Television in the United States
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Television is one of the major mass media of the United States. Household ownership of television sets in the country is 96.7%, and the majority of households have more than one set. The peak ownership percentage of households with at least one television set occurred during the 1996-97 season, with 98.4% ownership. As a whole, the television networks of the United States are the largest and most syndicated in the world.
As of August 2013, approximately 114,200,000 American households own at least one television set.
Due to a recent surge in the number and popularity of critically acclaimed television series during the 2000s and the 2010s to date, many critics have said that American television is currently enjoying a golden age.
Television channels and networks
In the United States, television is available via broadcast ("over-the-air"), unencrypted satellite ("free-to-air"), direct broadcast satellite, cable television, and IPTV (internet protocol television). There are also competing video services on the World Wide Web, which have become an increasingly popular mode of television viewing since the late 2000s, particularly with younger audiences.
Over-the-air and free-to-air television do not necessitate any monthly payments, while cable, direct broadcast satellite, and IPTV services require monthly payments that vary depending on the number of channels that a subscriber chooses to pay for in a particular package. Channels are usually sold in groups (known as "tiers"), rather than singularly (or on an a la carte basis).
The United States has a decentralized, market-oriented television system. The nation has a national public television service known as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Local media markets have their own television stations, which may be affiliated with or owned and operated by a television network. Stations may sign affiliation agreements with one of the national networks that can last anywhere from one to ten years (although such agreements often last on average between four and six years). Except in very small markets with few stations, affiliation agreements are usually exclusive: if a station is an NBC affiliate, the station would not air programs from ABC, CBS or other networks. Arrangements in which television stations carried more than one network on its main signal were more common between the 1940s and the 1960s, although some arrangements continued as late as 2010; today, programming from networks other than that which the station has a primary affiliation are usually carried over digital subchannels.
However, to ensure local presences in television broadcasting, federal law restricts the amount of network programming that local stations can run. Until the 1970s and 1980s, local stations supplemented network programming with a sizeable amount of their own locally produced shows. Today however, many stations produce only local news programs, and in some cases, public affairs programs (most commonly, in the form of news and/or political analysis shows); the rest of their schedules are filled with syndicated programs, or material produced independently and sold to individual stations in each local market.
The method of most commercial stations (those that rely, at least partly, on advertising for revenue) acquiring programs through the syndication market to fill time not allotted to network and/or local content differs from other countries where networks handle the responsibility of programming first-run and syndicated programs, whereas their partner stations are only responsible for programming local content. The international programming model is used in the U.S. by some smaller networks and multicast services, which are more cost-effective for their affiliate stations since they require little to no acquired or locally produced programming to fill airtime at the local level.
Major broadcast networks
The five major U.S. broadcast television networks are NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and The CW. The first three began as radio networks: NBC and CBS in the 1920s, and ABC having spun off from NBC in 1943 as the Blue Network. Fox is a relative newcomer that began operation in October 1986, although it is built upon the remnants of the former DuMont Television Network, an earlier attempt at a "fourth network" that operated from 1948 to 1956. The CW was created in 2006 when UPN merged with the broadcast and cable assets of The WB (The WB's online assets remained separate, although its former web domain – which was revamped as a streaming service – was shut down in 2013 and replaced with a promotional website for Warner Bros. Television programs). All in all, the U.S. broadcasting landscape dramatically evolved towards a conglomeratization of players – an effect also called concentration of media ownership, which describes the narrowing of competition in modern television broadcasting.
Weekday schedules on ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates tend to be similar, with programming choices sorted by dayparts (Fox does not air network programming outside of prime time other than sports programming that airs on weekends and, on fairly rare occasions, weekdays). Typically, these begin with an early-morning national newscast, followed by a local morning news program, and then a network morning program (such as NBC's Today), which usually mixes news, weather, lifestyle segments, interviews and music performances.
Network daytime schedules consist of talk shows and soap operas, although one network – CBS – still carries game shows (a handful of other game shows otherwise air in syndication); local newscasts may air at midday timeslots. Syndicated talk shows are shown in the late afternoon, followed by additional local newscasts in the early evening time period. ABC, CBS, and NBC offer network news programs each evening, generally airing at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. in the Eastern Time Zone (5:30 or 6:00 p.m. in other areas). Local newscasts or syndicated programs fill the "prime access" hour or half-hour, and lead into the networks' prime time schedules, which are the day's most-watched three hours of television.
Typically, family-oriented comedy programs led in the early part of prime time, although in recent years, reality television programs (such as Dancing with the Stars and American Idol), and more adult-oriented scripted programs – both comedies and dramas – have largely replaced them. Later in the evening, drama series of various types (such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Grey's Anatomy) air. Sunday is the most-watched night of American television, with many of TV's most popular shows airing that night. Viewership tends to then decline throughout the week, culminating in the lowest ratings on Friday and Saturday night; most broadcast networks abandoned the programming of first-run scripted fare on Saturdays by 2004, in favor of sports, newsmagazines and burn-offs and reruns of other prime time series; however first-run scripted programming continues to air on Fridays, being mixed in with newsmagazines and/or reality series, depending on the network. Networks, however, pay special attention to Thursday night, which is the last night for advertisers of weekend purchases such as cars and movies to reach large television audiences. Throughout the 1990s, NBC called its own Thursday night lineup "Must See TV", and during that decade, some of the country's most watched television shows aired on Thursday nights, before the reemergence of Sunday as the top primetime night of programming in the 2000s.
At the end of prime time, another local news program is broadcast, usually followed by late-night interview shows (such as Late Show with David Letterman or The Tonight Show). Rather than sign off in the early hours of the morning (as was standard practice until the early 1970s in larger markets and until the mid-1980s in smaller ones), television stations now fill the time with syndicated programming, reruns of prime time television shows or late local newscasts, or 30-minute advertisements, known as infomercials, and in the case of CBS and ABC, overnight network news programs. On some stations, syndicated programming may fill timeslots where local newscasts do not air, either due to the station not programming news in certain time periods or because it does not have a news department; similarly, local news programs in the late evening hours may air during the final hour of primetime (10:00 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific Time Zones and 9:00 p.m. in all others), usually on stations affiliated with networks other than those classified as part of the "Big Three" (ABC, NBC, and CBS) and those without a network affiliation.
Saturday mornings usually feature network programming aimed at children (including animated cartoons, although live-action lifestyle, science and wildlife programs have become the norm for the timeslot since 2009), while Sunday mornings include public affairs programs. Both of these help fulfill stations' legal obligations, respectively to provide educational children's programs and public service programming. Sports and infomercials (and on some stations, syndicated feature film packages) can be found on weekend afternoons, followed again by the same type of prime-time shows aired during the week.
Other over-the-air commercial television
From 1956 to 1986, all English-language television stations that were not affiliated with the Big Three networks were "independent," airing only locally produced and syndicated programming to fill their daily schedules. Many independent stations still exist in the U.S., usually historically broadcasting on the UHF band, however the number of them had drastically decreased (especially within individual markets) after 1995. Syndicated shows, often reruns of television series currently in or out of production and movies released as recently as three years prior to their initial syndication broadcast, take up much of their schedules.
