Roy L. Bliss
Interview Date: Saturday February 10, 2001
Interview Location: Sun Valley, ID
Interviewer: Jim Keller
Collection: Hauser Collection
KELLER: This is the oral history of Roy L. Bliss, the first employee and developer, and later became the president and COO of United Video. Roy also has an extensive and very early background in the development with his father in the Wyoming area. The date is February 10, 2001. The place is Sun Valley, Idaho on the occasion of the annual meeting of the Sawtooth Cable Professionals. It's also interesting to note that Roy will have some stories to tell, at least as far as I know, about the early cases involved in cable television which gave us really the basis of which some of the industry was built. This oral history is made possible by a grant from the Gustav Hauser Foundation and is part of the Oral history Program of the National Cable Television Center and Museum. Roy, tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started in cable and what you did before you started in cable.
BLISS: Okay. Good morning. I grew up in Worland, Wyoming till I was 18. My dad was in the Culligan Soft Water business. He actually moved to Worland to be in the Culligan Soft Water business. The water was very hard there. But he owned an airplane, and because he owned an airplane, we had a neighbor who wasn't an engineer, he wasn't an electrician, but he was a technology kind of person. He was reading about cable television – this was in the early '50s, '51 I think.
KELLER: Where would he have read about cable television?
BLISS: Popular Science or those kind of magazines. He asked my dad, "Could we take the airplane out and fly around and see if we can find a TV signal, line-of-sight?" They went out flying around with an antenna dangling out the door and found a signal that was coming from Billings, Montana. They zeroed around with the airplane over some hills that were about, I think, five miles west of Worland. They landed and went back out with a Jeep and drove around these hills with a little Yagee antenna and found this signal. So over a period of months, I imagine – I was only about 10 years old at the time ...
KELLER: Do you remember the name of your father's friend?
BLISS: Yes – Tom Mitchell – a great guy. He lives in southern Utah. But they went and built a little cinder block building. I remember the first time I went out there. Worland was a town of about 5,000 people. It was pretty prosperous in the early '50s. There was a lot of oil and oil products going on around there, a lot of drilling. I went out there one night and they were maybe 80 people crowded around this little cinder block building with a little door in it. Everybody was looking at a TV set, one of those little round jobs, about this big, black-and-white. It was the first television that anybody had ever seen. It was coming from Billings, Montana. My dad had a banker that helped him with the Culligan Soft Water financing and things like that. He got a little money from him. He signed up maybe 100 people on a promise. They put in $100 apiece. This was the early '50s so that was a significant amount of money. $100 apiece and they got, I can't remember, a year's worth of cable television or something.
KELLER: But he didn't give them stock.
BLISS: No stock. He owned the company, he and Tom Mitchell. There was a third partner at the time – John Huff also who was also an electronic person. They took that money and ran a cable. I think they just laid it on the ground actually, amplifiers, every ...
KELLER: Was it coaxial cable at that time?
BLISS: It was coaxial cable at that time. I remember those. I changed a lot of those tubes in those amplifiers, all the way into town. They put together a... I don't know what you'd call it. They got television sets from, he said, every appliance dealer within about five towns of Worland, brought a TV set - everybody had one, but they didn't even have anything to show on it so I'm not sure how they were going to sell them – to our assembly center in Worland. They had the largest crowd that they had ever had in Worland at any one time to come and see this one television signal from Billings. That's kind of how he got the seed money. Then everybody got kind of excited about it and built the cable.
KELLER: Would he go down the street and would he also collect from all the other people as he built cable going down?
BLISS: Right, as he built cable. I think the first group was kind of the seed money and they put up the $100 apiece which may have been giving them five years of cable or something like that, one channel. Then everybody else was $5 a month just like it stayed for 40-50 years. Not 50, I guess. 30 years or so it stayed $5 a month. In town it was mostly aerial. We had some underground. It kind of depended on what the utilities were. He just kind of followed the utilities. I don't think he had any real trouble getting pole agreements.
KELLER: I was going to ask that question.
BLISS: I think later on they did when the utilities people started worrying.
KELLER: Was it a rural electric company or a locally owned telephone company at the time?
BLISS: I don't remember. I would guess it probably was just because of the nature of the town. But he cabled the town. I worked for him when I was real young. I cleaned the office at nights after school. When I got in high school and could drive, I worked summers for him. He probably taught me more about business than ... Certainly in the early days he was a very good business man. Tom Mitchell taught me a lot about the technology of what we were doing and how we were doing it. Dad was pretty much on the leading edge of... You had to get more signals to sell more people. They picked up, I think, I'm not sure how they did it – used the airplane again maybe – Idaho Falls. They found that on a mountain. I think it was called Copper Mountain over by Cody.
KELLER: Quite a distance, isn't it.
BLISS: It was a long ways. Yes. An interesting story on that. The museum, in fact, has an ad that Raypheon ran. It was the highest microwave site in the world at the time. They ran a split ad that said "the highest" and "the lowest." They had something in the bottom of a cave some place. I think it was about 11,000'. I was only up there twice. It was a miserable, miserable place. They took diesel fuel in in the summer and had a big enough tank in to last all winter to run a generator. They were picking up Idaho Falls and maybe something else and microwaving it to Worland, Cody (which was owned by a friend of my dad). In between time, my dad had built ...
KELLER: Who owned Cody?
BLISS: I was afraid you were going to ask that. It was right on the tip of my tongue and now I can't remember. It'll come back. He built Basin and Greybull which were little tiny towns north of Worland. He bought Thermopolis – the cable system – in a bankruptcy auction for $5,000 and he got a radio station. A radio station and the cable system for $5,000. He turned around and sold the radio station the same day, I assume he had it worked out ahead of time, for $5,000. He basically got a free cable system which wasn't worth much more than that because the cable was lying on the ground, people were driving on it. It was really a rotten ...
KELLER: I want to go back just a little bit. Who came up with the idea of microwaving the signals into Worland?
BLISS: I'm not sure. It was the three guys: my dad, Tom Mitchell, and John Huff. The other two were technology people. My dad was basically the business man. I would guess it was one of them that said, "We should try this."
KELLER: Had they been in the service before and used microwave in the service? Where did they learn about microwave? Because at that time that wasn't ...
BLISS: I really don't know the answer to that. I know that it was a big deal and it was very expensive.
KELLER: Were you importing just one signal at that time?
