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Television is one of the major mass media of the United States. Ninety-nine percent of American households have at least one television and the majority of households have more than one.

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.

Broadcast television

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 market..

The three major networks

The three major commercial television networks in the U.S. are the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), which date to the early days of television (in fact, they both began in the 1920s as radio networks), and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which began its life as a radio network spun off from NBC in 1943. In big cities, affiliates of these networks were almost always broadcast in the VHF band before the transition to digital television in 2009, which, in the days before cable became widespread, was premium real estate.

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). Network run 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 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, House, M.D., 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 or The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. 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, reruns of prime time television shows and/or the local 10 or 11 o'clock news, 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

From 1955 until 1986, 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 historically 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 nightly prime-time schedule is only two hours long, some of its big-city affiliates used to broadcast on UHF before the transition to digital and its flagship stations are WNYWmarker, not WFOX and KTTVmarker, not KFOX (but KFOX-TVmarker is used for El Paso's Fox affiliate). Its only scheduled news program is Fox News Sunday, on Sunday mornings; special news coverage on Fox comes from the staff of cable's Fox News Channel. 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 (1995), UPN (1995) and PAX (1998; became "i" in 2005 and ION in 2007) -- launched. The fledging WB and UPN merged into The CW in fall 2006, while News Corporation's MyNetworkTV, created to replace UPN programming on Fox's O&Os, debuted in fall 2006 as well.

ION broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making the ION network totally responsible for its affiliates, although it mostly airs infomercials outside its prime time. MyNetworkTV broadcasts 12 hours a week, Monday through Saturday. The CW broadcasts 13 hours a week in prime time, 10 hours in daytime.

Broadcast television in non-English languages

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 América, the American version of Mexico's TV Azteca, are two other popular Spanish-language over-the-air networks.

In addition, the Miami, Floridamarker-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.

There have also been a few, local stations in American Sign Language accompanied by closed captioned English.

Non-commercial television

Public television has a far smaller role than in most other countries. There is no federal state-owned broadcasting authority. However, a number of states, namely West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and South Carolina, do have state-owned public broadcasting authorities which operate and fund all public television stations in their respective states. The federal government does subsidize non-commercial educational 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'smarker municipally-owned broadcast service, NYCTV, creates original programming that airs in several markets. Few cities have major municipally-owned stations.

Many religious broadcasting stations exist, also surviving on viewer contributions, including Trinity Broadcasting Network, Three Angels Broadcasting Network, Hope Channel, Daystar Television Network, The Word Network, The Worship Network, Total Christian Television, and INSP.

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 (general entertainment), ESPN and Versus (sports), MTV (music), Fox News and CNN (news), Syfy (science fiction), Disney Channel (family), Nick and Cartoon Network (Children's), Discovery Channel and Animal Planet (documentaries), TBS (comedy), TNT (drama) and Lifetime (women's).

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 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.

The business of television

Over-the-air commercial stations and networks generate the vast majority of their revenue from advertisements. According to a 2001 survey, broadcast stations allocated 16 to 21 minutes per hour to commercials. Most cable networks also generate income from advertisements, although most basic cable networks also receive subscription fees. However, premium cable networks, such as the movie network HBO, do not air commercials. Instead, cable-TV subscribers must pay extra to receive the premium networks. Cable-TV system operators get revenue from subscription fees and by selling local advertisements.


American television has had very successful programming that has inspired television networks across the world to make shows of similar types or broadcast these shows in their own country. Some of these shows are still on the air and some are still alive and well in syndication. The opposite is also true; a number of popular American programs were based on shows from other countries, especially the United Kingdom and Canada.

Primetime comedy has included situation comedies such as I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Friends, George Lopez and Everybody Loves Raymond, as well as sketch comedy/variety series such as Milton Berle's early shows, The Carol Burnett Show and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

Dramatic series have taken many forms over the years. Westerns such as Gunsmoke had their greatest popularity in the '50s and '60s. Medical dramas have endured (Marcus Welby, M.D., St. Elsewhere, ER), as have family dramas (Eight is Enough, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie) and crime dramas (Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, Hill Street Blues, Law & Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - the last two of which have spawned multiple spin-offs).

