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A Respectful Look Back on Cable's Past

I want you to meet my friend, Jimmy. But first, let me tell you why. We all know the circumstances regarding the birth of our industry. There were some people who wanted to watch this new thing called television, but just couldn't capture those distant broadcast signals.

So, good old American ingenuity kicked in and several enterprising folks across the land figured out how they could do it. Does it matter who was first? Not really. But there were five individuals who are generally credited with being "among the first." Three were in my state of Pennsylvania: John Walson, Martin Malarkey and Bob Tarlton. Ed Parsons of Astoria, Ore., was another true cable pioneer. And the fifth was a feisty gentleman from Tuckerman, Ark., named James Yates Davidson. Never heard of him? Not surprising.

Due to poor health, Jimmy cashed out of the cable industry in the mid-1970s. And then he and his lovely wife, Janet, enjoyed life.

One of their running buddies was the legendary Bill Daniels. They were good friends for almost 50 years. You should hear the stories!

Anyway, Jimmy retired and the cable industry moved on without him. That's why you don't know him. But, if you will forgive a friend's pride and respect, let me tell you a little bit about why we owe this man our deepest gratitude.

In the '60s and '70s, there were a lot of groups out there who wanted to stop the explosive growth of cable television. And I don't mean they just wanted to contain it. They wanted to kill it. Broadcasters, theater owners, politicians, regulatory agencies and movie studios all considered cable operators to be a direct threat to their livelihoods or constituency. Heck, the manufacturers of rooftop antennas even formed an association called TAME for the express purpose of legislating us out of business.

Well, TAME doesn't even exist anymore and the other guys eventually decided we weren't so bad after all. Why? Because they got educated about what we 'were' and what we 'were not' by Jimmy Davidson of Arkansas. He was relentless.

Jimmy was at the first organizational meeting of the National Cable Television Association at the Necho Allen Hotel in Pottsville, Pa., on Jan. 16, 1952. He once told me, "Rick, I've never seen so many Yankees in my life! But, boy, were they smart!"

So he joined and made many lifelong friends who fought in the regulatory trenches beside him.

Later, Jimmy served on the NCTA board of directors and chaired the Legislative Committee. Now, in the early days, the NCTA did not enjoy straight-line growth. There were some dark days. The late cable legend George Barco remarked in 1974, "Jim Davidson literally rescued NCTA at a time of dire and immediate need when no one else would do it, or for that matter, could do it."

One of Jimmy's passions was protecting the turf of the small cable operator. He knew the struggles of the little guys because he was one of them. He was appointed director of the NCTA Independent Operators Board. This group eventually became CATA (Community Antenna Television Association) and served the interests of the small independent operators for 25 years. This essential service is carried out today by the very determined Matt Polka and the American Cable Association. There's a lot of 'Jimmy' in that rascal.

But I'm not going to tell you about all the other contributions Jimmy made to our industry. I'm going to let you do that on you own. Go to Click on 'Cable History'> 'Pioneers'> 'Legends'. The very first entry recounts the life of Jimmy Davidson.

And while you're there, click on 'Support the Center' and learn how you can stake your claim to the legacy of cable television. They deserve it and so do you.

So, the next time you see one of those early cable giants who are still around — Archer, Rex, Strat, Hub, Burt, Amos, Julian — ask them about Jimmy Davidson. You're likely to get a smile and an amusing story.

Jimmy is 81 now and living in Cabot, Ark., with the still-lovely Janet. I try to get down there whenever I can. And when Jimmy is up to it, I love to accompany them to the [Cable Center's] Pioneer Dinner. It is a privilege to watch those gentlemen gravitate toward one another and recount the formative days of cable. Through good times and bad, they really stuck together.

One of the things that I love most about our industry is that, even in the toughest of times, we always look to the future with bold confidence. But let us never forget, every now and then, to take an appreciative and respectful look back … to guys like my friend Jimmy.

Richard Jubeck is national sales manager for Lemco Tool Corp, Cogan Station, Pa. Jimmy Davidson can be reached