BLISS: Started out with one signal. Ultimately, I think there were three or four. Dad upgraded the cable system in Worland to carry additional signals, but I don't think they had more than six for years and years. Then they microwaved from Carter Mountain. We were picking up Casper signals and microwaved those down to Thermopolis, Worland, Basin, Greybull. I think they could also see, from Carter Mountain they could see Copper Mountain. They microwaved those back and forth to each other and distributed them from there. He later built, on the other side of the mountains, Riverton and Lander and microwaved everything.
KELLER: Did he build Green River too or was that somebody else?
BLISS: No that was somebody else.
KELLER: So actually you were triangulating microwave all the way around that whole northern Wyoming area.
BLISS: That's right.
KELLER: Carter Mountain. That's almost an infamous name in the development and early history of cable television. It started out with the small television station in Thermopolis, wasn't it, that brought this whole thing to a head?
BLISS: They were the ones that protested. You had to get FCC permits to do microwave. I think in those days you could build a cable system in any town that would let you build it. You didn't have to talk to the federal government at all. But to do the microwave, you had to get a permit for the transmission and the local TV station which never broadcast a minute of local... They were just a repeater, basically. They served the smallest population in the United States, and they fought my dad on every microwave application he ever made, to just stifle it. They maintained that it was hurting their audience share.
KELLER: For the record, I want to point out that as we go along, it will become evident that the FCC in later days would use the Carter Mountain case and some of the other things for their first attempt at regulating cable television.
BLISS: That's what Carter Mountain turned out to be definitely. The broadcasting industry rallied around this little teensy TV station which was obviously abnormal because they served almost no population at all. But they were all worried about cable coming into their own territory. So everybody rallied around, all the broadcasters rallied around this.
KELLER: This was in what – '57, '58?
BLISS: '56 – '58. It took several years. Strat Smith argued the Carter Mountain transmission case. My dad thought they were going to win it.
KELLER: They won it, lost it, and then won it again.
BLISS: He ran out of money – or didn't run out. But it was a pretty big deal for little bitty Worland cable system to try to keep funding that whole deal. The NCTA actually took over the funding of it. I believe it was '58 or '60 that they ultimately lost. The FCC said, "You cannot broadcast this signal." They would not give them the permit to carry, to microwave, these signals around.
Interesting little side-note to that. Thermopolis was close enough to Carter Mountain. It was about a 20 mile link. After my senior year in high school, another friend and I went up in the mountains and cut timber all summer, cut logs about 25'. They were dead trees they'd let us take. We hauled them to Thermopolis and we built an open wire line from Carter Mountain down to Thermopolis. So Thermopolis got the signals. We didn't need the FCC approval to bring them down on the open wire line.
KELLER: But no one else did.
BLISS: No one else. So Worland, which was the biggest town of the bunch, and Lander and Riverton couldn't get them. It really did stifle the growth of the cable systems.
An interesting side note, I never realized what lightening would do. But we lost that signal one night. I happened to be staying in Thermopolis. I was working down there. It was only a 30-mile drive so I went down there and helped quite a bit. The signal went out that was coming down this open wire. So the next morning we went out. A lightening bolt had struck one of those poles, and there was nothing left. There were pieces of wood this big scattered 50' – 80' around and little globs of copper. The next pole each direction was broken off but still there. The third pole was just kind of broken a little bit. The amplifier was just a little ball of metal.
KELLER: Would you explain, because I think it's very interesting, just what open wire was or ladder wire – there were a lot of names for it – but just what it was. They used it often times before they used coaxial cable.
BLISS: Yes, it wouldn't carry much. That was it's limitation. It was inexpensive. It was basically a copper wire the size of my glasses right here. There were two copper wires with a spacer every two feet or so so they wouldn't touch together.
KELLER: Short out.
BLISS: Short out. They were strung out and amplified every so often.
KELLER: There are so many stories about the use of twin lead over the years about cows running on it and opening gates and crushing it.
BLISS: The system in Thermopolis that I was talking about – the first time I went up there, we worked the summer and entrenched the cable in. But the guy who originally built the cable system just laid it on the ground. People were driving over it. And the signals were just the rattiest things ever. It was television. There was no other way to get it. We were down in a bowl and there was no television. So this was television, as ratty as it was at the time.
KELLER: Do you want to go on and explain a little bit more about the ramifications of Carter Mountain?
BLISS: Basically when the FCC and then the courts upheld the FCC decision, it shut down the distribution of distance signals in the cable systems. If you couldn't pick it up on an antenna over the air, basically you couldn't get it. That lasted... That just shut cable down. It was growing like this and it just went pppfffttt and just stabilized and stopped. There were a lot of people at that time getting franchises in towns, rampantly working on getting franchises. It just brought them to a screeching halt. If you couldn't get the signal on a tower, basically, or a mountain and bring it in, you just didn't get it.
KELLER: Again, for the record, cable developed in the small towns that were distant from the television markets in the major cities. Not to be able to bring a signal into that was just a devastating to the growth and the beginning growth of the industry.
BLISS: Right. It was really too bad.
KELLER: Then how did you then go from working for your father in Wyoming to the next step in your career?
BLISS: The next step was that I went to college. I went to Arizona State down in Tempe, which is a suburb, basically, of Phoenix. It wasn't at the time. It was actually a separate town. I was just there last week and it looks like LA now. The last two years I was there, I started working for Ameco. Do you remember Ameco?
KELLER: I sure do. Bruce Merrill.
BLISS: Bruce Merrill. I was going to school so I worked nights, worked the swing shift.
KELLER: What did you do?
BLISS: I did some awful jobs. It was very interesting. I was a technology person so we were aligning amplifiers. The amplifiers then were a metal box about this long and that wide and that deep with capacitors, transistors. Ameco really made it's name in solid-state. They were the first transistorized amplifier.
KELLER: I remember the first amplifier had a transistor – was it on the input or the output at one stage? It still had tubes on the other. I can't remember whether it was the input or the output.
BLISS: I don't remember that either.
KELLER: It was the first development of the amplifier.
BLISS: They had a bunch of women soldering all these things together. Then there were six or seven of us working the night shift. We would take them and the way we'd tune them – there was a few potentiometers you could turn, looking at a wave form trying to keep it up and flat and keep the spikes out. But half the time you just moved stuff around in there and try to keep that wave form flat and work the potentiometers, then put the base on it and set it over in the done pile. While I was still working the night shift, so it couldn't have been more than a few months, maybe a year, they started doing circuit boards. I remember the first flow solder machines. We just had a horrible problem with them. That would be, I've jumped almost ten years, probably '67 – '68 doing flow solder machines. I became a supervisor then, supervisor of the night shift.