The major networks all offer a morning news program (NBC's The Today Show and ABC's Good Morning America are the standard bearers), as well as an early-evening newscast anchored by the de facto face of the network's news operations (Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather for CBS; NBC's Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Tom Brokaw; ABC's Peter Jennings). Successful news magazines have included 60 Minutes, 20/20, and Dateline in primetime and Meet the Press (the US's oldest series, having debuted in 1947), Face the Nation and This Week on Sunday mornings.

Reality television has long existed in the United States, both played for laughs (Candid Camera, Real People) and as drama (COPS, The Real World). A new variant - competition series placing ordinary people in unusual circumstances or in talent contests, generally eliminating one participant per week - exploded in popularity in 2000 with the launch of Survivor. Big Brothermarker, America's Next Top Model and So You Think You Can Dance followed; American Idol, based on the UK's Pop Idol, debuted in 2002 and has dominated the ratings consistently as of 2009, while The Amazing Race has won the Emmy for its program category every year since its 2001 debut.

American soap operas have been running for over six decades. Of the seven current daytime soaps, three have been on the air for over forty years: As the World Turns, General Hospital and Days of our Lives. Previous long-running daytime dramas included Search for Tomorrow, Love of Life, The Doctors, Another World and Guiding Light - the latter of which ended a 72-year run (combining TV and radio) in September 2009. Primetime soap operas of note have included Peyton Place, Dallas, Dynasty, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Desperate Housewives.

Daytime has also been home of many popular game shows over the years (particularly during the 1970s), such as The Price is Right, Family Feud, Match Game, The Newlywed Game and Concentration. Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! have found their greatest success in the early-evening slot before primetime, while game shows actually aired within primetime had great popularity in the 1950s and 1960s (What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth) and again, intermittently, in the 2000s (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Weakest Link, Deal or No Deal). The Price Is Right, which has appeared on CBS since 1972, was the only daytime game show remaining on the broadcast networks for fifteen years (prior to CBS's announcement it would be joined by a remake of Let's Make a Deal in October 2009).

The most successful talk show has been the late-night (after 11:30 PM Eastern/Pacific) Tonight Show (particularly during the 29-year run of third host Johnny Carson). Tonight ushered in a multi-decade period of dominance by one network in American late-night programming and paved the way for many similar combinations of comedy and celebrity interviews, such as those hosted by Merv Griffin and David Letterman.

Daytime talk show hits have included The Oprah Winfrey Show, Phil Donahue, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Live with Regis and Kelly, and run the gamut from serious to lighthearted; a subset of so-called trash TV talk shows such as The Jerry Springer Show also veered into exploitation and titillation.

The life cycle of U.S. television shows

Television production companies either commission teleplays for TV pilots or buy spec scripts. Some of these scripts are turned into pilots. Those which the production company thinks might be commercially viable are then marketed to television networks—or television distributors for first-run syndication. (KingWorld distributes Oprah in first-run syndication, for example, because that show is syndicated—is not affiliated with a particular network.) A few things in consideration for a TV network to pick up a show is if the show itself is compatible with the network's target audience, and if the show is well liked among network executives.

Networks sometimes preemptively purchase pilots to prevent other nets from controlling them, and the purchase of a pilot is no guarantee that a show will get an order for more episodes. Those that do get "picked up" get either a full or partial-season order, and the show goes into production, usually establishing itself with permanent sets, a full crew and production offices. Writers are hired, directors are selected and work begins, usually during the late spring and summer before the fall season-series premieres. (Shows can also be midseason replacement, meaning they are ordered specifically to fill holes in a network schedule created by the failure and cancellation of shows which premiered in the fall. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Office are examples of successful midseason replacements.)

The standard broadcast television season in the United States is 22 episodes per season; sitcoms may have 24 or more; animated programs may have more (or fewer) episodes; cable networks with original programming seem to have settled on about 10 or 12 episodes per season, much in line with British television programming.

