Deaf History - Silent Network - A Deaf Cable Channel

Part 1: The Beginnings of Silent Network

Starting a cable TV network for the deaf was certainly not something I intentionally set out to accomplish. After all, I'm a hearing guy who has been producing TV shows and theatre productions since 1950. And before the summer of 1979, I had never even met a deaf person. It was during that summer when I was asked if I would be interested in producing a local stage production of the Peter Shaffer drama, "EQUUS," at a small theatre in Los Angeles.

What would make the production unique was the fact that it would star an all-deaf cast and be presented in sign language (with voice interpretation). It sure sounded like an exciting challenge to me, so I agreed to do it.

Response to my production was overwhelming and led to an offer by NBC to produce an hour-long prime-time special about deaf entertainment. Comedian Norm Crosby (who is hard-of-hearing)hosted the show, which was titled: "THE SIGN OF OUR TIMES." It featured scenes from my production of "EQUUS," a deaf "disco," an explanation of sign language as a language, and a children's story told by the very talented deaf actress Julianne Gold (who went on to become one of the stars of the Broadway hit, "CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD").

The program, which aired on the worst TV day of the year -- the Friday between Christmas and New Year's -- actually topped everything on television that night and was the ratings champion for the entire week.

Suddenly everyone was interested in what the deaf had to say.

It was during the production of "THE SIGN OF OUR TIMES," that I discovered that a tremendous segment of our society -- 28 million strong -- had been all but totally ignored by television. The deaf and hard-of-hearing community hungered for TV programming that they could understand and enjoy.

(This was before the advent of closed captioning.)

By the summer of 1980, I had formed a partnership with Kathleen Gold (the hearing mother of Julianne) and was busy cranking out TV shows for Los Angeles stations. We produced 40 half-hours teaching sign language for NBC ("SAY IT WITH SIGN")-- a talk show for RKO General that featured a deaf host -- who came to be known as "The Deaf Johnny Carson" -- ("OFF-HAND"). That show, I'm proud to say, lasted nearly 10 years on the air and won seven Emmy Awards, including one for Larson and his co-host, Lou Fant.

As 1981 approached, Kathleen and I had developed the concept and basic plan for creating our own cable TV network in order to reach deaf people beyond the Los Angeles area -- and The Silent Network was born. (The word "Silent" is actually an acronym for "SI-gn L-anguage ENT-ertainment.")

Kathleen left the company in December of 1980 and I set up the network offices in my 675 square-foot one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, California. The dining room became my office. I dumped all of my furniture and stuffed three desks into my living room. I only had a staff of four -- myself and three friends. None of us knew very much about the new medium called "cable TV," but we knew we had better jump on the bandwagon.

So, I sunk my entire life-savings into leasing a satellite transponder and started transmitting two hours of programming per week (Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:30 EST).

It took nearly seven years, but eventually we moved out of my apartment and into spacious penthouse offices in the prestigious RCA Building on Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. We had actually survived through thin and thinner to become a recognizable force in the cable industry with our weekly programming block. We started in 1981 with only 2 million homes, and by 1990, we were reaching as many as 14 million homes. And a short time later, the network went 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

We supported the network from the licensing fees we received for producing programming at various TV stations and by selling advertising for our cable network. Initially, I may just as well have been a man from Mars trying to convince people that there was a deaf community in this country anxious for sign language programming. But, Hallmark Cards became our first advertiser. They were followed by Mattel Toys, Kal Kan Pet Foods, Campbell Soup, AT&T, Kraft, Levi Strauss, and Southwest Airlines, among others.

My merry band of dedicated souls (all three of them) helped me make a significant impact in the cable industry. Those three people, by the way, were Carol Mau Pekin (hearing) who sold all of our advertising, Laura B. Ripplinger (the hearing daughter of deaf parents) who served as my assistant and interpreter, and David H. Pierce (deaf) who literally ran the technical end of the network as Vice President of Production and Network Operations. (I have always said that if I had just five of him, I could have ruled the world!!!)

By 1990, when I sold the network, we had produced over 3,000 original programs in sign language, featuring some of the deaf community's best talent, including: Julianne Gold, Julianna Fjeld, Bob Daniels, Bob Hiltermann, Rita Corey, Ed Corey, Jeff & Sheila Lenham, Fran Ripplinger, Ed Waterstreet, Linda Bove, Phyllis Frelich, CJ Jones, Margo Cienik, Mary Beth Barber, Terrylene, Herb Larson, Freda Norman, Bobbie Beth Scoggins, Billy Seago, Nancy & Richard Kendall, Douglas Ray Kennedy, Gregory Koppel, Willy Conley, Charles Katz, Kevin Mills, Dean Sheridan, and David Sladek.

The Silent Network was purchased in May of 1990 by a group in San Antonio, Texas, who promptly changed the name to Kaleidoscope Television and eventually phased out all "deaf" programming to become a "health & wellness" network. In December of 2000, they went out of business.

I sold the network because by that time, I was completely burned out. After more than a decade of producing all of the programming and wearing almost all of the other hats at the company, I needed to take a breather and move on with my life.

Quite a bit has happened since I began in 1979. Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award, Julianna Fjeld won a national Emmy Award, Phyllis Frelich won a Tony Award, the "Deaf President Now" crusade at Gallaudet University held a nation spellbound, and of course, President Bush signed into law the American's With Disabilities Act in 1990. The phrase "politically correct" became part of American lexicon and captioning became a federal mandate.

But how much progress has really been made?

The African American community, with a population in the U.S. of approximately 19 million, has BET (Black Entertainment Network). The Hispanic community, with over 22 million population, has two major Spanish-language networks. There's a network for Koreans, Russians, French, Italians, Chinese and Japanese -- but what's out there for the deaf community?

NOTHING. So, I have decided to do it again. I've had an 11-year break, so I am currently in the process of organizing a new deaf television network, to be called "Sign City Television." (The name depicts a mythical city in which everyone knows sign language).

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