ONTV (pay TV)

For other uses, see ONTV.
Launched 1977 (1977)
Closed 1985 (1985)
Owned by National Subscription Television
(Oak Industries,
Chartwell Enterprises and
A. Jerrold Perenchio)
Picture format 480i (SDTV)
Country United States
Language English
Broadcast area Nationwide
(available in select areas)
Headquarters New York City, New York
Replaced by ON Subscription Television (1983-1985)

ONTV (later known as ON Subscription Television from 1983 until its shutdown in 1985) is a defunct American subscription television service that was owned by National Subscription Television, a joint venture between Oak Industries (a manufacturer of satellite and pay television decoders and equipment), Chartwell Enterprises (owned by Norman Lear) and media executive A. Jerrold Perenchio. Operating in such major markets as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, ONTV aired a broad mix of feature films from mainstream Hollywood blockbusters to pornographic films as well as sports events and specials.


Launched in 1977, ONTV was one of many "scrambled UHF" television services in many major markets around the United States (including SelecTV, PRISM, Starcase, Spectrum, Preview, VEU, Wometco Home Theater, SuperTV and Z Channel) in the era before multi-channel cable television services offering cable-originated networks – including subscription services with formats similar to services like ONTV – became widely available. Cable television increased in availability throughout many cities during the 1980s, rendering "over-the-air" subscription television obsolete. The service changed its name to ON Subscription Television in 1983 after it purchased the rights to the subscriber list for Spectrum; ON continued operations until shutting down two years later in 1985.

Logo as ON Subcription Television, used from 1983 until the service ended operations in 1985.


ONTV/ON Subscription Television – like pay television networks – aired a mixture of movies, sports events and concerts. On the sports side, as an example, the Los Angeles-area service broadcast many home games from the Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Kings, as well as some era's biggest championship boxing matches. In Chicago, it aired Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls and Chicago Black Hawks games (which eventually migrated over to a second co-owned service, Sportsvision). In Detroit, the service aired the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, whose broadcast rights were later assumed by the cable-originated premium channel PASS Sports.

In addition to airing mainstream films, it also aired foreign, independent and cult films – much in the manner of Z Channel. The cult film Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, featuring a very young Diane Lane, Laura Dern and various members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, also aired on the service. Another cult item, the slasher film My Bloody Valentine was telecast with several minutes of footage that was not included in the original theatrical release (which were cut from the film to avoid getting an X rating) – a rare showing of the film in its entirety. The service was also the first to broadcast the uncut version of the original Dawn of the Dead. Between films, it favored artistically-driven film shorts and the oddball Canadian comics Roger and Roger, whose program aired in the afternoon each day.

In 1982, ONTV executives convinced George Lucas to sell the rights for the very first television broadcast of the first Star Wars film to the service. The rights to broadcast Star Wars were obtained by ONTV for a one-time pay-per-view showing in September of that year, available for a one-time fee of $7 to $8[1] (Lucas would do the same favor for the Los Angeles-based Z Channel by granting that service the rights to air The Empire Strikes Back in January 1985).

The service also broadcast various concerts featuring rock and techno acts such as Todd Rundgren, Talking Heads, the Grateful Dead and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The service also opted for uniquely new wave and heavy metal-dominated music video interstitials between films (including acts such as Oingo Boingo, Slade, Adam and the Ants, Devo, Men Without Hats, Rush, Utopia, The Police, The J. Geils Band, Wall of Voodoo, Bonnie Tyler and Queen).


With so many affluent and upper-middle-class subscribers living so close to the various services, not only was signal piracy becoming an issue for ONTV and other over-the-air subscription television services, but so was the transcription and subsequent multiple dubbing of said transcribed programs.

In the least offensive manner, one person would bring over their VCR to tape from that of the original pirate, a process that would go on until the original copy had become worn due to overuse or until said film would become available on commercial home video often several months to a year later. In the most offensive manner, the video duplication centers in the basements of local school districts were used to record the transmission onto not only multiple VCRs, but even to the 3/4-inch U-matic institutional format. For school districts in affluent areas, these would even record right back onto the same 2-inch or 1-inch studio videotape formats from which the original broadcast emanated.

