The Real Cable Guy

By Marcia Faye

A few years after World War II ended, Stanley Ciciora used his knowledge gained as a wartime aircraft carrier radio technician to turn his family’s FM console radio into a home entertainment center by modifying it to tune in the audio from television channels. In time, he acquired a broken, 12-inch, black-and-white TV and repaired it to the delight of his clan, which included his pre-teen son Walter, who knew that his father had a gift for bringing old TVs, radios, and appliances back to life.

The Real Cable Guy
Walter Ciciora (EE ’64, M.S. ’66, Ph.D. ’69)
Photo: David Bravo

“I have a memory of him waking me up when I was about eight years old to show me a magnetized needle suspended from a string interacting with a magnet; I can’t say why, but that stuck with me,” says Walter Ciciora (EE ’64, M.S. ’66, Ph.D. ’69), via an electronic interview from his home in Southport, Conn. Those early impressions served the young Ciciora well. Now an in-demand expert witness and a recognized contributor in the consumer electronics industry, he literally co-wrote the book on cable television. The first edition of Modern Cable Television Technology: Video, Voice, and Data Communications received a book award from The Cable Center in 2000. The second edition was published in 2004.

“Walt Ciciora was one of the brightest students of his time at IIT,” says Gerald Saletta, professor emeritus in the IIT Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and one of Ciciora’s mentors. “After graduating with his electrical engineering doctorate, he went to work for Zenith with a pack of five guys, all of whom taught at or graduated from IIT. They were a dynamic group that influenced the path of television innovation at Zenith in the United States,” Saletta says.

As an undergraduate, Ciciora first took a summer job at the Zenith Radio Corporation, when cable TV was still in its infancy. Consisting of fewer than 12 analog channels in the form of Community Antenna Television, cable was used primarily by households in remote areas where antenna strength was inadequate. By 1969, when Ciciora graduated from IIT and began working full-time for Zenith, the company shifted its focus to color television. His first project was the digitization of TV signals, which allowed them to be scrambled for an early subscription television service.

A watershed event occurred in cable TV on September 30, 1975, when a satellite delivered signals to transmit the “Thrilla in Manila” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on HBO. Concurrently, Ciciora was working to bring Zenith up to speed on the latest data over television developments. He led a team that produced a new data transmission method for use in satellite signals, thus eliminating the use of leased telephone lines to deliver data to cable systems. This move was cost-effective for the company and gave Ciciora an opportunity to transition into the emerging cable set-top box group. With the advent of programming such as CNN and with the number of cable channels steadily growing, a set-top box with expanded tuner range became necessary. With Ciciora’s efforts, Zenith sales went from zero to $80 million in two years.

One of Ciciora’s customers, American Television and Communications, a subsidiary of Time Inc., offered him the position of vice president of its new R & D department. When another watershed cable event occurred in the late 1980s-the formation of a cooperative R & D organization for the entire cable industry-Ciciora’s role became one of representing ATC in technical industry affairs and interpreting technology trends.

In 1993, Ciciora left ATC (which became Time Warner Cable) to pursue entrepreneurial interests and consultancy opportunities. He co-founded the EnCamera Science Corp. and co-invented a patented technology to embed up to 4.5 megabits/second of data into an analog TV signal without damaging the signal, providing a form of “over-the-air” cable. EnCamera was sold to the broadband communications firm Dotcast, Inc., which licensed the technology to The Walt Disney Co. for its MovieBeam service. Rolled out in 29 cities across the country, MovieBeam was an early form of video-on-demand made possible via embedded digital data sent to Disney’s ABC network and local PBS stations that then delivered the movies to a set-top box with a hard drive in subscribers’ homes.

Ciciora also co-founded HBA MatchMaker Media, Inc., a startup that focuses on what many marketers consider to be the Holy Grail of TV advertising-the technical capability to target, deliver, and display specific ads to specific households-and was issued two pioneering patents for “addressable-advertising” technologies in the late 1990s. Though the TV industry continues to work on overcoming business issues, such as the ability to feature addressable advertising on a large scale, promise for this latest direction in television is strong. An addressable-advertising test trial done by two media organizations in Baltimore during 2009 showed that viewers turned away from targeted ads 32 percent less of the time than households that received non-targeted ads.

While Ciciora-who was named a 2000 Academy of Digital Television Pioneer and a Cable Industry Pioneer-still serves on the board of HBA, he devotes most of his professional life to being an expert witness on legal cases involving interactive TV, cable TV, tuners, electronic program guides, and parental control of TV access. He and his wife, Jeanette, whom Ciciora met at an IIT dance and married in 1964, stay busy traveling, caring for her four horses, and visiting with family, including Ciciora’s two brothers, both IIT School of Design alumni, and his four children and seven grandchildren.

The electronics technology that made such an indelible impression on Ciciora during his youth continues to evolve and inspire him with its capability to allow his and other families to create lasting memories of their own.

“There are now services that allow free video calls between computers wherever high-speed Internet is available,” says Ciciora. “Now children can be told a bedtime story by a parent, no matter where in the world that parent has to travel.”

Biggest Breakthroughs in the Cable Industry

“The cable industry has come light years since my student days at IIT in the 1960s,” says Walter Ciciora, who received Man of the Year awards in 1990 and 1993 from Communications, Engineering & Design magazine. He shares his observations on some of the top advances in an industry that began largely as off-air broadcasts and a weather channel consisting of a camera aimed at a set of meteorological instruments.

Satellite Delivery of TV to Cable Headends
When satellite delivery of TV to cable headends-facilities that produce and distribute TV signals-became affordable, cable TV could be considered for widespread use. “At around that time, Ted Turner introduced the concept of the ‘superstation,’” adds Ciciora. “He took his Atlanta UHF station and contracted for it to be delivered nationwide by satellite. Soon after, more and more special-interest channels became available.”

Introduction of Fiber Optics
Through improvements in laser technology in the mid 1980s, the trunk component of a neighborhood cable system could be fitted with a fiber optic cable, which allowed dozens of analog TV channels to be launched. “Suddenly, picture quality got better and reliability dramatically improved,” says Ciciora. “Since the trunk of the cable system consisted of only 10 to 20 percent of the total footage, it became relatively inexpensive to put fiber into the trunk and solve some of the most vexing technical problems.”

Development of Digital Internet Services
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the explosive growth of Internet increased the demand for high-speed service. “Cable could provide more than 10 times the speed of a telephone modem,” explains Ciciora. “The phone company responded with DSL service, but it was still slower than cable modems. In the mid-2000s, the cable modem added VoIP (Voice-over Internet Protocol) telephone service. Unlimited calls within the United States for a flat monthly charge of around $30 was a quick winner.”

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Academy of Digital Television Pioneers: