Columbus, Ohio -- More than 200 "Qubies"
returned to the scene of the crime the other weekend, to this stolid, prosperous city
where Warner Amex Cable Communications
spent at least $20 million on what some call an early
Don't use that "F" word around any of these
folks, though. Especially since you might find yourself interviewing for a media job with
one of the many who have gone on to be producers or CEOs. Their personal network is as
legendary as any network that ran on the system.
What's more, "failure" is an incredibly
narrow way of looking at a seven-year (1977 to 1984) experiment that broke ground in many
diverse areas such as cable programming, local programming, addressable set-top devices,
the "infomercial" and, its best-known feature, interactive TV.
It also enabled what is now Time Warner Cable to win
several big-city franchises by demonstrating the capacity to allow citizens to vote at
home on matters discussed at a televised city council meeting.
Maybe most of all, Qube directly spawned such valuable
cable assets as Nickelodeon, MTV: Music Television and The Movie Channel, for a total cost
of -- depending on whose figures you trust -- $20 million, or twice that.
"I do think that north of $10 billion was created out
of what I think was a $40 million investment," said Scott Kurnit, an early
programming director who went on to executive posts with Viacom Inc. and Prodigy Services
Kurnit and scores of former Qube employees spent Saturday,
March 14, chewing over the historic importance of Qube, which debuted Dec. 1, 1977, with a
live broadcast of Columbus legend Flippo the Clown descending on the front lawn of the
Qube studios in a helicopter.
It ended, for all intents and purposes, in 1984, when the
remaining 45 production staffers were let go. Warner-Amex was in a financial crisis,
dragged down by its disastrous Atari investment, and it could no longer afford Qube. By
that time, there were Qubes in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston and outside of Chicago
(managed by future Comcast Corp. cable president Tom Baxter, one Qubie recalls).
The name still lives on in the form of a few remaining
Qube-labeled boxes in Cincinnati, although those are all scheduled to be replaced by June,
Time Warner Cincinnati spokeswoman Jennifer Mooney said.
The reunion -- how unusual is that for a former employer?
-- kicked off with drinks Friday night, but the big events were Saturday: a panel
discussion at Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Performing Arts and
dinner at the former Masonic Temple's ornate ballroom in downtown Columbus.
Ron Castell, the former Qube marketing executive who is now
a senior executive at Wayne Huizenga's Florida Panthers Holdings, was the emcee and
the guy who twisted the most arms to ensure the high turnout. He said the gathering was a
cross between a 20-year reunion and a symposium -- translation: a junket and tax
Castell put together panels that included former Late
Night with DavidLetterman executive producer Robert Morton, who was the
23-year-old producer of Talent Search, a Gong Show-like variety show that
let viewers at home decide how fast acts should get yanked. Morton was one of many young
New Yorkers recruited to Columbus to work at the futuristic cable system. To help them get
acclimated, Qube used to play tape recordings of subway trains in the studio basement.
Other Qubies in attendance included: Vivian Horner, the
former Children's Television Workshop executive who came to Columbus to produce
kids' programming and created Pinwheel, which later became Nickelodeon;
Michael Marcovsky, the vice president of program operations, who later ran Nostalgia
Television (now Nostalgia Good TV) and who is now pushing start-up My Pet Television
Network; and Howard Blumenthal, a young producer who went on to write 16 books and create Where
in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?.
But center stage belonged to the revered papa of Qube,
former Warner Amex chairman Gustave Hauser. He drew gasps when he disclosed, "There
was a business purpose to this -- it wasn't just for fun."
Actually, Qube was born of necessity, Hauser said. Warner
inherited a 36-channel system in Columbus through an acquisition. That was a lot of
channels in those days, when people basically bought cable only for reception. And
residents of flat Columbus had no trouble getting over-the-air TV stations.
Columbus was also picked for "Project 007"
because it had terrific cross-section demographics -- it was one of corporate
America's favorite product-test markets. And, Hauser recalled, it was one of the few
communities that didn't try to regulate cable to death. Channel P10, the adult-movie
channel, was no problem, for example. Then-Mayor Tom Moody openly admitted watching it, in
fact, although he said he called it "monitoring."
There would be no point in denying that he watched it,
though. Qube's addressable system revealed all. Among the other firsts at Qube was
Nobody had ever built an addressable cable box. IBM Corp.
balked. Finally, Pioneer Electronics of Japan agreed to tackle the development task,
giving it a toehold in the U.S. cable market. Judging by a surviving box (headed for the
National Cable Television Center and Museum in Denver), the finished product had 18
buttons, some of which viewers would use when prompted to "Touch Now!" and
While Qube is best known for programming innovations, it
had to build the system from scratch, too, including the software, Hauser pointed out.
The programming was what most people wanted to talk about
-- programming as in eight hours of live TV per day, much of it improvised.
Bill Gilbert, now a senior marketing executive at
Columbus-based Coaxial Communications, said one of his favorite memories was of a show
called Latency, a late-night show co-hosted by Carol Williams, which basically
consisted of the hosts sitting down with a six-pack, drinking up and engaging in arguments
with callers. It was a 2 a.m. ratings hit, as viewers would tune in to "see the
party," he said.
The reunion ended when raffle "winners" were
awarded objects from a time capsule that was buried at Qube's launch and that was
supposed to stay underground for 100 years. Although many Qubies hissed when they heard
that it was exhumed, it was probably for the best. The sealing didn't hold, and the
contents had mostly liquefied. The remaining prizes were things like a warped 33-RPM LP of
OSU fight songs and the spout from a gasoline can, which was meant to represent the energy
There was no energy shortage at Qube, though. Plenty of
people agreed with Kurnit's assessment many years later that Warner -- which made a
bundle selling Nickelodeon and other offshoots -- made a huge mistake using Qube to win
franchises. Instead, he said, Warner should have franchised Qube.
Maybe that was the real crime.
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