Invasion of the Cable Snatchers

While the mayor and city council sat by with a rubber stamp, Houston wheeler-dealers carved out their own electronic empires.

Bob Sadowski has the round ivory face of a cherub and a résumé nine pages long. His oversized steel-rim glasses suggest a faint resemblance to Clark Kent, and except for a tendency to speak too fast and pepper his sentences with words like “gee” and “wow,” he might be thought timid. People instinctively like Bob Sadowski—or Dr. Robert Sadowski, as he is known in the academic world—although they don’t always remember his name.

For a period of about four weeks Bob Sadowski was the one and only expert on cable television employed by the City of Houston. He retains that distinction to this day. At the time he was hired, in the fall of 1978, the Houston City Council was on the verge of handing out cable TV franchises that will in fifteen years be worth at least $200 million in profits to cable operators—perhaps more if cable TV becomes widely popular. You would think the City of Houston would have needed at least one person who could evaluate cable TV proposals, one person who could talk about satellite transmission, earth stations, utility rights-of-way, local-origination programming, and the myriad other issues connected with this complex and flexible communications system.

The City of Houston didn’t. The process by which Houston created an electronic communications system for 1.5 million people—the first new regulated utility since the advent of the phone company—is still shrouded in secrecy. Bob Sadowski doesn’t know any more about how it was done than the average Houston citizen. For reasons Sadowski never quite understood, he was unceremoniously fired. His research—even his handwritten notes—were swept into oblivion. His conclusions were never considered by the council.

Later, when things started to look ominous, a few curious city employees tried to find out what had happened to him.

Who was this guy Sandusky anyway?” they asked. No one knew, Sadowski had been forgotten again.

The wiring of urban America for cable TV has proceeded at breakneck speed for the past two years, and yet it is still little understood by the public. To say that cable TV is the wave of the future is both to overestimate and underestimate its impact. There are really two kinds of cable TV, and few people—few city councils, for that matter—have been able to distinguish between them. The first kind, celebrated by visionaries and promoted by journalists, is a revolutionary two-way communications system that will radically change our way of interacting with government, business, and media. It is also the system that promises noncommercial programming, free of the quotidian standards of the broadcast networks.

The second kind of cable TV, the kind many cities are likely to get, is no different from the television we receive today. Not specialized in any way, it relies on the profit-oriented programming endorsed by the networks: movies (albeit recently released), sports, sitcoms, news. This is what most people think of as cable TV. This is what most cable TV companies think of as cable TV. That’s because this is the only type that insures maximum profit with minimum investment.

In the best of all possible worlds, there would be no need to distinguish between cable for people and cable for profit. But Houston is not the best of all possible worlds. The cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin are all preparing to award or renew cable franchises. But in Houston the story is complete. When the Houston City Council awarded cable television franchises last winter, the decision had nothing to do with the quality of service the applicants could deliver, but everything to do with the power and influence they had behind them. The city handed the franchises over to political and business insiders. Then some of the lucky insiders cashed in their chips by reselling their franchises for millions of dollars. No one at city hall seemed to mind.

In late 1977 or early 1978, Clive Runnells and Bill Chamberlain began planning the

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