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HBO Started 20 Years Ago in Wilkes-Barre

November 10, 1992

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) _ A revolution started in Marion Sabestinas’ living room 20 years ago. By paying $6 a month for a channel with no commercials, she signaled the start of television’s second Golden Age - the cable years.

Mrs. Sabestinas was customer No. 1 for Home Box Office.

″We consider it a landmark. To the industry, it was an important day in the development of programming,″ said Stratford Smith, director of oral history at the National Cable Television Center.

Mrs. Sabestinas agreed to pay $6 more on her cable TV bill to pick up a new commercial-free channel out of New York. She and the 364 other Wilkes-Barre subscribers were HBO’s first customers.

A TV revolution wasn’t on her mind.

″My son, in his first year of college, was a great New York Knicks fan,″ she said Monday. ″I figured if he had HBO, he could watch all the games he wanted.″

Until HBO, cable setups were simply repeat stations forwarding TV signals along cables to areas that couldn’t obtain strong enough signals over the air.

A hockey game and the movie ″Sometimes a Great Notion″ starring Paul Newman marked the first night of HBO programming, Nov. 8, 1972. The movie selection was meant to be prophetic, much like MTV’s selection of ″Video Killed the Radio Star″ for its 1981 debut.

Now, 56 million American homes, or 60 percent of all households, are wired for cable, according to the National Cable Television Association.

At first, HBO delivered two features a night, usually a sporting event and a not-so-famous movie.

″The whole thing was an experiment. They didn’t decide they were going to get in and stay in until some time after that,″ Smith said.

It was John Walson’s Service Electric Co. that first carried HBO in Wilkes- Barre, and the experiment almost failed. He lost nearly $9,000 a month early on, paying AT&T $11,000 for a microwave link from New York and collecting subscriber fees.

″They guy who was running the system was in a receptive mood to try something different,″ said Les Reed, HBO director of special projects.

″It took a lot of guts, especially with the programs they had,″ said Bill Brayford, a Service Electric spokesman.

Walson’s son, Ed, who now runs the company, said his father believed Wilkes-Barre would be the perfect place to try a new TV service. The town was still recovering from Hurricane Agnes, which hit in the summer of 1972.

″The town was fairly depressed,″ Ed Walson said. ″He reasoned that if it would work in Wilkes-Barre, it would work anywhere.″