However, in 1986, the Fox Broadcasting Company was launched as a challenge to the Big Three networks. Thanks largely to the success of shows like The Simpsons and The X-Files, as well as the network's 1993 acquisition of rights to show National Football League games, Fox has established itself as a major player in broadcast television. However, Fox differs from the three older networks in that it does not air daily morning and nightly news programs or have network-run daytime or weeknight late night schedules (though late night shows do air on Saturday nights). Its nightly prime-time schedule is only two hours long on Monday through Saturdays and three hours on Sundays (something the network intentionally did to sidestep FCC network regulations in effect at Fox's launch), and some of its major market affiliates used to broadcast on UHF before the digital transition. Many of its mid-size and small market affiliates outsource news production to Big Three affiliates rather produce their own newscasts, and its flagship stations in New York City and Los Angeles do not include the network's name within their callsigns (Fox's owned-and-operated stations in New York City and Los Angeles instead use the respective callsigns WNYW and KTTV; the WFOX-TV and KFOX-TV calls are respectively used by Fox affiliates in Jacksonville, Florida and El Paso, Texas).
Fox's only scheduled news program is Fox News Sunday, which it airs on Sunday mornings; special news coverage on the network comes from the staff of its sister cable network Fox News Channel, though not every affiliate carries breaking news bulletins from Fox News outside of primetime presidential addresses, and national and international events of utmost urgency. Most of Fox's affiliates now have local newscasts (only a small number of affiliates carried news programming prior to the mid-1990s), often scheduled during the final hour of primetime – an hour earlier than newscasts seen on major network stations – to which they compete with network dramas, rather than other local newscasts, and for one to three additional hours in the morning that overlap with morning news programs on ABC, NBC and CBS.
Three new networks launched in the 1990s: The WB (a venture between Time Warner and the Tribune Company) and UPN (originally a venture between Viacom and Chris-Craft Industries) in January 1995, and Pax TV (launched by Paxson Communications, now Ion Media Networks) in August 1998, the latter of which relaunched as i: Independent Television in July 2005 and then Ion Television in September 2007. In September 2006, Time Warner and CBS Corporation shut down The WB and UPN to launch a "merger" of those networks The CW, while News Corporation created MyNetworkTV, originally intended to replace UPN programming on Fox's O&Os.
Ion broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week (though only eighteen hours of its schedule each day consist of entertainment programming, with infomercials and religious programming making up the remainder of the schedule), making the Ion network the largest English-language commercial television network to be totally responsible for its affiliates' programming. Ion differs from other commercial networks in that the majority of its stations are owned-and-operated by its parent company with very few affiliates, and it is distributed exclusively via cable and satellite in markets where the network does not have a local station.
The CW broadcasts ten hours a week of programming in prime time (all airing only on Monday through Fridays) and five hours on Saturday mornings (its children's program block may bleed into the afternoon hours on weekends on a few stations due to other locally scheduled programs); The CW is the only major network that has a fully programmed alternate feed for smaller markets, The CW Plus (a successor to The WB's cable-only affiliate group), which fills airtime not occupied by the network's programs with syndicated programs and infomercials; The CW Plus is distributed via digital subchannel and cable-only affiliates, making it also one of the only networks that has local affiliates that do not broadcast over-the-air. MyNetworkTV originally started as a conventional network, however after experiencing continued low ratings for its prime time-exclusive schedule, it converted into a "broadcast syndication service" in September 2009, adopting a format made up of reruns of series originally aired on other networks for ten hours a week on Monday through Fridays.
Digital multicast services
With the digital television transition, which occurred in June 2009, the use of digital multicasting has given breed to various networks created for distribution on these multiplexed feeds of new and existing stations. However, for the most part, very few of these networks have been able to gain a national reach on parity with many of the conventional commercial and non-commercial networks, in part due to the fact that many stations transmit high definition programming on their main feed in 1080i, which requires a bitrate less compartmentalized for allowing more than one multicast feed (which are generally transmitted in standard definition) without risking diminished picture quality.
The most popular and widely distributed network is Me-TV, a classic television network originally launched by station owner Weigel Broadcasting in 2003 as a programming format on one of its flagship television stations in Chicago, now known as WWME-CD, and evolved into a national network in November 2010; although Me-TV and Tribune Broadcasting-owned Antenna TV popularized the format for multicasting, Retro Television Network was the first subchannel network that relied on reruns of pre-1990s classic television series. This TV (also part-owned by Tribune and co-founded by Weigel with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) used a similar format, featuring on older feature films; it helped to spawn similar movie-oriented broadcast networks such as Movies! and GetTV.
Demographically focused networks were created during the 2010s; Bounce TV was launched in 2011 by Martin Luther King III and Andrew Young, featuring a broader general entertainment format aimed at African American adults. Katz Broadcasting, owned by Bounce executive Jonathan Katz, launched two gender-focused networks with specific formats in August 2014: Grit (aimed at men with a lineup heavy on western and action films) and Escape (aimed at women and featuring mystery and true crime programs). Luken Communications is the largest operator of subchannel networks by total number (which are largely carried on low-power outlets), which in addition to the Retro Television Network include among other Tuff TV, Heartland, PBJ and The Family Channel.
Other networks which do not completely if at all rely on archived scripted programming include Ion Life (a network carried on Ion Television stations, which mainly airs lifestyle programming), WeatherNation TV (a 24-hour weather network which features subchannels as part of its multiplatform distribution model), TheCoolTV and ZUUS Country (which rely on music videos).
Broadcast television in languages other than English
Several Spanish language broadcast (as well as cable) networks exist, which are the most common form of non-English television broadcasts; these networks are not as widely distributed as their English counterparts, available mostly in markets with sizeable Latino and Hispanic populations. The largest of these networks, Univision, which launched in 1986 as a successor to the Spanish International Network, has risen to become the fifth highest-rated television network in the U.S. (behind NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox). Its major competition is Telemundo, a sister network of NBC (which acquired Telemundo in 2001). Other popular Spanish-language broadcast networks are Univision-owned UniMás, which is aimed at a younger Hispanic demographic; Azteca, the American version of Mexico's Azteca networks; MundoFox, a sister network to the English language Fox network, which was launched by Fox International Channels and Colombian broadcaster RCN Television in August 2012; and independent networks Estrella TV and LATV.
French language programming is generally limited in scope, with some locally produced French and creole programming available in the Miami area (serving refugees from Haiti) and Louisiana, along with some locales along the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard. Francophone areas near the eastern portion of the Canada-United States border generally receive their television broadcasts from French Canadian channels (such as Ici Radio-Canada Télé), which are widely available over-the-air and on cable in those areas.
Many large cities also have television stations that broadcast programming in various Asian languages (such as KTSF in San Francisco and KYAZ in Houston), especially after the digital television transition, which has allowed some smaller stations to carry such programming either as primary channel or subchannel affiliations.
There have also been a few local stations that have broadcast in American Sign Language, accompanied by English closed captioning. Prior to the development of closed captioning, it was not uncommon for some public television programs translated into ASL by an on-screen interpreter. An on-screen interpreter may still utilized for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community for emergency broadcasts (such as severe weather alerts given by local governments) accompanied by closed captioning.
