What would you say if I told you that you could talk to your television? That you, the viewer, could digitally participate in political surveys, game shows, football broadcasts, children’s programming, the local news, talent searches, you name it—that you could have an audible voice in the programs that you care about.
Now, what would you say if I told you that this technology was developed and implemented in 1977, precisely 40 years ago this month—and that if it weren’t for this technology and the industry-shaking revolution it triggered, there would be no MTV, ESPN, Nickelodeon, no Home Shopping Network, no Pay-Per-View. None of the dozens of other iterations of groundbreaking media mechanics we take for granted today. Forty years ago, this technology augmented our perceptions of what television is, how we interact with it, and the overall trajectory of our relationship with the television set.
Now, what if I told you that this technological revolution began here in Columbus, Ohio, in three studios off Olentangy River Rd. and one in the old Westland Mall.
Would you believe me?
Welcome to QUBE TV.
We get it—classifying Columbus, Ohio as the primordial soup bowl of modern television seems like a sensationalist declaration. But don’t take it from us. One of the historians of the QUBE Network, Jon Cornell, who worked as an enterprising rookie television producer and director from the very beginning, feels quite the same way.
“We were innovating what would be the birth of a small internet. In the process, we created Nickelodeon. We created MTV. We were the first to do at-home shopping. It was extremely innovative for its time.”
Another eager creative who was living in Columbus during the genesis of the QUBE network was Jim Jinkins, the guy who would later go on to create influential ‘90s cartoon, Doug.
“This was all happening ahead of the computer explosion. This was essentially a form of a computer. It was a box in your home that gave an electronic impulse that went back to the studio. Nothing like that existed before QUBE.”
In many ways, QUBE and the internet are ideologically interchangeable; the viewers can communicate and interact with each other via a digital interface. For QUBE to have such an influence on the digital world without the general public really knowing or acknowledging it much all these years later … well, in many ways that just about sums up the ethos of our city: the perpetually and inexcusably overlooked, the zealous kid in the group project who did all the work and got none of the credit, the one always forgotten in the upper middle of the pack.
So what the heck is QUBE, anyways?
At its core, QUBE was an experimental two-way, multi-programmed, interactive cable television system. Picture a giant remote with 30 rectangular options, each representing a different channel. Now remember, in 1976 you were stuck with four channels on your television, three network and one public broadcast. Not only did QUBE offer you those four channels along with their regional equivalents in the neighboring cities of Athens, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Cleveland, but for the first time ever, your television offered you the following in the privacy of your late seventies home:
- Pay-per-view movies and sports, old and new, including adult features.
- At home shopping, including live digital auctions. Hello, EBay!
- Comparative pricing on common items such as milk and eggs at your local grocery stores.
- Up to the minute information such as weather and stock prices.
- Personal ads and missed connections. Hello, Craigslist!
- Live concerts and performances, from the ballet in New York to the Rolling Stones live in D.C,
- College courses for real credit, essentially becoming the first form of online school.
- A disc jockey introducing music videos on your TV, now called V.Js. Hello, MTV!
- A 24 hour, commercial-free children’s show, Pinwheel, the progenitor of Nickelodeon.
- Religious programing, world news, game shows, sports, and everything else under the goddamn sun.
Beyond the buffet of basic programming, the variable that made QUBE so revolutionary was the notion that you could talk back to your TV. That you, the viewer, could be a part of the programming experience. On your QUBE remote, there were five black buttons that, when prompted by whatever program you were watching, sent a signal directly to the station.
Let’s say you were watching an early iteration of America’s Got Talent, then called Talent Search. When prompted, you were able to vote for your favorite competing talent, thus changing the outcome of the program instantaneously. Remember, this concept was introduced to American Idol via text messages, and even then it took a day or so to tally up the scores. Or let’s say you were watching the Buckeyes and you wanted to decide whether or not they should attempt a two-point conversion. (Well, it wasn’t patched through to Woody, but you get the idea). QUBE and its interactive options were a complete and total revolution.
“Sure, before QUBE, cable existed, but it only did so to give people in a rural area a better connection,” said Jinkins. “But to use that infrastructure to deliver programming was unheard of. And to add to that was interactivity. To be able to poll individuals from home to bid on an auction, or divide a town up between the red and the blue team on a kids show was completely revolutionary. They’re not even doing that now. It was something that was unique to that time.”
Columbus A.V. Club
One of the most popular programs on QUBE was Pinwheel—a show targeting younger children that was aired commercial free, 24/7. Many of the talents working on the show in 1977—including a 24-year-old Jinkins, came out of the television mecca of New York, most of whom worked on the seminal show, The Electric Company.
