Friday, May 15, 2009

A brief history of paying for movies (Part I)

A while ago, I listed four ways of paying for movies, namely via advertising, by subscription, by rental and by purchase. All four models considerably predate movies themselves. I noted (or rather, noticed, as I wrote) that the four models had evolved both on TV and on the web. That got me curious as to just how this came to be, but not quite curious enough to track it down.

Since then, I've managed to pull together a few dates from Wikipedia and thereabouts. I wouldn't be surprised if I've missed some pioneers. The web, even with Wikipedia, can sometimes be a bit sketchy on things that predate it. However, as far as commercial offerings to large audiences, the timeline for old-school formats is something like:
  • Before there were movies, there were plays, shown on a pay-per-view basis since who knows when. For the most part, movies followed suit. The other models were at least feasible, but weren't seen on a large scale.
  • Movies have been shown "for free" on commercial TV pretty much since there was commercial TV. WNBT in New York, the first commercial station, interrupted a movie broadcast to announce the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, less than six months after it was first licensed to broadcast [That is, it was a commercial station broadcasting a film at least as early as Pearl Harbor day, but no more than six months before.  It wasn't running the Pearl Harbor attack as advertising.  --D.H. Jan 2016].
  • HBO, which as far as I can tell was the first "premium" subscription cable service, launched in 1972. Subscription video on demand was first launched in Hong Kong in 1998.
  • VHS (and Betamax) videos of movies were offered for sale in 1977 by Magnetic Video. The same year, George Atkinson bought one of each (there were fifty in all) and opened Video Station rentals. In 1978, Jaws was released for sale in disc format on DiscoVision (hey, it was the 70s). For those too young to remember, this was a not-so-compact disc about the size of a vinyl LP. Whatever those were.
  • After their 1977 championship, the Portland Trail Blazers began offering games on a Pay-Per-View basis. PPV hit it big in 1981 with the Leonard-Hearns fight.
In short, PPV in theaters, then commercial, then subscription, then sale and rental almost simultaneously, and finally PPV in your own home. Subscription on-demand is the odd one out here, but it properly belongs in the new-school (digital) category. That'll be for Part II, when I get to it ...

P.S. While searching for all of the above, I ran across a history of recorded video that mentioned kinescopes. The kinescope was basically a way to record a TV show on film. It was mainly used for time shifting, but also provided archives that are still mined to this day. New York would send the shows to Hollywood while they were broadcasting them locally. The studio in Hollywood would film them using, yes, Acme equipment. Couriers would run two copies of the film (35mm master and a 16mm backup) over to the film processors to be developed, even while the next reel was being shot.

The film would be ready just a bit before air time. The couriers would run it back to the studio to be projected for the video cameras. For some reason the film was done at the standard 24 frames per second while the video was broadcast at its standard frame rate of 30 per second. And yet it all worked well enough, running through literally thousands of kilometers of film in a year, until videotape became widely accepted.

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