Before borrowing your buddy’s Netflix password was ever a thing, there was the cable descrambler: That magical black box that allowed for the clear, unscrambled, uninterrupted view of the most important thing in the world to me during my early adolescence: boobs.
Although I never had a descrambler myself, I remember them fondly from the homes of a few privileged friends during my boyhood. And while the internet has long since replaced the need for such analog boob-viewers, no history of the devices would be complete without attempting to try one out for old time’s sake. I paid $27.53 plus $5.75 for shipping, and my eBay seller promised to get it in the mail right away — in the meantime, I did some sleuthing into the now-defunct world of cable theft, which was rampant during the days of analog.
“I had one guy get eight years,” says Dennis Seymour, a criminal justice professor who ran a private investigation firm back in the 1980s and 1990s. Among other clients, Seymour was hired by cable companies on the East Coast to catch those stealing cable, which occurred not just with descramblers, but in a wide variety of ways. “It was kind of like the wild west back in the analog days,” he says, recounting stories of stolen premium channels, corrupt cable guys and homeowners climbing up telephone poles.
“It’s hard to say exactly, but I’d say cable theft began almost from the start of cable TV,” Seymour says, explaining that, “people would do stupid things like plugging a cable into a pedestal and running it across the lawn, through the side window and into their living rooms.” And while the ground-level height of the pedestals made things a little bit easier, Seymour says he’d also catch people climbing up telephone poles. “I’ve got miles of video tape somewhere of people doing just that,” he says.
What exactly they were doing is somewhat on the technical side, but basically, back in the days of analog, the cable company didn’t send individual signals to individual homes like they do now. Instead, every channel was being sent to everyone, and then the cable company would put on “filters” that allowed certain channels to come through. So one filter would allow for just basic cable, but if you paid the cable company for HBO, they’d come by and put on a different filter that allowed that channel in.
If you didn’t pay your cable bill at all, then the cable company would come by and literally disconnect your cable at the pedestal or the box at the top of the telephone pole. In those cases, Seymour explains that people would sometimes climb the telephone poles, find their line and reconnect it — but that’s not quite as easy as it sounds. People would have to pry open the shield, exposing a whole mess of wires and “drops,” which are the ports that the coaxial cable is plugged into. From there, it was a matter of trial and error to figure out which drop corresponded to which house, as they weren’t labeled by house. “Usually, people would have someone on the pole and someone else at the window, and they’d be hollering back and forth saying. ‘You have it yet!?’” Seymour recalls.
There were simpler ways to steal cable, though. In the midst of putting this piece together, I actually found out that my own wife was a cable thief back in the day. She explains, “I’d just go to Radio Shack and get a splitter for five bucks. My roommate and I connected it to our neighbor’s line — without our neighbor knowing — and then we ran a cable down to our TV. It wasn’t very hard and I never got in trouble for it, but the cable company would occasionally come by and cut the line and take the splitter, so we’d wait a while and then go back to Radio Shack and buy a new one.”
Seymour explains that that’s pretty much what guys like him did: They’d disconnect the line, then revisit a few days later to see if the line had been reconnected, and if so, those would be the people they’d go after — the persistent cable thieves (like my wife, apparently).
As technology advanced, cable theft changed. Instead of the filters controlling things from the poles, Seymour says that there would be a converter in the home, which would decode an encrypted signal from the coaxial into channels. For whatever channels you paid for, you’d get a different converter to translate the signal. Enter the descrambler, which was an illegal device that opened up all the premium channels and pay-per-views, you name it.
These descramblers generally came from overseas, particularly China, Seymour explains. Customs wouldn’t know what they were, so they didn’t know that they were illegal, especially as they were sold in a variety of fashions. “One guy had a website called descrambler.com. He was a thirtysomething guy living in his parents’ home, and he was running a bootleg mail-order business out of their home. So we served a warrant, and his father, a retired Air Force officer, was just horrified that his son was doing this.”
While mail-order crooks were sometimes the problem, Seymour says that cable guys were his biggest opposition. “Oftentimes, all you had to say was, ‘How do I get HBO?’ to your cable guy, and he’d go out to the truck and get a descrambler.” Seymour goes on to explain that cable companies often used independent contractors to do their installations, and because a contractor had little loyalty to the cable company, they’d have no problem making some extra money by selling descramblers. This was even the premise to a classic Seinfeld episode, with Kramer trying to entice Jerry to get illegal cable: “I’m offering you 56 channels — movies, sports, nudity — and it’s free, for life!”
“People used to ask me all the time, ‘How do I get HBO?,’” says Ray, who was a cable guy working for the cable company back in the tail end of the analog days. “I never did it, because I had kids and I didn’t think it was worth 50 bucks to lose my job, but it would happen a lot. I also would see those descramblers. I was supposed to take them, but I usually just unplugged them.” Ray adds that he often found buildings where wires would be hanging from windows, with splitters splicing cable from one person’s house to another. Sometimes, a line would be split so many times that it would significantly degrade the signal, which is how cable thieves were often caught.
Cable companies took other measures to deter theft, too. For example, a 1994 piece in the Baltimore Sun explains that the cable companies could send out a “magic bullet” signal that would instantly break a descrambler, ridding the entire system of people with illegal descramblers. Ironically, many of these cable thieves would turn themselves in, as they’d go to the cable company with a busted descrambler, inquiring what went wrong with it.
The piece in the Baltimore Sun also lays out a much more elaborate sting operation to catch cable thieves. It explains that several times, cable companies targeted descramblers by sending out a commercial that would only work on an illegal box. So, during a high-profile event, they’d advertise a fake free T-shirt on a commercial break that only those with illegal boxes could see. As a cable security chief told the Sun, “We aimed our stings at males at first. We used major fights and other sports and got practically no response. Then we decided to target youngsters and women with the Michael Jackson show and got 6,500 calls on one day.”
While even Seymour admits that cable was — and still is — too expensive, cable theft was still theft and it was incredibly pervasive. Seymour recalls that businesses like bars were often using descramblers to steal pay-per-view boxing matches and he even had cases where policemen were let go because they were stealing cable themselves. It was everywhere — that is, until the early 2000’s. See, while Kramer may have promised Jerry free cable for life, the descrambler market only lasted about 10 years, as cable companies began to go digital in the new millennium, greatly reducing this kind of theft. Seymour even sold his business in 2003, as there wasn’t enough cable theft left to make it worth it.
Nowadays, the theft of television programming is a totally different animal. In addition to sharing passwords and abusing free trial periods with multiple email addresses, torrenting is still wildly popular. As The Verge explained in 2019, “Disney+’s The Mandalorian is predicted to become the most pirated show of the year and may even surpass Game of Thrones to become the most pirated show ever.” There’s also stuff like Moviewatcher, which hosts illegal streaming on third-party servers, making them difficult to shut down.
In short, TV theft nowadays is primarily done online via downloading or streaming, making the old analog ways of doing things pretty much extinct. Still, while cable companies began going digital almost 20 years ago, not every area has completed the change, so some cable thieves still persist. There are even some analog devices that can still bring you free premium channels, but cable companies are very good at tracking this stuff nowadays, so instead of hiring a guy like Seymour, they just send their would-be-thieves a bill.
That said, when I received my own antique cable descrambler in the mail, it predictably did nothing at all, as I’d long since cut the cord to my cable company. I even tried it at my mother’s house — where cable TV is provided — but it didn’t work there either, as her service went digital years ago. Maybe if I climbed up a telephone pole and did something up there, that old black box could have done something, but I’m unwilling to break my neck over descrambled boobs nowadays.
After all, that’s what most of the internet is for.