Former College of Communications faculty member and television pioneer E. Stratford “Strat” Smith — the man whose legal advice and approach opened the door for the growth of cable television across the country — died Dec. 25, 2011. He was 95.
Smith, who worked for the Federal Communications Commission, served in the Navy and started his own law firm, perhaps was best known for a 1968 Supreme Court case, “Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television.” Led by Smith, the “master antenna” argument was that the typical cable television setup for communities — with one master receiver sharing the signal by cable to many subscribers — did not violate the copyright of those who had created the content.
“Without that ruling, cable might not have gotten off the ground, or might be very different than it is today,” said Matt Jackson, an associate professor and head of the Department of Telecommunications. “Cable TV started in rural areas, many in Pennsylvania, where people could not pick up good TV reception because they were living in a valley. People were literally sticking a TV antenna on top of a mountain, then running a wire down to the valley to hook up all the houses in the community.”
Smith was born in Brigham City, Utah, and grew up in Utah and Idaho. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Utah before entering law school. In 1941, he transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
An April 1998 article in Cablevision magazine about the case said: “Fortnightly stands as nothing less than a landmark decision. It paved the way for (cable) industry development and it preserved a climate for entrepreneurial adventure and opportunity.”
In 1988, Smith became the inaugural holder of the Pioneers Chair in Cable Telecommunications, a position he held until his retirement in 2001.
“Strat Smith truly was a pioneer and giant in the cable industry, decades before he became a respected and gifted professor at Penn State,” said Doug Anderson, dean of the College of Communications. “But he was more than a brilliant man. He was a wonderful colleague. His intellect was something to behold and his soft, gracious demeanor made him a favorite of everyone with whom he came in contact.”
In 1999, Smith, along with Ted Turner and Tele-Communications Inc. founder John Malone, became one of the first 10 people to be inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame.
Donations in Smith’s honor and memory may be made to: the Resurrection Orthodox Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 5173, Bellefonte, PA 16823; Centre LifeLink EMS, P.O. Box 272, State College, PA 16804; Mount Nittany Medical Center, 1800 E. Park Ave., State College, PA; or the College of Communications, 100 Old Main, University Park, PA 16802.
Steve Sampsell, Penn State University