Whether obtained by recording through the system or obtaining the video print of the film sent to the service provider by the film company (sometimes prior to air sometimes subsequently), the result was the same as if a print from a theatre had been similarly borrowed and then telecined prior or subsequent to its first showing. These would then be duplicated en-masse in whatever media center happened to be available and sold to swap meet vendors for the equivalent cost of the blank tape bought from the center in bulk or secured as leftovers from commercial duplicating houses and resold at swap meets.

Basic service fees

Service fees to subscribe to the service varied depending on the market. In Los Angeles, the basic service cost $19 per month, along with an extra charge for a selection of softcore pornographic films marketed as "ON Plus". Plans were made to develop a second ONTV channel, which never launched (a sibling service of ONTV did exist somewhat in the Chicago market in Sportsvision, which operated as a separate channel). In Detroit, the service cost a flat fee of $22.50 per month for the entire slate of programming. Many subscribers also received a monthly program guide called SeasON Ticket.

In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, the basic fee was $19.95 per month, plus an additional fee for the optional late night "adult" programming. Softcore pornographic films were broadcast in the service's earlier years; however, by 1983, ONTV began to incorporate hardcore features as part of its "Adults Only" late-night service. Consequently, this would play a part in several lawsuits being filed against Oak Industries and other operators of over-the-air subscription services regarding such programming since these services broadcast "over the air".

In order to access ONTV programming, prospective subscribers were required to pay a monthly subscription fee directly to ONTV corporate parent National Subscription Television, and were assigned a converter box (which included a switch with "OFF" and "ON" settings) which decoded the encrypted signal.

The channel's programming was transmitted over-the-air on television stations broadcasting on the UHF band. The decoder box would receive the signal from the broadcast station and subscribers were required to tune their television sets to VHF channel 3 to view the broadcast (in a manner not unlike the transmission methods used for VCRs or modern cable set-top converters), a technology that was sometimes called a multipoint distribution system. Viewers that did not have a decoder box saw a scrambled, flickering video feed and garbled or substituted audio. Some older black-and-white (and some color) television set models were able to receive a clear signal, due to a fluke with the older technology, but received garbled or no audio.

After going through a name change, ON Subscription Television's broadcast signal was secured with a relatively simple analog scrambling method over the UHF spectrum; therefore, it was a popular target for those who chose to pirate the signal. In most U.S. markets where an over-the-air subscription television service operated, viewers could purchase descrambler kits from various specialty retailers or through mail order services advertised in magazines. The increased availability of cable television, coupled with the relative ease of obtaining descramblers contributed to a significant loss of revenue for the service. Station operators in Chicago estimated that there were two thefts of service through piracy for every one of their 90,000 subscribers in 1984.


Among the stations that transmitted ONTV/ON Subscription Television programs were:

City of license/market Station Current status
Chicago, Illinois WSNS 44 Operating as a Telemundo owned-and-operated station
Cincinnati, Ohio WBTI 64 Operating as MyNetworkTV affiliate WSTR-TV
DallasFort Worth, Texas KTXA 21 Operating as an independent station
Detroit, Michigan WXON 20 Operating as MyNetworkTV affiliate WMYD
Los Angeles, California KBSC 52 Operating as Telemundo owned-and-operated station KVEA
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Florida WKID-TV 51 Operating as Telemundo owned-and-operated station WSCV
Phoenix, Arizona KNXV-TV 15 Operating as an ABC affiliate
SalemPortland, Oregon KECH 22 Operating as Ion Television owned-and-operated station KPXG-TV
San FranciscoOaklandSan Jose, California KTSF 26 Operating as a multicultural independent station

Los Angeles

The first ONTV service launched in the Los Angeles market in April 1977, on KBSC (channel 52, now KVEA) in Corona, which was originally owned by Kaiser Broadcasting. Transmitting its signal from Mount Wilson with studios and offices in Glendale, KBSC was not included in Kaiser's merger with Field Communications, and was instead sold to Oak Broadcasting. Channel 52 dropped its ethnic programming in favor of carrying ONTV during the nighttime hours and on weekend evenings. The station continued to air general entertainment programming until 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and until 4:00 p.m. on weekends. ONTV Los Angeles experience great success with pay-per-view films and sporting events, and for a time was the largest single-channel pay television service in the U.S.