KELLER: You were there when they built the first transistorized amplifier?
BLISS: I wasn't there at the very beginning. I think that must have occurred in about '65.
KELLER: '64 or '65 as I remember.
BLISS: I think I started there – well I know – I started there in '66.
KELLER: But they were in the development stage then?
KELLER: Do you remember any of the people that were involved in the development of that amplifier?
BLISS: I don't. I remember Bruce Merrill. He was always a visible person.
KELLER: He was.
BLISS: A very large person, but visible as well.
KELLER: Milford Richey – was he one of them in the development of that?
BLISS: Actually his nephew was... I knew Milford from Collins. I don't think he ...
KELLER: Maybe not. Maybe he wasn't.
BLISS: He might have preceded me. He might have been there before I was. But I knew him pretty well from Collins, back in the 70's when we were buying a lot of Collins microwave equipment from him at United Video. His nephew, Steve Ritchie, actually worked the night shift with me. He was there. He's stayed in cable, I think, most of his life.
KELLER: He may have been with Ameco for a lot of years too, wasn't he?
BLISS: He was there longer than I was. What happened was that I got of college and wanted to get out of that night shift situation so I got in the marketing department. I was getting ready to take over a warehouse in Atlanta.
KELLER: What year was this?
BLISS: This would be '66 or '67. I think my dates are a little off because I'd left there. I left Phoenix in '69 and I worked two years at Sperry Rand so I must have left Ameco in '67 and started in '65. I worked in the marketing department. They were getting ready to start up a warehouse in Atlanta. I was actually almost getting ready to pack, and they decided not to do it. The cable industry had started to grow again. Then it did another... I think the FCC put a freeze on something else. They put another restriction on it.
KELLER: Wasn't that the time we started restricting the distance signals from one market to another or was that later on?
BLISS: I think that was it. Yes, because then they loosened that up in the early '70s. They started letting us do some of that.
KELLER: Also wasn't the freeze on television stations ended about that time. The idea was that they'd allocate UHF stations and put the cable television systems out of business.
BLISS: Yes, that was about the right time.
KELLER: So I think that's the reason why the financiers wouldn't even touch cable because of that.
BLISS: And Ameco contracted like everybody else did. So I decided that wasn't going to be any fun for awhile. I just had my new degree so I went out and found a job at Sperry Rand which was in Phoenix. They were selling avionics. They were in that business a long time. I think they're part of Bendix King Honeywell now, now GE, I guess. But we were selling gyroscopes and all kinds of avionics packages, primarily to the military. That would be right when the Viet Nam was starting and the military was buying a lot of product. I was in the marketing department there and spent a lot of time at Gruman [Aircraft] in Bethpage, New York and Washington, DC. I was a lackey but went along with the real marketing guys and did contract administration. It was a big huge company, and I kind of got bored with that after about two years. My dad kept saying, "You ought to talk to Gene Schneider. He's starting up this thing down in Tulsa. They're going to have a whole bunch of cable systems they're putting together with all of Gene's systems," all of them being 3 or 4 or 5, I can't remember. Casper was one. He owned Perryton, Texas and three or four others. They were going to merge theirs with Bob Hughes and that group of guys out of Austin.
KELLER: Freddie Lieberman, Bob Hughes, and that whole group – Ben Conroy, that group anyhow.
BLISS: Right. They were going to put all their systems together and this oil company in Tulsa, LVO Company, was going to be the financier.
KELLER: Livingston Oil.
BLISS: Right. It was Livingston Oil. Their stock symbol was LVO and then they changed their name to LVO Corporation. They had a lot of cash flow from all their oil, and cable needed a lot of cash, and they needed the depreciation. So it looked like a really nice deal. I told my dad I wasn't interested at the time.
KELLER: Why was that?
BLISS: I was having a pretty good time at Sperry, but then it kind of got boring after awhile. So I called Gene Schneider and flew from Phoenix to Tulsa and had dinner with Gene and his right-hand-man, Ed Drake. We went to Jamiels and had a steak. I was 26. Gene's a pretty big drinker. So is Ed Drake. We had a couple of drinks.
KELLER: How well I know.
BLISS: I had too many. You know, you don't drink on a job interview. I had too many drinks. I remember that. I thought, "God, I'm going to blow this job interview. It's really stupid." But I think I only had two or three. But anyway, I remember feeling that I had done the wrong thing. But in the end, Gene said, "We'll hire anybody that knows what cable is."
KELLER: He knew your father too.
BLISS: He knew my dad pretty well. I can't remember if he made an offer right then or called me on the telephone. I was making $12,000 a year at Sperry which I thought was pretty good - $1,000 a month. Gene offered me $18,000 - $1,500 a month. That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
KELLER: Doing what, Roy?
BLISS: I think I was the seventh employee in what turned out to be United Cable. It was GenCo at the time. I might describe a little bit the Bob Hughes, Ben Conroy. They were all going to move to Tulsa. I don't really know the details of what happened right then, but it didn't work out right.
KELLER: I have that story in Bob Hughes's interview.
BLISS: And they stayed. Some of the systems they did put in. So I think they got the money out, but they weren't there managing it. Gene turned out to be the guy who turned out to manage it.
KELLER: About the only one that really remained with them, wasn't he?
BLISS: Right – Gene and Richard, his brother. Richard never left Casper. He said, "I'm not going, period."
KELLER: Never did till the day he died he never left there.
BLISS: I'll get into some stories about those two.
KELLER: Go ahead.
BLISS: Well, cleaned up a little bit. I accepted his offer. I had a wife and twin daughters who were two years old. We drove from Phoenix in my Pontiac GTO, in an ice storm. I'd never seen an ice storm in my whole life, never want to see another one. Tulsa's right on that edge where it gets 28o and rain and it was miserable. My wife had never even been to Tulsa. She said, "What are we doing here?" But I started working there. It was Gene, Ed Drake, Greg Liptak, Bob Morrison, Gene's secretary Lucy Barker, and Ed Drake had a secretary that we kind of all used – I forgot her name. We were looking for cable systems, buying cable systems, getting franchises. Everybody was going some place every day, working on a deal. It was just a wonderful time. We were in a kind of a make-shift office space, and we quickly outgrew that and moved to a new space, a much bigger space, and quickly grew in numbers.
