Television networks are organizations that produce or acquire the rights to TV programs, which are centrally distributed to affiliated stations where they are scheduled at uniform time slots. The distribution of content to geographically dispersed stations can occur using a variety of technical systems, involving traditional over-the-air electromagnetic broadcasting, cable, satellite, and now digital transmission. The history of television networks has been influenced by two principal broadcast network models: the public service broadcasting (PSB) model, epitomized in the English speaking world by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and by the for-profit commercial model, associated with television networks in the United States.
In the case of the BBC, and many other public service broadcasters, identical programming is simultaneously distributed to repeater stations, with some regional variation. In the case of for-profit networks in the United States, regional affiliate stations produce local content (e.g., newscasts) while accepting a portion of their programming via the central distribution of their parent network. In vernacular language the terms television network, television channel, and television station are often interchanged; however, the terms are distinct: a channel is a band of electromagnetic frequencies assigned to individual broadcast stations, which, in turn, may be members of a television network. Most historical accounts of the development of network television have pointed to three interrelated factors: the state, as both owner and regulator of broadcasting networks; the introduction of new technologies; and the influence of commercial and market forces.
In the United Kingdom and the United States, television networks were launched by the already established radio networks. That is to say, by the BBC in the former country, and by the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the latter. The one significant exception was the short-lived Dumont Television Network – itself the first licensed television network in the United States started by inventor and television manufacturer Allen B. Dumont. The network operated for 10 years, beginning in 1946, before closing due to financial losses. But television networks’ connection to the production and sale of television receiver sets would continue through NBC’s parent company the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
The BBC began the first regular high definition television service in 1936, broadcasting in London. It was put on hold in 1939 due to World War II; but in 1948 the government threw its support behind the idea of a national television network to parallel radio. Construction began in earnest on a series of transmitter stations to link the various regions of the nation. As with radio, the BBC’s national television service would be a monopoly.
The public service remit of BBC television carried forward BBC founder Reith’s mission to inform, educate, and entertain. Commercial influences were to be resisted in the name of the public interest and to preserve “quality” broadcasting. Funding was secured through a license fee paid by all television users.
A majority of European nations started their own public service TV networks, as did the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian governments. Invariably, PSB would reflect national and cultural differences. In Germany constitutional authority for broadcasting was granted to individual states, thereby establishing a decentralized PSB model to protect against government control of radio and television networks, as had been the case under Nazi rule. In Canada the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was given a national mandate to provide a buffer to easily available signals of American TV networks. Television service would be mixed, accepting some advertising revenue with the balance of funding coming from government stipend. What united all public broadcasters was a commitment to attracting a broad television audience while serving the needs of citizens, not consumers.
“Auntie” BBC, as the service was known, soon faced competition funded by advertising. The postwar years saw a surge in advertising expenditures with a correspondingly increased desire for consumption, after many years of imposed austerity. Advertisers, helped by the work of the J. Walter Thompson agency, argued that television should be part of a renewed consumer economy. The Conservative government of the day agreed and commercial network television came to Britain in 1955 with the launch of Independent Television (ITV). However, in exchange for lucrative access to a scarce analog spectrum, ITV, and also Channels 4 and 5 launched in 1982 and 1997 respectively, were required to meet public service obligations. In the 1990s both Conservative and Labour governments called on the BBC to adopt a more commercial approach.
In the United States, educational television started in 1954; by 1965 there were 100 noncommercial stations. The US Congress passed legislation creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in 1967. Two years later the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television network was created, but it has remained plagued by funding problems. The dominant American television networks were privately owned and profit oriented from the start. They became possible in 1951 after AT&T began to lay TV cables, and microwave relays were stretched across the continent.
An important element of the growth of television networks has been the economic efficiencies gained through the transmission of one program to multiple stations along the network. But efficiencies were not simply a product of technology. NBC and CBS inherited their corporate structure from radio, as did the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The so-called “third network” was created in 1943 after a federal competition probe suggested NBC sell one of its two radio networks: NBC Red and NBC Blue. The Blue network was sold and ABC would eventually join NBC and CBS as one of the “big three” networks. The networks also inherited radio’s profit model, which structured their relationship with advertisers. Many of the early program formats on network television, such as live episodic drama, were derived from radio. Programs such as CBS’s Man Against Crime were produced by advertising agencies. Historian Erik Barnouw has documented how the sponsor of the program, Camel cigarettes, dictated to writers how and under what favorable circumstances their product should appear in the drama: “Cigarettes had to be smoked gracefully, never puffed nervously” (Barnouw 1970). The networks, worried about the loss of control over production, eventually moved to change the relationship. NBC in particular worked to convince advertisers that sponsored programming was less effective than purchasing insertions within programs, which could be used to make direct sales pitches, as in a magazine. In a related move, NBC created two important live programs – Today and Tonight – which were produced and controlled by the network. Both programs, one a morning current affairs show, the latter a late-night comedy program, are broadcast today.
In 1956 videotape was introduced, replacing the more expensive film. Programs could now be stored and shown again and again. By the mid-1950s the live episodic series was displaced. Advertising was sold on a cost-per-thousand basis and the currency for those sales was audience-ratings surveys. The model that would structure the business of network television for the next 50 years had been established: audiences would be maximized and sold to national advertisers who bought time within a programming schedule controlled by the networks.
