In the beginning there was the vision. Forty-five years later, it was a spectacular reality. Today, the baton is being passed to a new owner.
Knology of Kansas Inc., a newly formed part of West Point, Ga.-headquartered Knology Inc., will acquire Sunflower Broadband from The World Company. Sunflower employees were told Wednesday morning about an agreement signed Tuesday that will end a chapter in Lawrence history that began in the late 1960s. That’s when Dolph C. Simons Jr., then publisher of the Journal-World, returned from a meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. At the meeting he’d learned of something called community antenna television (CATV). He was intrigued by this “cable television.”
He invited Bill Daniels, then the nation’s foremost authority on cable TV, to Lawrence to help evaluate the city as a cable market. Daniels drove all over town. He took note of the many rooftop antennae, and the fact that television signals from both Kansas City and Topeka were available off the airwaves. His decision was that Lawrence was not a suitable market for cable.
Dolph Jr. has recounted many times the visit he then had with his father, Dolph Simons Sr., who was in charge of The World Company. “I told him that the man who’s the expert says he wouldn’t invest in cable here. But I said I thought we should go ahead.”
Dolph Sr. told his son that if that’s what he believed the company should do, they would do it.
“I’d rather have tried it and failed than to have let somebody else come into my home town and try it and succeed,” Dolph Jr. says, outlining a philosophy that governed many company decisions.
That cable system, initially known as Sunflower Cablevision and today as Sunflower Broadband, became an award-winning industry innovator through its locally originated programming and its versatile adoption of emerging technology, making it an Internet provider and a telephone company, in addition to its television programming offerings.
Knology is a telephone, Internet and broadband provider operating in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and South Dakota. Ironically, the World Company was represented in the transaction by RBC Daniels, the legacy company of Bill Daniels, who said cable never would work in Lawrence. Managing Director Randall Wells led the RBC Daniels effort. Knology sources valued the transaction at $165 million and said closing is expected in the fourth quarter.
The new owner is acquiring a system that went on the air Jan. 5, 1972, with Max Falkenstien—yes, the same Max who was the voice of the Jayhawks so many years—as general manager. He started in May of 1971 and left at mid-year in 1972, turning over the managerial reins to John Dennis, who had led construction of the plant for Jerrold Electronics.
Since that time, the operation has grown to serve more than 33,000 basic video customers in three counties, more than 28,000 Internet customers and more than 15,000 telephone lines.
World Company personnel will provide 6News programming under a contract with Sunflower’s new owners.
Sunflower: The history
Sunflower broadcast the Kansas University-Louisiana State University baseball game March 31. 1972. It was the first time the KU team had been on TV.
In July of 1981, Sunflower began televising Lawrence City Commission meetings. It has done so ever since, at its own expense.
Sunflower launched with live newscasts (Bob McMullen was news director) and other local programming, including a DJ show hosted by Tim Bradley. The company did 622 news shows in its first year alone. News eventually was discontinued for awhile but resumed in September of 1985. Surveys today indicate that the news on Channel 6 is more highly viewed by subscribers than any other newscast in the time slots.
Rich Bailey, the late Bob “The Old Jayhawk” Nelson and Chuck Woodling, along with weekly guests, were fixtures on a sports show that picked winners and losers for Big 8 football games. At the end of the season, the loser got a pie in the face. Charlie Crabtree also was a regular on the long-running show.
The World Company wired buildings on the KU campus at no charge to the university. For whatever reason, the university never really utilized the system that had been provided.
HBO programming was launched on Sunflower in October of 1978. The 10-meter “earth receive station” installed to make it possible was only the third one in the Midwest. It’s still at the tower location on East 15th Street.
In its first year of programming, Sunflower carried news conferences, speeches and interviews by these notables, among others: Then-U.N. Ambassador George H.W. Bush, Sen. Birch Bayh, Sen. Bob Dole, Rep. Julian Bond, Kansas Atty. Gen. Vern Miller, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. James Fletcher, Tom Wolfe and Pierre Salinger.
When Major League baseball’s All-Star game was canceled by a players’ strike in 1981, Sunflower filled the gap by cablecasting a table-top game with players picked by local fans. Rich Bailey called the action. Bill James (yes, THE Bill James) and Chris Ketzel were the managers.
Phil Harrison was a pioneer of sorts with the “Gill Tour of Homes,” a weekly video tour of homes for sale. Such shows are common now on TV and the Internet, but it was pretty cutting edge when done on Sunflower. He also hosted Sunflower’s first cooking show, “Chinese Home Cooking,” with Nancy Loo Bjorge. They did eight shows in 1984. Both still live in Lawrence. Harrison is retired and Nancy’s a local artist.
Sunflower produced and televised the 1994 Kansas Shrine Bowl live to the state.
Sunflower provided the TV production pool feed for President Bill Clinton’s speech in Allen Fieldhouse.
When Danny Manning played basketball at Lawrence High School, Sunflower provided a closed-circuit feed of the game into the cafeteria because the games were standing-room-only in the gym.
Some of the more significant awards earned by Sunflower and its personnel over the years:
2009 CableFax Independent Technology Award
2008 Governor's Distinguished Community Service Award (Only corporate recipient)
2007 CED Pacesetter Award
2007 Cable World Top 7 Operators to Watch (Only non top 10 MSO listed)
2005 CED Top 50 Technology Company (Only non top 5 MSO listed)
2003 Cable World Operator of the Year
Free State Studios/ Channel-6 Original Programming
2007, 2008, 2010 : Silver Telly Award
2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010: Bronze Telly Award(s)
2000, 2001: NCTA Community Spirit Award
2007: APME Award for Online Convergence
2007: KAB, 1st Place
1994, 1998, 2000- 2010: MIDI, 1st Place
2004, 2005: Communicator Award
1997, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005: National Mature Media
1981 Cable Ace Award for “Bringin’ It All Back Home,” produced by Randy Mason
2004: Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in
Television Political Journalism
1996, 1997: Cable Ace Award
1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998: Cable Ace Finalist
1986-2009: MIDI, 1st or 2nd Place
Free State Studios/ SenoReality Short Films
2008: Emmy (Heartland Region)
2007: Fright Night Film Festival, Best of the Fest
2006: Kansas International Film Festival: Audience Award
2001, 2002: Bronze Telly Award
2007: KAB, 1st Place
1997-2010: MIDI, 1st Place
2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009: KAB, 1st Place
1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010: MIDI, 1st Place