KELLER: What were some of the systems that you were franchising and building – before we get into the Tulsa story which is a story in itself.
BLISS: I really don't remember. We were scattered all over, mostly the Midwest out toward Memphis. I remember Tennessee, Illinois. We acquired quite a few systems in Illinois and a little microwave system that United Video actually picked up some Chicago signals and served Ottawa, Streator, and Pontiac in that area just a little ways out of Chicago.
KELLER: Were those John Gwin's systems?
BLISS: That was the southern part. Those were GenCo, later United Cable systems. John Gwin's were down in the south. We bought that little piece of microwave too. I think the top part was 3 –4 hops of microwave, maybe 5, and then Gwinn's was 2 or 3. Then we bought that in about 1970. Then we built them all together and brought Chicago all the way to St. Louis, St. Louis back up into the Chicago area. We built a spider web, basically, all over the Midwest – 3,000 miles of microwave ultimately.
KELLER: That was your first introduction to WGN then?
KELLER: We're maybe getting ahead of our story. We'll go back to the Schneider LVO operation or GenCo.
BLISS: GenCo turned into LVO Cable, owned by LVO Corporation, the oil company. Then later it was turned into United Cable. Gene liked the United. Now he owns – or runs – United International. He really liked "United". But we bought United Video, I think in '70.
KELLER: That was the microwave entity.
BLISS: The little microwave entity I was talking about just out of Chicago and then down. Then United Video bought the John Gwin operation.
KELLER: So what happened to Carter Mountain, the decision of Carter Mountain, the fact that you were able to do this.
BLISS: The FCC... Actually... I'm not sure what rule... Why they were getting to import. I think the rules thawed. They never really said, "Okay you can do anything you want." The FCC softened the rules enough to let some importation of distance signals. I don't think it all came as a flood. It seems to me that it came in a couple of waves that they allowed that.
KELLER: Into smaller markets but not into the top 100.
BLISS: That's what it was. That's right.
KELLER: So they did recognize that the cable systems could be served by microwave at that time. That was what, the 70's, the early 70's?
BLISS: Early '70's – '70, '71, '72. So we started building this microwave system, always hoping we would go past Des Moines. If Des Moines couldn't carry it, all the little systems around could, always thinking that some day somebody's going to build Des Moines. Cable just needed to happen. People wanted all those channels. They wanted more and more television as we now know. Hundreds of channels would work. It's hard to believe when you think about the fact that people were happy, but thought 3-4 channels was great. Now they think 300 is not enough. Anyway, we built the microwave from Chicago east, I think, as far almost to Nebraska. We built microwave carrying New Orleans clear up into northern Louisiana, Houston to New Orleans, Dallas up into Oklahoma.
KELLER: Who actually did the work to go out and contact the systems and bring the signals in?
BLISS: I did.
BLISS: Backtracking just a piece. We bought those systems, the microwave .... We bought United Video – the company – which owned a bunch of applications all over with the FCC for microwave.
KELLER: So there was a conscious decision to get into microwave made by at that time LVO Company?
BLISS: Right – or Gene. I think Gene basically made the decision. We owned a couple of cable systems up there. They needed those signals to get more customers. Get more signals, get more customers. So that was a logical decision of getting in the microwave business. I don't remember if I drew the short straw or the long straw. For some reason, I got kind of started babysitting these two little microwave systems.
KELLER: One in Louisiana now and the other ...
BLISS: These were both in Illinois, one up north and one down in the middle of the state. I hired a secretary and pretty soon I needed a technology guy. Pretty soon I was running United Video. We really started rolling and building these microwave towers and serving the other cable systems. We had to serve more than 50% to be a common carrier, had to be other cable systems that United Cable didn't own.
KELLER: Before CARS came in.
KELLER: Cable Antenna Relay Systems was CARS.
BLISS: Where you could serve yourself exclusively.
KELLER: You were a common carrier microwave.
BLISS: We were a common carrier microwave. It was my job to go out and stir up these customers. Microwave is line of sight. So in the flatlands of the Midwest, you could go about 30 miles. You had to repeat every 30 miles. Illinois was pretty nice because there was a town every 20 miles so you could just about hit somebody. We did build a few repeaters where there was no cable system. I always tried to locate it near a town so we could maybe use it as a cable headend later. I actually went out and got a lot of the microwave sites, talked to farmers, drove around.
KELLER: Did you file your own application with the Commission too?
BLISS: Yes. We used Cole, Raywid, Braverman at the time. I developed some very close relationships with those guys, filed their own applications. I spent a lot of time in Washington. I had to lobby just to get a microwave application. Sometimes it took months and months and months. There was actually no reason for that. They were just slow, bogged down. Those were ones that nobody even cared. It still took lots of paperwork, lot of hand holding, go back there and buy dinners for the FCC guys.
KELLER: Staff primarily?
BLISS: Yes, staff. We had a few meetings on the bigger issues like trying to bring microwave into Tulsa or someplace like that. We had a lot of meetings where we'd get clear up to the commissioners – had a lot of commissioner meetings. Those guys were all politicians so you couldn't tell if they were paying attention or if it was going right through. Some of them were known to be broadcast people and we weren't getting anywhere with them. Some of them didn't pay attention.
KELLER: Were you familiar with the timing of the original franchise application in Tulsa?
BLISS: Reasonably, yes. I was there. Let me get my time frames right. It would be early '70s. It took forever, maybe '71, '72. I think there were three groups and LVO was obviously one of the groups. There was a local guy named Bill Swanson who had been running the ABC station there very, very successfully. He was head of another group. They had quite a bit of money. 'Course we had, LVO had plenty of money. There was a third group. I don't remember who they were. Bill Swanson was very well thought of in the city, had a lot of clout. I think he had lived there his entire life. I still see him occasionally. He's still's actually in the cable business doing a lot of SMATV kind of things in some little tiny towns. LVO and his group ultimately got together when it got right down to "somebody's going to get it" and we didn't want to get left out and he didn't want to get left out. It was sort of one of those marriages that nobody really liked each other but you kind of had to do it.
KELLER: It was a big pit for money for a long time.
