Remembering Scrambled Channels

Remembering Scrambled Channels

In the mid 80s, we finally got basic cable. I think it gave us 13 channels, including The Superstation WTBS. It also had a hardwired remote. That’s right. A HARDWIRED remote. It wasn’t long before Dad enhanced this cable lineup with a little brown box he bought from “some guy”. (My Dad was always buying stuff from some guy, including stereo speakers. I asked him over the holidays if this stuff was “hot”, and he matter-of-factly said, “Yes.”) The box was small, about the size and shape of two stacked VHS tapes, and it had a darker brown dial in the right side. The cable went into it, then another cable went from it to the TV. This gave us every cable channel there was, including Nickelodeon, MTV, and VH1. I could pull in this channels on the TV’s UHF dial. Not all of the channels came in clear, though. The premium channels (HBO, Showtime, etc.) were there as Scrambled Channels.

So were the Pay-Per-View channels. “Scrambled” meant that the picture was distorted. The audio was fine, but the picture was pretty near indecipherable. Here’s a perfect example of a scrambled tv channel from the 1980s.

Scrambled Channels

Did this scrambling keep me from watching these channels? Of course not. I watched them all the time. In fact, when I was 12, I had my appendix taken out and got a week off of school. That week, Pay-Per-View was showing Aliens and Club Paradise (there were only two Pay-Per-View channels on Columbus cable at the time, and each showed only one movie over and over again). I “watched” both repeatedly. I mostly had to fill in the video portion from what I heard in the audio portion. But there were some moments, some glorious moments, when the picture would just come in perfectly. This usually happened when the screen was mostly bright, like during the beach scenes in Club Paradise.

For years, I thought I was the only one to watching Scrambled Channels. While watching an episode of VH1’s I Love The 80s a few years ago, I learned that everybody did it. And to be honest, I kind of miss it. It made TV-watching a more active activity. You really had to focus on the screen. It made it a more imaginative one as well.


Doug is a child of the 80s who was raised in Ohio and is now living the life of oblivion in the bay area of California.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. We first got cable in 1978, with a push-button brown box and 18 channels. I only remember a few of them: TBS was WTBN at the time, WGN Chicago, some Detroit channel (channel 50, which was after channel 16; yes, it skipped all of the rest), HBO (channel 16, which shut off at midnight), and some public bulletin board channels run off Atari 400 computers or something. HBO was scrambled until we paid for it a few months after getting cable, but I also remember the channel coming in once in a while. It was also the only movie channel available for a few years around western Michigan until Showtime and The Movie Channel appeared.

  2. The town I lived in growing up had NO pay per view AT ALL. I didn’t have any access to PPV until we moved to a diff town when I was 17. Fortunately, I wound up with a glitched box from the cable company (or possibly one that a previous user had hacked) and had free, full access to about 6 “normal” PPV channels and a couple “adult” channels for about a month. After that, the box quit working altogether & I had to get it replaced. The new one blocked PPV properly. :(

    I did however used to watch the disney channel scrambled like that. I could get it so that either the picture was mostly clear (very snowy, but still sharp & full color, comparable to a halfway decent station when I was still using an antenna), or so that the audio was mostly clear. Fortunately, I had 2 TVs hooked up at the time, a 12″ b/w set and a 13″ color one, so I tuned the b/w set for sound and the color one for picture.

  3. I did this a whole lot especially just to have the audio in the background like it was radio. Scrambled channels are what inspired me to take a screwdriver to that old cable box of ours and well…that did not always go well.

  4. It was always fun when weather/sunspots/nearby microwaves were aligned just perfectly to give you a semi-decent picture every once in a blue moon. I always felt like I was getting away with something.

  5. Beyond that, there were sometimes free weekends or weeks. Claymation Werewolf might remember when the cable went out during the Super Bowl and Time Warner gave us a free week of everything to make up for it.

  6. That was an amazing post. I haven’t thought about these scrambled channels in years. Nice to know I wasn’t the only guy out there watching them. Thanks :)

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