 invited guests and the viewers at home who’d deposited their $1.25. “To the usual invited studio audience, primed by intimacy and warm-up rituals,” Variety (January 11, 1961) raved on its front-page, “Newhart’s debut on pay-see seemed impactful as the shy little guy whose satires on the political foibles of the age verge on hilarity.”

The studio set was sparse—just a simple backdrop—but it suited Newhart’s ability to conjure vivid scenes with only a few words. “This was one whale of an advantage for an outfit attempting its first production of this sort,” Bob Blackburn argued in the Toronto Star (January 6, 1961). “All they had to do was shove him in front of a curtain, point a camera at him, and let him go.”

In his characteristic fashion, Newhart weaved mild exaggerations of everyday life situations into more and more ridiculous scenarios, fumbling along as he revealed more details, and patiently turning his pregnant pauses into punchlines.

In addition to “The Driving Instructor,” Newhart performed several of his classic routines. There was the one where a plain-clothes policeman nonchalantly uses psychology to talk a jumper down from a ledge. “He could conjure up an image of an essentially tragic situation,” a Globe and Mail (January 6, 1961) reviewer noted, “and make you shake with laughter without slipping into bad taste about the man, who eventually jumps.”

“I wish I knew where the material comes from,” Newhart had told Marvin Schiff of the Globe and Mail (January 5, 1961), “and I’d go back there. I draw a lot from personal experience.”

Blackburn raved about An Evening with Bob Newhart, but remained disappointed that the comedian’s then-modest repertoire meant most of the routines were familiar to anyone who owned Newhart’s records. As a condition of his Telemeter contract, however, Newhart also composed at least one new routine especially for the program which he was not allowed to perform again in any other format unless he purchased back the rights from Telemeter.

One original piece involved a plane passenger who suspects his seat-mate is Hitler (it “still needs to be worked on” one critic assessed) which later re-appeared on Bob Newhart Faces Bob Newhart (1964). Another new routine imagined Wernher von Braun’s responses to a Mike Wallace-style hard-hitting interview—included on the album Behind the Button-Down Mind (1961) released shortly after Newhart’s pay-TV appearance.

The day after his Telemeter premiere Newhart flew to New York to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show (his third time) and the The Dinah Shore Show later that month before launching a 40-stop North American tour on January 30. By the time he was back in Toronto on May 4 to perform at Massey Hall, Newhart had cleaned up at the 1961 Grammy Awards—winning best new artist, album of the year for The Button-Down Mind and best comedy performance for its follow-up, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back. Although a variety show he started hosting on NBC in 1961 lasted only until 1962, Newhart was well on his way to establishing himself as a staple of television comedy for decades to come.

The Telemeter special was rebroadcast the following two nights. According to figures published in Broadcasting (February 6, 1961), 30 per cent of Telemeter subscribers, or an estimated 1,740 homes, paid $1.25 to watch Newhart between January 5 and 7. The actual number of viewers was somewhat higher because Telemeter subscribers frequently invited friends over to watch pay-TV programming—so much so that rush hour-levels of traffic in and out of Etobicoke were often reported on hockey nights.

Newhart’s program was hailed by Telemeter officials as “a fabulous success.” The company was consistently tight-lipped about its viewership actuals, preferring instead to refer to the percentage of subscribers who tuned in. The assumption was that if a given percentage of Telemeter subscribers were willing to pay for a program, then so would the same percentage of all viewers, if pay-TV were more widely available. Officials at the parent company were ecstatic at Newhart’s 30 per cent penetration, which compared quite favourably with recent free-TV specials by Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Victor Borge, and Fred Astaire. “It was a shot heard round the show business world,” one Paramount executive told Variety (January 18, 1961).

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Telemeter quickly sought to follow up with more experiments in original content. Seeking programming unavailable on free-TV, the company invested an estimated quarter of a million dollars in acquiring rights and production costs for a series of special presentations that winter and spring.

(Left: Advertisement for Telemeter’s Hedda Gabler from the Toronto Star; April 20, 1961.)

Performances of several theatrical shows in New York—Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Consul, a hit off-Broadway production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and Chekhov’s The Country Scandal—were filmed for airing on pay-TV. Promoted with the tag line “From Broadway to Bloor Street,” each was aired unabridged and uninterrupted.

Failing to see how The Consul differed from something the CBC might have done, at the Star Blackburn critiqued that the opera was “all very well, but it isn’t the sort of thing, quite, that’s going to make people sit up and say, ‘Here’s something that’s never been tried on television before.'”

Ninety minutes of improvisational comedy from Chicago’s Second City Revue, which made its television debut with a special on the pay-TV service in early July 1961, proved to be an outstanding critical success. “Their humor is pungent, their attack probing,” said the Star‘s critic Nathan Cohen of the Second City performers. “They can invest the most threadbare subject with a fresh and invigorating quality.” But, as with aforementioned theatrical screenings, few subscribers handed over $1.25 to watch the comedy troupe.

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The only real success of the post-Newhart original programming was Show Girl, Carol Channing’s two-hour one-woman show. Five cameras focused on the stage at New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and another filmed audience members milling around the lobby before the show and during intermission, in order to simulate the live theatre experience for Etobicoke viewers. (Right: Promo for Telemeter’s Second City special from the Toronto Star; June 24, 1961.)