Public television has a far smaller role in the United States than in most other countries. The federal government does produce NASA TV (three channels featuring space program information and educational programs) for public consumption, but only distributes that service via satellite and the Internet and not through terrestrial outlets. In addition, Broadcasting Board of Governors content (the most well-known being Voice of America) has been available to U.S. consumers since the partial repeal of the Smith–Mundt Act in 2013; VOA and its sister outlets are likewise restricted to shortwave and Internet broadcasts. (The U.S. government also produced the Pentagon Channel, a military news outlet, from 2004 to 2015.)
Most (but, by no means, all) public television stations are members of the Public Broadcasting Service, sharing programs such as Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theatre. Although many PBS stations operate individually, a number of states – such as Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Carolina – have state-owned public broadcasting authorities that operate and fund all public television stations in their respective states. The Alabama Educational Television Commission, licensee for the nine stations comprising Alabama Public Television, was established by the Alabama Legislature in 1953. In January 1955, WCIQ on Mount Cheaha began operation as the nation's ninth non-commercial television station. Four months later in April 1955 with the sign-on of WBIQ in Birmingham, Alabama became the first state in the country with an educational television network. Alabama Public Television was a model for other states in the nation and for television broadcasters in other countries. 25 other states copied Alabama's system of operation to provide service through multiple, linked television stations, using full-power satellite stations and (in some cases) low-power translators to relay the originating station's programming to other areas. Similar state networks have also been created by commercial broadcasters to relay network programming throughout portions or even the entirety of a state.
The federal government does subsidize non-commercial educational television stations through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The income received from the government is insufficient to cover expenses and stations rely on corporate sponsorships and viewer contributions.
American public television stations air programming that commercial stations do not offer, such as educational (including cultural and arts) and public affairs programming. Unlike the commercial networks, PBS does not officially produce any of its own programming; instead, individual PBS stations, station groups and affiliated producers create programming and provide these through PBS to other affiliates; there are also a number of syndicators dealing exclusively or primarily with public broadcast stations, both PBS and independent public television stations; additionally, there are a number of smaller networks feeding programming to public stations – including World, Create and MHz Worldview – primarily through digital multicasting; the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle has also provided blocks of programming to a variety of affiliates in the U.S., and increasingly feeds from other national broadcasters have been distributed through digital subchannels belonging to public stations in the U.S. New York City's municipally-owned broadcast service, NYCTV, creates original programming that airs in several markets. Few cities have major municipally-owned stations.
Many religious broadcast networks and stations exist, also surviving on viewer contributions and time leased to the programming producers, including the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Three Angels Broadcasting Network, Hope Channel, Amazing Facts Television, Daystar Television Network, The Word Network, The Worship Network, Total Christian Television and INSP. These networks rely mainly on church services or other religious teaching series for programming, although they also incorporate faith-based children's programming and at least two such networks – TBN and Daystar – also air religious-themed feature-length films.
Cable and satellite television
While pay television systems existed as early as the late 1940s, until the early 1970s cable television only brought distant over-the-air television stations to rural areas not served by local stations. This role was reflected in the original meaning of the CATV acronym, "community antenna TV". In that decade, national networks that exclusively transmitted via cable and had their own individual programming formats began to launch, while cable system franchises began operating in major cities with over-the-air television stations. By the mid-1970s, some form of cable television was available in almost every market that already had over-the-air television service. Today, most American households receive cable television, and cable networks collectively have greater viewership than broadcast networks, even though individual programs on most of the major commercial broadcast networks often have relatively higher viewership than those seen on cable channels.
Unlike broadcast networks, most cable networks air the same programming nationwide. Top cable networks include USA Network (which maintains a general entertainment format), ESPN and Fox Sports 1 (which focus on sports programming), MTV (which focuses on music and reality television programming), CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel (which are dedicated news channels with some opinion and other feature-driven programming), Syfy (which focuses on science fiction and fantasy programming), Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network (which focus on children's programming, although the latter two run blocks aimed at an adult audience), Discovery Channel and Animal Planet (which focus on reality and documentary programs), TBS (a general entertainment network with a principal focus on comedy), TNT and FX (also general entertainment networks, with some focus on drama) and Lifetime (which is targets at a female audience).
Premium channels, cable networks that subscribers had to pay an additional fee to their provider to receive, began launching in the 1970s and initially grew in popularity as it allowed subscribers to watch movies without time or content editing common with over-the-air television broadcasts. The most well known as well as the oldest-existing pay service is Home Box Office (HBO), which launched in November 1972 with a mix of movies, music and concert specials; by the late 1990s, HBO began to be known for groundbreaking first-run series (such as The Larry Sanders Show, The Sopranos and Sex and the City) that were edgier and more risque in content than those allowed to air on broadcast networks. Other pay-extra networks launched in subsequent years including Showtime, which launched in September 1976 with a similar format; and movie-oriented services such as Star Channel (which launched in 1973, and later became The Movie Channel in 1979) and HBO-owned Cinemax (which launched in August 1980, and later became more known for its late-night softcore pornographic films). Although attempts at such services date back to the 1950s, pay-per-view services (such as Viewer's Choice and Request TV) began launching in the mid-1980s, allowing subscribers to purchase movies and events on a one-time-only basis via telephone; with the advent of digital cable, interactive technologies allowed pay-per-view selections to be purchased by remote.
The national cable television network became possible in the mid-1970s with the launch of domestic communications satellites that could economically broadcast television programs to cable operators anywhere in the continental United States (some domestic satellites also covered Alaska and Hawaii with dedicated spot beams). Until then, cable networks like HBO had been limited to regional coverage through distribution over expensive terrestrial microwave links leased from the telephone companies (primarily AT&T). Satellites were generally used only for international (i.e., transoceanic) communications; their antennas covered an entire hemisphere, producing weak signals that required large, expensive receiving antennas. The first domestic communications satellite, Westar 1, was launched in 1974. By concentrating its signal on the continental United States with a directional antenna, Westar 1 could transmit to TVRO ("television receive-only") dishes only a few meters in diameter, well within the means of local cable television operators. HBO became the first cable network to transmit programming via satellite in September 1975.
Cable system operators now receive programming by satellite, terrestrial optical fiber, off the air, and from in-house sources and relay it to subscribers' homes. Usually, local governments award a monopoly to provide cable television service in a given area. By law, cable systems must include local broadcast stations in their offerings to customers.
Enterprising individuals soon found they could install their own satellite dishes and eavesdrop on the feeds to the cable operators. The signals were transmitted as unscrambled analog FM that did not require advanced or expensive technology. Since these same satellites were also used internally by the television networks, they could also watch programs not intended for public broadcast such as affiliate feeds without commercials and/or intended for another time zone; raw footage from remote news teams; advance transmissions of upcoming programs; and live news and talk shows during breaks when those on camera might not realize that anyone outside the network could hear them.
