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Archive for Sunday, October 27, 1996

CABLE REACHES SILVER ANNIVERSARY

October 27, 1996

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Sunflower Cablevision has seen a tremendous number of technological changes over the past 25 years.

When Dolph Simons Jr. developed the idea to open a cable television company in Lawrence more than 25 years ago, so-called experts told him it would never fly.

Fortunately, Simons followed his own instincts.

He founded Sunflower Cablevision in 1971 in a small office at Seventh and New Hampshire. The cable company is a division of The World Company, which also owns The Lawrence Journal-World. Simons is president.

Since its inception, Sunflower Cablevision has tripled its miles of cable lines and gone from seven to 50 employees. More than 80 percent of Lawrence residents are customers of Sunflower Cablevision.

The Lawrence, Eudora and Douglas County cable provider is celebrating its 25 anniversary this fall with customer contests, employee appreciation and other special events. Thirty original subscribers are still Sunflower customers and will be recognized this month.

History

When Simons first learned about cable television in the mid-1960s the concept piqued his interest.

For several years he quietly studied cable television, an industry unknown to most. In 1968 he presented the idea to his father, Dolph Simons Sr., who was editor of the Lawrence Journal World and president of The World Company at that time.

The experts said Lawrence was too close to Kansas City and Topeka to have a good market for cable, Simons said.

"Of course I didn't know for sure that it would be successful, but thought I'd rather us try it than to look back and say, `Well, we had the opportunity, why didn't we give it a shot?'" he said.

In the late '60s, the network stations were calling cable a fad and few others in the television business took the up-and-coming industry seriously. In fact, many of the first cable operators were investors looking for a quick return, rather than news-oriented companies.

"We're proud that we still stand alone as an independent operator," Simons said.

But it wasn't a quick or easy decision for the Simonses. The family met with other cable television operators and industry analysts for two years before deciding to embark on the new communications venture.

"I've always felt that we're not only in the newspaper business, we're in the information business," Simons said.

Both the newspaper and the cable company have maintained separate news departments because Simons thought it was best to keep them operating independently, thus giving Lawrence two news sources.

Changes

The evolution of Sunflower Cablevision continues with the fast-paced technological age.

What started with a couple hundred subscribers and only seven channels -- many of which were already available to Lawrence residents with rooftop antennas -- has grown into a 60-channel cable television operation with a local production studio, news program and other local programming. More than 28,000 households are now Sunflower Cablevision subscribers.

While the monthly cost of cable has grown from $6 to $21, the offerings have more than quadrupled. Thanks to the 30-foot satellite dish on East 15th Street, Sunflower was one of the first cable companies to offer HBO. The large satellite dishes in the mid-1970s cost about $115,000. Today the new dishes are only about 12-feet wide and cost $2,000.

The company began its news program, "The Lawrence Report," in 1985 and has since won two CableACE awards, the cable industry's top news recognition, along with other awards. Jim Bracciano, news director and original member of the news staff when the program debuted, has observed newscasters, who received their start on "The Lawrence Report," move on and up in their careers.

"We've had quite a few go on to major markets. That makes us feel good about what we're doing here," Bracciano said.

News anchors stood behind a plain desk for the first few newscasts, while the weather forecaster placed magnetic snowflakes on a map. Today, Sunflower Cablevision has four sets in its high-tech television studio, offers local advertising on all national and local channels and has expanded its space to additional offices on Sixth Street.

"It's rare for a cable company to have their own studio and production staff. We're proud of that here," said Jan McNish, office manager and 18-year Sunflower employee.

From the start, Sunflower has been involved with the community by broadcasting Kansas University athletics, Lawrence High School sports, local governmental meetings and more. It added pay-per-view movies in 1988, began a city cable station in 1992 and now is commencing on one of the most important ventures yet -- Internet access. Lawrence residents in selected neighborhoods are currently trying out the new high-speed Internet service using cable television lines instead of phone lines.

Challenges

The onslaught of cable company mergers, home satellite dishes, fast-paced changes in technology, incredible governmental regulations and the recent Telecommunications Act, which allows phone companies and others to enter the cable market, are just a few of the continuing challenges for locally owned cable companies.

But Simons said he has the keys to success: The courage and a willingness to make the necessary changes to meet the continuing needs of the customer.

"Cable, when it started, was merely a way to provide more entertainment channels. The future is the information side, rather than entertainment," he said.

The newspaper, cable television and Internet service make a good combination, Simons said. And now, some cable companies are entering the local telephone business.

"We're already hooked into the homes. It's just the matter of taking advantage of that advantage and having the courage and foresight to maintain our strength," he said.

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