BLISS: Oh, God, it was a horrible pit. It was a disaster. Even when you could see that it was going to be a money pit, you're saying, it's sort of like some of the dot.coms were here in the last couple of years, "If you're not in there, you're never a player." So you pay your price and you lose your shirt for several years. But satellite really turned that all around. Before I get to satellite, we built microwave from Dallas up to Tulsa, Kansas City down to Tulsa, served all the little cable systems in between. That's all Tulsa had to offer. They were carrying the local four stations – three networks and PBS, two stations from Dallas and one from Kansas City. So you had three extra signals, independents, and it just really wasn't enough. I think they were bleeding - it doesn't seem like a lot of money now – maybe $1 million a month. It's still a lot.
KELLER: Still a lot of money.
BLISS: But it's a big company. But it was sucking us under. We were talking about shutting it down and exploring all kinds of things.
KELLER: It was the death knoll for a lot of general managers of that system too.
BLISS: Yes. I think we ran through .... Well, Bill Swanson was there for a long time. Obviously it wasn't his fault that it wasn't working. Johnny Mankin ran it for a little while – Johnny Mankin, Jr., who's now in Waco. Nick Allen ran it for a very short period of time and then Mark Savage. Mark is a super guy, but he also happened to be there at the right time.
KELLER: Yes, he was there at the right time is right.
BLISS: Satellite came around. United Video actually got in the business of building those first satellite receivers – 10 meter jobs, 30' antenna, $100,000 - $120,000.
KELLER: You were in that business? I wasn't aware of that.
BLISS: Yes. We built... I guess I should say we sort of .... We built maybe four or five of them that didn't really last long because they shrunk the size of the dish.
KELLER: Ten meters were the original ones. Remember what you charged for them?
BLISS: $125,000. I remember the guys out there building that at the Tulsa Cable facility. It's a beautiful structure when you think about pulling those signals down from the satellite and everything. So we did that. That really... HBO... and then...
BLISS: Quickly followed behind by TBS and then WGN.
KELLER: In the meantime, though, you had been distributing WGN on microwave systems?
BLISS: Right. We were distributing WGN, KPLR out of St. Louis, KTTV out of Dallas.
KELLER: All independents.
BLISS: All independents. Pretty much everybody had the networks. That refreshed my memory. That's was what that microwave up in Illinois was actually carrying the networks 'cause you could do that 'cause you could get them anyway, but they got them cleaner and better. So it was the independents that ...
KELLER: Until you tried to bring Chicago into St. Louis or St. Louis into Chicago?
BLISS: Yes, right. That's a whole different story. The broadcasters could see the handwriting on the wall that that's ultimately what would happen. Their business had been pretty good.
BLISS: Continues to be pretty good. So we built that 10 meter station in Tulsa. That really turned it around. Within almost months things just started happening like crazy. This brings us really to United Video. We filed applications – you still had to do a lot of FCC work – filed applications with the FCC for WGN, KPLR, KPTV, and a San Francisco station... I can't remember what it was now. We never did it.
KELLER: It was the independent station in San Francisco.
BLISS: I think it was a Cox independent, a real good station. We filed those with the FCC and waited and waited. In the meantime, several other common carrier-type companies had done the same thing. We had a competitor for WGN. I think somebody had filed for KPLR. But the constriction became transponder space, satellite space. RCA only had... Well, we were coming down to the fall of '78 and they had one transponder left. We either had to fish or cut bait and we didn't have an FCC permit to do WGN. I went back to the FCC and lobbied and worked. I was convinced that they were going to give it to us right away.
KELLER: To distribute WGN on the satellite?
BLISS: On the satellite. I convinced Larry Flinn, who owned the bulk of United Video at the time, that we should take down this transponder which was an awesome undertaking.
KELLER: Before you get into that, how did Larry Flinn get involved and Schneider with United Video and how did Larry Flinn get involved in that group?
BLISS: Schneider and the LVO/GenCo which turned into United Cable – we bought, or he bought, United Video in '69 or maybe early '70. We were building microwave up through the mid-'70s. We built all this microwave and actually got in the telephone microwave business. That was when MCI was first starting. I met Bob McGowan, by the way, who built that mother up. He's a very interesting guy. He came to Tulsa, and I spent a whole day with him.
KELLER: I can remember one time John Malone saying, "I could have bought MCI for $250,000." I said, "So why didn't you?" He said, "We didn't have $250,000.
BLISS: That's right. The numbers just don't seem that big anymore. We were looking at telephone traffic in the Midwest there between St. Louis and Dallas. There was just a huge amount of traffic. So we thought we'd just lay this telephone microwave system on our existing video system, and we'll capture this traffic. That was LVO before Larry Flinn days. We built most of it and realized, way late, that all this traffic was actually going from New York to LA. They didn't want to deal with us here in the middle so they took MCI or Sprint, (Southern Satellite)... No, that wasn't what it was. It was owned by the Kansas City Southern RR. It was Southern something which turned into Sprint. Anyway, we could tell that we weren't going to get a significant amount of that trans-continental traffic. We'd get a little... It was a huge marketing operation to sell that and it just wasn't something... Lots of money required. We really needed to build it out all the way coast to coast to compete with MCI basically. It just wasn't going to happen. So we sold out to Southern Pacific and were a part of the early Sprint system.
KELLER: Southern Pacific Industries, was that it?
BLISS: SPCC, you're right. [Southern Pacific Communications Company]. Ed Taylor had worked for AT&T for 15 years or so, was living in Kansas City. I said, "We're way over my head. I don't know anything about telephones. I could build a microwave system, but don't know much about telephones." So I went up and met with Ed Taylor. He was a consultant in the telephone business. We employed him as a consultant for awhile, ultimately hired him, and he took over that whole thing and finished building that, tried to market it, got no where. We sold it to Southern Pacific and he went with southern Pacific. I stayed running the video operation. That was '74 – '76, somewhere in there.
Now we're kind of getting to Larry Flinn. There was another downturn in the cable industry. It wasn't doing very well. Tulsa Cable was ringing them dry. The Bank of New York said, "You've got to shed some stuff, sell some things, get more liquid. You've got too much debt." Gene never wanted to sell United Video but it obvious it didn't fit – it wasn't a cable system. It was the obvious thing to sell. So he was trying to sell that. I made an attempt to buy it. I was only 33 or something, and I couldn't get the financing. I tried everybody I knew. They wanted $3 million for it and it was a pretty big deal.
