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.
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.