In a sense, of course, all things can only happen when they did. Still, it’s interesting to consider how much the circumstances that led to Mystery Science Theater 3000 existing. (These thoughts were triggered by coming across some DVD special features as I was curating my MST3K DVD collection.)
MST3K began when Minneapolis-local UHF station KTMA needed programming but had all but no budget.
That in itself is an interesting sentence to unpack, because a lot of younger people won’t know what a local TV station is, nor what UHF was. (It has been very interesting explaining this to my twelve year old son who has become a fan of MST3K.)
For those who don’t know, in the 1940s when television got started through the 1980s, TV was broadcast over radio waves. This meant that the station was a building with a tall tower, atop of which was a very powerful radio antenna (ranging from the kilowatts to the megawatts, depending on the station, its budget, and its radio license). A given station could reach, depending on geography and other factors, from a dozen miles to a few hundred miles. There were a few nationally broadcast channels; this meant that they sent their signal out to many stations throughout the country which would broadcast it over their radio transmitters simultaneously. (For a long time there were only three; ABC, NBC, and CBS.) Most TV channels were local, though, typically only viewable from a single city and its surrounding area.
The first radio spectrum allocated to television was higher frequency than that allocated to radio, which was in part a necessity because it needed far more bandwidth, which can only be found higher up in the spectrum. This was still all fairly low frequency, though, as the technology to easily transmit and receive at higher frequencies was harder to make and, in practice, out of reach. Early TVs could only receive these low-frequency channels, channels 2-13. Later on the technology to broadcast on higher channels came about and began to be incorporated into television sets. These channels (channels 14-83) were called UHF channels, for “ultra high frequency”. On early radio TVs these were received somewhat differently and were thus less convenient than the lower frequency channels. This coupled with the shorter propagation of high-frequency radio waves meant that UHF channels tended to have a smaller audience than the standard channels would get.
KTMA (which was the radio call-sign of the station broadcasting in the Minneapolis area on channel 23) began as a station for broadcasting local sporting events. This niche fits a UHF station fairly well since only people relatively close will care about local sporting events anyway. That said, it didn’t really work. (There were other things relating to subscription television that also didn’t work.) Thus around 1988 Jim Mallon was hired as the station director to try to make it viable. There were a few packages of movies that had been purchased to try to broadcast something but because they were the cheapest ones possible they were the worst movies available that no one else wanted.
To make KTMA financially viable, Jim Mallon needed to create some extremely cheap local programming that was at least better than the stuff they were licensing. Jim had roots in the local comedy scene and made contact with Joel Hodgeson. Joel had the idea for MST3K and KTMA having a vault of the worst movies available for license was a great fit. Joel also had contacts in the local comedy scene, and pulled in J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu to co-star with him. At this point all of the riffing was ad-libbed during the live broadcast. (Supposedly Trace and J. Elvis were making $25 a show.) The show was popular but not enough to save KTMA, which was heading into bankruptcy and canceled it. Joel thought that there was something to the show, though, and had enough material to put together a 4 minute pitch tape. He put this together because he’d heard that the newly forming Comedy Channel on cable TV desperately needed programming, and Joel happened to have worked with the president of the forming channel so had a contact and a path of trust.
(For those who don’t know, Cable TV largely replaced broadcast TV because it had much higher quality and, having vastly more bandwidth, it had far more channels on it. People would pay a subscription fee to their local cable TV provider to cover the cost of physically running cables out to everyone’s house. Cable Channels would broadcast their transmission over satellites which the local cable providers would receive on satellite dishes and distribute over physical cables. Adding channels didn’t require licensing radio spectrum and there weren’t issues of radio interference that caused visual and audio static.)
The Comedy Channel picked up the show; as (IIRC) Trace Beaulieu put it, they represented 90 minutes of inexpensive pre-packaged content to a network that rapidly had to create 24 hours of programming in a genre that is notoriously best when short. At first the network tried to interfere a bit, but it didn’t have time to interfere much and rapidly MST3K was popular, took care of itself, and was produced in the mid-west which was inconvenient to travel to so they mostly left it alone. (Things would change a little bit when they got canceled on the Comedy Channel and moved to the SciFi channel, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
This is quite a string of coincidences that could only really have happened when they did. There hasn’t really been another time when people would invest the sort of money into a TV station which needed programming like in the UHF days; enough to pay a bunch of people, not enough to pay them much. There hasn’t been the same sort of cache where talented people who dreamed of being on TV would work for peanuts because at least they were on TV. There is rarely that kind of money available to hire talented people who will work for peanuts with so little oversight. Even when you have something like this, it’s almost never the case that when the first one evanesces (as such things always will in this world) a second such opportunity, with a larger budget, shows up.
I don’t want to overstate my meaning; weird and unlikely things happen all the time. This one was just especially weird and unlikely, and extraordinarily a product of its time.