BLISS: Larry Flinn was a cable operator from the east, had just sold a couple of systems, had cash in hand. He came out, looked at it, said this is something I'd like to buy. He and I actually went around and went to different lenders and tried to sell them on the concept. I sold them on the concept because Larry's a smart enough guy, he knew what we were doing, but I was the salesman for the deal. We got a lender. It's now Fleet ... - up in Rhode Island - I forgot – Industrial National Bank. John Barber. We must have visited ten banks. Everyone of them would say, "Okay, we've got to go to committee. We've got to do this. We've got to do that. We'll call you in two weeks and tell you." Larry Flinn and I had done a bunch of those. We talked to these guys and John Barber. At the end of the thing we said... They did quite a few cable systems so they knew that side of the business. We said, "When might we hear from you?" He said, "What time is it?"
KELLER: He wanted it then. You hit the right guy.
BLISS: Yes, we hit the right guy. He's just a super, super guy. They called us. Larry and I flew back in a little airplane. We chartered one and flew back to Connecticut from Providence, and they called us four hours later and said, "You've got the deal." They financed it out of LVO Cable at the time.
KELLER: Say that again. Flinn financed it out of LVO Cable?
BLISS: Well, the bank financed it so Larry was able to buy it out of LVO Cable. So it was Larry Flinn and I. He still had a bunch of cable systems in the east. So he stayed in Connecticut, and he was running his cable systems. I stayed in Tulsa because all our stuff was there in the Midwest. I ran that and continued to grow that. We talked every week or so on the telephone. Then this satellite thing was just getting started. I can't remember the sequence, the timing, exactly. I think Larry might have owned it actually when we filed those five or six applications that I mentioned. We were waiting on the FCC.
KELLER: This is for the permission to use the satellite to distribute WGN?
BLISS: Right. I think there were 12 transponders on that satellite. They weren't all used for cable. HBO had a couple, as I recall. Southern Satellite had one which was Ted Turner – TBS's service. Christian Broadcasting, CBN was up there. I can't remember who else. We were right in that early, early group.
KELLER: How many transponders were on the first satellite?
BLISS: I think twelve. But I think there were some others being used for other telephone – it wasn't all cable thing. Anyway, they were down to their last transponder.
KELLER: Was this still Comsat that had the satellite then?
BLISS: No. It was RCA. I was making trips to New York, making sure we were going to get that transponder, and the FCC wouldn't give us the go-ahead, and other people wanted that transponder as well. I was convinced that we could make this work. I convinced Larry that we should sign up for this transponder without having the FCC. It was a big leap for us. I think we had to sign up for five or six years on that transponder at about $80,000 a month and that was more than we were making. So it was a big deal. We got the permit – we actually stretched this a little bit – but we got it about a month later and we were on the air. We put a portable transmitter up because we were trying to beat any of our competition, put it on the air. I wouldn't say it was an instant success, but it didn't take very long. Our first customer was, I think, Winfield, Kansas. We kept his check I remember.
KELLER: Bob Weary?
BLISS: I think it was. I'm not positive that that was Bob Weary. And we framed that check. That was about October.
KELLER: Were your bankers involved in this decision to go ahead before you had the FCC authorization or did you bring them into it later.
BLISS: I don't think we brought .... Well, we almost would have had to. I can't imagine that we didn't.
KELLER: That would be pretty frightening for the bankers.
BLISS: Yes, it was frightening. It was frightening for us. About six months later, we were out of cash. I think Larry had to pony up $80,000 to make the transponder payment. At that time, Ed Taylor was running Southern Satellite, Ted Turner's deal. They were charging $.10 a month per subscriber. That's what we were charging. We just decided to go with what was working for them. But we didn't have enough cash coming in. So I said, "Let's do deep discounts for annual prepays." We discounted I think 18%. It was significant enough that everybody did it. It turned into the norm. Everybody did paid annually.
KELLER: At that time though, the prime rate was up pretty close to that though, wasn't it?
BLISS: That's true. The prime rate was very high. Anyway, that was really the turning point. The money started flowing in. It was just an instant success, you might say. But it was scary in there in the first 6-8 months.
KELLER: How long then did you deep discount?
BLISS: Basically forever. We started ratcheting the discount down.
KELLER: As the prime rate came down, you'd almost have to.
BLISS: I think we actually stayed at 18% for several years, two or three. Then we brought it to 15%, then 12%, then 10%. Everybody prepaid. It was almost .... I'm not even sure we allowed people to monthly pay after five or six years. I think we just said, "Here's the annual rate, period." Bob James, my Washington lawyer who works with Cole, Raywid and Braverman, he always used to say, ...
KELLER: We'll talk to him tomorrow.
BLISS: Do you? He would say, "Every time I picture you, I picture dimes falling out of the sky." That was really the genesis of United Video, the United Video that people know about. It was a wonderful service. We picked WGN because we carried a lot of independents. They were, by far, the world leader. They're really class – much, much better than Ted Turner's TBS. And Ted even admitted that in those early days. They were really top quality.
KELLER: They had the Tribune behind them though, too, and the money that they had.
BLISS: For us, the Tribune was a mixed blessing because that also kept these guys from really embracing cable and what we were doing. The Tribune was in the cable business – they bought Albuquerque and built it and lost their shirt – in the mid-70s. Right at the same time Tulsa Cable was happening, I think. They did Albuquerque and never wanted to touch cable again. It scared very conservative newspaper guys. I had meetings frequently with the WGN guys, a very strange relationship there. And I used to plead with them, "You guys have a better independent than Ted Turner's got. You can dominate the cable industry." They would say, "We like what you're doing, but we don't want to get involved. We don't want to touch it. We want to keep this Chinese wall between us." The wall broke down over time, but it took a long time.
KELLER: They did get back in the cable business when Doug Dittrick came in, didn't they – the northern Michigan and that area up there?
BLISS: Yes. And then they got back out again. Jim Dowdle, who ran WGN for probably most of the 80's – just a super guy, was a television person. He was a very bright guy though. I was always pushing him to help us. "We can be the greatest thing since sliced bread." He said, "Roy, you just don't understand. These guys are newspaper guys. All of my board is newspaper guys. They barely know what television is. Television scares them. Bringing them clear to cable is just too big a leap of faith." So anyway, it was just a constant struggle, although one of my memories is going up there the day we launched WGN - my marketing guy, Jim Trecek and I.
