The Most Entertaining Day of the Year

On this day in economic and business history...

The era of video games began rather quietly one day in August of 1972, when the first Magnavox Odyssey consoles began to show up in Magnavox stores across the United States. These primitive systems, which sold for $99 each (equal to about $550 today), soon became a hit with fun-seeking consumers. By the end of the year more than 130,000 systems had been sold -- a number that might have been higher had Magnavox not deceptively promoted the systems as compatible only with Magnavox televisions. The Video Game Console Library offers some interesting detail on the technology behind the Odyssey:

The Odyssey has no real specs. It contained no processor or memory. The box was made up of transistors, resistors and capacitors. Odyssey used cards that contained pin outs to change game settings. Plastic overlays that could be placed over the TV screen created graphics and color, but the actual display consisted of white squares (paddle and ball) on an all-black background. The Odyssey originally came with six game cards and a 36-page user manual for the 12 additional games offered for the system.

Imagine that -- you had to put plastic sheets on your TV screen just to have a background! Despite these limitations, the Odyssey continued to sell respectably well. By the end of its initial production run in 1975, Magnavox had sold about 330,000 Odyssey systems.

The video game era was only getting started, though. Shortly before Magnavox released its Odyssey to the public, the company distributed a few units for demonstrations. It was in May of 1972 that Nolan Bushnell happened across one of these demonstrations in Burlingame, Calif.

That chance occurrence led to the creation of Atari a month later -- and to the first lawsuit in video game history, which Magnavox filed against Atari and its partners in 1974 after discovering similarities between its patented table-tennis Odyssey game and Atari's Pong, which had become the video game industry's first true hit. Atari avoided legal damages by signing a licensing agreement, but Magnavox would sue many other early video game developers over table-tennis game infringements. Between awards and patent-licensing fees, Magnavox eventually earned nearly $100 million from the table-tennis game -- much more than it ever made from sales of the original Odyssey.

More fun than you can fit in a ten-gallon hat
The first Six Flags  (NYSE: SIX  ) amusement park opened its gates to a few lucky Texans in Arlington (west of Dallas) on Aug. 1, 1961. The park had been built at a breakneck pace under the guidance of oilman and real-estate investor Angus Wynne, Jr. It cost $10 million and took up a 212-acre tract, and it was initially planned to only be a temporary development before the land could be converted into an industrial park. However, things didn't quite work out that way, and Six Flags Over Texas not only became the genesis of the Six Flags franchise but also helped develop the very concept of a modern amusement park.

Six Flags' $2.75 admission price ($2.25 for children) was all-inclusive, allowing access to any ride in the park. Until this was first tried in Arlington, amusement parks had charged on an a la carte basis, with separate admissions fees for each ride. The park also introduced log flumes, mine train rides, loop-the-loop coasters, and river rapid rides to the amusement-park lexicon. Its six historically and ethnically themed areas, represented by the six sovereign flags that had at various times flown in the state, also provided a unifying concept for the park, and the idea of themed areas also caught on in the industry. Within a year and a half, Wynne made back his personal investment in the park and decided to keep it around for the long term. Six Flags Over Texas attracted more than 17 million visitors in its first decade of operation and established itself as the state's top for-profit attraction.

Six Flags Over Texas is not actually owned by Six Flags any longer, but the company itself has since grown quite a bit. Six Flags now owns 18 parks, which welcomed 25.8 million visitors through their gates in 2012. That was good enough to rank it fifth by attendance among theme park chains worldwide.

I want my MTV
MTV hit the airwaves for the first time on Aug. 1, 1981, announced just after midnight with the words "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll," over footage of the Space Shuttle and Apollo 11 launch countdowns. After some introductory pomp, the music video of The Buggle's "Video Killed the Radio Star" played, presenting the perfect soundtrack to the birth of the music video era.

MTV was instrumental in building the careers of many '80s music acts, particularly pop stars like Michael Jackson, whose Thriller album became the source of some of the most successful music videos of all time. The 13-minute music video for the "Thriller" single debuted in 1983 and was MTV's first world-premiere video. It eventually made its way into the Library of Congress, becoming the first music video so honored. Two years after Thriller's watershed release, Viacom (NASDAQ: VIAB  ) bought MTV's parent company, which began a shift that eventually turned the network into the launching pad for both The Jersey Shore and Teen Mom. Thanks a lot, Viacom.

Media merger week continues
One day after the biggest media acquisition in years shocked the nation, Westinghouse Electric took a widely anticipated step toward becoming a media giant in its own right when it announced a $5.4 billion buyout of broadcaster CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) on Aug. 1, 1995. The buyout meant that all three of the Big Three broadcasters would thereafter be part of larger corporate entities. It also meant that CBS would combine with Westinghouse to create the largest broadcasting network in the U.S., with 15 TV stations and 39 radio stations reaching a third of the American populace. That large reach may have been impossible before, as federal communications rules had limited individual companies to coverage of only a quarter of the American public before regulators decided to relax in an era of widespread consolidation.

Westinghouse would adopt the CBS name two years later, and by the end of the decade there was nothing remaining of the former energy and industrial company's original operations. Viacom wound up merging with this media-focused CBS in 2000, and this new entity would persist until 2005, when Viacom itself also changed its name to CBS and spun off its non-broadcast interests. Both Viacom and CBS are now under the majority control of National Amusements, which is majority-owned by media magnate Sumner Redstone.

The future of television begins now, with an all-out $2.2 trillion media war that pits cable companies like Cox, Comcast, and Time Warner against technology giants like Apple, Google, and Netflix. The Motley Fool's shocking video presentation reveals the secret Steve Jobs took to his grave and explains why the only real winners are these three lesser-known power players that film your favorite shows. Click here to watch the video.


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  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2013, at 2:22 PM, martygoldberg wrote:

    Alex, some of your Atari history is a bit off, as your background on the Magnavox case. First, the decision to leaving Nutting and start their (Nolan and Ted) own company was before the Magnavox demonstration Nolan visited, and in fact was in no way driven by Nolan seeing the Magnavox Tennis game. The only way it influenced things was in Nolan later giving Al that game as a warm up project.

    Likewise, the Magnavox lawsuit was not about the Tennis game or PONG, it was about the video game display technology behind them. Specifically the concept of sport motion circuitry for representing objects on a video screen (video being a special raster based technology) to play a game, and the patents surrounding the interaction of those objects via said technology. These patents were for the very technology of "video games" and were successfully defended through the 1990s against the likes of Atari, Midway, Activision, and Nintendo, who all had to wind up paying royalties.

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