The first Broadway show televised live-to-air in its entirety, Show Girl was so popular with Torontonians in April—capturing 38 per cent of the potential audience at $1.50 per household for the live broadcast, and supplemented by numerous reruns over the ensuing weeks—that the O’Keefe Centre was added to Channing’s summer tour.

After Crampton left Telemeter to become general manager of Toronto’s just-launched CFTO-TV in late May 1961, the pay-TV enterprise all but abandoned producing original content outside of sports and local politics in subsequent years.

From the Toronto Star (July 27, 1963)

From the Toronto Star (July 27, 1963).

Critics of pay-TV couldn’t figure out Telemeter’s math. One independent survey in October 1960 found that subscribers were only spending an average of $1 per week on pay-TV programming, well below the estimated $100 per year each customer had to spend for Telemeter to break even.

Around the time of Newhart’s special in early 1961, Telemeter reached its peak of nearly 6,000 subscribers. Faced with a waiting list of 450, with demand outstripping the supply of coin boxes, Telemeter began removing coin-boxes from homes if the subscriber failed to deposit at least 75 cents each week. The company found, however, that because the set-top boxes had become something of a status symbol—a perk hyped in rental classifieds and real estate ads—consumers were unwilling to give them up. As a result, Telemeter eventually implemented a $15 annual fee on top of the program pricing to boost its sagging revenues.

“We are not making money…but we are satisfied with results so far,” one prominent Telemeter official professed in 1961. Telemeter was only an experiment, went the company line, for testing the pay-TV equipment and learning what types of programming viewers are willing to pay for.

Despite frequent proclamations that pay-TV would soon be available across Metro Toronto, Telemeter made no serious efforts to expand its service apart from adding some portions of nearby Mimico and New Toronto in late 1961. The total number of subscribers, however, remained constant, an indication that new subscribers were off-set by cancellations as the novelty wore off.

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Telemeter was, in reality, losing money hand over fist, even on its most popular programming. This didn’t become apparent until boardroom turmoil became front page news. In the fall of 1961, Toronto lawyer and businessman Norman Robertson resigned as a director at Famous Players, alleging that Telemeter had lost Famous Players over $400,000 in 1960. Not only were shareholders being denied a full financial picture, he argued, but the company was being milked by Paramount Pictures, absorbing financial losses while the American firm accrued the benefits of the pay-TV field trial.

(Left: Telemeter ad from the Toronto Star; January 15, 1960.)

Although Paramount officials responded swiftly, announcing that they would assume all Telemeter operating costs retroactive to January 1, 1961, there were growing murmurs from the United States that film industry shareholders were losing interest in coin-operated pay-TV.

Telemeter straggled on, without any real effort to attract or retain customers, or to expand its geographic reach. Even as the company’s dwindling subscription base was rumoured to be as low as 2,000 by August 1964, Paramount just kept absorbing losses that cumulatively reached into the millions.

The service was, at long last, wound up at the end of April 1965. Cable systems, supplanting roof-top antennas as the future of the television industry by the end of the decade, would eventually usher in Canada’s next foray into pay-TV.

Nathan Cohen was scathing in his post-mortem of the Trans-Canada Telemeter scheme. “But what it has all come down to is that all those visions of millions upon millions of people at home gladly paying money for specific shows, instead of taking whatever free TV has to offer them, were just pipe dreams,” he wrote in the Toronto Star (March 24, 1965). “For hockey games, yes, for boxing matches, maybe, and for anything else—most likely, no.” Calling pay-TV a mirage, Cohen concluded: “For that is what Pay-TV is: the biggest, most expensive act of collective self-deception in the experience of show business.”

Additional sources consulted: Ian Anthony in Broadcaster (October 2002); Ken Easton in Cablecaster (April and June 2001); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 4 (Dundurn, 1995); Bob Newhart, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! (Hyperion, 2006); and articles from Billboard (January 9, 1961); Broadcasting (January 2, 1961); Globe and Mail (October 17, 1959; January 22, February 27, March 9, and August 2, 1960; March 3, 17 & 18, April 19 & 29, May 5, 9 & 15, June 26, July 1, October 17, November 8 & 23, and December 6, 1961; April 25, 1962; February 25, May 29, August 6, August 22, and December 11 & 16, 1963; January 27 and August 8, 1964; March 25 and November 12, 1965); Montreal Gazette (December 27, 1960); Sports Illustrated (December 26, 1960); Toronto Star (November 1, 1958; June 18 and July 23, 1959; January 29, February 26 & 27, March 7, 8 & 26, April 4 & 30, May 14, June 24, October 11, November 8, 9, 10 & 29; and December 2, 24 & 29, 1960; January 20 & 21, February 11, 14 & 18, March 2, 4, 5, 16 & 17, April 3 & 6, May 5, 19 & 29, June 12 & 24, July 8 & 21, August 2, 11 & 19, September 9, October 6, 7 & 20, and November 22, 1961; July 26, 1962; July 27 and December 5, 1963; November 10, 1964; June 3, 1965; September 2, 1966; June 4, 1976; November 8, 1999; and May 7, 2000); and Variety (March 29, 1961).

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