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What would you say if I told you that you could talk to your television? That you, the viewer, could digitally participate in political surveys, game shows, football broadcasts, children’s programming, the local news, talent searches, you name it—that you could have an audible voice in the programs that you care about. Now, what would [...]
Danny Hamen

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What would you say if I told you that you could talk to your television? That you, the viewer, could digitally participate in political surveys, game shows, football broadcasts, children’s programming, the local news, talent searches, you name it—that you could have an audible voice in the programs that you care about.

Now, what would you say if I told you that this technology was developed and implemented in 1977, precisely 40 years ago this month—and that if it weren’t for this technology and the industry-shaking revolution it triggered, there would be no MTV, ESPN, Nickelodeon, no Home Shopping Network, no Pay-Per-View.  None of the dozens of other iterations of groundbreaking media mechanics we take for granted today. Forty years ago, this technology augmented our perceptions of what television is, how we interact with it, and the overall trajectory of our relationship with the television set.

Now, what if I told you that this technological revolution began here in Columbus, Ohio, in three studios off Olentangy River Rd. and one in the old Westland Mall.

Would you believe me?

Welcome to QUBE TV.

We get it—classifying Columbus, Ohio as the primordial soup bowl of modern television seems like a sensationalist declaration. But don’t take it from us. One of the historians of the QUBE  Network, Jon Cornell, who worked as an enterprising rookie television producer and director from the very beginning, feels quite the same way.

“We were innovating what would be the birth of a small internet. In the process, we created Nickelodeon. We created MTV. We were the first to do at-home shopping. It was extremely innovative for its time.”

Another eager creative who was living in Columbus during the genesis of the QUBE network was Jim Jinkins, the guy who would later go on to create influential ‘90s cartoon, Doug.

“This was all happening ahead of the computer explosion. This was essentially a form of a computer. It was a box in your home that gave an electronic impulse that went back to the studio. Nothing like that existed before QUBE.”

In many ways, QUBE and the internet are ideologically interchangeable; the viewers can communicate and interact with each other via a digital interface. For QUBE to have such an influence on the digital world without the general public really knowing or acknowledging it much all these years later … well, in many ways that just about sums up the ethos of our city: the perpetually and inexcusably overlooked, the zealous kid in the group project who did all the work and got none of the credit, the one always forgotten in the upper middle of the pack.

Go figure.

So what the heck is QUBE, anyways?

At its core, QUBE was an experimental two-way, multi-programmed, interactive cable television system. Picture a giant remote with 30 rectangular options, each representing a different channel. Now remember, in 1976 you were stuck with four channels on your television, three network and one public broadcast. Not only did QUBE offer you those four channels along with their regional equivalents in the neighboring cities of Athens, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Cleveland, but for the first time ever, your television offered you the following in the privacy of your late seventies home:

  • Pay-per-view movies and sports, old and new, including adult features.
  • At home shopping, including live digital auctions. Hello, EBay!
  • Comparative pricing on common items such as milk and eggs at your local grocery stores.
  • Up to the minute information such as weather and stock prices.
  • Personal ads and missed connections. Hello, Craigslist!
  • Live concerts and performances, from the ballet in New York to the Rolling Stones live in D.C,
  • College courses for real credit, essentially becoming the first form of online school.
  • A disc jockey introducing music videos on your TV, now called  V.Js. Hello, MTV!
  • A 24 hour, commercial-free children’s show, Pinwheel, the progenitor of Nickelodeon.
  • Religious programing, world news, game shows, sports, and everything else under the goddamn sun.

Participatory Television

Beyond the buffet of basic programming, the variable that made QUBE so revolutionary was the notion that you could talk back to your TV. That you, the viewer, could be a part of the programming experience. On your QUBE remote, there were five black buttons that, when prompted by whatever program you were watching, sent a signal directly to the station.

Let’s say you were watching an early iteration of America’s Got Talent, then called Talent Search. When prompted, you were able to vote for your favorite competing talent, thus changing the outcome of the program instantaneously. Remember, this concept was introduced to American Idol via text messages, and even then it took a day or so to tally up the scores. Or let’s say you were watching the Buckeyes and you wanted to decide whether or not they should attempt a  two-point conversion. (Well, it wasn’t patched through to Woody, but you get the idea). QUBE and its interactive options were a complete and total revolution.

“Sure, before QUBE, cable existed, but it only did so to give people in a rural area a better connection,” said Jinkins. “But to use that infrastructure to deliver programming was unheard of. And to add to that was interactivity. To be able to poll individuals from home to bid on an auction, or divide a town up between the red and the blue team on a kids show was completely revolutionary. They’re not even doing that now. It was something that was unique to that time.”

Columbus A.V. Club

One of the most popular programs on QUBE was Pinwheel—a show targeting younger children that was aired commercial free, 24/7. Many of the talents working on the show in 1977—including a 24-year-old Jinkins, came out of the television mecca of New York, most of whom worked on the seminal show, The Electric Company.

“Pinwheel was the most expensive and ambitious preschool show on cable,” said Jinkins. “At the time we thought we were hot stuff. It shaped how programs were designed. It changed everything.”

