The History of Cable TV: Part I
The number of television channels available to today’s consumer is so extensive, it’s hard to believe viewers were once limited to just three networks. Read on to learn how the change occurred.
Commercial broadcast TV ruled the airwaves for decades, but today, cable offers a seemingly endless variety of niche programming. And it’s been around longer than you might think.
Community Antennas: The First Cable Systems
The year 1948 was a tumultuous one. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, polio was on the rise, and the Berlin Airlift provided crucial supplies following the Soviet Blockade. But there were innovations that year, too. Porsche, the 33 1/3 LP record, Velcro, the transistor radio, and the Polaroid Land Camera all debuted in 1948.
Television viewership was also on the rise. In 1948, the number of households that owned TV sets reached one million, up from 5,000 just three years earlier. But the technology was far from perfect: people living in remote or mountainous areas often encountered poor reception from over-the-air television signals.
To help resolve this problem, community antenna television (CATV) systems were developed nearly simultaneously in Arkansas, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Antennas were built atop mountains and other high places, where they could receive broadcast signals more easily. These signals were amplified and retransmitted to homes and businesses via coaxial cables, marking the birth of cable TV.
Commercial Cable Systems Anger Broadcasters
Early CATV systems were regionally based and received little fanfare until 1950, when Robert Tarlton — owner of a business in Lansford, Pennsylvania, that sold radios and TVs — took a gamble. Television sales were virtually nonexistent because the closest TV stations were in Philadelphia, 65 miles away, and a mountain blocked the signals.
Tarlton persuaded investors to help him construct a large antenna atop the mountain to pick up the signals from Philadelphia and transmit them to Lansford through cables. Residents paid $125 for installation and a $3 monthly service fee in exchange for high quality broadcasts. Tarlton had created the first commercial cable system that charged a monthly fee, and widespread publicity in periodicals like The New York Times and Newsweek convinced other enterprising individuals to follow suit.
The Big Three (NBC, ABC, and CBS) viewed cable as a threat and urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene, claiming that cable operators were stealing their signals and charging for them. The FCC ruled that they had no authority to regulate CATV systems since their signals weren’t broadcast over the airwaves.
Cable flourished in the 1950s as more CATV systems sprang up. In 1952, 70 cable systems served 14,000 subscribers nationwide; a decade later, that number had grown to 800 systems and 850,000 subscribers. Broadcasters continued to cry foul, and the FCC reversed course in 1962, restricting cable operators from importing distant signals. Further regulations prevented cable operators from entering urban markets and competing with broadcast networks. This stunted cable’s growth, except in smaller markets.
Deregulation & The Expansion of Cable
By 1970, 2,500 cable TV systems served 4.5 million subscribers. Facing public pressure to relax rules limiting growth, the FCC began revising its policies in 1972 by allowing cable operators to import distant signals once again. This loosening of restrictions encouraged a pair of cable television executives to launch Home Box Office (HBO), the nation’s first pay-TV network, that year. HBO offered movies and special events to subscribers on the East Coast.
HBO took advantage of a 1975 ruling permitting the use of satellites for TV broadcasting and began distributing its signals nationwide, which local cable operators captured with dish-shaped antennas and delivered through coaxial cable. As HBO’s popularity grew, so too did its influence. The network challenged the FCC in court and got even more of the restrictions overturned, including the ability to enter urban markets.
With even fewer limitations, the cable industry exploded. Entrepreneurs like Ted Turner created national cable networks with innovative programming. WTBS, ESPN, CNN, and MTV emerged as pioneering cable networks.
By the mid-1980s, 6,600 systems served 40 million subscribers. The number of cable networks grew from 28 in 1980 to 79 in 1990. Deregulation of the cable industry was essentially complete when the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 removed most of the remaining restrictions. Cable networks began competing directly with broadcast networks, and the quality of original cable programming improved greatly. It’s a far cry from the days when a mountain could prevent you from enjoying Howdy Doody!
Sources: Some information for this article was provided by online articles from Encyclopedia.com, NCTA.com, Infoplease.com, Wikipedia, and CalCable.org.