Encrypting was introduced to prevent people from receiving pay content for free, and nearly every pay channel was encrypted by the mid-to-late 1980s (this did not happen without protest, such as an incident in which a Florida satellite dealer intecepted HBO's signal during a film telecast in 1986). Satellite television also began a digital transition, well before over the air broadcasting did the same, to increase satellite capacity and/or reduce the size of the receiving antennas, and this also made it more difficult for individuals to intercept these signals. Eventually, the industry began to cater to individuals who wanted to continue to receive satellite television (and were willing to pay for it) in two ways: by authorizing the descrambling of the original satellite feeds to the cable television operators and with new direct broadcast satellite television services using their own satellites. These latter services, which began operating in the mid-1990s, offer programming similar to cable television.
DirecTV and Dish Network are the major DBS providers in the country, with 20 and 14 million customers respectively as of February 2014[update]. Meanwhile, the major cable television providers are Comcast with 22 million customers, Time Warner Cable with 11 million, and Cox Communications, Charter Communications, AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS with five to six million each.
Although most networks make viewers pay a fee to receive their programming, some networks broadcast using unencrypted feeds. After broadcast television switched to a digital infrastructure, new channels became available on unencrypted satellites to bring more free television to Americans; some of these are available as a digital subchannel to local broadcasters, this reason may be for the expensive costs of the DVB-S equipment. NASA TV, Pentagon Channel, Antenna TV, This TV, TheCoolTV and the Retro Television Network (through its affiliates) are examples, international news channels like NHK World, France 24, i24news and Al Jazeera English until the launch of Al Jazeera America are commonly watched this way as a result to the lack of availability on cable, DBS and IPTV.
Some cable providers use interactive features in their set-top boxes to distribute video on demand within their internal networks. Many providers of subscription television services – both networks and system operators – also have TV Everywhere services, which mix the video on demand model with live streaming capabilities (allowing viewers to watch broadcasts from over-the-air networks and stations, and cable channels in near real-time), but require password and username authentication through participating pay television providers.
IPTV is similar to a cable subscription, but instead of the set-top box receiving information via a dedicated wire, video is transmitted over the public Internet or private internet protocol-based network to a set-top box.
Over-the-top content bypasses multiple system operators entirely, and allows viewing of programs hosted by independent providers. Internet television began in the 1990s and has become popular in the 2000s onward, resulting in a trend of cord-cutting – the canceling of cable subscriptions in favor of online content and either over-the-air broadcasts, DVD rentals or a combination of all three viewing methods. Web television providers in the United States include Hulu, Netflix (which was originally structured as a mail-order DVD rental service), MyTV, and many international websites such as YouTube, Myspace, Newgrounds, Blip and Crackle. Viewers can watch these programs from any web browser, whether on a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Mobile television services also include mobile apps for both traditional and new programming providers, usually optimized for a small screen and mobile bandwidth constraints. Mobile video is available for direct download or streaming (usually for a one-time download fee) from the iTunes Store, Google Play and Amazon Video.
Internet-connected video game consoles and dedicated Smart TV boxes are available that connect televisions to online video services. These services are marketed as more convenient for consumers who would otherwise have trouble connecting a computer to a full-size television and using a web browser to view content. Some televisions have built-in capabilities; dedicated boxes include Google TV, Apple TV, Roku, Netgear Digital Entertainer, Amkette EvoTV and formerly the Nexus Q. Devices that require a PC and television include Windows Media Center Extender, HP MediaSmart Connect, Boxee and Hauppauge MediaMVP.
Aereo provided a cloud-based digital video recorder service for over-the-air broadcasts, which it also streamed; although it and the similarly structured FilmOn have run into legal problems with broadcasters who accused the services of transmitting programs from broadcast television stations in violation of copyrights. Although Aereo and FilmOn both stated that their use of "miniature" antennas for transmission of programs to individual users is legal, following mixed decisions by circuit courts that declared them either legal or in infringement of copyrights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July 2014 that Aereo's business model had an "overwhelming likeness to cable companies," and its transmission of local station signals constituted an unauthorized public performance in violation of copyright rules, forcing Aereo and FilmOn to stop transmitting local stations from several markets. Aereo eventually suspended operations and filed for bankruptcy in November of that year, later choosing to auction off its assets and technology; FilmOn however remains in operation, offering other free-to-air U.S.-based networks in addition to its own exclusive channels, but was found in contempt by New York district court in July 2014 for briefly continuing to stream U.S. stations after the Supreme Court ruling.
The business of television
Over-the-air commercial stations and networks generate the vast majority of their revenue from advertisements. According to a 2001 survey, broadcast stations allocated 16 to 21 minutes per hour to commercials. Most cable networks also generate income from advertisements, although most basic cable networks also receive subscription fees, which are the other main source of revenue for the cable operators. However, premium cable networks (such as HBO) do not air commercials; instead, cable television subscribers must pay an extra fee to receive the pay television services.
Networks traditionally allocate a portion of commercial time during their programs to their local affiliates, which allow the local stations to generate revenue. In the same manner, in addition to subscription fees, cable television providers generate some of their revenue by selling local commercial time for each cable network being broadcast.
Cable companies are required by the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act to negotiate for retransmission consent, usually paying broadcasters for the right to carry their signals; this method has resulted in problems between pay television providers and companies that own subscription television services as well as those own and/or operate over-the-air television stations, as disagreements sometimes arise leading to carriage disputes that result in broadcast stations or cable channels being pulled for a protracted period of time, often due to carriage fee increases that a provider may consider to be too expensive (since retransmission consent fees are a form of subscriber fee, any increase in fees that a provider carries will be passed on to the subscriber, which providers are hesitant to do out of concern that it may result in subscriber defections due to the resulting rate increases for program packages).
American television has had very successful programs that have inspired television networks across the world to develop shows of similar types or to syndicate these shows to other countries. Some of these shows are still on the air and some have maintained decent runs in syndication. The opposite is also true; a number of popular American programs were based on shows from other countries, especially the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Canada.
The major networks all offer a morning news program, with CBS's CBS This Morning, NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America as standard bearers, as well as an early-evening newscast anchored by the de facto face of the network's news division like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather for CBS; Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Tom Brokaw for NBC; and Peter Jennings for ABC. Successful news magazines have included 60 Minutes, 20/20 and Dateline NBC in primetime, and Meet the Press, Face the Nation and This Week on Sunday mornings.
Daytime television has been home of many popular game shows over the years, particularly during the 1970s, such as The Price Is Right, Family Feud, Match Game, The Newlywed Game and Concentration. Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! have found their greatest success in the early-evening slot preceding primetime. However, game shows that also aired within primetime had great popularity in the 1950s and 1960s such as What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth; and again, intermittently, in the 2000s with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Weakest Link and Deal or No Deal. The Price Is Right, which has aired on CBS since 1972, and Let's Make a Deal, which was revived on that same network in October 2009, are the only daytime game shows remaining on the broadcast networks.
American daytime soap operas have been running for over seven decades. Currently, there are four daytime soap operas in production: ABC's General Hospital, NBC's Days of Our Lives, and CBS's The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. Long-running soaps no longer in production include Search for Tomorrow, Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Another World, One Life to Live and All My Children. The soap opera genre experienced a gradual decline beginning in the 1980s due to the continued migration of women into the workplace, culminating in six soaps being canceled by NBC, CBS and ABC between 2003 and 2011. Primetime soap operas of note have included Peyton Place, Dallas, Dynasty, Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and Revenge.
