Fade in: The long tale of movies-on-demand

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Beatrice Page was the name of the fading ingénue played by Ginger Rogers in the 1953 Paramount Pictures movie “Forever Female.” The light comedy won a Golden Globe Award in 1954, but otherwise has been largely forgotten amid the slate of 77 other Rogers films, including 1941’s Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman,” for which she won the Oscar.

Forgotten, that is, except within an odd trail of fits and starts that makes up television’s progression toward on-demand delivery of movies to the home.

Today there are hundreds of full-length films available to U.S. cable TV customers on demand through hulking file servers and rapid-fire broadband networks. In 1953, of course, there was no such thing as a video server, a digital set-top or an MPEG encoding and decoding scheme. But a combination of the Ginger Rogers movie, a telephone network and the small desert town of Palm Springs, Calif., presented a notable alliance along the long march toward on-demand home movies.

In November, 1953, a division of Paramount Pictures called International Telemeter Co. was intent on producing a new way to distribute movies to viewers without the need to exhibit the pictures at a theater. Internet theorists of the modern era would call the practice “disintermediation.” Back then, they just called it making more money.

Paramount’s idea was to undercut the theater admission price by 25 cents, to $1.35, but to keep more of the profits by eliminating the middleman. The service made its debut with “Forever Female” in November, 1953. Paramount collected the fees from coin boxes attached to TV sets – a literal pay TV system – and shuttled its movies over a private CATV network to 73 paying households. Theater owners, incensed, pressured Paramount to shut down the operation in 1954. (The International Telemeter coin-box system would spring up one more time in a Toronto suburb, where it lasted from 1960 through 1965.)

The Paramount experiment wasn’t the first attempt to develop a pay TV business. Zenith Radio Corp. ran a trial effort in Chicago to beam pay TV programming to 300 households for 90 days in 1949. The FCC-approved experiment, called PhoneVision, used over-the-air transmission of a scrambled signal coupled with a telephone-based return path for ordering and decoding. (PhoneVision later expanded to Hartford, Conn., and in 1970 received FCC clearance for a nationwide launch that would never occur.) In 1953, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Skiatron Electronics and Television Corp. tested another approach, “Subscriber-Vision,” that relied on fallow air time from New York’s WWOR-TV for outgoing signals, and a crude punch-card computer system from IBM to manage billing and descrambling. The unlikely town of Bartlesville, Okla., was the launch pad for another pay-movie effort run by Video Independent Theaters, which delivered first-run and post-theatrical movies in 1957 and 1958.

Just as interesting, but largely forgotten, was an attempt by ABC to plop movies into homes without the involvement of cable TV companies. The company’s TeleFirst service, offered in Chicago over WLS-TV in the early 1980s, beamed uncut movies to VCRs during wee morning hours. Viewers who paid $4 per film could watch them as the signal was unscrambled with a Sony Electronics set-top converter.

The concept has been resurrected more recently in the digital era by Walt Disney Co., now the owner of ABC, with its MovieBeam service that’s available in a handful of markets and is being studied for wider release. Relying on over-the-air TV spectrum, it, too, plants movies onto dedicated set-tops (now digital and now made by Samsung Electronics) without the intermediation posed by a cable or satellite TV company. Disney’s not alone. Real Networks is expanding its partnership with Starz Encore Group that lets subscribers download movies directly to PCs. And the latest entrant to the category, a joint venture of TiVo and Netflix, aims to accomplish a similar end by using broadband Internet connections to push digital movie downloads to TiVo hard drives.

Wired broadband networks with on-demand capability seem destined to dominate the field for movie delivery. But the quest for alternate schemes seems, oddly enough, to persist. In the end, it’s a Hollywood sort of dream. What Disney, Netflix and Real Networks want isn’t all that different from what Paramount Pictures wanted when it launched its ill-fated coin-box system in 1953 – or what Ginger Rogers’ character wanted in the movie that started it all. An audience.

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