As the streaming wars continue to ramp up, it’s worth noting that the more things change, the more they remain eerily familiar: Warner Cable actually introduced the world’s first commercial interactive TV service in December 1977 … to Columbus, Ohio, of all places. A set-top box the size of a telephone, Qube delivered 30 channels of subscription television: 10 regular programming, 10 pay-per-view (unprecedented outside of a few hotels at the time) and 10 interactive.
For the interactive channels, buttons on the subscriber’s home terminal allowed audiences to vote on questions posed on air. They could weigh in on “a daily poll, bid on items in an auction, decide the fate of talent show contestants, direct a reporter’s questions,” according to a contemporaneous Washington Post report on Qube, “Talking Back to Television.”
And talk back viewers did (for a steep $10.95 a month in 1977 dollars, or $48.57 today). On the day Qube launched, audiences voted on what to name a baby whose mother had gone into labor hours earlier. And so Sophia Lynn Elizabeth Fiallos came screaming into existence, bringing along with her a new communication age, probably also screaming.
“Suffice it to say that 50 years from now, talking about what happened on December 1, 1977, would be akin to discussing Ben Franklin’s kiting excursions during a nuclear meltdown,” tech journalist Steven Levy wrote shortly after Sophia’s (and Qube’s) third birthday in early 1981.
In somewhat more prosaic language, two months before Qube’s launch, in October of 1977, Ad Age ran an article about the first ad commitments Qube had locked down. “Warner Cable Corp. has booked four local advertisers who are convinced of the ‘audience participation’ potential in the Qube system,” James P. Forkan wrote in a piece titled: “TV spots you talk back to: Two-way Qube TV breaks ad ice.” Bradford Travel Service, the Jai Alai restaurant and the Columbus Dispatch were all early adopters, buying time on Qube. Federated Department Stores’ Lazarus outlet had “agreed in principle.”
Qube was the brainchild of Warner Communications CEO Steve Ross, whose ah-ha moment was encountering a closed-circuit television system in a Tokyo hotel. Columbus was the perfect petri dish, as Warner had infrastructure mostly in place there and the population roughly mirrored America’s broad demographic mix—largely educated and middle-of-the-road in every way. But Qube would prove to be too capital-intensive, too costly, to keep going. The antediluvian two-way OTT set-top interactive call-it-what-you-will TV epiphany would slowly fizzle out of service by the dawn of the 1990s.
But not without getting its licks in. Two early Qube channels eventually became cable juggernauts in their own right. The children’s series Pinwheel would be sold off and developed into Nickelodeon. And Sight on Sound, a channel dedicated to music programming and concerts, morphed into—you guessed it—MTV.
“The age of passive viewing is over,” Qube smirked in its early ads. And, in ways its founders couldn’t possibly have imagined, it was.