The term “cable television” typically refers to a form of subscription-based multichannel program delivery that relies on cables or wires. At first, cable television existed almost exclusively to extend the reach of broadcast signals, but more recently it has also delivered an array of additional program services – primarily satellite networks such as MTV (Music Television), HBO (Home Box Office), and CNN (Cable News Network; Satellite Television; Television Networks).
Start Of Cable Television
As a technology, wired forms of radio and television transmission were sometimes used by national public service broadcasters to extend or supplement their coverage areas – as was the case with the British Broadcasting Corporation starting with radio in the 1930s. The technology, known as “rediffusion” or “relay,” helped the BBC approach its goal of universal service. Also, smaller European nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands, in spite of having their own public service broadcasters, used cable-type technologies to import additional signals from nearby countries. In subsequent decades, cable-type technologies also were enlisted by some national governments, for example during certain periods in Argentina and China, as a means of maintaining central control of programming. Elsewhere, including in India and the former Soviet Union, “gray market” coaxial cable networks were used to share programming among residents of neighborhoods or apartment blocks. As a distinct and cohesive industry, though, cable’s origins lie almost exclusively in North America.
Most North Americans first became aware of broadcast television during the 1940s, following the end of World War II. However, access to television tended to center in major urban areas, where stations were located and where residents could receive the signals of those stations using set-top (“rabbit ear”) antennas. Other parts of the continent, particularly rural and mountainous areas, lacked access. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission’s 1948 –1952 station licensing freeze only worsened the situation. Meanwhile, Canada was just starting its national broadcast television service, and Canadians were – wherever possible – beginning to watch stations from across the border.
Thus, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, some enterprising individuals in areas underserved by broadcast television devised means of extending television stations’ signals. They built very tall receiving antennas known as “headends” (often located on mountaintops) to capture the nearest signals and used wire (most commonly coaxial cable) to deliver them to residents of communities lacking television service. Most charged a monthly fee for this service – which was termed community antenna television (CATV). Initially, those drawn to the business tended to be appliance dealers, radio station operators, and various other people with expertise in electronics. Before long, though, the demand for CATV service in communities without television service began to draw in even those without any experience in broadcasting or electronics.
Expansion Of Services
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, while there was no shortage of demand for the retransmission of broadcast television channels, CATV operators also were interested in expanding the scope of their service. Quite a few had enlisted microwave relays as a means of bringing in the signals of popular stations from locations too far away for reception by a community antenna alone. A handful had also begun to offer local channels (in most cases nothing more than a camera panning a clock and a thermometer to provide “time and temperature”), prefiguring the public access channels that would arise in the decades to follow. Also around this time a pay-TV industry was developing in both the US and Canada. Although only one pay-TV operation was directly affiliated with the CATV industry, many CATV operators were optimistic about adding pay channels to their systems in the future – a vision that would be realized in the 1970s with the launch of pay cable channels such as HBO and Showtime. Mexico’s cable industry was also starting at this point; cable networks began to be built there in the 1960s to extend the coverage of Telesistemo Mexicano (TSM), at that time the leading private television broadcaster.
But in the US during the 1960s, CATV operators began to face new challenges from government policymakers. The oft-stated objective in this was to uphold the FCC mandate to serve the “public interest” as defined in the 1934 Communications Act – a weak mandate within an almost exclusively advertiser-funded broadcasting system. Several sets of regulations were aimed at preventing harm to broadcast television from CATV systems and effectively prevented the CATV industry from doing business in medium to large broadcast television markets. Since these markets represented the areas of greatest revenue potential for CATV, the measures stalled that medium’s growth considerably. Regulation inevitably lags behind the promise of a new technology, though, and no sooner had the FCC curtailed CATV’s growth in the US than that same medium was absorbed into a set of utopian discourses aimed at reforming television generally – now known as “Blue Sky.” Parties ranging from government task forces to private think tanks to professional associations forwarded visions for transforming CATV into a purveyor of a broad range of channel options, interactive services, and even document delivery services.
