Recreating The Golden Era Of Cable TV

Fewer and fewer people have cable TV subscriptions these days, due to a combination of poor business practices by cable companies and the availability of alternatives to cable such as various streaming platforms. But before the rise of the Internet that enabled these alternatives, there was a short period of time where there were higher-quality channels, not too many commercials, a possibly rose-tinted sense of wonder, and where MTV actually played music. [Irish Craic Party] created this vintage cable TV network to capture this era of television history.

The hardware for this build is a Raspberry Pi driving an LCD display recovered from an old iPad. There’s a custom TV tuner which handles changing the channels and interfaces with an Apple Remote. Audio is sent through old computer speakers, and the case is built from 3D printed parts and some leftover walnut plywood to give it an era-appropriate 80s or early 90s feel. We’ve seen other builds like this before, but where this one really sets itself apart is in the software that handles the (television) programming.

[Irish Craic Party] has gone to great lengths here to recreate the feel of cable TV from decades ago. It has recreations of real channels like HBO, Nickelodeon, and FX including station-appropriate bumpers and commercials. It’s also synchronized to the clock so shows start on the half- or quarter-hour. Cartoons play on Saturday morning, and Nickelodeon switches to Nick-at-Nite in the evenings. There are even channels that switch to playing Christmas movies at the appropriate times, complete with Christmas-themed commercials.

The build even hosts a preview channel, one of the more challenging parts of the build. It continually scrolls through the channels and shows what’s currently playing and what will be showing shortly, complete with a commercial block at the top. For those who were around in the 90s it’s almost a perfect recreation of the experience of watching TV back then. It can even switch to a video game input when tuned to channel 3. There’s almost too much to go into in a short write-up so be sure to check the video after the break.

Thanks to [PCrozier] for the tip!

55 thoughts on “Recreating The Golden Era Of Cable TV

    1. Meh.

      In the early days Satellite was pretty cool. I’m talking about 80s, maybe early 90s with the big dishes. There was a lot of variety in the free stuff. At my dad’s had a receiver that used actual knobs where you set the channel, subcarrier frequency and polarization. There was none of that consumerish digital menu stuff. The actuator was broken so I moved the dish by hand. There was a lot to explore, all sorts of signals in there, not just consumer TV.

      I remember finding the feeds the news vans used to talk back to the studios. They didn’t shut off when the to-be-broadcasted part got cut so you could see what they said to one another when they thought there was no audience. There were conversations, people talking that sounded like hams. There was morse code too. I am guessing now those were satellite pirates but I didn’t think that was a possible thing at the time so I was really confused.

      Well, anyway.. that equipment was old and out of date when Dad bought the house. I never knew anyone else that had that and he got rid of it when he bought his Direct TV.

      I knew a lot of people that had Direct TV or Dish Network. They all thought they did so well not being ‘under the thumb’ of the cable company. But they had to pay an arm and a leg for each additional TV.

      Then came broadband and satellite meant one was stuck with DSL or worse, actual satellite internet.


      1. “Meh.

        In the early days Satellite was pretty cool. I’m talking about 80s, maybe early 90s with the big dishes. There was a lot of variety in the free stuff. At my dad’s had a receiver that used actual knobs where you set the channel, subcarrier frequency and polarization. There was none of that consumerish digital menu stuff. The actuator was broken so I moved the dish by hand. There was a lot to explore, all sorts of signals in there, not just consumer TV. ”

        I remember this. We used to have such an analog receiver with adjustment knobs (frontside, at the right) at home.
        It allowed for changing the audio frequency, so you could hear EuroSport in different languages. ^^
        The old satellite receiver also had used an LNC (Low-Noise Converter), which was mounted on a big 80cm parabolic dish. As for the TV programme, it was okay up until ~1998 (-in my place-) maybe. After that, the cultural level sank rapidly. Not on all channels simultaneously, but in general more or less. A few individual TV shows between 2000 and 2002 were still okay, though. Exceptions prove the rule. I’m thinking of computer shows or documentaries.

        1. I remember TV before the 2007 writer strike, which lead to reality TV becoming the beast it is today. But there aren’t any similar cultural shifts I can think of that started in 1998.

          Care to share an example of what you mean?

      2. I had DirectTV for years and never paid a bill.

        Then they updated their smart cards, one last time. :-(

        I understand the new cards are owned, but the people that did it aren’t going to let their secrets get loose again.

        Their was a downside to free TV. Never fall asleep while watching Freeperview. They run porn on those channels, including gay porn. The horrors!

  1. Please change the title to “… golden era of USA cable TV programming”. In most parts of the world “cable TV” refers to the distribution layer, not the program content.