In 1979, KBSC dropped all entertainment programming from its schedule and began running ONTV 20 hours a day, allocating four hours of its remaining schedule to carry religious and public affairs programs. After the FCC repealed a law in late 1982 that required television stations offering a subscription service to broadcast at least 20 hours a week of unencrypted programming, KBSC began running ONTV 24 hours a day. At its peak, the service had just over 430,000 subscribers. ONTV merged its Los Angeles operations in 1985, with SelecTV, a similar service that was carried on KWHY (channel 22, now a MundoFox affiliate). However, the merger could not forestall the technological changes that made the service obsolete: ONTV's popularity declined as cable television became more widely available in the area, with the service ceasing operations in 1985.


ONTV began broadcasting in Chicago in 1980; airing over WSNS-TV (channel 44), the service competed directly with Spectrum, a similar service owned by United Cable. Initially, WSNS – then operating as an independent station – continued to maintain a general entertainment programming format until 7:00 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends until 3:00 p.m. In the fall of 1981, WSNS extended its transmission of ONTV programming by two hours on weekdays (now starting at 5:00 p.m.) and by three hours on weekends (to 12:00 p.m.).

In January 1982, WSNS began carrying ONTV for 20 hours per day. After the maximum daily requirement for an encrypted signal to be broadcast over-the-air was repealed & after the service's name change as a result of it acquiring Spectrum's subscriber list, WSNS began carrying On Subscription Television programming on a 24-hour basis in January 1983. On Subscription Television ceased operations in May 1985, largely due to the long-awaited entrance of cable television service into the area. Chicago was the last market where On Subscription Television ended service as a result of protracted debates by the Chicago City Council over how to divide the market for cable distribution in order to avoid a single provider monopolizing service.

Additional services

Another unique characteristic of ONTV's Chicago service was that it was the only over-the-air "subscription television" service worldwide that owned and distributed multiple pay networks within one market. In addition to being an ONTV affiliate, WSNS also distributed Sportsvision from March 1982 to December 1983. In addition, WFBN (channel 66, now Univision owned-and-operated station WGBO-DT) carried the rebranded ON Subscription Television from late 1983 to early 1984, before the station adopted a music video format (which subsequently flipped to a general entertainment independent format). This third expansion effort was unique to Chicago due to their pennies-to-the-dollar purchase of Spectrum's subscriber base following that service's bankruptcy filing in 1983. At that point in time, ONTV had no financial capability to expand to a third network in any other market because it was suffering, like its competitors, from the imminent threat of cable television encroaching on their service territories nationwide.

Major class action lawsuits based around the broadcast of late night "adult" material over the public airwaves became common, even though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had previously issued an amendment to the term "public airwaves" declaring that "broadcasts which could not be seen and heard in the clear by an ordinary viewer with an ordinary television" were exempt from those rules, allowing the legal broadcast of content otherwise deemed indecent over-the-air through an encrypted signal. Lawsuits continued to be filed against National Subscription Television, but by then, this had become moot in any event as the rate of subscribers substantially eroded, with customers defecting to the newer multi-channel cable television services, and severe signal piracy issues arose for the few people left who were interested in the service.

ON Subscription Television was only able to pull off operating a third pay service in the Chicago market for the simple fact that it had a substantial customer base at the time due to the large population that had little or no access to cable television service until the summer of 1985. The purchase of Spectrum expanded its subscriber base to include over 40,000 new customers.

Instead of migrating its new subscriber base to the existing network, which would have saved monetary costs, ON Subscription Television strangely chose this opportunity to expand through the creation of a second movie/entertainment network, resulting in a "third" pay service. With some notable power moves such as this, ONTV Chicago general manager Kent Hauver fought to keep the last dying bastion of what was once a strong national subscription service alive in the Chicago market until the bitter end.

