Culture and Recreation

Radio and Television

How did cable TV develop?

The industry had its beginnings in the 1970s, when Home Box Office (HBO) started to beam its signal to customers on a subscription basis. It was a radical concept: Let audiences pay direct for the programming (in this case, movies) rather than having it wholly supported through advertising and, in some cases, syndication fees. Another development during that decade proved to have lasting effect: Southern businessman Ted Turner (1938-) bought an independent TV station based in Atlanta and dubbed it a “superstation.” WTBS was soon made available to some 10 million subscribing households and was the beginning of Turner’s cable TV empire, which would later include Cable News Network (CNN), CNN’s Headline News, Turner Network Television (TNT), and, briefly, the music network VH-1.

Soon there were a number of niche-based cable networks airing programming around the clock: Music Television (MTV) was reaching teens and twenty-somethings;Lifetime targeted women; ESPN focused on sports; Black Entertainment Television (BET) catered to the African American audience; and American Movie Classics (AMC) appealed to a cross-section of American viewers who share a fondness for old, mostly black and white, movies.

By the 1980s the three major television networks, which had risen to power in the 1950s and had remained on the top of their game for the next two decades, found that their audience share was dropping. This was aided by the introduction of the upstart Fox television network, backed by media mogul Rupert Murdoch (1931-). Fox’s programming, geared toward a young, hip, and increasingly multicultural audience, found its own following.

Soon Americans had more choices than every before—and for a relatively low subscription cost. By the 1990s the Big Three networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) were reaching only 61 percent of the television audience. Not to be beaten at their own game, the networks responded to the new competition by producing more cutting-edge shows—programs that likely would not have made it on the air before the advent of cable. Further, they began charging their affiliate stations for programming—a trend begun by CBS in 1992.


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