The cable guys
How two Tulsans changed the course of TV history.
In 1976, Ed Taylor, shown in his Tulsa home, made a $1 investment that resulted in millions for him and Ted Turner — as well as led to the creation of the first superstation.
Thirty-three years ago, Ed Taylor of Tulsa made possibly the best $1 investment ever. It made two men multimillionaires and changed television forever.
It was Dec. 27, 1976, that Taylor began distributing Ted Turner’s WTBS in Atlanta to cable systems via satellite. That created the first superstation. Taylor helped Turner get the station’s signal on satellite, then paid $1 for the right to sell that signal to cable systems around the country. He made millions from those sales, and Turner made millions from the advertising dollars generated by that larger audience.
Turner called it “one of the greatest $1 investments in American business history.”
A few months later, Roy Bliss of Tulsa put Chicago’s WGN on a satellite, making it the second superstation and one that endures today. And television was never the same.
Did they know the changes these decisions would make to television?
“I think the answer to that is both yes and no,” Taylor says. Cable then was generally limited to 12 channels, but “Ted and I both had the idea 24-channel television systems was where it was going and if this went well it would lead to other things.”
Turner was perhaps more aware of the potential and certainly more aggressive in expanding his businesses, although both Taylor and Bliss in Tulsa remained active as television exploded to hundreds of satellite channels, delivering all sorts of specialty and custom content.
And while many people were looking at satellite services in the early 1970s — and Time had already launched its Home Box Office on a satellite — Turner, Taylor and Bliss were the first to actually jump into the business of cable via satellite.
That two men from Tulsa — then touted as “Oil Capital of the World” — were involved in such history-making actions was not a coincidence. Both Taylor and Bliss were brought to Tulsa by Wayne Swearingen, a visionary oilman who was early to see a larger potential for cable television, which was largely viewed as simply a way to get television to areas too remote to pick up broadcast signals from stations that usually were in big cities.
Swearingen and Julius Livingston, who rebuilt Swearingen’s oil company, began in the 1960s gathering cable franchises from Tulsa and other cities. Their company, Tulsa Cable, bought a microwave company, United Video, to begin linking Tulsa with stations in Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas. They also combined with Gene Schneider, who had operated cable systems in Wyoming, to form United Cable, which held franchises in a number of cities.
Taylor was recruited as a consultant in the early 1970s because, while working with AT&T, he had helped with a similar project for John Malone in Denver. Bliss was hired about that same time to operate the subsidiary, United Video.
Taylor returned to Tulsa in 1972 as president of United Video.
Together, Taylor and Bliss built microwave systems through Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. They delivered signals from major stations to cable systems along the way to finance the expansion.
Then, in 1976, United Video was sold to an East Coast cable operator named Larry Flynn. Bliss stayed with that company; Taylor had gone to work for Western Union to market its new satellite services — Western Union had put up the first commercial communications satellite.
It was in that role that he first associated with Turner, who was trying to get cable companies to build microwave networks to expand the reach of his Atlanta station. He approached Taylor about satellite service.
Taylor recalls that he wrote a business plan for Western Union to serve Turner and its board “turned it down twice.” Then, at a board meeting, his marketing budget and staff were cut, and “the next day … I resigned and went off and did it myself,” he says.
Turner’s version is somewhat different, according to published reports. His lawyers told him he had to find a third party to act as a “common carrier” to distribute his satellite signal, “so I called the first person I’d met in the satellite business, Western Union’s Ed Taylor.” Turner said he “asked him if he would leave Western Union and run our common carrier.”
The arrangement was that Turner got increased advertising revenue from a larger audience through cable and Taylor got revenue from charging cable systems 10 cents per subscriber for delivering the service. Turner helped Taylor create a company, Southern Satellite Systems, as the distributor.
Turner says they both knew “this business could get very big very fast.”
It did. Southern quickly became very profitable and led both men into other businesses.
Taylor and Bliss had not talked in detail about satellite delivery, but Taylor says, “Roy was about the only guy in the country that didn’t think Ed Taylor and Ted Turner were nuts.”
Bliss, through United Video, quickly approached WGN, which he says was the strongest independent station in United Cable’s lineup. Taylor also had thought of putting up WGN, but the satellite transponder he would have used would not work at first, and by the time it did, Bliss was already in operation.
Bliss assumed the two would compete for cable markets, but “As it turned out, we both got virtually all of the small markets and shared many of the large markets,” he says.
Taylor went on to form Tempo Television, which began creating new channels. He would create a channel, then sell time on it to programmers, who sold advertising.
“That helped in the transition to a separate channel,” he says. A lot of home and garden, cooking, fishing and other special programming began this way.
That model exists to this day in most special cable channels — independent producers develop shows and market them to channel operators.
Taylor says he made one big mistake. A man named Don Hendricks proposed to start a new channel called Discovery “and I said no,” he says. Taylor later bought stock in Hendricks’ Discovery Channel, now one of the most profitable around.
He did start the first advertising-supported cable channel, which evolved into CNBC.
Taylor also started a channel with news photographs and announcers reading stories about those pictures. Turner first said “nobody was interested in 24-hour news” but after seeing the results “started Cable News Network and wiped me out,” Taylor says.
Turner stayed involved with innovation after he left active television. He was involved in putting together the first webcast, using the Internet as a communications medium.
Bliss became a major stockholder in United Video, as well as its operating head, with WGN and other channels. United Video also partnered with Sony to start the Game Show Channel and experimented with developing other channels. Its biggest success came with a Prevue Guide, which furnished program listings to cable operators.
And John Malone, who had worked with both Taylor and Bliss and also had been involved with Turner in the early days, wound up owning United Cable, United Video and Taylor’s Tempo Television, although all or part of those ventures was eventually sold to others.
In addition to his involvement with television, Taylor has been active in two major medical areas, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and arthritis.
His wife, Nancy, suffered from CFS and eventually died as a result. Taylor worked hard to find causes and cures and eventually founded the Nancy Taylor Foundation to do research on this strange and debilitating disease, as well as arthritis and juvenile arthritis. The foundation is a leader in the effort to combat CFS.
A daughter suffered from arthritis, leading Taylor to become active in that foundation and its research. The Eastern Oklahoma Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation honored Taylor with its Spirit of Commitment Award at a dinner May 18.