- For the station in Hamilton, Ontario that used the branding "OnTV" during the 1990s, see CHCH-TV.
ON-TV was a subscription television service, also known as National Subscription Television, launched in 1977 by Oak Industries, Norman Lear's Chartwell Enterprises and Jerry Perenchio. Oak was a manufacturer of satellite and pay-TV decoders and equipment. ON-TV operated in major markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.
ON-TV was one of many "scrambled UHF" services in many major markets around the country in the era before multi-channel cable television
became widely available. Others included SelecTV
, and SuperTV
ON-TV, like other PayTV networks, aired a mixture of movies, sports events, and concerts. For example, the Los Angeles-area service showed many home games of the Los Angeles Dodgers
, California Angels
, Los Angeles Lakers
, and Los Angeles Kings
, as well as some of the era's biggest championship boxing
matches. In Chicago, ON-TV aired Chicago White Sox
, Chicago Bulls
and Chicago Blackhawks
games (which eventually migrated over to a second ON-TV owned station, Sportsvision
ON-TV not only aired mainstream films, but much like Z Channel, also aired more unique films and concerts, featuring such acts as Talking Heads and Siouxsie and the Banshees. ON-TV also opted for a uniquely New Wave and heavy metal-dominated music video lineup between films, including acts that MTV and other video shows often ignored, such as Oingo Boingo, Slade, Adam and the Ants, Devo, Men Without Hats, Rush, The Police, J. Geils Band, Wall of Voodoo and many others.
The cult movie 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, slasher film My Bloody Valentine was shown with several minutes that were never seen theatrically (they were edited out to avoid an X rating) -- the only known showing of the film in its entirety. ON-TV was also the only network that dared to broadcast the uncut version of the original Dawn of the Dead. Between films, ON favoured artistically-driven film shorts and the oddball Canadian comics Roger and Roger, who aired daily in an afternoon time slot.
In 1982, ON-TV's executives convinced George Lucas to sell them the rights for the very first TV broadcast of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as a means to "help a pioneering PayTV technology fight the likes of HBO and Showtime cable networks from taking over." HBO and Showtime were not able to acquire Star Wars rights until several years after ON-TV's showing in September 1982. (Lucas would do the same favor for LA's Z Channel by granting them the rights to air Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back in January 1985.)
Famed Canadian horror filmmaker David Cronenberg (who would later direct The Fly) was probably directly influenced by ON-TV (many of whose employees were Canadian) when he devised the film Videodrome, in which a small-time PayTV owner (played by James Woods) obsessively tries to combat the major cable networks by using dark, supernatural and taboo programming.
Basic service fees
In Los Angeles, basic service was $19
a month, plus an extra charge for a selection of softcore pornography
marketed as "ON Plus." Plans were developed for a second ON-TV channel, which never appeared. In Detroit, the service cost $22.50 a month flat for all programming.
There were two basic steps to access ON-TV programming:
- Pay a monthly subscription fee to NSTV, the parent company of the service.
- Receive a converter box (a box with a knob that had two settings - OFF and ON) which decoded a picture sent to the TV. The picture was transmitted over-the-air on a UHF station.
The technology was sometime called multipoint distribution system. Viewers without decoder boxes saw a scrambled, flickering picture and garbled or substituted audio. However, some older models of black-and-white TV sets were able to receive a clear signal, due to a fluke with the older technology. (The film American Pie
shows a boy trying to glimpse a soft-core movie on a scrambled TV channel similar to ON.)
Since the signal went out over-the-air, it was a popular target for signal pirates. This was especially true in the Detroit market, where many Windsor, Ontario residents built homemade decoder boxes. The boxes were also popular on the American side, and hobbyists sold them for as much as $150 each.
Stations transmitting ON-TV programs
Among the stations that transmitted ON-TV programs were:
ON-TV began broadcasting in Chicago in 1980
, airing on Channel 44, WSNS
and competing directly with the similar Spectrum
service, which was owned by United Cable
. The service went dark in May 1985, largely due to the long-awaited entrance of cable television
into Chicago. Chicago was the last remaining ON-TV market to go under due to Chicago's overlong debate over how to divide the city up for cable distribution to avoid a monopoly. The only new film ON-TV purchased rights to and televised that month was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan
; however, as a farewell and thank you to their Chicago subscribers, ON-TV filled the remainder of May 1985's schedule with what seemed to be their entire back-catalog of films, a different set of programs every day, with no authorization from any of the related film studios. The motto that entire month was "Get your VCRs ready, because you, our last devoted subscribers, are in for a treat with a new lineup of programs every single day!". The only film actually repeated that month was, ironically, Greystoke
; the others only aired once each. (Oddly, no studio ever lodged any complaints with ON-TV, probably because the service was closing its doors.)
So ON-TV in Chicago went out with a bang, although many subscribers were alarmed with both the end of ON and the lack of forewarning about the bonanza of films being shown. The only indication that ON was doing anything unusual were the on-air announcements and in the May ON-TV Program Guide; any earlier advertising of that month's schedule risked raising red flags. During ON-TV's six years in Chicago (and for several years thereafter), WSNS was involved in numerous lawsuits related to ON-TV's late night adult programming, but nothing ever came of their final month of unauthorized back-catalog programming.
In 1979, ON-TV came to Detroit on WXON, Channel 20. Like the services in other cities, ON-TV in Detroit carried local sports action (Detroit Red Wings
, Detroit Tigers
, etc.) in addition to movies and specials, but soon ran into a problem: ON-TV did not begin transmitting until 8PM. Since many games began before
8 PM, fans missed the start of many contests: in one famous incident, the Red Wings racked up a 5-0 lead in a game against the Calgary Flames before ON began its coverage!
In 1982, WXON began airing ON-TV 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) and MORE-TV, a Livonia, Michigan-based service that beamed HBO directly to viewer's houses, in a precursor to today's DSS services like Dish Network and DirectTV. WXON dropped ON-TV on March 31, 1983.
Merger with SelecTV and eventual decline
, ON-TV merged its Los Angeles operations with SelecTV
, a similar service that was carried on KWHY
, now a Spanish-language independent. However, the merger could not forestall the technological changes that made the service obsolete: as cable TV became more widely available, ON-TV's popularity declined. The last shows aired sometime around 1987