TELEVISION IN THE UNITED STATES|
Television channels and networks
There are three basic types of television in the United States: broadcast, or
"over-the-air" television, which is freely available to anyone with a TV in the
broadcast area, cable television, and satellite television, both of which
require a subscription to receive.
The United States has a decentralized, market-oriented television system.
Unlike many other countries, the United States has no national broadcast
programming services. Instead, local media markets have their own television
stations, which may be affiliated or owned and operated by a TV network.
Stations may sign affiliation agreements with one of the national networks.
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.
However, to ensure local presences in television broadcasting, federal law
restricts the amount of network programming local stations can run. Until the
1970s and '80s, local stations supplemented network programming with a good deal
of their own produced shows. Today, however, many stations produce only local
news shows. They fill the rest of their schedule with syndicated shows, or
material produced independently and sold to individual stations in each local
The three major networks
The three major commercial television networks in the U.S. include NBC and
CBS, which date to the early days of television (in fact, they both began in the
1920s as radio networks), and ABC, founded, also as a radio network, in 1943. In
big cities, affiliates of these networks almost always broadcast in the VHF
band, which, in the days before cable became widespread, was premium real
Major-network affiliates run very similar schedules. Typically, they begin
weekdays with an early-morning locally produced news show, followed by a network
morning show, such as NBC's Today, which mixes news, weather, interviews and
music. Syndicated programming, especially talk shows, fill the late morning,
followed often by local news at noon (Eastern Time). Soap operas dominate the
early afternoon, while syndicated talk shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show
appear in the late afternoon. Local news comes on again in the early evening,
followed by the national network's news program at 6:30 or 5:30 p.m., followed,
in the Central Time zone, by more news.
More syndication occupies the next hour (or ½ hour in the Central time zone,
called prime access slot) before the networks take over for prime time, the
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 like Dancing with the Stars has largely replaced them. Later in the
evening, dramas like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Grey's Anatomy air.
At 10 or 11 p.m., another local news program comes on, usually followed by
late-night interview shows, such as Late Show with David Letterman. Rather than
sign off for the early hours of the morning (as was standard practice until the
1980s or so), TV stations now fill the time with syndicated programming or
30-minute advertisements, known as infomercials.
Saturday mornings usually feature network programming aimed at children
(including animated cartoons), while Sunday mornings include public-affairs
programs that help fulfill stations' legal obligations to provide public-service
programming. Sports and infomercials 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
Until 1987, all English-language stations not affiliated with the big three
networks were independent, airing only locally produced and syndicated
programming. Many independent stations still exist in the U.S., usually
broadcasting on the UHF band. Syndicated shows, often reruns of old TV series
and old movies, take up much of their schedule.
In 1986, however, the Fox Broadcasting Company launched a challenge to the
big three networks. Thanks largely to the success of shows like The Simpsons, as
well as the network's 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 a
nightly news program, its prime-time schedule is only two hours long, and some
of its big-city affiliates still broadcast on UHF. Its only scheduled news
program is FOX News Sunday, on Sunday mornings; FOX prefers to use the cable FOX
News Channel for its news programming, giving affiliates more time to carry
local news. Most FOX affiliates now have local newscasts, usually airing an hour
earlier competing with network dramas, rather than other local newscasts.
In the 1990s, three new networks -- The WB, UPN and PAX -- joined the scene.
The fledging WB and UPN merged into The CW in fall 2006, while News Corp's
MyNetworkTV, created to replace UPN programming on FOX's O&Os, debuted in fall
2006 as well. PAX, now known as "ION Television," has had very low ratings since
its launch and is no longer considered a competitor to the larger over-the-air
ION broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making the ION network totally
responsible for its affiliates. MyNetworkTV broadcasts 12 hours a week, Monday
through Saturday. The CW broadcasts 13 hours a week in prime time, 10 hours in
Broadcast television in Languages Other Than English (LOTE)
Univision, a network of Spanish language stations, is the fifth-largest TV
network behind NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox. Its major competition is Telemundo, a
sister network of NBC. Univision-owned TeleFutura, aimed at a younger Hispanic
demographic, and Azteca America, the American version of Mexico's TV Azteca, are
two other popular Spanish-language over-the-air networks.
In addition, the Miami-based Haitian Television Network offers locally
produced Haitian Creole and French language programming in Miami and parts of
New Jersey, New York City, and Boston.
Public television has a far smaller role than in most other countries. There
is no state-owned broadcasting authority. Instead, the federal government
subsidizes non-commercial 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 public affairs
programming. Most public TV stations are affiliates of the Public Broadcasting
Service, sharing programs like Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theatre. Unlike the
commercial networks, PBS does not produce its own programming; instead,
individual PBS stations create programming and provide these to other
affiliates. New York City's municipally-owned broadcast service, NYCTV, creates
original programming that airs in several markets. Few cities have major
Many religious broadcasting stations exist, also surviving on viewer
Cable and satellite television
Until the 1970s, cable television was used only to rebroadcast over-the-air
TV to areas that had trouble receiving signals. But in that decade, national
networks dedicated exclusively to cable broadcasting appeared, along with
cable-TV systems that provided service to major cities. Today, most American
households receive cable TV, and cable networks collectively have greater
viewership than broadcast networks.
Unlike broadcast networks, most cable networks air the same programming
nationwide. Top cable networks include USA network, ESPN (sports), MTV (music),
CNN (news), Sci Fi (science fiction), Disney Channel (family), Nick
(Children's), Discovery Channel (documentaries), TBS (comedy), TNT (drama) and
Cable-TV subscribers receive these channels through local cable system
operators, who receive the programming from the networks and transmit them into
homes. Usually, local governments award a monopoly to a system operator to
provide cable-TV service in a given area. By law, cable systems must include
local over-the-air stations in their offerings to customers.
Today Direct broadcast satellite television services, which became available
in the U.S. in the 1990s, offers programming similar to cable TV. Dish Network
and News Corporation's DirecTV are the major DBS providers in the country.
Satellites were originally launched and used by the Television networks as a
method of distributing their programs from headquarters to local affiliates. In
the 1970s individuals in remote locations, without access to Terrestrial
television broadcasts, found they could get free television by installing large
satellite dishes and aiming them at the various satellites owned by the
networks. This had the additional benefit of providing channels that others
could not receive. This included programs without commercials, live feeds not
intended for broadcast, broadcasts from other countries and eventually cable
television programming. To prevent people from receiving pay content for free,
satellite transmissions are now scrambled. Newer transmission technology enabled
satellite dishes to be much smaller and subscription services were developed.