In addition, even though magazines such as Popular Science and Electronics Monthly published schematics for his new system even before he had a chance to implement it, Hauver also made a notable effort of abolishing a majority of the piracy happening at the time with a better method of scrambling the signal and changing the algorithm of the signal code so that the "black boxes" would regularly fail, discouraging continued piracy efforts.

The final month and the 'film clubs'

The only new film that ON Subscription Television purchased rights to televise in May 1985 was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which premiered on the service that month; however, as a "thank you" to its Chicago subscriber base as the service planned to shut down, ON Subscription Television filled the remainder of its schedule with what seemed to be its entire back-catalog of films, a different set of programs every day, with no authorization from any of the film studios from which ONTV licensed the movies. Promos broadcast during that period informed viewers to "get your VCRs ready, because you, our last devoted subscribers, are in for a treat with a new lineup of programs every single day!" Greystoke was, ironically, the only film actually repeated that month; all of the other films it broadcast ran as one-time-only showings that month (oddly, none of the film studios ever lodged any complaints against ON Subscription Television, probably since the service was in the process of shutting down).

Many subscribers were alarmed with both the shutdown of ON Subscription Television and the lack of advance warning about the bonanza of films being shown. The only indication that the service was doing anything unusual were the on-air announcements and in the May issue of ON's program guide; any advertising of that month's schedule before then risked raising red flags. However, as word got out about the special catalogged film schedule, videotapes for home VCR recording (both VHS and Betamax) were becoming scarce in the Chicago area by the second week of May.

To record the films, some came up with the idea of borrowing 3/4-inch U-matic video recorders from their local schools, and wiping and re-using old black-and-white school video recordings that were gathering dust (the drawback was that the longest tape for the format was only 60 minutes, thereby requiring the use of two machines to record a film over two tapes to get a complete movie without interruptions). Others dragged out 1970s-model Cartrivision or V-Cord recorders, and bought tapes that those devices supported at swap meets. Brief "film clubs" were formed between neighbors and co-workers, some having a "scheduling captain" so that all VCRs would be recording as much as possible. This was at a time when a single movie released on video could cost as much $100 (even though LaserDisc and SelectaVision videodiscs were priced at a third of that), as at the time, "Sell Through" priced pre-recorded videos from the major studios were in their infancy (both VHS and Betamax formats were available in 1985; Betamax was capable of a 4.5 hour recording using an L-750 tape).

Eventually, the "masters" were often taken to the duplication centers of the local public school media libraries, which ran off hundreds at a time (as they did for educational videos). After each of the "film club" members had received theirs and traded in kind, the leftovers from this process were sold in swap meets for a reduced price as "blank tapes", once the shortage of videocassettes had been alleviated.

Although WSNS was constantly embroiled in lawsuits related to its late-night adult programming even for several years after the service shut down, nothing ever resulted from its final month of unauthorized back-catalog programming.[2] One of the leftover ON Subscription Television decoder boxes was purchased at an annual ALS Mammouth Music Mart in Skokie in 1990 and was donated to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago that same year.


ONTV came to Detroit in 1979, broadcasting on WXON (channel 20, now WMYD). Like the services in other cities, ONTV in Detroit carried local sports events (such as Detroit Red Wings hockey and Detroit Tigers baseball games) in addition to movies and specials. However, it soon ran into a problem as ONTV did not begin transmitting until 8:00 p.m. This caused fans to miss the start of many contests at first, since many games began before 8:00 p.m. local time: in one famous incident, the Red Wings racked up a 5-0 lead in a game against the Calgary Flames before ONTV began its broadcast day. Afterwards, WXON carried the first part of earlier games free and scrambled them after the service's designated broadcast time. By the end of 1982, WXON began running ONTV on weekdays starting at 6:00 p.m.

