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Mac's Service Shop: Two Years of CATV
November 1965 Electronics World

November 1965 Electronics World

November 1965 Electronics World Cover - RF Cafe  Table of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Electronics World, published May 1959 - December 1971. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

I don't know why, but from May 1963 through December 1971, John T. Frye's familiar and much loved "Mac's Service Shop" column in Electronics World magazine abandoned the line drawing header and "Mac's Service Shop" title, and used instead an image of Mr. Frye's bust with no mention of Mac or his shop. The stories used all the same familiar characters - Mac, Barney, Matilda - and scenarios. Beginning with the first issue of Popular Electronics in January of 1972 (formerly Electronics World until December 1971), "Mac's Service Shop" was back in the title and the line drawing (new image) was back. I took the liberty of adding "Mac's Radio Service Shop" to the header image for this November 1965 issue. ...but I digress. The topic of this episode's discussion is the newfangled cable television (originally Community Access Television - CATV). Although a paid subscription service, many people were willing to shell out hard-earned money in order to receive dependable, clear TV programs. It did nothing for the country dweller who was putting 20-element directional antennas atop 50-foot towers in order to get acceptable reception. Not until cable Internet came of age (combined with megafunding by the government) was the building out of rural networks a profitable venture. There are still homes less than 50 miles from some cities that still do not have cable service.

Mac's Service Shop: Two Years of CATV

Mac's Service Shop: Two Years of CATV, November 1965 Electronics World - RF CafeThe installation of CATV in a fringe-reception community has brought a number of unforeseen problems in its wake.

Barney glanced up from the TV set he was aligning just in time to catch Mac, his employer, smothering a yawn. "Out doing the Watusi last night?" the youth asked with a grin.

"Of course not; you know I do nothing more ancient than the Frug or the Jerk. Actually, though, it was after one this morning when I climbed into bed. We had a service-dealers meeting at the Ambers last night to discuss CATV-connected problems. Several fellows from other towns with CATV systems or proposed systems were there, as were representatives of the local CATV company. Our system, after being in use for two years, has had time to work out the initial bugs; so we felt we had a legitimate right to air any gripes we may still have with the cable operation. At the same time, it was only fair to give the CATV people a chance to answer those complaints."

"Sounds like an interesting confrontation."

"It was. The first question brought up was, 'Has CATV helped sales?' Most dealers admitted the cable substantially boosted sales, especially of color sets, during the past two years. Previously you needed a good high-gain antenna seventy to eighty feet in the air here to pull in a decent color picture a high percentage of the time. That meant spending almost as much for antenna, tower, and rotator as you did for the color set. This put a real crimp in color sales, especially among tenants who were not about to erect an expensive tower on rented property. The advent of cable really brought these people into the color market and permitted us, in this ultra-fringe area, to keep pace with the swing to color that is sweeping the rest of the country.

"Several dealers, on the other hand, questioned whether profit from these increased set sales offset the loss of revenue formerly secured from the sale and maintenance of antennas, towers, and rotators. Individual opinion varied, understandably, with how deeply involved the dealer had been in the antenna business before CATV came along. One dealer said the cable had actually cost him receiver sales, and he gave a logical explanation. The set he sells is a quality one designed for the difficult-reception market. It is noted for its high sensitivity and immunity to noise. Because of these features, this set has always been very popular here in spite of its higher cost. Now, on the cable, sensitivity and noise immunity are of little importance. A poor set in this regard will perform just as well with the strong cable signal as will the higher priced set, and this dealer has lost much of his selling advantage."

"I'll bet his plight brought big crocodile tears to the eyes of the other dealers," Barney added.

"You know it! But this dealer's experience suggests that the spread of CATV may well shift the accent in TV receiver design away from 'hot' front-ends and wide-range a.g.c. systems to circuitry showing up to better advantage on the cable - say improved adjacent-channel rejection or perfection of i.f. and video amplifiers."

"What else was bugging the dealers?"

"They thought the cable company ought to make a special effort to provide consistently good pictures to all dealers' showrooms. This would be to the advantage of the cable company as well as the dealer because a good demonstration picture would sell both the set and the cable. On the other hand, if a good picture could not be shown on any of the brand-new sets on the dealer's floor, obviously something was wrong with the cable or the distribution system installed by the cable company; but just try to explain this to a prospective customer! If dealer X down the street happened to be getting a better picture from the cable, that is where the customer very likely would buy his set. Ghosts in color sets were the most common complaint.

"Another gripe was that cable company employees, called on a poor-reception complaint, would first 'prove' the fault was not in the cable by showing the picture on a portable receiver; then they would go ahead to 'diagnose' the receiver trouble. The dealers argued that many cable faults, such as fine cross-hatching, smearing, or ringing, would not show up nearly as well on the portable as on the large-screen receiver. And guessing that the receiver had tuner trouble, perhaps right after a new tuner had been installed, did little to add to customer-dealer relations.

"By far the most common complaint, though, was that dealers had to make too many 'no-charge' calls because of the cable. Some such calls were to identify cable-signal radiation into the receivers of non-subscribers. Others were to confirm that the poor reception was caused by trouble on the cable or by service-interrupting work on the cable. In either case, since no trouble was found in the receiver, the dealer felt he could not make a charge without alienating the customer; yet estimates of the cost-per-dealer of these calls ranged from $1500 to $2500 per year."