Comedies and dramas
Primetime comedy has included situation comedies such as I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Happy Days, Family Ties, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family as well as sketch comedy/variety series such as Texaco Star Theatre, The Carol Burnett Show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live.
Dramatic series have taken many forms over the years. Westerns such as Gunsmoke had their greatest popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Medical dramas such as Marcus Welby, M.D., St. Elsewhere, ER, House and Grey's Anatomy have endured success, as well as family dramas such as The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, and crime dramas such as Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, L.A. Law, 21 Jump Street, Law & Order, JAG, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NCIS.
Dramedy, a term for a television series that mixes elements of comedy and drama, have seen its popularity grown among viewers, thanks to programs like Ally McBeal, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, Devious Maids, Psych and Glee.
Television series featuring fantasy and science fiction are also popular with American viewers, since these programs take elements of comedy, drama, adventure, or a combination of all of the above. Among the most notable fantasy series in this genre include Touched By an Angel (centering on angels helping humans in times of personal crisis), Bewitched (a sitcom centering on a witch adjusting to married life), Fantasy Island (which was set at a resort where people live out their fantasies, but at a price), Drop Dead Diva (focusing on a deceased model inhabiting the body of a lawyer) and Once Upon a Time (centering on fairytale characters that are trapped in the present day after a curse was enacted), while Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and the British series Doctor Who rank among the most watched programs in the sci-fi genre.
Reality television has long existed in the United States, both played for laughs (such as Candid Camera and Real People) and as drama (such as COPS and The Real World). A new variant – competition series placing ordinary people in unusual circumstances or in talent contests, generally eliminating at least one participant per week, exploded in popularity in turn of the millennium (with shows such as Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, American Idol, America's Next Top Model, So You Think You Can Dance and The Voice).
The most successful talk show has been the The Tonight Show, particularly during the 30-year run of third host Johnny Carson. Tonight ushered in a multi-decade period of dominance by one network – NBC – in American late-night programming and paved the way for many similar combinations of comedy and celebrity interviews, such as The Merv Griffin Show and Late Night with David Letterman. The late-night talk show genre would not become a more competitive field until the 1990s, when CBS gained a major foothold in the field with the Late Show with David Letterman; competition in the genre increased even further as cable networks entered into the genre in the 2000s and 2010s with the rise of parody news show The Daily Show under host Jon Stewart and newer shows such as The Colbert Report, Chelsea Lately and Conan. Daytime talk show hits have included Live! with Kelly and Michael (and its previous iterations with Regis Philbin as co-host), The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Phil and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which run the gamut from serious to lighthearted; a subset of so-called trash TV talk shows such as The Jerry Springer Show also veered into exploitation and titillation.
Children's television programs are also quite popular. Early ventures into children's television in the 1950s aired on weekdays with shows such as Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and the Mickey Mouse Club. However children's programing had its greatest success on Saturday mornings from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Programs shown during these hours mainly consisted of animated programming including classic cartoons (such as Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry and Woody Woodpecker), reruns of primetime animated sitcoms (such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons), foreign acquisitions (such as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion), animated adaptations of films and television series (such as Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Batman, ALF and Star Trek), and original programs (such as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Scooby-Doo, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Garfield and Friends and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Some locally produced children's programs – which often mixed cartoons, special guests and audience-participation games – also became popular in the local markets where they were broadcast; one of the most popular was the Bozo the Clown franchise, which became most well known for its Chicago version, which began airing nationally when WGN-TV became a superstation in 1978.
However, in 1990, due to concerns regarding commercial advertising and cross-promotion in children's programs by parental advocate groups, the FCC passed the Children's Television Act, legislation that among other provisions requires all broadcast television networks and stations to air at least three hours of educational children's programming each week. This has made it much harder for broadcast stations to profit from children's programs compared to previous years, eventually leading the major broadcast networks to abandon traditional scripted programs in favor of unscripted educational series with formats appealing to a more generalized audience to fulfill the requirements; noncommercial networks are exceptions to this new standard, as PBS in particular has long excelled in providing E/I-compliant children's programs that mix educational and entertainment content (such as Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Thomas the Tank Engine and Arthur). Today, the most popular children's programs (including SpongeBob SquarePants, Jessie, The Fairly OddParents, Hannah Montana, iCarly, Phineas & Ferb, Wizards of Waverly Place and Adventure Time, among others) have been produced for cable networks such as Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that are targeted at the demographic and only provide educational content voluntarily – in which case, it is primarily aimed at preschool-aged children and relegated to morning hours, unless incorporated full-time as part of the channel's format – as they are not bound by the Children's Television Act's guidelines.
The broadcasting of sports events is a major component of the American commercial television industry. Sports tend to draw a large, wealthy audience that can command large sums of revenue from advertising and subscription fees.
In the early days of television, sports quickly became a fixture of American broadcast television. It was initially restricted to individual combat sports; professional wrestling (not yet outed as a staged sport) and boxing were carried on almost every station and network. Boxing remained fairly popular until the 1970s or so, until the rise of pay-per-view and premium channels led to most of the highest-profile matches leaving the airwaves. Boxing, while it still maintains a limited (and rising, thanks to the efforts of Premier Boxing Champions) presence on American broadcast television, has declined in popularity since the 1990s and a more broad-based combat sport, mixed martial arts, rose to take its place. Professional wrestling, meanwhile, underwent a resurgence in the 1980s as rival businessmen Vince McMahon and Ted Turner each built national wrestling empires; during the Monday Night Wars, McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) maintained a heated televised rivalry, one that eventually collapsed by 2001, leading to McMahon acquiring the WCW, merging it with WWF and renaming the federation World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). WWE maintains a dominant presence in professional wrestling, with rivals Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) and Ring of Honor (ROH) also having a presence on American television.
The major professional sports leagues of the United States and Canada began regular television broadcasts in the 1950s. The National Football League's embrace of television broadcasting at the early onset of the medium helped boost its popularity as a sport, and by the 1960s, the combined success of NFL and American Football League telecasts helped earn professional football a status as a mainstay of the major television networks. American television pays the NFL billions of dollars each year to maintain their television rights; the Super Bowl, in return, is a cash windfall for the network who airs it as the network can make hundreds of millions of dollars in Super Bowl advertising alone. The National Hockey League, in contrast, was much slower to embrace television, due to its initially regional nature and greater reliance on Canadian television; it has struggled to gain competitive ratings for most of its time on television. Major League Baseball has been televised to some extent on U.S. television since the inception of the medium.
College sports have also been a feature of American television. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) restricted the broadcasts of college football on television, as well as college basketball, from the early 1950s to 1984. In that year, the Supreme Court struck down the NCAA's collective television contract as a violation of antitrust law, deregulating the sale of college sports telecasts and allowing individual teams and athletic conferences to negotiate their own deals with broadcast and cable networks.
