A Little TLC

Through most of the 1980s I worked as the videotape librarian for The Learning Channel (TLC) cable TV network. Most people don’t know that TLC was originally a project called the Appalachian Community Service Network (ACSN), sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission, HEW, and NASA. It provided educational programming to the Appalachian region via satellite. The offices and satellite uplink facility (a 10 meter dish) were located on the Coldstream Agricultural Research Station, a large experimental farm owned by UK in northern Lexington (KY).
When funding dried up ACSN spun off into a nonprofit with headquarters in Washington DC, but the uplink and engineering facilities remained in Lexington. The Learning Channel was a basic cable service and we got about 5 cents a month for each subscriber. I seem to recall we had something like 7-9 million subscribers at the time. Programming was mostly craft oriented — sewing, cooking, painting — a lot of it was recycled PBS stuff.
Around 1988 or so, the company switched to a for-profit corporation with the intent of selling it to some larger broadcaster. The employees who had been there for at least a few years all got stock options. In 1991 TLC was sold to Discovery Networks. Discovery was basically buying the concept and our subscriber base. A few of the DC staff were able to find positions with the buyers, but basically everyone was let go. They had no interest in the facilities or people in KY. I left with a nice severance package, especially a decent bonus from my stock options.
My job consisted of organizing the videotapes for all the programming. My predecessor in that job had meticulously built a hand written card catalog, with both alphabetical and subject indexes. It must have taken him at least a year. When I got there, I fairly quickly realized that no one but he ever used the card catalog. No one ever asked about it. All the tapes were listed alphabetically in a binder, and that’s all I ever needed. Not long after I arrived, I got an early PC (with a green phosphor monitor) and a dot-matrix printer. My boss gave me a lesson in using Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets, which I became expert with very quickly and transferred the info from the binders. I kept the card catalog under a table for a few years before throwing it out along with the binders I’d used. The computer had a 2400 baud modem that let me transfer info to the traffic department.
One of my responsibilities was checking all new programming to get exact times for commercial breaks. Once a tape was checked, I’d record the times in the spreadsheets and deliver the info to traffic. The equipment we had ranged from antique to state of the art. Basically getting smaller with each generation. Our oldest machines were behemoths that used 2-inch wide tapes. A reel for a one-hour program probably weighed about 15 pounds or more. The workhorse machines were a trio of 1-inch VTRs, and that’s what I used more than anything. For short programs and commercials we had 3/4 inch U-Matic VCRs. After we went commercial, there was an infusion of capital that allowed us to expand in many ways, including the addition of an editing suite with a few more 1-inch machines as well as the new digital Betamax (even then Sony’s beta format for home use had been almost completely decimated by VHS, but they did manage to find use for it in the emerging digital market). I knew how to run all these machines, but I was not an engineer. The tech guys are the ones who ran the on-air switches and so on.
2-inch Videotape

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