The television industry enjoyed enormous growth in its first decade, creating a real mass audience. The number of US households with at least one television jumped from 34 to 90 percent between 1952 and 1962. Television had become an important part of popular culture, with network programming taking the lead. Networks produced what media sociologist Todd Gitlin has called “recombinant culture” – shows based upon proven formats with easily identifiable characters (Gitlin 1983). Successful genres including the situation comedy, crime drama, and westerns flourished, making programs such as I Love Lucy, The Untouchables, and Gunsmoke popular and lucrative, especially when they were sold as syndicated reruns. Entertainment dominated, including popular quiz shows such as The $64,000 Dollar Question, which drew large audiences until a payola scandal forced it off the air. Indeed, in 1961 Newton Minnow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), would quip that US network television was a “vast wasteland.” But the trend was established. Many of today’s most popular programs, including Friends, Jeopardy, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, are extensions of these early program formats.
Entertainment remains a predominant part of network scheduling today, but it was news and current affairs programming that would confer prestige upon TV networks. In Britain, one early moment was the broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. Close to 20 million people are estimated to have watched the program, including a sizable audience from the United States. Some sociologists have argued the broadcast marked the first “media event”, in which a mass audience participates in a live broadcast ritual. In the United States, the first network newscasts were sponsored. NBC’s Camel News Caravan took its name from Camel cigarettes. Such dubious associations would eventually be severed, while news budgets expanded and professional work routines of “objective” reporting were established. CBS’s See It Now, hosted by celebrated newsman Edward R. Murrow, received special praise for its critical coverage of McCarthyism. The nightly newscast format was regularized following coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Coverage of live sporting events has from the beginning been a tremendous boon to television networks. Popular success was found early on in North America with broadcasts of boxing, wrestling, baseball, and football, while the BBC generated interest in 1954 with its coverage of Roger Bannister’s “Miracle Mile,” breaking the 4-minute barrier at the Iffley Road track in Oxford. The initially small audiences were more than made up for by low production costs. Sporting events did not need to be created and did not require expensive writers and actors. Today television networks sign multimillion-dollar contracts for the broadcast rights to the World Cup and the Olympics. These global media events attract billions of viewers and the interest of transnational corporate sponsors, who have made global celebrities out of athletes such as footballer David Beckham.
Networks In Flux
By the late 1970s and early 1980s new technologies and regulatory changes had ushered in a new area for network television in the United States. In 1984 the FCC lifted federal regulations over cable operators, giving them greater freedom. Satellite and cable subscription services proliferated. Specialty channels such as Home Box Office (HBO), the Entertainment and Sports Network (ESPN), and the 24-hour Cable News Network became household names. The established American networks saw their prime-time share shrink as audiences fragmented. By the 1990s there were three new broadcast networks: Fox, United Paramount Network (UPN), and Warner Brothers (WB). Further government deregulation followed. Legislation lifted media ownership restrictions in 1996, accelerating a round of corporate media mergers that began in the mid-1980s. After WB and UPN merged in 2006 to create the CW Television Network (CW), five companies owned and co-owned the remaining five networks and most of the highly subscribed cable channels: Disney (ABC, ESPN), General Electric (NBC), Viacom (CBS, CW), Time Warner (CNN, HBO, CW).
Changes in network regulation, ownership, and technological distribution had important repercussions for programming. For nearly 20 years the big three network newscasts provided a similar rundown of the day’s most important events. But when audiences began to fragment in the late 1970s networks laid off reporters and started to produce more dramatic stories with emotional human interest angles. CNN’s coverage of the 1991 Gulf War scooped the big three and solidified its reputation as a serious news provider. Five years later, Fox News and MSNBC (co-owned by Microsoft and NBC) would start their own 24-hour cable news channels. Competition on melodramatic stories, such as the so-called “Monicagate” sex scandal involving intern Monica Lewinsky and US President Bill Clinton, institutionalized a form of live “rolling news.” It was coupled with high-octane talk shows in which a spectacular news story could be repurposed among the networks’ programs 24/7.
The pressures of neo-liberal globalization during the 1980s and 1990s together with the global expansion of transnational communication companies, such as the News Corporation’s Star News satellite network, contributed to the extension of these melodramatic forms of news storytelling throughout Latin America, Europe, and Asia. In India, Star partnered with the Zee network while the Indian Broadcasting Network (IBN) collaborated with CNN, creating a hybrid mixture of genres and Hindi language programming.
Rising production costs were also giving networks trouble. In wrestling with the problem, networks increased the number of ads run during prime time. They also amortized the fixed first-run costs of news programming through newsmagazines such as NBC’s Dateline and ABC’s Primetime Live. Another successful strategy was the introduction of the reality TV genre, epitomized by such programs as Survivor. The originally British TV format was a surprise summer hit for CBS in 2000. Its importance was similar to early sports programming – reality TV did not require expensive writers and actors.
All four major US networks quickly adopted the genre, marking a shift in their business model. Antitrust rules that limited the number of hours of network-produced programming were eliminated in 1995. Networks could now produce their own shows in-house. They were still in the business of selling the attention of affluent audiences to advertisers, but now program content would be integrated into multimedia merchandise tie-ins. Synergistic cross-promotion strategies between network programs and Internet websites expanded. The direct advertiser sponsorship and product placements that were the norm in such 1950s hits as I Love Lucy reappeared in the Apprentice and Survivor.
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