    1. In most places there weren’t enough domestic programming to fill cable channels, so what you got instead was MTV and Euronews, Discovery Channel, History channel etc. If you were on cable in the 90’s you were pretty much watching the same stuff everywhere.

    2. Thank you for this information.
      I for one didn’t know about cable TV programming bit (I’m not from the US).

      In my place, we had cable head-end stations which received the satellite programme and did feed it into the (physical) cable network.

      Here, the cable content wasn’t exclusive, but rather limited (those few pay TV stations excluded).

      With a satellite receiver, by comparison, it was possible to receive foreign programme, too.
      Satellite reception meant freedom, essentially.

      1. “In my place, we had cable head-end stations which received the satellite programme and did feed it into the (physical) cable network.”

        That’s exactly what US cable systems do. Go to the head end and you’ll find a bunch of satellite dishes. You may have to chase a fiber ring, but they are in the plant somewhere.

      2. In the German-speaking market there were some cable-only channels in the early 1990s, but this strategy was doomed from the start. “Der Kabelkanal”, produced for Deutsche Bundespost, probably had more viewers on their satellite feed than on (expensive) cable. After some years, it changed to a normal satellite station and was renamed to “Kabel1”.

    3. In my country, we started out with satellite in the early 90s and then had cable tv in the late 90s with over 100 channels. A lot of American ones, for example but also from our continent and others, because of our immigrant population. Now we have fiber optic and a lot of people still have over 200 channels. Most packages include it, even if people don’t watch as much TV as before.

    1. Or maybe for an escape room,
      play a video of some old news channel and add info in a text banner? Or maybe some crappy old local ads… And use the phone numbers on screen for a puzzle?

  2. You know cable tv is still around? Granted it’s not the same content but it’s loaded with tons of commercials.

    I ditched cable TV years ago and last year I was staying in a hotel and I was like “oh boy! cable TV!”. Felt like the added more commercials. Five minutes of a show then commercial break for ten minutes, show comes back on for one minute then back to commercials for a minute.

    1. It’s one of the reasons why I hate TV. Several minutes of ads every so often. But the Internet is slowly becoming like that in some places, like apps with free plans. After you do something, you have to watch an annoying ad.
      With Elon Musk’s neuralink or some other tech like that, I feel like we’re going to have ads fed directly into our brain soon lol unless we pay for a bunch of subscriptions, of course. That technology makes me shudder.

      1. I’m always shocked by the number of commercials on American Cable TV. For me it’s unwatchable. In Europe we have probably have half the commercial time per hour. We cut out commercial breaks from programs we import.

  3. “LCD display”, much like “ATM machine”, comes from “the department of redundancies department”. It should be either “LCD” or “LC display”. I suppose you might have some kind of video monitor displaying an image of an LCD, or a retail display which features LCD’s, but I don’t think that’s what you were talking about.

    Thanks for letting me get my grammar-Nazi fix for the day! ;-)

  4. Ah, the “golden age”, where the learning channel was about learning, the history channel about history, the music video channel played music videos.

    Now the learning channel is about BS, the history channel features aliens, hillbillies, etc.

    And people wonder why IQ is falling , and people getting dumber. I present the new channel, “ow my balls!”

      1. The dumb people can’t see it. Duh.

        Dumb people in power telling other dumb people ‘You aren’t dumb, you have a high EQ.’ is half the problem.

        In the USA we have an illiteracy rate of at least 10%, innumeracy of at least 50%.
        It’s hard to tell exactly because the tests are ever more bullshit and teachers help their classes cheat.

    1. What you’re having is kind of a reverse Dunning-Kruger effect: you remember those old days where you were actually learning things from TV, and was entertained. But what you forget is that you were a lot more dumb back then. And hopefully a lot more smart now. So obviously all programs seemed a lot smarter to you back then, while now they just seem dumb to you.

      Reverse Dunning-Kruger effect, better known as ‘grumpy old man syndrome’. :P

      1. Maybe that’s kind of true, yes.
        On the other hand, I’m amazed by the old TV shows and documentaries I find on YouTube.

        These were programme I technically can’t be nostalgic for, because I never saw them before. They’re entirely new to me.

        But still, they feel so familiar and reasonable. Less awkward than what we have now.
        And the level was higher, it’s not an illusion, I think.

        For example, the old documentaries told you the whole manufacturing process of something, complete with all the technical terms and chemicals used. They don’t dumb it down, it’s so detailed it could be mistaken for training video for the staff.
        Second, the audience is threaten with respect. The language is formal, the audience is being taken seriously.

        Back then, the moderators were acting like friendly teachers of a school class, not like those hyperactive talkshow moderators we have now standing in front of the camera. So yes, the cultural level of 1950 to 2000 was higher. It’s not an illusion, I think. Back then, things had more style, more professionalism.