Some other events in the US also helped move CATV forward, including victories in two critical copyright cases. By the early 1970s, with business-minded Richard Nixon in the White House, the policy climate around cable grew more lenient. New regulations allowed cable into more broadcast markets, and operators gained more programming choice. At this time, the White House’s Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) instituted the policy of “Open Skies,” which allowed free-market competition in the communications satellite industry. In contrast, stricter regulation of cable television in Canada began to emerge in the years following the 1968 creation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), an entity charged with protecting the sovereignty of Canadian media industries. In 1975, the CRTC stated that cable was a “chosen instrument of public policy” and set in place regulations addressing such concerns as what channels and services cable companies might or should make available, reasonable subscription rates, and provisions for public access channels. Canada would continue to be challenged, though, by the easy access its residents had to US television outlets – both broadcast and cable.
The Role Of Satellite TV
The growth and flourishing of satellites in North America during the early 1970s was a major determinant in transforming CATV into modern cable television throughout all of North America and eventually elsewhere. In 1975, HBO, a fledgling US pay-TV service operated by Time, Inc. and delivering its signal to various locations in upstate New York and Pennsylvania by microwave, began to use satellite to deliver its programming nationwide. This breakthrough encouraged other enterprising individuals and companies to launch similar satellite-carried cable “networks.” Most of these were pre-existing terrestrially based operations, including Ted Turner’s Atlanta “superstation” WTCG (later WTBS) in 1976 and televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in 1977. By 1980, there were around a dozen satellite cable networks in the US. In Canada, policymakers were beginning to grapple with the likely impact of the expanding US cable industry on its own public television system. By this point also, Mexico’s private multichannel broadcaster Televisa had adopted satellites as a means of distributing Spanish-language programming both within Mexico and into the US – the start of the broadcast and cable network Univision. Satellites and the existing cable infrastructure would be significant factors as Mexico grew into a major player in the Spanish-language television market throughout the Americas.
The 1980s saw the launching of dozens of additional cable networks in multiple countries, in fact. For the US, these included premium networks such as HBO and its competitor Showtime, which charged subscribers directly for access to their programs, and basic networks such as MTV, CNN, and Lifetime, which came “bundled” together in a package for which subscribers were charged a flat monthly fee. While Canadian cable operators were able to import some of these networks from the US, the larger trend there was to develop indigenous networks to offer similar programming categories while still complying with “Canadian content” quotas. In both countries, this decade also saw the rise of new types of cable services such as home shopping and pay-per-view channels.
In 1984, the first ever cable-oriented legislation was passed in the US – the Cable Communications Policy Act – and only eight years later, the Cable Consumer Protection and Competition Act. Both were only moderately effective at keeping up with the rapidly changing nature of cable television service. By the early 1990s, cable television clearly was morphing into a different sort of industry as it both merged with other telecommunications technologies, such as the nascent Internet, and contended with new competition from both direct broadcast satellites (DBS) and telephone companies. Legislators would attempt to address this scenario in the more comprehensive 1996 Telecommunications Act.
The policy shifts within the US and the overall popularity of multichannel television services in North America have rippled throughout the entire world since the 1990s (even earlier in some countries). In countries with longstanding television service (such as many in western Europe), established public channels now face competition from both privately funded broadcast channels as well as cable or DBS services. In developing countries, satellite transmission (sometimes enhanced by terrestrial cable) has made it possible to deliver television over large territories, which could not have been served effectively by either broadcast or cable networks – as in the case of Indonesia, for example. Policy analysts see this as a mixed blessing, given the virtually inescapable fact that it is much easier for satellite companies to import programming produced by and for other countries than to have it produced locally – perpetuating situations of cultural imperialism. Nonetheless, the presence of satellites and multichannel television also allows the possibility that the cost savings achieved by efficient means of distribution will generate more resources and incentives to develop indigenous programming infrastructures.
Cable Television And The Internet
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, cable companies throughout the world began to supplement their extensive program packages with high-speed Internet access, also known as “broadband,” and cable telephone service, which relies on the Internet and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). Nearly all cable companies now engage in a marketing practice known as “überbundling,” in which television program packages, Internet access, and cable telephone are sold as a package for a single monthly fee.
Today, the international cable television industry faces challenges from several other multichannel and Internet-based technologies. Since the early 1980s, cable has competed with direct-to-home (DTH) satellite. Starting in the early 1980s, large backyard C-band dishes allowed people to receive the signals of cable networks in the same way that cable operators did at the headends (a practice kept in check by signal scrambling technologies that essentially force dish users to pay for access to the channels). In the 1990s came much smaller Ku-band DBS dishes that allow even urban apartment dwellers an alternative to cable service. As of the early twenty-first century, telephone companies also offer cable-type service using high-speed Internet technologies.
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