13 May 2009
Community antenna television
Asystem for connecting households in isolated areas to common antennas to improve television reception, community antenna television was a forerunner of modern cabletelevision systems.
The people behind the invention:
Robert J. Tarlton, the founder of CATV in eastern Pennsylvania
Ed Parsons, the founder of CATV in Oregon
Ted Turner (1938- ), founder of the first cable superstation,WTBS
Growing Demand for Television
Television broadcasting in the United States began in the late
1930’s. After delays resulting from World War II, it exploded into
the American public’s consciousness. The new medium relied primarily
on existing broadcasting stations that quickly converted
fromradio to television formats. Consequently, the reception of television
signals was centralized in large cities. The demand for television
quickly swept across the country. Ownership of television receivers
increased dramatically, and those who could not afford their
own flocked to businesses, usually taverns, or to the homes of
friends with sets. People in urban areas had more opportunities to
view the new medium and had the advantage of more broadcasts
within the range of reception. Those in outlying regions were not so
fortunate, as they struggled to see fuzzy pictures and were, in some
cases, unable to receive a signal at all.
The situation for outlying areas worsened in 1948, when the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) implemented a ban on all
new television stations while it considered how to expand the television
market and how to deal with a controversy over color reception.
This left areas without nearby stations in limbo, while people
in areas with established stations reaped the benefits of new programming.
The ban would remain in effect until 1952, when new
stations came under construction across the country.
Poor reception in some areas and the FCC ban on new station
construction together set the stage for the development of Community
Antenna Television (CATV). CATV did not have a glamorous
beginning. Late in 1949, two different men, frustrated by the slow
movement of television to outlying areas, set up what would become
the foundation of the multimillion-dollar cable industry.
Robert J. Tarlton was a radio salesman in Lansford, Pennsylvania,
about sixty-five miles from Philadelphia. He wanted to move
into television sales but lived in an area with poor reception. Together
with friends, he founded Panther Valley Television and set
up a master antenna in a mountain range that blocked the reception
of Philadelphia-based broadcasting. For an installation fee of $125
and a fee of $3 per month, Panther Valley Television offered residents
clear reception of the three Philadelphia stations via a coaxial
cable wired to their homes. At the same time, Ed Parsons, of KAST
radio in Astoria, Oregon, linked homes via coaxial cables to a master
antenna set up to receive remote broadcasts. Both systems offered
three channels, the major network affiliates, to subscribers. By
1952, when the FCC ban was lifted, some seventy CATV systems
provided small and rural communities with the wonders of television.
That same year, the National Cable Television Association was
formed to represent the interests of the young industry.
Early systems could carry only one to three channels. In 1953,
CATV began to use microwave relays, which could import distant
signals to add more variety and pushed system capability to twelve
channels. A system of towers began sprouting up across the country.
These towers could relay a television signal from a powerful
originating station to each cable system’s main antenna. This further
opened the reception available to subscribers.
The notion of pay television also began at this time. In 1951, the
FCC authorized a test of Zenith Radio Corporation’s Phonevision in
Chicago. Scrambled images could be sent as electronic impulses
over telephone lines, then unscrambled by devices placed in subscribers’
homes. Subscribers could order a film over the telephone
for a minimal cost, usually $1. Advertisers for the system promoted
the idea of films for the “sick, aged, and sitterless.” This early test
was a forerunner of the premium, or pay, channels of later decades.
Network opposition to CATV came in the late 1950’s. RCAchairman
David Sarnoff warned against a pay television system that
could soon fall under government regulation, as in the case of utilities.
In April, 1959, the FCC found no basis for asserting jurisdiction
or authority over CATV. This left the industry open to tremendous
By 1960, the industry included 640 systems with 700,000 subscribers.
Ten years later, 2,490 systems were in operation, serving
more than 4.5 million households. This accelerated growth came at
a price. In April, 1965, the FCC reversed itself and asserted authority
over microwave-fed CATV. A year later, the entire cable system
came under FCC control. The FCC quickly restricted the use of distant
signals in the largest hundred markets.
The FCC movement to control cable systems stemmed from the
agency’s desire to balance the television market. From the onset of
television broadcasting, the FCC strived to maintain a balanced programming
schedule. The goal was to create local markets in which
local affiliate stations prospered from advertising and other community
support and would not be unduly harmed by competition
from larger metropolitan stations. In addition, growth of the industry
ideally was to be uniform, with large and small cities receiving
equal consideration. Cable systems, particularly those that could receive
distant signals via microwave relay, upset the balance. For example,
a small Ohio town could receive New York channels as well
as Chicago channels via cable, as opposed to receiving only the
channels from one city.
The balance was further upset with the creation of a new communications
satellite, COMSAT, in 1963. This technology allowed a
signal to be sent to the satellite, retransmitted back to Earth, and
then picked up by a receiving station. This further increased the
range of cable offerings and moved the transmission of television
signals to a national scale, as microwave-relayed transmissions
worked best in a regional scope. These two factors led the FCC to
freeze the cable industry from new development and construction
in December, 1968. After 1972, when the cable freeze was lifted, the
greatest impact of CATV would be felt.
The founding of cable television had a two-tier effect on the
American public. The immediate impact of CATV was the opening
of television to areas cut off from network broadcasting as a result of
distance or topographical obstructions. Cable brought television to
those who would have otherwise missed the early years of the medium.
As technology furthered the capabilities of the industry, a second
impact emerged. Along with the 1972 lifting of the ban on cable expansion,
the FCC established strict guidelines for the advancement
of the industry. Issuing a 500-page blueprint for the expansion of cable,
the FCC included limits on the use of imported distant signals,
required the blacking out of some specific programs (films and serials,
for example), and limited pay cable to films that were more than
two years old and to sports.