Jinkins moved to Columbus to pursue his masters at the now defunct Ohio State School of Photography and Cinematography. To pay for the luxury of graduate school, he landed a gig at the Upper Arlington library in the AV Department. “I was officially a professional AV nerd,” Jinkins laughed. “But I heard through friends and teachers about this new venture coming to town about a kids show called Pinwheel.

As a die-hard Sesame Street fan, stating that Bert and Ernie inspired Jinkins to want to work in children’s television, this was the serendipitous opportunity that would get his foot in the door. “That’s when I had got my application to work at QUBE. Naturally, I immediately put it the back of my car where everything else was and procrastinated and just continued working at the library.”

It wasn’t until Jinkins was in line a local fabric store to gather supplies for a puppet show at the library that he overheard the person in front of his talk about Pinwheel. “I just went nuts. I immediately interrupted him and stepped out of my little shell of reluctance and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I will do anything, I will push a broom, just anything. I want to work on that show!’” Just like that, he landed a gig working directly with the art director and driving creative force of Pinwheel, Brad Williams. “I was an art major, so it was just one of those wonderful ‘right place, right time’ sort of things. It was just like, ‘please make me stay up all night. Please push me. Thank you, may I have another?’ And I was sincere. I was the most sincere worker. I was thrilled to be there.”

Even though Pinwheel was filmed in 1977, it didn’t air for two whole years.

“Somewhere around 1979, the show launched. When it did, all the New Yorkers went back to New York. I felt marooned in Columbus working in the art department for QUBE. I was working on lots of shows, Flippo’s Magic Circus, anything that needed art or cartoons. That went for about a year. During that time, the head folks of the network decided that Pinwheel was a great beginning idea, but instead of one show playing 24 hours a day, no commercials, they decided to make an entire network of children’s programming that we now know as Nickelodeon.”

And thus, out of Columbus, Ohio, one of the most pervasive children’s conglomerates of the 1990s was born, spawning an array of memorable programming for decades to come. Of course, this innovative technology came with a tremendous price tag, ultimately beckoning the closing chapter of a grand experiment.

The Downfall of QUBE

When Jon Cornell started his television career in New Jersey, he and a small handful of others worked to create a couple of hours of television every day. When he moved to Columbus to work on QUBE, there were roughly 300 people working, hand-in-hand, to make the thing work. “We couldn’t believe they would spend so much money,” he said. “QUBE was innovative in a lot of ways, but they weren’t practical. When we arrived, there were 300 people working on we thought could be done by half a dozen. The cost was a million dollars a month to operate.”

By 1982, Warner Cable was operating at a $99 million loss, and by 1983, the company was $875 million dollars in debt–an almost unfathomable amount of money for the 1980s. At this time, QUBE was up and running in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Houston, and St. Louis. MTV and Nickelodeon were doing well enough on their own that to be able to afford to continue running operations, the channels were sold to Viacom.

There was also a growing concern that consumer’s private information pulled from their digital choices on QUBE, spending habits, polling information, etc. would be sold to political parties and companies, oddly mirroring the targeted advertising and privacy conundrum that has reared its head with the advent of social media. Because of these unavoidable problems, the very last of the QUBE boxes were phased out by 1984, thus ending the era of the great QUBE experiment.

“Anyone you talk to will talk about it as Camelot,” said Jinkins. “it was an energetic, creative group of people creating something together.”

“A lot of people take QUBE for granted,” said Cornell. “If anyone around the world has cable, they don’t know that it all started in Columbus, Ohio.”

QUBE was attempting to achieve what digital media outlets today would willingly pay fortunes for—a meaningful and substantial level of interaction between the viewer and the program. And other than the tremendous cost, it was a huge success. If there is one universal principle of life, it is that one can never truly gain without giving something in its exchange. Death and rebirth, a philosophical reincarnation. Much like the mother spider that has to sacrifice itself to feed its children, QUBE had to die to spark a brand new era of digital entertainment.

The revolution was televised.

From good old Columbus, Ohio.

Name Dropping

Here are some of the key players in the QUBE era that you might just recognize:

Gustave “Gus” Hauser

CEO of Warner Cable, known as the “Father of Pay-Per-View”

Vivian Horner

QUBE Vice President, creator of Nickelodeon

Steve Bornstein

QUBE’s OSU football producer, became NFL Network CEO

Ron Castell

QUBE VP of public relations, became Vice President of Blockbuster

Bob Morton

Talent Search producer, became the producer of the Late Night Show with David Letterman

Sue Steinberg

QUBE producer, became the first Executive Producer of MTV

Jim Jinkins

QUBE animator and Art Director, created the Nickelodeon show Doug

Vans Stevenson

QUBE Public Relations, became Senior Vice President for the Motion Picture Association of America

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Arts Fest Preview: See BalletMet live outdoors!

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BalletMet’s Friday night’s headline performance at 8:30 p.m. at the Arts Festival is sure to be a highlight of weekend. One of the nation’s top 20 largest professional companies, BalletMet consists of dancers hailing from across the nation and the world and boasts a premiere academy for aspiring professional dancers, one that’s been recognized as an institution of local and national stature.