Other sports that have maintained a regular presence on U.S. television include auto racing (NASCAR, in particular, rose rapidly in television popularity in the 1990s; the IndyCar series has also had some presence, particularly its signature event, the Indianapolis 500), professional golf, thoroughbred racing and (until the 1990s) ten-pin bowling. Other sports have been televised through anthology series such as the ABC's Wide World of Sports (now ESPN Sports Saturday), CBS Sports Spectacular and NBC SportsWorld, sometimes through time-buys.
Sports broadcasts are carried through a number of televised media. Most of the major sports have some presence on commercial broadcast television, including all NFL games. National cable networks, beginning with ESPN in 1979 (along with its later sister channels beginning in the 1990s) and later joined by competitors such as NBCSN and Fox Sports 1, carry packages of major professional and college sports. The vast majority of MLB, NHL and National Basketball Association games are carried through regional sports networks, cable outlets designed to cover a limited geographic region and metropolitan area; the leagues (as well as the NFL) restrict the broadcast of their sports on regional networks to specific territories and require any person outside those territories to purchase an out-of-market sports package to watch the majority of their favored team's games. Regional sports networks can also provide outlets for minor league sports. Unlike in some other countries, public television does not own any sports rights, nor have they ever been a major factor in sports television.
While the majority of programs broadcast on American television are produced domestically, some programs carried in syndication, on public television or on cable are imported from other countries – most commonly, from the primarily English-speaking countries of Canada and the United Kingdom. PBS in particular, is commonly known for its broadcasts of British sitcoms (such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, Keeping Up Appearances and Are You Being Served?), which typically air on its member stations on weekend evenings (although their scheduling is at the discretion of the station); PBS was also responsible for bringing the hit period drama Downton Abbey to the U.S. and for initially popularizing the long-running science-fiction series Doctor Who in the country (the latter show now airs first-run episodes on BBC America, an outlet specifically designed to bring BBC programming direct to the United States, although it continues to be syndicated to public television stations and is also being syndicated in reruns to commercials digital multicast networks).
Many of the programs imported from Canada are children's programs originally aired by channels such as YTV and Family Channel (such as Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Naturally, Sadie and Life with Derek). However, other Canadian series aimed at adults or more general audiences have also been syndicated in the United States; one network, Ion Life, has much of its schedule composed of reruns of since-discontinued Canadian lifestyle series. Among some of the more well-known Canadian television series among American viewers include the Degrassi High franchise (which aired in Canada on CBC Television, with the later incarnation Degrassi: The Next Generation airing on CTV and presently MuchMusic), Rookie Blue, SCTV Network and The Red Green Show. American Spanish-language networks also import much of their programming; for example, Univision imports much of its programming, especially telenovelas that are broadcast on the network, from Mexican broadcaster Televisa, and MundoFox distributes programming from Colombian broadcaster and network part-owner RCN Television.
The life cycle of U.S. television shows
Television production companies either commission teleplays for television pilots or buy spec scripts. Some of these scripts are turned into pilots. The production company markets those they consider commercially viable to television networks – or television distributors for first-run syndication (for example, CBS Television Distribution distributes Dr. Phil in first-run syndication, because that show is syndicated – it is not carried on a particular network). A few things that a television network takes under consideration in deciding to order a show is if the show itself is compatible with the network's target audience, the cost of production, and if the show is well liked among network executives, and in many cases, test audiences.
Networks sometimes preemptively purchase pilots to prevent other networks from controlling them – and the purchase of a pilot is no guarantee that the network will order additional episodes. In other cases, the network may be forced to commission the pilot in order to avoid shouldering monetary penalties if it is not produced. The producers hire a director and other crew members (in some cases, using staff employed with an existing series) to work on the pilot; in some cases, if the pilot's concept was pitched by producers that would not write for the proposed show before a script is drafted, writers may also be assigned to pen the script and would be given credit as the series' creator(s). Pilots that do get "picked up" get either a full or partial-season order; the show goes into production, usually establishing itself with permanent sets. Writers, additional directors and some full-time crew members are hired, and work begins – usually during the late spring and summer before the fall season-series premieres (shows can also serve as a midseason replacement, meaning they are ordered specifically to fill holes in a network schedule created by the failure and cancellation of shows that premiered in the fall; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Office are examples of successful midseason replacements). Unscripted series have a different stage of development, as the program is generally pitched only as a concept, often without a pilot being ordered or already produced.
The standard broadcast television season in the United States consists of 22 episodes; sitcoms may have 24 or more; animated programs may have more (or fewer) episodes (some are broken up into two 11-minute shorts, often with separate self-contained storylines, folded into a single half-hour episode); cable networks with original programming seem to have settled on about 10 to 13 episodes per season, much in line with British television programming.
American soap operas air in the afternoon, five days a week, without any significant break in taping and airing schedules throughout the year. This means that these serials air approximately 260 episodes a year, making their cast and crew members the busiest in show business. These shows are rarely, if ever, repeated (unless the network chooses not to air a new episode on certain major holidays), making it difficult for viewers to "catch up" when they miss an episode. Cable channel SoapNet provided weekly repeats for some broadcasts until it shut down in December 2013, after which TVGN (now Pop, and originally a television listings service formerly known under several names including the Prevue Channel) began airing same-day repeats of some network soaps.
Networks use profits from commercials that run during the show to pay the production company, which in turn pays the cast and crew, and keeps a share of the profits for itself (networks sometimes act as both production companies and distributors). As advertising rates are based on the size of the audience, measuring the number of people watching a network is very important. This measurement is known as a show or network's ratings. Sweeps months (which occur in November, February, May, and to a lesser extent July) are important landmarks in the television season – ratings earned during these periods determining advertising rates until the next sweeps period, therefore shows often have their most exciting plot developments happen during sweeps.
Shows that are successful with audiences and advertisers receive authorization from the network to continue production, until the plotline ends (only for scripted shows) or if the contract expires. Those that are not successful are often quickly told to discontinue production by the network, known as "cancellation". There are instances of initially low-rated shows surviving cancellation and later becoming highly popular, but these are rare. For the most part, shows that are not immediately or even moderately successful are cancelled by the end of November sweeps, if not shortly thereafter or earlier. Usually if a show is canceled, there is little chance of it ever coming back again especially on the same network it was canceled from; the only show in the U.S. to ever come back from cancellation on the same network is Family Guy (which was cancelled by Fox in 2002 and was revived by the network in 2005 due to the increased popularity of the series through reruns on cable and DVD releases). However, canceled shows like Scrubs, Southland, Medium and Wonder Woman have been picked up by other networks, which is becoming an increasingly common practice. It is also somewhat common for series to continue production for the purpose of completing a DVD set, even if these episodes will never air on television (these episodes would, in years past, be "burned off" by airing them in less-prominent time slots).
Once a television series reaches a threshold of approximately 88 to 100 episodes, it becomes a candidate to enter reruns in off-network syndication. Reruns are a lucrative business for television producers, who can sell the rights to a "used" series without the expenses of producing it (though they may have to pay royalties to the affected parties, depending on union contracts).
