The very dirty history of on-demand video technology

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Enlarge / It’s the Sony U-Matic in all its analog glory. This device was used in the early 1970s to stream X-rated video to hotel rooms, often using a closed-circuit broadcasting device on the hotel roof. (credit: Wikimedia)

In 1973, a young Roger Ebert reviewed the movie Deep Throat. He was not yet a household name or a Pulitzer Prize winner, but he was a respected film critic. The fact that he and his peers regularly reviewed pornographic films suggested that we’d entered a new era in film—an era in which pornography might be viewed as art.

Turns out that wasn’t the case. More than 40 years later, people are still arguing about whether porn can be art. But that doesn’t mean the early ’70s weren’t a turning point for porn. The year before Roger Ebert saw Deep Throat, the Hotel Commodore in New York City shocked the nation by announcing that it had installed a system which would let viewers watch X-rated titles in their hotel rooms. It might not be art, but porn had become a testing bed for new kinds of on-demand video technologies.

The United States was not the nation to lead the world into this new era. Japan got there first. Technology-friendly Osaka had hotels built specifically for many different combinations of sex and video. Some hotel rooms came equipped with video cameras, as well as, presumably, both an overworked technical staff and an overworked cleaning staff. Other rooms simply had a television that picked up the signal of a closed-circuit broadcasting device on the roof, creating an early form of streaming video. In 1971, one hotel’s device made contact with a steel safety railing. This considerably increased the broadcast range and gave surrounding houses a glimpse of movies that not everyone appreciated.

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