What’s on TV in 1997

One of the neat things about YouTube is that it doesn’t just preserve important things. I mean, you would expect someone like the Library of Congress to preserve things like newspapers from September 11, 2001. You would expect the Paley Center to have footage of TV’s first interracial kiss. (It wasn’t, as many believe, that episode of Star Trek.) But what’s neat about YouTube is that it’s pretty easy for regular folks to just upload regular stuff that turns out to have a lot of interesting value later.

How they do it

Video grabber systems like this one aren’t very expensive. You connect one end to your VHS or DVD player and one end to your computer. While it usually won’t work with copyrighted stuff, it’s an easy way to get all your home movies to digital before they crumble to nothingness.

Why they do it

That’s a different matter. I’m not quite sure what inspires someone to upload video of themselves surfing for channels on a very early DIRECTV system, but someone did. The results are, simply, 90s-tastic.

Back in 1997 DIRECTV was still struggling to “break out.” The service didn’t include local channels and DVRs hadn’t been invented yet. Most areas didn’t have professional installation so you had to do it all yourself. This particular image probably came from a receiver like this one:

which was quite simply a ginormous piece of plastic. This was actually not the largest receiver made, being about the size of a DIRECTV HR34 or small VCR, but the biggest receivers they made were in the days when it was practically impossible to upload an image to the internet so there aren’t a lot of them to be found online. Those first receivers were about the size of two medium pizza boxes stacked on top of each other. They were slow and they ran hot, but wow did they pick up that sweet, sweet digital signal.

It’s hard to remember…

but back in the mid-1990s the idea of an interactive guide and having over 100 channels was really revolutionary. So was the idea of being able to put it up virtually anywhere. There was barely any internet in those days, and the cable company — if there was one in your area — thought 15 channels was a real accomplishment. Along comes DIRECTV in 1994 and says here’s a box that lets you get all the channels you can think of (except your locals, use an antenna for those) and folks were like, “I don’t care how big it is, shut up and take my money!”

The really amazing time for DIRECTV was just over the horizon. In the 1990s, it wasn’t just that DIRECTV didn’t have local channels, it was that they literally couldn’t. FCC rules in those days prohibited transmitting local content outside the local area, and they didn’t allow for the kind of retransmission contracts we have now. So, it wasn’t just impractical to offer local channels all over the country, it was illegal. The only loophole was for people who really did live where there was no local television service and that was a very small number.

When the government did something good

The real breakthrough was the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999, which amended a 1980s law which made practically no sense. With this law and an accompanying change to FCC rules, it became possible for a satellite TV company to negotiate fees with local channels for rebroadcasting their signals.

This was a watershed moment not just for satellite but also for cable because it established the standard practice where pay-TV companies compensate broadcasters for coverage. Believe it or not, in the 1980s and 1990s it was the broadcasters who paid cable companies to take their signals.

Unfortunately SHVIA, and its later iterations known as STELA and STAVRA, also set the stage for a massive increase in pay-TV prices that saw prices for many people quadruple in the first decade of the 21st century. But that’s a story for another day.