Since 1978, BalletMet has brought incredible dance to theaters in Central Ohio and beyond and their commitment to bringing dance to the Columbus community, especially in underserved areas, is unparalleled.

Art of War Photo by Jen Zmuda

From in-school programs to theater field trips, scholarships and free performances, the company is dedicated to making dance accessible to all. More than 10,000 children attend the company’s Morning at the Ballet field trip performances each year. And thanks to a grant from PNC Arts Alive, BalletMet’s second company, BalletMet 2, has performed at free events at the King Arts Complex, Franklin Park Conservatory and more, throughout the 2018-19 season.

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In addition to the free performance at the Arts Festival BalletMet will perform at Dance on Dakota on Friday, May 10, from 5 to 8 p.m. in Franklinton. This performance is also free.

Dance on Dakota, co-hosted by Franklinton Arts District, is part of a weekend-long block party in Franklinton and features free food and drink and a collaborative performance with TRANSIT ARTS. The event will take place at Dakota Ave. and Town St.

Dancers Grace Anne Powers and William Newton Photo by Jen Zmuda

BalletMet’s Columbus Arts Festival performance will include a mixed repertoire of shorter pieces from its past productions and will be preceded by music from DJ Donnie M. of Damn Girl.

And if these performances capture your interest, the company recently announced its 2019-20 season, which includes ALICE, based on the later stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Twisted 3, a collaboration with the Columbus Symphony and Opera Columbus, and, of course, The Nutcracker.

More info at www.balletmet.org. For all your Arts Festival details visit www.colubmusartsfestival.org

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Arts Fest Preview: You wood hate to miss local crafter

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Woodworker and Art Makes Columbus featured artist Devon Palmer has been working with his hands since his upbringing in northeast Indiana. His mother a wood carver and his father a carpenter and cabinet maker, Palmer took a more mechanical route by obtaining his pilot’s license and attending Purdue University to pursue a career as an airplane mechanic.

But as his career transitioned from maintenance to the tech field, he yearned to work with his hands again. Originally he considered pottery, before a class he planned to attend got canceled. But a trip home the weekend before Thanksgiving led to his father introducing him to woodturning.

That was more than 15 years ago. And though he is largely self-taught, Palmer also credits local woodturners from the Central Ohio Woodturners (a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners) for taking him under their wing. In 2005, he opened his first studio just north of Downtown, and in 2007 he began teaching woodturning at Woodcraft Columbus.

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Today, Palmer does a bit of mentoring of his own. He teaches classes in blade and bowl turning, resin cast pen turning and more advanced projects like hollow vessel turning in his studio at the Idea Foundry. He is also adding a series of LGBTQ date night pen turning classes to his growing schedule of classes, shows and demonstrations.

Palmer says his work represents “family and connectedness” with work ranging from salad bowls and laser engraved pens to funerary urns and ornaments. The details in his hand-crafted tableware and home goods manage to invoke a warm sense of community, fellowship, and hospitality.

Devon Palmer works in internet technology and is also a pianist and ordained minister.

Make your own wood turned pen with Devon Palmer at the Columbus Arts Festival, June 7-9, at the Big Local Art Village located at the Festival’s Franklinton entrance. Learn more about Devon at www.columbusmakesart.com/stories/devon-palmer and get all your Arts Festival details at www.columbusartsfestival.org

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Arts Festival Preview: Dr. E uses voice to overcome adversity

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Dr. E, singer-songwriter and author Cleveland-born singer-songwriter Dr. Elaine Richardson — known by her stage name Dr. E — has used her voice to detail the incredible circumstances she encountered while overcoming great adversity. Born to a musician father and Jamaican immigrant mother, Dr. E begun tapping into her talent while singing in church, her school’s choir, and in girl groups.

Dr. E continued to sing despite the difficult path she faced. As a teen, she became a sex trafficking victim and fell into addiction. In her recovery, she pursued higher education at Cleveland State University and Michigan State University. During this time Dr. E also began performing as the frontwoman for a number of cover bands and placing her original music on various TV shows. She recorded her first album, “Elevated,” in 2010.

Dr. E’s introspective song lyrics reflect the often difficult process of healing while defending those who share her experiences or face exploitation and discrimination in other ways.

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On her sophomore album, 2017’s “Songs for the Struggle,” she gives a soulful retelling of her journey from sex trafficking survivor to university professor, Ph.D., author and advocate. Blending elements of soul, rock, funk, rhythm and blues, and jazz, Dr. E sings with an astonishing amount of hope and positivity; Though the album details the trauma and exploitation experienced by Dr. E during her teen years, her power message ultimately expresses affirmations of self-love and acceptance employed with an equally powerful and joyous voice.

Dr. E is currently a professor of literacy studies in the College of Education at The Ohio State University. She has written a number of books on African American literature as well as a memoir, “PHD to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life.”

See Dr. E. perform at the Columbus Arts Festival, Saturday, June 8 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on the Big Local Stage on Rich St.

For hours, artist listing and all Festival information go to www.columbusartsfestival.org

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