Sitcoms are traditionally the most widely syndicated reruns and are usually aired in a five-day-a-week strip. Marginally performing shows tend to last less than five years in broadcast syndication, sometimes moving to cable channels (although rerun packages of some series are sold simultaneously into broadcast syndication and cable) or into limited-run barter syndication (such as through The Program Exchange) after the end of their syndication runs, while more widely successful series can have a life in syndication that can run for decades (I Love Lucy, the first series designed to be rerun, remains popular in syndication more than 60 years after its 1951 debut).
Cable networks and digital broadcast channels have provided outlets for programming that either has outlived its syndication viability, lacks the number of episodes necessary for syndication, or for various reasons was not a candidate for syndication in the first place. Popular dramas, for instance, have permanent homes on several basic cable channels, often running in marathons (multiple episodes airing back-to-back for several hours), and there are also cable channels devoted to game shows (Game Show Network), soap operas (the now-defunct SoapNet), Saturday morning cartoons (Boomerang) and even sports broadcasts (ESPN Classic). Most reality shows perform poorly in reruns and are rarely seen as a result, other than reruns of series still in production, on the same network on which they air (almost always cable outlets), where they air as filler programming.
Broadcast television is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC awards and oversees the renewal of licenses to local stations, which stipulate stations' commitments to educational and public-interest programming. During the early years of commercial television, the FCC permitted a single company to own a maximum of five television stations nationwide, although until the 1960s, very few companies outside of the major broadcast networks owned multiple stations. Since a change to its media ownership regulations in 1999 that counted television station ownership maximums by a national market percentage rather than by the number of stations that could be allowed in their portfolio, FCC rules mandate that the total number of television stations owned by any company can only reach a maximum of 39% of the U.S. Most commercial stations are now owned-and-operated or controlled through outsourcing agreements by group owners (either independent companies or network-owned subsidiary groups), with a relatively limited number of companies that remain which own stations in five or fewer markets.
The FCC also previously barred companies from owning more than one television station within a single market, unless it operated as a satellite station (a full-power station that relays programming from its parent station to areas within the market that are not adequately covered if at all by the main signal) or a low-power station (either one that maintains its own programming or operates as a translator); however, it eventually allowed operators of public television stations to sign-on or acquire a second station that did not repeat the parent's signal (some of which were originally licensed as commercial outlets). In 1999, the FCC legalized the common ownership of two commercial stations, known as duopolies, if one of them is not among the market's four highest-rated, and if there are at least eight companies that each own full-power stations within the market. While the parent companies of NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox are not prohibited from owning a second broadcast network (and all of them, except for ABC, are co-owned with one), an FCC law known as the "dual-network rule" does disallow a single company from owning two or more of the major networks.
The FCC also prohibits the airing of "indecent" material over-the-air between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Broadcast stations can legally air almost anything they want late at night – and cable networks at all hours. However, nudity and graphic profanity are rare on American television. Though the FCC gives them leeway to air programs containing "indecent" material within its designated watershed period, broadcasters are hesitant to do this, concerned that airing such material would alienate advertisers and encourage the federal government to strengthen regulation of television content.
Premium cable networks are exceptions, and often air very racy programming at night, though premium channels often air program content with strong to graphic profanity, violence and nudity in some cases during the daytime hours. Such content is common on pay television services, as they are not subjected to FCC regulations and pressure from advertisers, and often require a subscription to view them. Some networks (such as Playboy TV) are devoted exclusively to "adult" content, specifically pornographic material, and therefore viewers may find scenes of simulated or graphic sexual intercourse and nudity on such channels.
Cable television is largely, but not entirely, unregulated. Cable providers must include local over-the-air stations in their offerings on each system (stations can opt to gain carriage by seeking a must-carry option) and give them low channel numbers, unless the stations decide to demand compensation of any sort (through retransmission consent).
The systems cannot show broadcast network affiliates from other parts of the country (this regulation has largely been openly ignored in recent years during carriage disputes), however cable systems can carry stations from nearby markets if there are no local stations affiliated with one of the major networks (though this is becoming far less common with the shift, particularly since 2006, towards over-the-air stations carrying one network affiliation on their main channel and an affiliation with another network on a digital subchannel, thus allowing these network-affiliated digital subchannels to be carried at least via digital cable).
Cable systems can also air satellite-relayed broadcast stations originating from other areas of the United States, known as superstations (of which there are currently only five around the country), which for the most part are often aired in rural areas and may omit network programming from that station's network affiliation; all superstations, are currently affiliated with a broadcast television network: WPIX in New York City, KWGN-TV in Denver and KTLA in Los Angeles are all affiliated with The CW, and WWOR-TV in Secaucus, New Jersey and WSBK-TV in Boston are affiliated with MyNetworkTV. A few of these superstations once had national distribution, carrying a separate feed that aired different programming than that of the local area feed and even some that also aired on the local feed that is SyndEx-proof (in other words, syndicated programming that the superstation has obtained full signal rights to), the most prominent was TBS, whose former parent Atlanta station WTCG became the first "basic cable" network to be uplinked to satellite in December 1976; the national feed was converted into a conventional cable channel in October 2007. WGN-TV in Chicago was uplinked in October 1978; its national feed, WGN America, also converted into a traditional cable channel in December 2014, when it dropped all remaining WGN-TV programming. WWOR-TV also once operated a national feed, which ceased operations in 1997, before the station regained national superstation status as a satellite-exclusive service – through its New York City feed – a few months later.
The FCC has virtually no jurisdiction over the content of programming exclusively broadcast on cable. As a result, anyone is free to create any number of channels or any sort of programming whatsoever without consulting the FCC. The only restrictions are on the ability to secure carriage on cable or satellite (or, failing that, by streaming on Internet television) and securing rights to programming. Because of this lack of restriction, channel drift (the shift of a channel's programming format away from that which it originally maintained) is much more common in the United States than in other countries.
Because the United States had relatively weak copyright terms until 1976, a large body of older television series have lapsed into the public domain and are thus free to redistribute in any form.
History of American television
After years of experimental broadcasts, television first became commercialized in the United States in New York City on July 1, 1941, initially by RCA (through NBC, which it owned) via its station WNBT (now WNBC) and CBS, via their station WCBW (now WCBS-TV). A number of different broadcast systems had been developed through the end of the 1930s. The National Television System Committee (NTSC) standardized on a 525-line broadcast in 1941 that would provide the basis for television across the country through the end of the century.
Television development halted with the onset of World War II, but a few pioneer stations remained on the air throughout the war, primarily WNBT, WCBW and WABD (the former W2XWV, which became commercially licensed in 1944, owned by the DuMont Television Network, now WNYW) in New York City, WRGB in Schenectady, New York (owned by General Electric), WPTZ (now KYW-TV) in Philadelphia (owned by Philco), W9XBK (now WBBM-TV) in Chicago, as well as W6XAO (now KCBS-TV) and W6XYZ (now KTLA) in Los Angeles. When that conflict ended, these stations expanded their broadcast schedules and many other organizations applied for television station licenses.