American soap operas air in the afternoon, five days a week, without any significant break in taping and airing schedules throughout the year. This means that these serials air approximately 260 episodes a year, making their casts and crews the busiest in show business. These shows are rarely, if ever, repeated, making it difficult for viewers to "catch up" when they miss a month, or even a week, of programming. However, cable channel SOAPnet provides weekly repeats for all ABC soaps, as well as Days of our Lives, and The Young and the Restless

Networks use profits from commercials run during the show to pay the production company, which in turn pays the cast and crew, and keeps a share of the profits for itself. (Networks sometimes act as both production companies and distributors.) As advertising rates are based on the size of the audience, measuring the number of people watching a network is very important. This measurement is known as a show or network's ratings. Sweeps months (November, February, May, and to a lesser extent July) are important landmarks in the television year—ratings earned during these periods determining advertising rates until the next sweeps period, therefore shows often have their most exciting plot developments happen during sweeps.

Shows that are successful with audiences and advertisers receive authorization from the network to continue production, until the plotline ends (only for scripted shows) or if the contract expires. Those that are not successful are often quickly told to discontinue production by the network, known as cancellation. There are instances of initially low-rated shows surviving cancellation and later becoming highly-popular, but these are rare. For the most part, shows that are not immediately even moderately successful will be cancelled by the end of November sweeps. Usually if a show is canceled, there is little chance of it ever coming back again especially on the same network it was canceled from, the only show in the US to ever come back from cancellation on the same network is Family Guy.


Broadcast television is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC awards licenses to local stations, which stipulate stations' commitments to educational and public-interest programming. The FCC also prohibits the airing of "indecent" material over the air between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Although broadcast stations can legally air almost anything they want late at night -- and cable networks at all hours -- nudity and profanity are very rare on American television. Broadcasters fear that airing such material will turn off advertisers and encourage the federal government to strengthen its regulation of television content. Premium cable networks are exceptions, and often air very racy programming at night. Some networks, such as Playboy TV, are devoted exclusively to "adult" content.

Cable television is largely, but not entirely, unregulated. Cable systems must include local over-the-air stations in their offerings (see must-carry) and give them low channel numbers. The systems cannot show broadcast-network affiliates from other parts of the country.

History of American television


Television first became commercialized in the U.S. in the early 1940s, initially by RCA (through NBC, which it owned) and CBS. A number of different broadcast systems had been developed through the end of the 1930s. The National Television System Committee (NTSC) standardized on a 525-line broadcast in 1941 that would provide the basis for TV across the country through the end of the century. Television development halted with the onset of World War II, but pioneers returned to the airwaves when that conflict ended.

There were only a few dozen stations operating at the end of the decade, concentrated on the East and West coasts. The FCC began handing out broadcasting licenses to communities of all sizes in the early 1950s, spurring an explosion of growth in the medium. A brief debacle over the system to use for color broadcasts occurred at this time, but was soon settled. Half of all U.S. households had TV sets by 1955, though color was a premium feature for many years (most households able to purchase TV sets could only afford black-and-white models, and few programs were broadcast in color until the mid-1960s).

Many of the earliest TV programs were modified versions of well-established radio shows. The '50s saw the first flowering of the genres that would distinguish TV from movies and radio: talk shows like The Jack Paar Show and sitcom like I Love Lucy. Stations across the country also produced their own local programs. Usually carried live, they ranged from simple advertisements to game shows and children's shows that often featured clowns and other offbeat characters. Local shows could often be popular and profitable, but concerns about product promotion and other issues led them to almost completely disappear by the mid-1970s.

Subscription television (such as cable and satellite) became popular in the early 1980s, and has been growing in significance since then- spurring the emergence of multinational conglomerates such as Fox

The U.S. has now moved to digital television. A law passed in 2006 required over-the-air stations to cease analog broadcasting by February 2009, but was delayed to June 12th.

In 2008, there were an estimated 327 million television sets in the US.


  1. FCC V-Chip Fact Sheet, 7/1/99

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