"Did anyone admit service work on cable-connected sets is easier than work on sets connected to fringe-area antennas? With cable receivers, you get away from those maddening borderline poor-reception complaints where it is hard to be sure if the trouble lies in the set, the antenna, or simply changing conditions."

"Yes, this was admitted, but it was argued that since a set will work after a fashion on the cable even though sensitivity and other characteristics are way down, the net result is still a loss of revenue. Before cable, a set in this town had to be working very near top performance to bring in a suitable picture at all A weak i.f., r.f., or sync amplifier tube was all that was needed to seriously degrade reception and generate a service call. On the cable, a receiver can be half-dead and still perform reasonably well. The local distributor said that the result of this situation was reflected in a loss of replacement part sales."

"They weren't pulling any punches, were they? What did the cable people have to say about all this?"

"Quite a bit. They admitted their service was not perfect, but they pleaded they were still suffering from growing pains. While better than 52% of all the houses in town are already on the cable, this figure is expected to go over 60% in three or four months. Adding a stream of new customers to a cable system means constant readjustment and rebalancing. And during the past year a new TV station and a new 24-hour-a-dav Weather Scan channel has been added for customer convenience.

"As for the complaint about poor pictures at the dealers' showrooms, the spokesman humorously suggested he might employ the same question the man used when someone inquired how his wife was: 'Compared to what?' Surely cable pix must not be inferior to those secured from the old antennas or the dealers would go back to those old antennas. Seriously, he agreed every effort should be made to furnish the best possible signal to showrooms and promised that effort would be made.

"Even now, he revealed, the company was engaged in a major, expensive effort to improve cable service by changing all trunk-line cable to a new and improved aluminum-jacketed type designed to boost picture quality and reduce signal radiation - although most of the latter, he hastened to say, was caused by illegal connections to the cable inside the customers' homes. Ghosts always haunt a cable system since cable imperfections, abrupt changes in cable temperature, or amplifier defects can produce these; but the spokesman felt confident the installation of the new cable would reduce ghosts to a minimum. He pointed out that a cable was capable of near-perfect picture transmission as proved by the fact that most network programs were relayed through coaxial cable before being telecast locally,

"Finally, he said every effort was being made by the cable management to discourage their service people from 'diagnosing' set troubles. Cable technicians are instructed to find out if reception difficulty is caused by the cable or the receiver. In the latter case, a suggestion can be made that a technician be called - and nothing more. Cable customers are encouraged to call the company first in case of trouble. Furthermore, the bulletin board of the Weather Scan channel is used, whenever possible, to give advance warning of the area and hours where service interruptions may be caused by work on the cable,

"Before he sat down, the spokesman pointed out the cable company had a limited number of technicians to make new installations, answer service calls, carry out constant preventative maintenance, and put in new cable and equipment. They could do a better job with more people; but, like every business, they tried to do the best they could with what they had."

"I think they do pretty well," Barney offered. "I know cable service outages are fewer and shorter than they used to be, and most of these are caused by power failure supplied to the amplifiers rather than any trouble with the CATV equipment itself, What do you think?"

"I agree they are doing a good job, but I feel they must constantly be trying to do better. CATV is on trial in the eyes of the people. It is not enough that a cable system furnish a good black-and-white picture. It must be designed and maintained to furnish excellent color reception. If that takes more expensive cable, better amplifiers, better head-end equipment, and more and better trained technicians, so be it. Let the cable company plow back enough of its profits to accomplish this. They have said, 'Take down your antennas; we have a better way.' They must keep faith with the people who believed them."

"You're right," Barney agreed. "Practicing pinch-penny tactics now when CATV is starting to roll is actually giving aid, comfort, and ammunition to the enemy. By the way, did you see where some CATV systems are starting to use the new teletypewriter service worked out between Telemation and the AP?"

"No, how does it work?"

"A TV camera simply watches a teletypewriter machine, and the output is fed into an empty channel on the cable system. Copy will be fed to the machine at the usual 60 words per minute speed, or it can be rolled past the camera at three times that speed. Any time a CATV subscriber wants the news 'hot off the wire,' all he has to do is tune to the 'news channel' and read the latest. When the news is breaking fast, the CATV customer can get the news at the same time the newspapers and newscasters do."

"Well, considering that most urgent news is bad news, I'm not sure if this is an advantage or not," Mac said dourly.



Posted December 30, 2022

Mac's Radio Service Shop Episodes on RF Cafe

This series of instructive technodrama™ stories was the brainchild of none other than John T. Frye, creator of the Carl and Jerry series that ran in Popular Electronics for many years. "Mac's Radio Service Shop" began life in April 1948 in Radio News magazine (which later became Radio & Television News, then Electronics World), and changed its name to simply "Mac's Service Shop" until the final episode was published in a 1977 Popular Electronics magazine. "Mac" is electronics repair shop owner Mac McGregor, and Barney Jameson his his eager, if not somewhat naive, technician assistant. "Lessons" are taught in story format with dialogs between Mac and Barney.

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