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20 People Who Changed Tech: Irving Kahn

The father of cable television was a visionary and a promoter extraordinaire, but never a candidate for sainthood.

Two things happened next. Time Inc. took an idea for satellite to cable head-ends and named Gerry Levin to build out Home Box Office, which got the rights to first-run movies from the studios and then blasted them to the head-ends of their new partners, the cable companies, which resold them to consumers for another $7 a month. Now the cable industry had an important second revenue stream. And a guy named Ted Turner rented space on a satellite and started transmitting old movies to the satellite dishes of the cable companies, thus creating the first cable superstation and then doubling down to create the first 24-hour news station, CNN.

These new services became critically important. The cable companies couldn't make it by just forwarding signals to the jerkwater towns. Now they had these two revenue streams, and they had a way to make cable attractive in cities where there wasn't much of a problem with reception but there was demand for more channels and bandwidth. The cable companies started to upgrade their 12-channel systems to take advantage of more programming such as QVC, Nickelodeon and The Playboy Channel. Systems went to 24, then 36 then … 96 channels and more.

The cable companies were cranking along, trying to impress the stock analysts that they should be measured on cash flow, not profit, because their capital depreciation was so great it offset any real profits -- all those upgrades cost money.

Then came cable modems. You have to understand that the cable companies had no blessed idea of what the Internet was and how they could tweak their broadband systems for higher-speed, two-way communications when the telephone industry had two way but very narrow bandwidth. The cable companies had to be taken kicking and screaming into offering Internet service, but once they got it, they got it. By sheer dumb luck, they were at the right place with the right technology at the right time.

Internet Speed

(I remember when The New York Times quoted me as saying: "I would give up my first born rather than give up my high-speed cable modem." So I got a call from my eldest, who was a little miffed: "Dad, you would give me up for a modem?" Not if it was just a slow-speed modem, but this was high-speed.)

Kahn was a visionary. He would say that someday 85% of all television would be over cable; it happened, just 30 years after he guessed. He claimed that he would be able to "narrowcast" and sell advertising just to a special group, like doctors, because he could address those ads just to doctors' houses.

About that time, I was doing research on the Home of The Future (Someday, you will step on the scale and it will say: "210, fatty!" and your home will lock your refrigerator and start your coffee) and I would invite Kahn to our conferences. One day he called me for a favor. He had a new technology and asked me and one of my key people to fly to San Diego to help him analyze the opportunity, which we did. When I wasn't looking, he hired my expert. "Irving," I said, "you asked for a favor and I was happy to help. You can't just steal my expert!"

"I need him more than you do," was his answer. That was Irving, that was cable and that's why your cable system today has 500 channels and why your cable company brings you high speed and why you're hooked on moving pictures and videos -- all brought to you by a man who was both brilliant and a little crooked.

Our 2013 Unified Communications Survey shows projects stalled. Here's why, and how to whip up more enthusiasm. Also in the new, all-digital UC Doldrums special issue of InformationWeek: The WebRTC open source project promises to make real-time communications easier, but it faces an uncertain future. (Free registration required.)

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/26/2014 | 4:36:53 PM
Some corrections please
Wish I'd seen this article when it appeared. I worked for Milton Shapp for five years, Alfred Stern at Warner Cable for five years and Irving a Kahn for 20 years. I was PR VP and speechwriter for all of them Irving was the genius you said he was but it wasn't Irving who pioneered putting the antenna on the mountaintop. It was Milton Shapp and Bob Tarlton in Lansford, PA. And it wasn't Gus Hauser who came up with the idea for two-way TV. That was way in the works before he joined what was then Warner Cable. I was at Warner when Gus joined. And it wasn't HBO that pioneered the origibal concept for what us now premium cable. That wasAlfred Stern, who created Gridtronucs, the very first such undertaking. It was Alfred who made the breakthrough of getting the movie studio heads to sit down together and agree to orovides programming. I was there for all if these happenings. I wrote speeches about all of these happenings. I'm happy to see Irving spotlighted but credit must be given where credit is actually due.
Dr. Ron
Dr. Ron,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/5/2013 | 3:48:59 PM
re: 20 People Who Changed Tech: Irving Kahn
I am from PA and this photo surely does not look like Johnstown, PA - where was it taken?
Number 6
Number 6,
User Rank: Moderator
5/29/2013 | 8:09:39 PM
re: 20 People Who Changed Tech: Irving Kahn
Great story and insights. I was wondering whether Irving Kahn crossed paths with John Rigas from Adelphia when they were both wiring Pennsylvania for cable. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a full magazine story praising the Rigas family for everything they'd done in Coudersport, about a year before the Feds threw them in jail.

I'd also like to know who's responsible for the five minute blocks of commercials we're now subjected to on cable TV, except for TCM. What happened to the idea of paying for cable so we wouldn't have to watch so many ads? With commercials getting as long as the shows, Internet viewing looks better all the time.
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