KELLER: But you had been distributing WGN throughout the Midwest.
BLISS: Right, but it was a pretty minor thing.
KELLER: Via microwave.
BLISS: We went up and met with Shelton and Piccard, the chairman and president/CEO of WGN. They were very cordial. You could tell that they were happy because all of a sudden WGN was covering the whole United States.
KELLER: They were carrying the Cubs ballgames at that time too.
BLISS: Yes. At the same time, they had a fear. Their fear was that the people that were selling them programs – they bought all their programs – were going to say, "We want more money because you're covering the whole United States.": They were buying for the Chicago market. So that was always their bigger concern. We understood that, but we went and met with them.
KELLER: How did it affect them financially? I know it didn't hurt them. Were they paying more the programming?
BLISS: Not at first, but slowly they started paying more. They were always paying a premium. They would look at New York rates and LA rates and they always paid a premium because of that distribution. But they were getting more than they were paying. There was no question that it was helping them. They wouldn't actually admit that clear into the 90's. They never really showed us their numbers. We could dig at their numbers and kind of figure it out, but they were definitely making way more than they were paying.
KELLER: And you were still charging them $.10 a subscriber all that time?
BLISS: We always charged $.10 a subscriber, forever.
KELLER: To the operator.
BLISS: To the cable operator – and with a max. We went through several periods there in the 80's where the big operators, TCI specifically, would put the squeeze on us. They'd say, "Look, we can go put it up ourselves. We don't need you guys. We can put it up ourselves. It'll cost us $150,000 a year, and that's all we're going to pay you." So we had to come in and start putting maximums per cable system. Pay $.10 a subscriber up to something. We also had a floor because we were starting to get teensy cable systems or SMATV, anybody, pay us $15 a month wasn't even enough to cover billing costs.
KELLER: Explain that.
BLISS: SMATV – Small Master Antenna TV – apartments and any complex where you could have one headend and serve a group of locations. Where was I?
KELLER: You were talking about $.10 per subscriber.
BLISS: Oh. So we had a floor – I think it was $50 a month and we had a max. I think it was maybe $1500 a month, something like. So you could be a huge cable system and you still capped out at $1500 a month. We also had maxes for an MSO which we didn't talk about much. MSOs didn't want people to know that either because it offended the littler guys.
KELLER: Still does.
BLISS: Still does, yes. So we go in and negotiate with John Sie who was the toughest guy ever.
KELLER: He learned well.
BLISS: Yes, he sure did. But I think they were, in the early 90's, paying an average of $.02 a subscriber.
KELLER: But you could never get them to admit what they were paying and you couldn't tell from the balance sheet either.
BLISS: The big MSOs had a cap on what we were charging them because they could compete with us. That was just life in the big city. The little guys really paid the freight just like in this United States – the middle Americans pay most of the taxes.
KELLER: And were you paying WGN?
BLISS: We never paid WGN anything, but they made a lot of money off their advertising going national. They paid a little more for their product, made a lot more, made the Chicago Cubs America's national team, even though they never won.
KELLER: They had a deal with the Wrigleys. So what happened? You were still, at this time, also carrying microwave signals around the country. You were still in the microwave business?
BLISS: We were still in the microwave business although we slowly sold it off and shut it down. Satellite took over everything. We eventually did put KTTV from Dallas on the satellite, KPLR, and NY - WPIX. So we had three independents. WGN was, by far, the biggest. We packaged and we did all kinds of things to try to get people to carry them. But as you know, the FCC rules would only allow cable to carry so many independents. They were carrying Southern Satellite, TBS for sure, WGN second, and then one of these other three if they could carry three – and WPIX out of New York and the other New York station – WOR. Is that the other one?
BLISS: There were two. We were doing WPIX out of New York which also turned into a Tribune station. So we were doing two Tribune stations at one time. KTVT covered the bills and San Francisco kind of covered the transponder costs. We wound up with a lot of... An interesting side-line that we got into because we were technology people from the microwave business, had a lot of technology guys working for me that were very sharp. One, Al Stem specifically, was running our uplink at Chicago. He kept saying, "A transponder's got this much bandwidth and video uses this much. You've got all this up here that you could somehow utilize." We went to RCA and told them that. They said, "Yes, we know that." We wanted them to be a partner with us and help us. Actually, now that I think of it, we were using their uplink at the time. We built ours later.
KELLER: But you never put up your own satellite?
BLISS: We never put up our own satellite. That would have been a big deal. RCA is a real technology company. They said, "We don't want to get involved in that side band stuff." So that actually precipitated us going - was one of the reasons – they were charging us too much to begin with also - for building our own uplink. Al Stem worked out how to put side bands on this unused space. He started several companies based on using these side bands. We were probably doing more than anybody with satellite side band.
KELLER: What were you carrying on that?
BLISS: We started a company called Satellite Music Network that we carried with our three different transponders. I think we were up to about six stereo formats of audio that we were distributing to radio stations.
KELLER: Formats on all of them?
BLISS: Yes. Pre-formatted national signals. We started that. We put up all the transponder time. Jim Rupp, running WCCO in Minneapolis, put up money. We had one of the founders, a guy from Dallas named John Tyler, Kent Burkhardt from Atlanta who was a radio music person, Jim Rupp and me. The four of us were the board of directors that formed this company. We put in a total of about $12 million over about 1 ½ years and we sold it to ABC for $50 million. And United Video kept a contract with ABC to use our satellites - which we made significant amounts of money on – forever up until the early 90's sometime. So it was a very good deal for us. It was a hard sell. National radio for the radio industry was a hard sell. Advertising was different.
KELLER: Did you carry advertising also?
BLISS: Yes. We were doing national advertising. That was the way we made our money. We were almost giving it away to the radio stations. We were selling "$1 a holler" they'd call it.
KELLER: Did you leave time for local time, local spots, for their own time.
BLISS: Right. Totally automated. Now it's no big deal. Everybody's doing it to some extent. But local stations could sound like big city stations. We hired a lot of disc jockeys out of Chicago, top quality disc jockeys. They were down in Mokena which is south of Chicago about 20 miles maybe, sitting in a room, delivering their voice to the United States. It was a slick operation. I always believed in it. I actually made quite a bit of money – what seemed like a lot at the time – buying stock myself, and was very, very happy with it. My board of directors never liked it.