In 1982, WXON began carrying ONTV programming on weekend afternoons and soon faced challenges from In-Home Theatre (which aired 24 hours a day on what is now WPXD in Ann Arbor) as well as the Livonia-based service MORE-TV, which was a precursor to the later wireless cable services and present-day DSS services like Dish Network and DirecTV (MORE-TV, like its microwave cousins in other cities, beamed HBO programming directly to subscribers via microwave relay, utilizing the frequencies of the former Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) used in schools in the 1970s). WXON discontinued carrying ONTV on March 31, 1983. Unlike most other ONTV affiliates, WXON never carried the service full-time, and continued to run unencrypted entertainment programming for 13 hours per day.

The Detroit market also faced challenges from its close proximity to Canada, which had subscription television services. Canadians who dabbled in electronics soon learned how to manufacture their own decoder boxes and sold them for a flat fee of $75, allowing unlimited access to ONTV's programming. While WXON tried several times to re-scramble the signal – particularly before showings of big-name films such as The Wiz and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope – their efforts ultimately failed, as the boxes easily found their way into the Detroit market from across the Canada–United States border in nearby Windsor, Ontario (hobbyists on the American side made and sold boxes as well, charging up to $150).


ONTV began airing on independent station WBTI (channel 64, now WSTR-TV) in 1980; however, the station initially continued to air general entertainment programming unencrypted until 7:00 p.m. on weekdays and 4:00 p.m. on weekends. In the fall of 1981, the station began carrying ONTV programming at 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and at 2:00 p.m. on weekends. However, in April 1982, WBTI dropped all of its entertainment programming and began transmitting ONTV 20 hours a day, with the only programming that viewers could see without a subscription consisting of a four-hour daily block of religious programs, in order to fulfill the FCC's requirement that broadcasters affiliated with subscription services carry at least 28 hours per week of unencrypted programming.

Even after the FCC repealed the minimum requirement, allowing stations carrying subscription television services to encrypt their signals for their entire broadcast day, WBTI continued to air The 700 Club at 10:00 a.m. on weekdays as well as a couple of religious programs on Sunday mornings outside of ONTV content. Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment expanded its interactive cable system QUBE into the Cincinnati area in 1984; QUBE's 60-channel service, which provided a variety of programming from various local and cable-originated channels, made interest in ONTV slow to a halt. In January 1985, WBTI restored a general entertainment schedule, with ONTV programming being relegated to 7:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. each weekday and from 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. ONTV ceased operations on June 1, 1985, at which time WBTI converted into a full-time general entertainment independent station as WIII.

Miami-Fort Lauderdale

In 1980, Oak Industries purchased WKID-TV (channel 51, now WSCV), an independent station based in Hollywood, Florida, and began incorporating ONTV content on its schedule. The service was generally carried on WKID each weekday from 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. and from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. on weekends; general entertainment programming continued to be broadcast at all other time periods with a title card that stated "WKID channel 51. An Oak Communications Company" before it signed-off to initiate the ONTV service. The service proved to be successful in its early days; however, cable television increased in availability in subsequent years, rendering the service obsolete for most customers.

A 1980 newspaper advertisement for ONTV service in South Florida with Sears available for installation.

In 1984, ONTV had approximately 30,000 subscribers throughout Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties. Due to severe financial problems, WKID laid off many of its staffers in the summer of 1984. Unfortunately, much like in other U.S. markets, the station was not able to recover and was quickly sold to John Blair & Co. for $17.9 million on December 9, 1984.[3] Channel 51 went off the air immediately afterward, before returning to the air in June 1985, as Spanish-language independent station WSCV, which later became a charter owned-and-operated station of Telemundo in 1987.

See also


  1. Teets, John (October 21, 1982). "Horror Gore releases hit rock bottom". Palm Beach Post. p. B5. Oak Industries bought the rights to show Star Wars once in September for pay-per-view.
  2. "Chicago Television". Museum of Broadcast Communications.
  3. "Blair & Co. acquires Channel 51". The Miami News. December 7, 1984. p. 10A. John Blair & Co...$17.9 million.

External links

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