        Anyway, I’m not saying that the IQ has sunken, though. Just the culture (Cursive is nolonger being taught, for one). And the encouragement for the individual thinking has subsided, maybe. On the other hand, students of today are being overloaded with information, literally. The amount of information they must process is insane. Some take dr*gs, just for school and passing exams. It’s insane. They end up being burned out quickly. This detail shouldn’t be forgotten.

        1. Culture can’t sink. “Your culture” can become less prominent, leading to other cultures rising to prominence, but “culture” as a whole does not reduce or disappear.

          Now, if you value all other cultures substantially less than your own, I see how it can feel like “the cultural value of society has dropped.” It hasn’t, though.

      2. No. Youtube is a good resource to compare old shows to new shows on TV. There was always crap, but quality has definitely gone down on average. There is still good content, but you have to search harder.

        YouTube on the other hand (besides the annoying ads) has incredible content, though more and more fluff and lengthy videos, that could be much shorter.

  5. I do not get it. Does the Pi-TV have like an entire year worth of programming for a few channels loaded up ahead of time? If so where did he get that video from?
    Or is this just a YouTube channel and he just made a retro looking TV?
    Sorry I’m not gonna watch a YouTube link to figure it out.

  6. I’m a child of the late 90s, so my version of this would have to include a fake TiVo layer to allow me “record” and fast forward commercials— unfortunately doing this from the ground up is far beyond my skill set. This is the kinda thing that I would give an arm and a leg for.

    It’s a shame that the creator of this doesn’t seem interested in open-sourcing some of the things that aren’t copyrighted. Even without documentation it would be a great jumping off point- he really did an amazing job.

    1. I agree, this project was truly remarkable. It’s peculiar, though, how the creator chose to disable the comments section and provide no means of contact either. I was genuinely intrigued to learn more about the ‘Program Director’ he developed to generate the scheduled content for each different channels from a stored library. And all this works on a Raspberry Pi, flawlessly; Amazing! Even if nothing else, I do hope he makes a follow-up video on that or releases that as open-source.

      1. I too am quite dismayed that this person is essentially showing something great and says haha you’ll never get it! I literally cannot fathom why he would not release the source code at the very least and allow someone creative to take over the project

        1. Especially since at the end of the video he essentially says he’s done and wiping his hands of the project. I really wish he would just link to a github or such with the source code of what he’s done already so someone else can take on any improvements or further customizations. I would love to recreate this and put it in a few museums.

  7. The amount of effort that must have went into getting every detail of this project right is extraordinary! Between digitizing hundreds of hours of VHS footage (someone has to constantly feed new tapes to the VCR while footage plays in real time!), coming up with TV schedules from memory, fabricating a wooden TV replica, and programming a custom TV guide system, I am very impressed with the hard work that went into making such an authentic recreation of old cable TVs!

    1. Yes unbelievably fantastic! I have dreamed of doing a small part of this and am blown away by how well done this is. I would love to work on a project like this!

  8. Aww, no comments on the YouTube video.

    Well.. if [Irish Craic Party] comes here… your next project could be a wireless e-ink display that shows the upcoming schedule. It could be formatted like a TV Guide, maybe even enclosed in paper and cardboard to look like a TV Guide.

    Or.. a little simpler.. make it look like the TV listings section of a newspaper.

  9. MTV PLAYED MUSIC!? Anyway I think that it would have worked better with an actually CRT, put the pi and an rf modulator into an old cable tv box and you’d have a nostalgia machine. Also I hope he releases the software.

  10. Do the new raspberry pi not have a composite video output? Running that to a CRT TV, and 3.5mm audio to the speakers, would have made this look much more like the 90s.

  11. Great project and great video. It’s a bit disappointing that comments are disabled on it, though. Does anybody know the name of the software he shows for editing metadata and chapter markers?

  12. I really hate that he disabled comments and doesn’t seem to be willing to provide or sell the framework for the entire system. I have the media and the basic skills to understand and edit the code with just a little direction as well as the things necessary in Adobe AE, but I don’t have the skillset to build this from the ground up. It’s kind of a bummer. If anyone here is willing to build out the C++, Python, Etc. I would love to discuss!

  13. This is so extraordinary but also frustrating. No comments in this video. No website. No source code? I badly want to know more. I would love to see this be open-sourced so I could build this myself but I can’t code C++.

  14. Hey everyone, it looks like he deleted his channel, but I’m happy to say that somebody had the forethought to download it and reupload it to You can find that video here – . I’m also interested in building some version of this in the future, even if it’s just for one channel. It seems like if you were to keep it strictly to one channel, you could do it all in Python.

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