In October of this
year a certain Tom O'Neil was called on to testify at a federal investigation
in Washington. The investigation had nothing to do with crime or violence, but
anyone paying attention could soon deduce who O'Neil was. He had to be a
character who beat up elderly ladies for a living and who pushed dope on the
The reason for the
investigation, it ultimately was disclosed, was that O'Neil wanted to run
special shows on TV in Hartford, Conn. and, instead of having advertisers pay
the bill in the regular way, he planned to charge the people who tuned in these
programs. They would be billed each month for what they chose to see—as little
as 25� for some shows and perhaps up to $3.50 for others. But why would anybody
pay money to see a TV program when the air is already full of TV programs?
There were plenty of questions for O'Neil:
?How about dirty
pictures? Was O'Neil figuring on making his money by showing sex movies,
loading his programs with a lot of pornography?
four-letter words? Was he planning to spice his programs with a lot of
democracy? Only rich people could afford to look at these programs. What's
wrong with the poor people having a good time?
?When was he going
to stop selling babies on the black market?
Actually, to be
quite scrupulous about it, the questions are paraphrased, and the last one
never got asked. Nonetheless, they accurately convey both the sense of the
questions and the spirit of the inquiry. The hearings had been called by the
Federal Communications Commission, but they were instigated and largely
dominated by movie-theater owners and (potently, though in the background)
representatives of the television networks. The latter regard O'Neil as the
harbinger of a threat worse than death—i.e., competition—so it is hardly
surprising that they came with their knives drawn.
issue was merely whether an O'Neil company called Hartford Phonevision Co.
should receive FCC permission to give Pay TV a three-year experimental tryout
in its broadcasting area. To the TV networks, however, this was only the
proverbial camel's nose under the tent intended to prepare the way for whole
troops of other Pay TV invaders soon to follow all over the country. The day
that Hartford Phonevision starts operation will (so they prophesied)
symbolically mark the beginning of the end of the nation's movie theaters and
its present "free" system of television.
And, of course,
this involves not peanuts, nor even popcorn. In fact, it involves about $6
billion. And since—reverting, as even the TV networks sometimes do, to the
idiom of the four-letter word—they would rather be r-i-c-h than p-o-o-r,
naturally TV's hierarchy felt obliged to fight O'Neil tooth, nail and
The hearings ended
two months ago, and the findings will be announced some time after the first of
the year. The present pregnant interval, therefore, is a good time for sports
fans to find out what the argument is about; and this season has an
appropriateness all its own, for this is the season of decision in pro
football—and, as usual under the present system, people in the cities where the
games were being played were not able to see them on TV.