Invention of Cable & Satellite TV: Impact & Regulations

Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

This lesson examines changes in how television comes into our homes through able and satellite television providers. It examines the technology and several important legislative acts including the Cable Television Consumer Protection Act of 1992. Important terms are defined.

The Pre-Cable Days

Imagine a time when there were only four television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. There might have been two or three local channels in your area that mostly broadcast reruns of shows that had completed their initial runs. You could only watch channels that had broadcast signals powerful enough for you to receive on your television antenna.

There were no DVRs, no Blu-Rays or DVDs, and not even VHS tapes (if you can even remember those), so if you wanted to watch a show, you had to watch it when it aired. If you wanted to watch a movie, you either went to the theater or waited until it was offered on broadcast television and watched it in real-time. Not only that, there was no internet, no smart-phones, and not even any computers (except the ones that were the size of whole rooms).

A television antenna
Tlevision antenna

As unbelievable as this may seem today, it was how people watched television until relatively recently in our history.

Early Cable Television

The first cable television came into being in the United States in 1948. At the time it didn't increase the number of channels available; it was actually a tool to bring existing television programming to rural viewers in Arkansas, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, who were unable to receive traditional broadcast signals.

By 1952, 70 different cable companies helped supply signal to 14,000 subscribers. By 1962 there were 850,000 cable subscribers in the U.S., but an unwieldy 800 cable companies were serving them.

Pay Television Networks

The first pay television network came into being in the late 1970s, with the creation of HBO, C-Span, Nickelodeon, and ESPN. These services offered an enticement to get viewers to subscribe to 'pay TV' in the 21 major metropolitan markets in which cable was offered. By 1980, twenty-eight new networks added the list including MTV, CNN, BET, and USA. By 1990, seventy-nine more networks joined the other offerings, and more than 50% of US households were getting cable television.

By 1992, cable threatened local broadcast television. To support the local broadcast channels, the U.S. passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 requiring cable systems to carry local broadcast channels without any charge to the local broadcasters.

Fiber optic cable proved a much more effective way to carry greater streams of information. It was when fiber-optic cables became the primary means of carrying signals in the 1990s that the number of networks exploded. By the mid-2010s, nearly one thousand networks existed, and more than 90% of all U.S. homes had access to broadband cable.

Important Cable Television Terms

Broadband is a high-capacity technique for transmission, which enables a large number of channels to be transmitted simultaneously. As broadband capabilities have increased, so have the number of networks that cable companies have been able to broadcast.

The term premium cable refers to networks for which viewers are willing to pay a premium. These channels include HBO and Showtime, and also include a range of sports and entertainment packages.

On demand programming allows viewers to watch television shows whenever they want, rather than just when the show was broadcast in real-time. Video-on-demand began in 1992 and capabilities have only increased to the point where now most of us have DVR capabilities in our homes. A DVR (or digital video recorder) will record any program that's been selected and save it digitally for playback at the viewer's convenience.

Satellite Television

In 1962 the Telstar satellite began broadcasting television signal from Europe to America. The same year, the U.S. launched the Relay I satellite to broadcast U.S. television programming to Japan. The following year the first geosynchronous satellite, Syncom 2, was put into orbit.

An early satellite dish that could be seen in the 1970s and 1980s
Early Satellite Dish

Beginning in 1976, U.S. television networks began using satellites to distribute their programming. That same year, the first person to receive satellite television signal in his home was Taylor Howard of San Andreas, California with a system that he'd built himself.

Home satellite systems were originally large, unattractive, and wildly expensive. But as prices dropped and technology improved satellite became a strong option for receiving programming. A 1984 congressional act, the Cable Communications Policy of 1984, stated that anyone with a satellite dish was entitled to receive signals for free unless they were scrambled. While most networks now scramble their signals, satellite television has become more popular and a challenge to the cable industry.

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