“Pinwheel was the most expensive and ambitious preschool show on cable,” said Jinkins. “At the time we thought we were hot stuff. It shaped how programs were designed. It changed everything.”
Jinkins moved to Columbus to pursue his masters at the now defunct Ohio State School of Photography and Cinematography. To pay for the luxury of graduate school, he landed a gig at the Upper Arlington library in the AV Department. “I was officially a professional AV nerd,” Jinkins laughed. “But I heard through friends and teachers about this new venture coming to town about a kids show called Pinwheel.”
As a die-hard Sesame Street fan, stating that Bert and Ernie inspired Jinkins to want to work in children’s television, this was the serendipitous opportunity that would get his foot in the door. “That’s when I had got my application to work at QUBE. Naturally, I immediately put it the back of my car where everything else was and procrastinated and just continued working at the library.”
It wasn’t until Jinkins was in line a local fabric store to gather supplies for a puppet show at the library that he overheard the person in front of his talk about Pinwheel. “I just went nuts. I immediately interrupted him and stepped out of my little shell of reluctance and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I will do anything, I will push a broom, just anything. I want to work on that show!’” Just like that, he landed a gig working directly with the art director and driving creative force of Pinwheel, Brad Williams. “I was an art major, so it was just one of those wonderful ‘right place, right time’ sort of things. It was just like, ‘please make me stay up all night. Please push me. Thank you, may I have another?’ And I was sincere. I was the most sincere worker. I was thrilled to be there.”
Even though Pinwheel was filmed in 1977, it didn’t air for two whole years.
“Somewhere around 1979, the show launched. When it did, all the New Yorkers went back to New York. I felt marooned in Columbus working in the art department for QUBE. I was working on lots of shows, Flippo’s Magic Circus, anything that needed art or cartoons. That went for about a year. During that time, the head folks of the network decided that Pinwheel was a great beginning idea, but instead of one show playing 24 hours a day, no commercials, they decided to make an entire network of children’s programming that we now know as Nickelodeon.”
And thus, out of Columbus, Ohio, one of the most pervasive children’s conglomerates of the 1990s was born, spawning an array of memorable programming for decades to come. Of course, this innovative technology came with a tremendous price tag, ultimately beckoning the closing chapter of a grand experiment.
The Downfall of QUBE
When Jon Cornell started his television career in New Jersey, he and a small handful of others worked to create a couple of hours of television every day. When he moved to Columbus to work on QUBE, there were roughly 300 people working, hand-in-hand, to make the thing work. “We couldn’t believe they would spend so much money,” he said. “QUBE was innovative in a lot of ways, but they weren’t practical. When we arrived, there were 300 people working on we thought could be done by half a dozen. The cost was a million dollars a month to operate.”
By 1982, Warner Cable was operating at a $99 million loss, and by 1983, the company was $875 million dollars in debt–an almost unfathomable amount of money for the 1980s. At this time, QUBE was up and running in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Houston, and St. Louis. MTV and Nickelodeon were doing well enough on their own that to be able to afford to continue running operations, the channels were sold to Viacom.
There was also a growing concern that consumer’s private information pulled from their digital choices on QUBE, spending habits, polling information, etc. would be sold to political parties and companies, oddly mirroring the targeted advertising and privacy conundrum that has reared its head with the advent of social media. Because of these unavoidable problems, the very last of the QUBE boxes were phased out by 1984, thus ending the era of the great QUBE experiment.
“Anyone you talk to will talk about it as Camelot,” said Jinkins. “it was an energetic, creative group of people creating something together.”
“A lot of people take QUBE for granted,” said Cornell. “If anyone around the world has cable, they don’t know that it all started in Columbus, Ohio.”
QUBE was attempting to achieve what digital media outlets today would willingly pay fortunes for—a meaningful and substantial level of interaction between the viewer and the program. And other than the tremendous cost, it was a huge success. If there is one universal principle of life, it is that one can never truly gain without giving something in its exchange. Death and rebirth, a philosophical reincarnation. Much like the mother spider that has to sacrifice itself to feed its children, QUBE had to die to spark a brand new era of digital entertainment.
The revolution was televised.
From good old Columbus, Ohio.
Here are some of the key players in the QUBE era that you might just recognize:
Gustave “Gus” Hauser
CEO of Warner Cable, known as the “Father of Pay-Per-View”
QUBE Vice President, creator of Nickelodeon
QUBE’s OSU football producer, became NFL Network CEO
QUBE VP of public relations, became Vice President of Blockbuster
Talent Search producer, became the producer of the Late Night Show with David Letterman
QUBE producer, became the first Executive Producer of MTV
QUBE animator and Art Director, created the Nickelodeon show Doug
QUBE Public Relations, became Senior Vice President for the Motion Picture Association of America