George Barco - Oral History

George Barco

Interview Date: March 26, 1992
Interviewer: Marlowe Froke
Collection: Hauser Collection

George Barco was frustrated. The former deputy attorney general for Pennsylvania had come to New York for one of his favorite pursuits: continuing education. The Practicing Law Institute sessions had, as usual, been fine, but now, back at his hotel, he'd settled in for a little TV only to find the set in his room didn't work. Barco called the hotel's management and ended up getting a primer on its master antenna system. "He was fascinated," recalls daughter and fellow attorney Yolanda, who'd accompanied her father on the trip to do a little shopping. "He wondered if the same kind of system could bring TV to a town like Meadville." Like many towns in Pennsylvania, Meadville, where the Barcos lived, was surrounded by mountains that obstructed the TV signals reaching in from nearby cities. Barco, who was then the solicitor of the Meadville School District, went home and pursued his idea in his spare time, approaching RCA about its master antenna technology. RCA referred him to Milton Shapp, whose Jerrold Electronics built community antenna systems and manufactured the equipment that went into them.

The two met in 1952 and soon after, Barco formed Meadville Master Antenna Inc. (MMA), hiring Jerrold to provide equipment for the three-channel system. MMA was an instant hit. "There was more joy, when people saw those three channels for the first time in downtown Meadville, than for any of the successive improvements we made to the system over the years," Yolanda Barco recalls. The Barco family ran the Meadville system for decades, but George's contributions to cable wouldn't come only from his background as an operator. They'd also come from his practice of the law and his love for education. As general counsel of the Pennsylvania Cable Television Association and a leader in both that group and the National Cable Television Association, Barco would have a profound impact on the governmental and industry policies that sprang up to govern the way cable television did business. Born of immigrant parents in 1907, Barco attended Allegheny College in Meadville and earned his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh. After serving as assistant district attorney and then deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, he opened the firm of Barco and Barco, establishing a private practice with Yolanda. Meanwhile, MMA thrived, capturing 3,000 subscribers within its first two years. Not long after that, it reached 9,000 homes, ranking among the larger systems in the U.S. Even as he worked to expand the system, however, Barco realized that the nascent community antenna industry already faced more than its share of legal and policy tangles.

In 1956, his son-in-law, Jim Duratz, took over managing the system so the Barcos could tend to their law practice and broader industry concerns. The 1950s and 1960s were years of opportunity for acquiring and expanding cable systems, but Barco refrained from adding to his holdings. He served as legal counsel to the PCTA and several cable operators and wanted to avoid ever having a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of one, with a client. Of the many legal battles fought and won during this time, four stand out as basic cornerstones for cable development and Barco played a critical role in each. The first involved establishing cable's right to have its plant in the public right of way. The second, telephone pole attachment, loomed during cable's early years, as phone companies insisted on restrictive contracts and exhorbitant fees in exchange for access to their poles. Barco successfully challenged a number of utility companies before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which decided not to limit or foreclose cable's access to poles. Another early issue for cable operators lay in the Internal Revenue Service's attempt to levy an 8-percent excise tax on subscriber fees. With Barco's help, a Meadville subscriber sued the government on grounds that the tax was illegal. Barco, working with the NCTA, relied on the master antenna concept, arguing that subscriber fees paid were not for equipment or wire service and therefore weren't subject to an excise tax. He won his case and the government refunded $25 million to cable operators through an expedited procedure developed by the Barcos with the IRS. "George refunded every penny of his share of the refund to his subscribers," recalls fellow cable pioneer Robert Tarlton. "That's the kind of man he was." Barco's most dramatic victory occurred in the NCTA board room in 1962, after the association had lost a pair of lawsuits over the question of whether cable should pay copyright fees in order to retransmit TV programming. Fearing another loss, board members felt it was hopeless to pursue the issue further. Barco disagreed. A member of the board himself, he argued vehemently that cable, which received programming on its community antennas and then shared it among households, was not a transmitter of programming and therefore not legally subject to copyright fees. Barco promised to negotiate a fixed fee with attorneys representing the NCTA in order to hold down costs for the appeal. Finally, the board voted to pursue the case.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear cable's case and, in a stunning decision, reversed the lower courts and issued an opinion in the industry's favor. Years later, Congress would legislate that cable would have to pay copyright fees through a compulsory license, but the industry would enter that battle on a much stronger footing than it would have, had it not won the Supreme Court case. "We were in a much better position to negotiate because the law was on our side," Yolanda Barco recalls. As he helped fight cable's legal battles, Barco kept his eye on MMA, insisting it upgrade its technology periodically to improve its offerings. "He didn't know much about the technology used in a cable system, but as a viewer, he always wanted more service," Yolanda recalls, "and nothing was too good for MMA customers." In 1963, MMA became the first cable system in the U.S. to utilize aluminum sheath cable, permitting 12 channel capacity. The system added its own local weather channel, training a camera on gauges mounted on a roof. In 1967, it launched a local origination channel still in operation today, making it what many believe is the longest continually running LO channel in the U.S. Another motivation behind George Barco's steadily expanding system lay in his love of education. In 1979, he and nine partners founded what is now the Pennsylvania Cable Network, a non-profit network that began delivering public affairs and educational programming, including college courses for credit, on a statewide basis. It took three years of research to get Pennarama, as the network was called at the time, off the ground. As a faculty member and administrator at Penn State, Marlowe Froke, now president of The National Cable Television Center and Museum, worked with Barco to create a partnership between the cable industry and the university for delivery of programming 24 hours a day. "George believed that cable's role in the long-term future would really rest with education and community service," Froke recalls. He influenced me a great deal." In another effort at furthering cable's involvement with education, Barco co-founded The Cable Center and Museum, now at Denver. Bill Cologie, president of the PCTA, sees a connection between Barco's vision of using cable to distribute education and the government's recent efforts to encourage development of an information superhighway. "What the federal government is trying to do today, George and his friends were trying to do 20 years ago," he says.

A passionate believer in community service, Barco inspired his colleagues, who called him "Mr. Integrity." "He had high standards and he fought for them," recalls John Rigas, founder, chairman and CEO of Adelphia Communications. "You may not have agreed with him on something, and that was okay, but you knew you had a fight on your hands. He'd never let go." Froke adds: "He believed in the social good that could come from cable. He was the conscience of his industry." Barco's influence lives on every time a Pennsylvania college student registers for an on-air course and also through the Barco-Duratz Foundation, a philanthropy established to fund educational projects. It has made substantial contributions to literacy projects throughout the state of Pennsylvania and has helped a number of colleges and universities participate in the Pennsylvania State Network. At a 1975 awards banquet of the PCTA, Milton Shapp, then Governor of Pennsylvania, hailed Barco as "an untiring and effective advocate of cable's right to exist, grow and develop." Bill Daniels, a fellow cable pioneer and founder of media brokerage and investment bank Daniels & Associates, remembers Barco as a winning general in cable's early battles against powerful competing interests. "Most of the early pioneers in cable were salesmen or engineers," he explains. "When the phone companies, broadcasters, governments and theater owners started gunning for us, none of us had their legal expertise. That's why George Barco was the right man at the right time." Mr. Barco successfully opposed efforts which continued for some 20 years to impose state public utility regulation on the industry and he conducted extensive negotiations and litigation with the objective of limiting the authority of municipalities to regulate cable tv to the exercise of polic powers for safety and convenience in the use of public right of way.