Another component of the guidelines required all systems that
went into operation after March, 1972 (and all systems by March,
1977), to provide public access channels for education and local
government. In addition, channels were to be made available for
lease. These access channels opened information to subscribers that
would not normally be available. Local governments and school
boards began to broadcast meetings, and even high school athletics
soon appeared via public access channels. These channels also
provided space to local educational institutions for home-based
courses in a variety of disciplines.
Cable Communications Policy Act
Further FCC involvement came in the 1984 Cable Communications
Policy Act, which deregulated the industry and opened the
door for more expansion. This act removed local control over cable
service rates and virtually made monopolies out of local providers
by limiting competition. The late 1980’s brought a new technology,
fiber optics, which promised to further advance the industry by increasing
the quality of cable services and channel availability.
One area of the cable industry, pay television, took off in the
1970’s and early 1980’s. The first major pay channel was developed
by the media giant Time-Life. It inaugurated Home Box Office
(HBO) in 1975 as the first national satellite interconnected network.
Early HBO programming primarily featured films but included no
films less than two years old (meeting the 1972 FCC guidelines), no
serials, and no advertisements. Other premium movie channels followed,
including Showtime, Cinemax, and The Movie Channel. By
the late 1970’s, cable systems offered multiple premium channels to
Superstations were another component of the cable industry that
boomed in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The first, WTBS, was owned and
operated by Ted Turner and broadcast from Atlanta, Georgia. It emphasized
films and reruns of old television series. Cable systems
that broadcast WTBS were asked to allocate the signal to channel 17,
thus creating uniformity across the country for the superstation.
Chicago’s WGN and New York City’s WOR soon followed, gaining
access to homes across the nation via cable. Both these superstations
emphasized sporting events in the early years and expanded to include
films and other entertainment in the 1980’s.
Both pay channels and superstations transmitted via satellites
(WTBS leased space from RCA, for example) and were picked up by
cable systems across the country. Other stations with broadcasts intended
solely for the cable industry opened in the 1980’s. Ted Turner
started the Cable News Network in 1980 and followed with the all news
network Headline News. He added another channel with the
Turner Network Television (TNT) in 1988. Other 1980’s additions
included The Disney Channel, ESPN, The Entertainment Channel,
The Discovery Channel, and Lifetime. The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs
Network (C-SPAN) enhanced the cable industry’s presence in
Washington, D.C., by broadcasting sessions of the House of Representatives.
Specialized networks for particular audiences also developed.
Music Television (MTV), featuring songs played along with video
sequences, premiered in 1981. Nickelodeon, a children’s channel,
and VH-1, a music channel aimed at baby boomers rather than
MTV’s teenage audience, reflected the movement toward specialization.
Other specialized channels, such as the Sci-Fi Channel and the
Comedy Channel, went even further in targeting specific audiences.
Cable and the Public
The impact on the American public was tremendous. Information
and entertainment became available around the clock. Cable
provided a new level of service, information, and entertainment unavailable
to non subscribers. One phenomenon that exploded in the
late 1980’s was home shopping. Via The Home Shopping Club and
QVC, two shopping channels offered through cable television, the
American public could order a full range of products. Everything
from jewelry to tools and home cleaning supplies to clothing and
electronics was available to anyone with a credit card. Americans
could now go shopping from home.
The cable industry was not without its competitors and critics. In
the 1980’s, the videocassette recorder (VCR) opened the viewing
market. Prerecorded cassettes of recent film releases as well as classics
were made available for purchase or for a small rental fee. National
chains of video rental outlets, such as Blockbuster Video and
Video Towne, offered thousands of titles for rent. Libraries also began
to stock films. This created competition for the cable industry, in
particular the premium movie channels. To combat this competition,
channels began to offer original productions unavailable on
videocassette. The combined effect of the cable industry and the
videocassette market was devastating to the motion picture industry.
The wide variety of programming available at home encouraged
the American public, especially baby boomers with children,
to stay home and watch cable or rented films instead of going to theaters.
Critics of the cable industry seized on the violence, sexual content,
and graphic language found in some of cable’s offerings. One
parent responded by developing a lockout device that could make
certain channels unavailable to children. Some premium channels
developed an after-hours programming schedule that aired adult theme
programming only late at night. Another criticism stemmed
from the repetition common on pay channels. As a result of the limited
supply of and large demand for films, pay channels were forced
to repeat programs several times within a month and to rebroadcast
films that were several years old. This led consumers to question the
value of the additional monthly fee paid for such channels. To com-
bat the problem, premium channels increased efforts aimed at original
production and added more films that had not been box-office hits.
By the early 1990’s, as some eleven thousand cable systems were
serving 56.2 million subscribers, a new cry for regulation began. Debates
over services and increasingly high rates led the FCC and
Congress to investigate the industry, opening the door for new
guidelines on the cable industry. The non-cable networks—American
Broadcasting Company (ABC), Columbia Broadcasting System
(CBS), National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and newcomer
Fox—stressed their concerns about the cable industry. These networks
provided free programming, and cable systems profited
from inclusion of network programming. Television industry representatives
expressed the opinion that cable providers should pay
for the privilege of retransmitting network broadcasts.
The impact on cable’s subscribers, especially concerning monthly
cable rates, came under heavy debate in public and government forums.
The administration in Washington, D.C., expressed concern
that cable rates had risen too quickly and for no obvious reason other
than profit-seeking by what were essentially monopolistic local cable
systems. What was clear was that the cable industry had transformed
the television experience and was going to remain a powerful force
within the medium. Regulators and television industry leaders were
left to determine how to maintain an equitable coexistence within the
See also :
Color television; Communications satellite; Fiber-optics;
Telephone switching; Television.