E. Stratford Smith, NCTA's First General Counsel, Dies at 95

Publish date:

E. Stratford "Strat" Smith, an attorney who served as the first general counsel of the leading cable-TV trade association, died on Dec. 25 at age 95 in State College, Pa.

The much-honored attorney, along with Robert C. Barnard, was counsel to the cable industry in the landmark Fortnightly Corp. vs. United Artists Television case that established cable systems' right to retransmit broadcast TV stations' signals.

E. Stratford Smith

According to an obituary notice published by the Koch Funeral Home in State College, where a memorial service will be held tomorrow (Dec. 29), Cablevision magazine observed in 1988 that: "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."

After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II (as communications officer to Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet), Smith accepted a post as an attorney with the FCC's Common Carrier Division.

His initial accomplishments at the FCC include establishing the right and standards for the connection of non-telephone company equipment to telephone facilities, and mediating the resolution of a nationwide dispute among the then four leading television networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Dumont, in the allocation of intercity television channels, according to the Koch obituary.

In 1951, Smith left the FCC and entered private practice in Washington, D.C. With his knowledge of the nascent cable television industry and foreseeing the legal and regulatory challenges that it would face in its growth and maturation, he became involved with the National Community Television Association (NCTA) in 1952.

Within months and while continuing in private practice, Smith was appointed as the executive director of the NCTA, and became its first general counsel, a position in which he served through the early 1960's, according to the Koch obituary.

While at the NCTA, Smith was instrumental in the formation and expansion of state and regional associations crucial to the industry's growth and development, and coined and introduced the acronym "CATV" (community antenna television).

In 1957, he co-founded the firm of Smith and Pepper. That was when he and Barnard served on the Fortnightly litigation. The end result was that the Supreme Court accepted the "master antenna" theory authored and crafted by Smith. The high court determined that the CATV systems had not "performed" copyrighted works in public, an act prohibited by U.S. copyright law. Rather, the systems, while technically complex, merely served as an extension of each subscriber's antenna.

In 1968, Smith was named as the NCTA's "Man of the Year." In 1999 he was inducted into The Cable Hall of Fame together with Ted Turner, Gerald Levin, and John Malone, among others. He was a founding member of the Cable TV Pioneers in 1966.

From 1988 until he retired in 2001, Smith served as professor of cable telecommunications studies and law in Penn State's College of Communications, occupying the Cable TV Pioneer Chair.

For more about E. Stratford Smith, please see this profile in The Cable Center's Cable Hall of Fame archives and this oral history in the Cable Center's Barco Library. An obituary also was published by the Centre Daily Times in State College.

Visitors will be received from 1-3 p.m. on Dec. 29 at the Koch Funeral Home in State College, Pa., with a memorial service at 3 p.m.