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(Un) Happy Anniversary: 45 Years Since Baseball Debuted on Pay-TV

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The Los Angeles Dodgers will be in St. Louis tonight to play the Cardinals, and it is only fitting that the game will be available only to those who pay to watch.

For this month marks the 45th anniversary of baseball's first pay-to-view major league baseball game, and with whom better to celebrate than the team that hosted that first telecast from the House that Walter O'Malley built?

On the night of July 17, 1964 the Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs before 33,342 patrons at Dodger Stadium and another 1,500 or so residents of West Los Angeles who paid the price of a grandstand seat -- $1.50 -- to watch in color so vivid that the following day the Los Angeles Times fairly gushed at the beauty of the picture.

O'Malley, the Dodger owner, was delighted with what he saw -- he thought of installing monitors around Dodger Stadium -- as well as with the fulfillment of a dream born well before he ever considered moving his club west: making fans pay to watch his team at his ballpark, and in their living rooms, too.

He had been an early and ardent believer in the possibilities of what was then called subscription television, and had reason for optimism: the technology for scrambling and unscrambling telecasts had existed since the early 1950s, and by 1955 O'Malley was lobbying for FCC approval of paid telecasts, telling the Wall Street Journal that fans were "ready to pay."
If not in Brooklyn -- where O'Malley had no choice but to air Dodger games for free, given that neither the Yankees nor Giants charged -- then in Los Angeles, where shortly after his arrival he imposed a blackout on virtually all telecasts. By then, O'Malley had fallen under the spell of an early pay television guru, Matthew Fox, whom he had met in Brooklyn, and who by the late 1950s was talking about wiring Los Angeles and San Francisco for his firm, Skiatron.

O'Malley, always the most clever of baseball's owners, also understood that if the major leagues could keep their number limited to 16, they could essentially transform every ballpark in the country into a television studio, with a reach that extended far beyond each city's borders. Small wonder that he was among the fiercest opponents of Branch Rickey's 1959 plan to expand the game dramatically by adding a new, eight-team league, to be called the Continental. New clubs meant a far smaller share of all that pay television money.

By 1964 Skiatron was out of business, having run afoul of the SEC. But others had hurried to fill the void, notably Subscription Television Inc., whose president, Pat Weaver, had been a broadcasting pioneer at NBC. By July, STV had wired 2,500 homes in a four-square mile area between Pico and Washington boulevards, and had lined up prime-time, commercial-free programming on its three stations for the night of its pilot telecast: a surfing documentary; a performance of Sponono, a play about South Africa; and the Dodger game, which according to its tracking mechanism drew 60 percent of the viewers.

The future, from a financial point of view, seemed limitless, or would have had opponents of pay television -- led by theater owners -- not succeeded in getting a referendum halting paid telecasts on that November's ballot. The measure passed, STV went under and it would be years before pay television rose once again, more powerful than before. By then, O'Malley had ceded the running of the team to his son, Peter, and died in 1979 before he could fully appreciate the extent of the revolution he had set in motion.

O'Malley liked to think of himself as a visionary, but that was not so. Rather, he was a practical man who understood how best to make use of the visions of men like Matthew Fox and Pat Weaver. But in so doing, O'Malley accomplished something far more enduring than any technological advance: he changed the way we think about television. He gave it value -- a handsomely rendered telecast (five cameras carried the action night) without commercials, without interruption.

He was astute enough a salesman to understand that people will always pay for things they value, especially when they are more attractive than what they might otherwise get for free.
One can only wonder what he would have done with the web.