KELLER: United Video's board didn't like it?
KELLER: Who was on the board?
BLISS: Larry Flinn, me, Jim Rupp, a friend of Larry's from Connecticut, and Abe Frumpkin who was our number one lawyer from Pottstown. I'm not sure what the fear was there, but anyway we made a lot of money off it in a fairly short period of time. It was kind of the foundation of a company we called Space Com. Their charter was to figure out uses for these side bands of the satellite. They did a lot of one-way data transmission. They'd carry virtually... I don't' know if you remember in the early 90's when everybody's pager went dead one day. We carried all the pager – virtually every national page – not including in-town page. But the satellite that rolled ...
KELLER: Was it sun flares or something like that?
BLISS: I forgot what happened. It was a satellite problem, but anyway it was our side bands that were doing all those pages and we lost the whole United States for about a day or several hours anyway. So that company was doing a lot of point – to - multi-point transmission. The pager's perfect. National radio is perfect. The electronic program guide which was probably our biggest, best business in the end. We made much more money. It was much more valuable to United Video than WGN was.
KELLER: Did you actually do the magazine itself or just compile the programming?
BLISS: Not the magazine, the electronic, on-screen guide.
KELLER: Oh, okay.
BLISS: We started that in about '82. We were competing – and it was a point – to – multi-point idea – with Scripps Howard. They were doing a paging format by telephone. They would gather the information. Of course, they were in the newspaper business. They already had a lot of the TV listing information. They had, what I would call, an inferior service. We were doing real time, satellite downloaded scrolling which I think gave us ...
KELLER: On the side band.
BLISS: On the side band. It was a use of the satellite so it was free satellite to get this signal. We would put a little computer at every cable system, and we would update the computer. It was a pretty tricky operation. Computers, when they talk to each other, it's a two-way stream – send stuff and it would say, "I got it." So we were trying to send it and never know if you got it or not. The only way we knew we got it was the cable operator called and said, "I got it." So we would send it three times, and if it didn't all match, it wouldn't accept it at all. So it was a pretty tricky operation from the transmit location to the receive location.
KELLER: So you're sending it from computer to computer then?
BLISS: Right – from our computer, through the satellite one-way, to the other one. We would send everything three times. If it didn't match, it just threw it away. If it matched, it kept it and then it would display this scrolling guide.
KELLER: So you got into various businesses through use of the side band.
KELLER: What happened, then, to United Transmission?
BLISS: The microwave stuff?
KELLER: Yes. Or United Transmission first of all, then United Video secondly.
BLISS: We sold it in pieces. What we couldn't sell, we gave away. We just totally got out of the microwave business.
KELLER: So then what happened with United Video?
BLISS: We had transitioned into the satellite business by then. WGN was our key thing. Then we got into this Space Com. What I was trying to do was build a stool with at least three legs. Early on, we could see WGN was ... We were nervous that the FCC could take it away from us. They kept changing the rules. TCI would start competing with us. Something awful would happen.
KELLER: Excuse me, but I want to go back and clarify that point. You said that initially you committed for a transponder on the satellite without having FCC approval. Did you finally then get FCC approval to do that?
BLISS: We got it about one month after we made the commitment for the transponder. We thought we would get it right then, and it took about one month. So we were kind of in a never-never land there, paying a transponder bill with nothing to put on it for about 30 days.
KELLER: But you did get the permit.
BLISS: We got the permit.
KELLER: Then you got subsequent permission to do the other things you carried?
KELLER: When did you get out of United Transmission, United Video?
BLISS: United Video got out of the microwave business about '80. It went south pretty fast. Satellites just creamed us.
KELLER: But you were in the satellite business now.
BLISS: Right. We were in the satellite business. I always said, "If somebody's going to put me out of business, I'd rather it be me." So we were making much more money by then out of the satellite business than we were out of the microwave business. It was an easy transition. We did, for awhile, keep portions of it that were carrying networks signals. We were still doing some signal enhancement kinds of transmission, as opposed to independent television stations.
KELLER: Did you ever go digital?
BLISS: No. That was all analog. The electronic program guide – that was an all digital service.
KELLER: Then who did you finally sell the company to?
BLISS: The microwave, are you talking about?
KELLER: No, the satellite division?
BLISS: Let me say one other thing. We decided to go public in the early '90s. We went public in '93 as United Video Satellite Group. That was a very interesting thing to go through – going public. About two years later, as a strategic move, we decided we needed to group up with somebody really big. TCI was the obvious. They were in our business. They understood exactly what we were doing. They were our biggest user, and we made a deal with them.
KELLER: Was it a pleasant deal?
BLISS: Yes, I would have to say it was exactly what we expected.
KELLER: Again, was it a pleasant situation?
BLISS: In terms of finance, money, it worked out very well. From a personal standpoint, I had run United Video from '69 until '95. All of a sudden, I had a boss. Larry Flinn had always been a boss, but he wasn't there, he wasn't as involved. We did elaborate budgets. They wanted to start doing a little more direction, which Larry and I had both talked about extensively, knew it could happen, knew it probably would happen. And it wasn't unpleasant. But I started to go to a lot of meetings, going to Denver all the time, doing meetings that we really didn't need to do to run United Video. You hear about it all the time – big company buys a little company. It's not as much fun anymore. We had built it from me to 1,200 employees. We were doing $400 million a year. It was just a wonderful run. I had absolutely no regrets. There's nobody at TCI that I dislike or anything like that.
KELLER: Then you retired after that?
KELLER: And living the good life.
BLISS: I stayed about a year, which is probably normal. I was ready to exit anyway, but we kind of got in a pissing contest with John Malone over carriage of distant signals. He made a big deal of dropping WGN in some of their big systems, and I went on record as saying I thought that was a stupid idea, which didn't endear me to John very much.
KELLER: Here we've gone from the small communities of Worland, Wyoming all the way through your experiences in Tulsa and into this bigger company that then became United Video Satellite Group to the point where you finally retired. I think that's probably where we ought to end this right now.
Is there anything else you think we should discuss before we ..
BLISS: Not really. I think we covered it very well.
KELLER: This has been the oral history of Roy L. Bliss. It is a function of the National Cable Television Center and Museum's Oral History Program brought to you through a donation by the Gustav Hauser Foundation. Your interviewer was Jim Keller.
Thanks so much. We appreciate it.
BLISS: Thank you, Jim.