Telemeter: Coin Operated TV

Telemeter, an early pay-per-view system, used a coin-operated box attached to TV sets. Despite testing in the both United States and Canada the system never made it past the experimental phase.

The Telemeter System

The Telemeter system consisted of a simple, coin-operated box attachable to any television set. When the right change was deposited into the box, a scrambled television signal sent through coaxial cables was unscrambled and rendered viewable.

Image of a Telemeter booklet

A viewer could chose from one of three channels using a dial located on the box. A channel guide and price window were located next to the coin slot. Mechanics inside the box kept track of the money deposited.

Palm Springs

Paramount Pictures Corporation bought 50% interest in the International Telemeter Corporation in May 1951. At the time, Paramount had no plans to market its films using the Telemeter system, but considered Telemeter a worthy investment.

Several tests of Telemeter were performed, including a six-set press demonstration at the KCLA television station in Los Angeles in February 1952. The test began at 1:30PM and prompted numerous telephone calls from concerned locals about the scrambled images they were seeing on KCLA Channel 5.

A public test of Telemeter took place in Palm Springs, California in 1953. Over seventy households were initially wired with coaxial cables and Telemeter boxes, all part of a massive close-circuit television system. By utilizing CCTV, the International Telemeter Corporation was able to bypass the Federal Communication Commission.

Image of a Telemeter booklet

On November 28th, the Paramount film Forever Female was broadcast through the Telemeter system at the same time it premiered in the local movie theater. When about $1 was deposited into the Telemeter boxes, the scrambled signal on one channel was unscrambled and the movie was viewable.

Within two weeks the number of homes with Telemeters installed jumped to a hundred, with almost four hundred additional interested households.

By February 1954, an average of $10 per month was being spent on movies through Telemeter by 148 households. International Telemeter Corporation was pleased with the early results, which were above their initial estimates.

The Palm Springs experiment ended during the summer of 1954 due to many Palm Springs residents leaving their homes to escape the heat. A lack of available new films kept the system from re-opening.

Pay TV and The FCC

Paramount and the International Telemeter Corporation weren’t the only ones with money riding on the success of pay-tv. Zenith Radio Corp, Skiatron Electronics and RCA were also backing pay-tv systems. Subscriber Vision, developed by Skiatron, utilized a punch card system. Zenith’s Phonevision, which sent movies over telephone lines, had a test run in Chicago in 1951.

The problem facing any pay-tv system was the FCC. Successful pay-tv would require FCC approval if it wanted to expand from limited tests typically involving a closed system to full over-the-air broadcast, which is regulated by the FCC. First, however, the FCC had to decide if it even had the authority to impose its rulings on pay-tv.

The battle began in early 1955 when the FCC set a deadline for comments on pay-tv from developers and the public. Thousands of letters were received; most of them in favor of pay-tv and in response the deadline for comments was extended. Within a month, however, opposition to pay-tv had overtaken support.8 ABC and CBS filed petitions with the FCC against pay-tv.

In 1957 the FCC agreed to allow a three-year trial period for any pay-tv system that applied for permission to attempt a trial. However, final authorization did not come until 1961, a decade after the first pay-tv systems began in earnest. The first official, over-the-air test took place through WHCT-TV in Hartford, Connecticut, using the system developed by Zenith. Sponsored by RKO General, the test got underway in 1963.

The End Of Telemeter

Unlike its competitors, Telemeter never attempted to get involved with over-the-air transmission, thus continuing to bypass the FCC. The International Telemeter Company began a long-term test of its closed-circuit system in Toronto, Canada in February of 1960.

Image of a Telemeter booklet

Within a year, however, the Toronto experiment was losing money and Paramount Pictures stepped in to take over from a Canadian company. The Toronto experiment was shut down on April 30th, 1965, a technical success but a commercial failure.

Telemeter’s closed-circuit, wired system never caught on. Cable television, an outgrowth of other early pay-tv systems, began in earnest in the 1970s. But Telemeter’s legacy as an early pay-tv experiment and its unusual coin-operated box doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

Brady, Thomas F. “Paramount Buys Into Video Group.” The New York Times 1 June 1951: 19.
“TV By Subscription Is Tested On Coast.” The New York Times 27 Feb. 1952: 34.
“Telemeter’s Debut: Pay-as-You-Look TV To Get Another Trial.” The Wall Street Journal 27 Nov. 1953: 18.
Pryor, Thomas M. “Hollywood Canvas.” The New York Times 13 Dec. 1953: x9.
Pryor, Thomas M. “Films On Home TV Earning $10 A Set.” The New York Times 20 Feb. 1954: 9.
“TV Experiment Held Up.” The New York Times 10 Nov. 1954: 48.
Shuster, Alvin. “F.C.C Mail Favors Pay-As-You-See TV.” The New York Times 24 Apr. 1955: 71.
Trussell, Tait. “Toll TV.” The Wall Street Journal 3 June 1955: 1+.
Adams, Val. “Ban On Pay Video Urged By C.B.S.” The New York Times 8 Sept. 1955: 1.
Walz, Jay. “F.C.C. Backs Trial of Pay-TV; 3-Year Plan May Begin in 1958.” The New York Times 19 Sept. 1957: 1.
Associated Press. “Trial for Pay TV Is Set for Hartford.” The New York Times 25 Feb. 1961: 1+.
Canadian Press. “Paramount To Pay For Toll-TV Test.” The New York Times 7 Oct. 1961: 47.
“Paramount Pictures to End Pay-TV Test In Ontario, Said to Be a Technical Success”. The New York Times 25 Mar. 1965: 4.

Originally Published April 26th, 2006
Last Updated April 26th, 2018