Looking Back on Sega Channel

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Today we’re going to look back at a little-known piece of digital distribution history. That’s right, we’re talking about the Sega Channel!

I remember getting a Sega Genesis console for Christmas in December of 1994. Coincidentally, that was around the time that Sega Channel launched in the US. It didn’t end up coming to Canada until late 1995. I never even knew about the service during the time it was active. It wasn’t until years later that I found about it and started to read how truly groundbreaking it really was. To be fair, the Atari Gameline was similar in functionality and was released years earlier, but that product was a commercial failure. Sega actually had a decent amount of success with their product. With that said, let’s take a deeper look at Sega Channel.

What Was It?

Sega Channel was a 24/7 paid interactive service providing on-demand Sega Genesis games via a cable connection to your console. To do this, customers would have to insert a special adapter (included in the $25 activation fee) into the cartridge slot which allowed the Genesis to connect to the cable line. The service was available for around $11.95 to $19.95 USD/month depending on the market and about $19.95 CAD/month.

Here are some of the features:

  • Test Drives, these offered limited play of upcoming and newly released titles.
  • Express Games, this was an additional $2.95 USD option where upcoming and newly released titles were available to rent for 48 hours (in actuality, it was only until midnight the following day).
  • Up to 50 (70 later in the lifecycle) different full games each month with unlimited play time.
  • Cheater, Cheater, a tips and hints section.
  • Prize-O-Rama, the monthly sweepstakes section.
  • Games from other regions. Sega Channel included some titles that weren’t released on cartridge in that particular market like Pulseman and Alien Soldier in the US.
  • Video game news.

How Did It Work?

Sega Channel has a very interesting way of getting content into customers’ homes in the United States. Basically, a production team curated all of the content and then went through the process below to get it into people’s homes.

Sega Channel
Credit: https://randomsonicnet.org/archives/segach/segachan.htm
  1. They pulled together and tested the games, art, text, and music each month.
  2. The programming was then loaded onto a CD-ROM disk.
  3. It was then sent to the people at the satellite station. They sent the signal to the satellite in space called, Galaxy 7 (fun fact: this satellite fell out of geostationary orbit in 2000 and is now floating across space).
  4. The signal was then transmitted to local cable companies.
  5. The cable company distributes the adapter unit that allows your Genesis to hook into the signal.
  6. The adapter hooks into the signal and downloads the content to the unit’s RAM.

Canada, England, South America, and Europe didn’t depend on the satellite. They used what is called a Headend Server. It read the CD-ROM and transmitted it to homes from that location. 

A picture of the Sega Channel adapter. There were a few different types of these, but they all worked the same way. Photo Credit: blog.gamesogre.net

Cable companies were still using analog cables in the mid-90s which picked up noise. This meant that there was the possibility that a download could fail due to that noise. This meant that Sega indirectly helped influence cable infrastructure around the world by requiring cable companies to clean up their signals for the Sega Channel. Despite this, downloads did routinely fail and some customers would even have to call their cable provider to get them to boost their signal before it would work again. Still, Sega certainly helped pave the way for the digital signals and broadband Internet that we enjoy today.

Discontinuation & Legacy

Sega Channel won Popular Mechanics’ “Best of What’s New” Award in 1994. The service would go on to garner as many as 250,000 subscribers. Sega had an internal goal of 1 million subscribers by the end of year 1 and ultimately never came close to that number despite making the service available in 20 million households. The service was officially discontinued on July 31st, 1998, less than 4 years after first coming to market. Some markets even stopped carrying the service by mid-1997.

This video from AzuriteReaction shows footage from when he subscribed to the service.

There were multiple reasons why Sega Channel didn’t catch on better than it did. The biggest of those reasons was the timing of the release of the service. The service didn’t receive a wide release until mid-to-late 1994 which was already 5 years after the release of the Genesis. Simply put, the Genesis itself was already on life support. It’s was hard to get people to buy into putting their money into a service for what was essentially a dead console. After all, the Sega Saturn was released in May 1995 in the US. Oddly enough, the Saturn and Sega Channel would both be discontinued in 1998 in the US. They did experiment with bringing this service to PC through broadband Internet in 1997, but nothing came of it. 

Here’s the second part of AzuriteReaction’s Sega Channel footage.

The other smaller reasons why Sega Channel didn’t last came down to the finer details. Customers couldn’t save their games like they could on a cartridge. As soon as you turned off the console, the game data was erased along with any save data. The download failures were another culprit. It only took around a minute to download a game, but if you had to try that 10 times, it wasn’t really worth it. The games also changed monthly. If you liked a particular game and wanted to play it for longer than a month, it’s possible that it wouldn’t be there. Then there was the monthly cost which was an extra bit of money that a lot of people probably weren’t ready to shell out.

If you never had the chance to try Sega Channel, there’s no possibility for emulation or anything like that. Even if you find an adapter, there’s no service to access. This is one relic that is lost to history, but the impact of Sega Channel is still felt today with services like the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live. Sega pioneered digital video game distribution and did it through an analog cable. No matter how you how you look at it, that’s impressive. I really wonder what might have been if Sega had continued this service on Saturn or even Dreamcast. We’ll never know what might have been.

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