After a flood of television license applications, the FCC froze the application process for new applicants in 1948, due to concerns over station interference. At the time, there were only a few dozen stations operating at the end of the decade, concentrated in many (but not all) major cities. The FCC began handing out broadcasting licenses to communities of all sizes in the early 1950s (with the highest concentration of license grants and station sign-ons occurring between 1953 and 1956), spurring an explosion of growth in the medium.
A brief dispute over the system to use for color broadcasts occurred at this time, but was soon settled. Half of all U.S. households had television sets by 1955, though color was a premium feature for many years (most households able to purchase television sets could only afford black-and-white models, and few programs were broadcast in color until the mid-1960s).
Many of the earliest television programs were modified versions of well-established radio shows. Barn dances and opries were regular staples of early television, as were the first variety shows. Reruns of film shorts (such as Looney Tunes, Our Gang and The Three Stooges) were also staples of early television and to a certain extent remain popular today. The 1950s saw the first flowering of the genres that would distinguish television from movies and radio: talk shows like The Jack Paar Show and sitcoms like I Love Lucy. Although sitcoms were a radio fixture since the late 1930s (many 1940s radio sitcoms jumped directly to television), television allowed far greater use of physical comedy, an advantage that early television sitcoms used to its full potential.
Other popular genera in early television were westerns, police procedurals, suspense thrillers and soap operas, all of which were adapted from the radio medium. Anthology and wheel series thrived in the so-called "Golden Age of Television," but eventually faded in popularity by the 1970s. The big band remote, for the most part, did not survive, with two exceptions: The Lawrence Welk Show, a big band-driven musical variety show, ran from 1951 until Welk's retirement in 1982 and in reruns from then onward (which eventually moved from commercial to public television syndication), and Guy Lombardo's annual New Year big-band remotes ran until 1979, two years after Lombardo's death. Game shows were also a major part of the early part of television, aided by massive prizes unheard of in the radio era; however, the pressure to keep the programs entertaining led to the quiz show scandals, in which it was revealed many of the popular high-stakes games were rigged or outright scripted. The Saturday morning cartoons, animated productions made specifically for television (and, accordingly, with much tighter budgets and more limited animation), also debuted in the late 1950s.
Broadcast television stations in the United States were primarily transmitted on the VHF band (channels 2-13) in its earliest years; it was not until the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1964 that UHF broadcasting became a feasible medium.
Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, concurrent with the development of color television, the evolution of television led to an event colloquially known as the rural purge; genera such as the panel game show, western, variety show, barn dance, and rural-oriented sitcom all met their demise in favor of newer, more modern series targeted at wealthier suburban and urban viewers. Around the same time, videotape became a more affordable alternative to film for recording programs.
Stations across the country also produced their own local programs. Usually carried live, they ranged from simple advertisements to game shows and children's shows that often featured clowns and other offbeat characters. Local programs could often be popular and profitable, but concerns about product promotion led them to almost completely disappear by the mid-1970s. The last remaining locally originated shows on American television as of 2012 are local newscasts, public affairs shows and some brokered programming (such as talk-lifestyle shows) paid for by advertisers.
Subscription television became popular in the early 1980s when cable television began to offer dedicated channels alongside local and out-of-market broadcast stations and service gradually expanded to more metropolitan areas, followed by the emergence of direct broadcast satellite in the 1990s, and has been growing in significance since then – spurring the emergence of multinational conglomerates such as Fox. As the number of outlets for potential new television channels increased, this also introduced the threat of audience fracturing, in that it would become more difficult to attain a critical mass of viewers in this highly competitive market (free-to-air satellite had a brief uptick in popularity during the 1980s, but never achieved mainstream popularity).
As ratings declined, the number of game shows and soap operas followed, with the former genre almost completely disappearing from American daytime television, to be replaced by much cheaper and more lowbrow tabloid talk shows, many of which in turn were canceled and replaced by televised binding arbitration court shows beginning in the late 1990s.
Infomercials were legalized in 1984, approximately the same time that cable television became widespread. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, stations began airing infomercials – as well as news and entertainment programs – throughout the night instead of signing off; infomercials also began to overtake other less-watched dayparts (such as weekends and during the daytime), which forced series that would otherwise be syndicated onto cable networks or off the air entirely. Cable networks have also begun selling infomercial space, usually in multiple-hour blocks in the early morning hours, while some dedicated channels devoted to infomercials have also launched since the early 1990s. Infomercials have earned a reputation as a medium for advertising scams and products of dubious quality, although by the same token, they have proven to be a successful method of selling products.
In the late 1990s, the U.S. began to deploy digital television, transitioning it into being the standard transmission method for over-the-air broadcasts. The major broadcast networks began transitioning to recording their programs in high definition (HD); prime time programs were the first to convert to the format, with daytime shows eventually being converted to HD beginning in the mid-2000s; the upgrade to full high-definition network schedules, at least among the conventional English language broadcast networks, was fully completed by September 2014 when the last standard-definition programs upgraded to HD. A law passed by Congress in 2006 required over-the-air stations to cease analog broadcasts in 2009, with the end of analog television arriving on June 12 of that year (originally set for February 17, before Congress delayed it due to concerns about national household penetration of digital television by viewers reliant on antennas for receive programming in advance the transition). Low-power television stations have until September 2015 to terminate analog broadcasts; most have already transitioned to digital as of 2014, with the exception of the "87.7 FM" outlets, which operate primarily as radio stations by using the audio of analog channel 6 to broadcast to FM radios. There was an uptick in the number of "87.7" stations after the full-power transition, as low-power stations above channel 51 (UHF channels 52 to 69 were removed from the television spectrum as part of the transition) were required to choose a new channel allocation; many chose channel 6, as it allowed for the usage of the 87.7 audio channel to reach a wider audience.
The late 1990s also saw the invention of digital video recorders. While the ability to record a television program for home viewing was possible with the earlier VCRs, that medium was a bulky mechanical tape medium that was far less convenient than the all-digital technology DVRs use (DVD recorders also began to be sold around this time, though this is also less convenient than the DVR technology since DVD discs are somewhat more fragile than videotapes, although both mediums allow to some extent for longer-term viewing than most DVRs). DVR technology allowed wide-scale time shifting of programming, which had a negative impact on programming in time slots outside of prime time by allowing viewers to watch their favorite programs on demand. It also put pressure on advertisers, since DVRs make it relatively easy to skip over commercials (satellite provider Dish Network's Hopper technology, which eliminates commercials entirely, was even the subject of lawsuits by the major networks during the early and mid-2010s due to fears over diluted advertising revenue).
During the 2000s, the major development in U.S. television programming was the growth of reality television, which proved to be an inexpensive and entertaining alternative to scripted prime time programming. The process of nonlinear video editing and digital recording allowed for much easier and less expensive editing of mass amounts of video, making reality television more viable than it had been in previous decades. All four major broadcast networks carry at least one long-running reality franchise in their lineup at any given time of the year.
- Big Three television networks
- Cable television in the United States
- Communications in the United States
- Fourth television network
- High-definition television in the United States
- List of television stations in the United States
- List of United States cable and satellite television networks
- List of United States over-the-air television networks
- List of United States television markets
- Satellite television in the United States
- Television in the United States
- Television news in the United States
- United States cable news
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