Broadcasting, Cable, and Satellites

Michele Hilmes. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.

It is impossible to understand the function and impact of the media of broadcasting, cable, and satellites without attention to the historical processes and tensions that have produced them. More than any other previous or subsequent medium, broadcasting and its adjuncts have been structured within the needs of nation. Born during the period of heightened nationalism following the struggles of World War I, radio and later television became deeply nationalized forms of communication, largely confined within the borders of individual nations, either completely run by or at least heavily regulated by government, shaped to serve the needs of national identity formation during a century marked by bitter national struggles, increased displacement and immigration, and national debates over “who we are, who we are not” (Hilmes, 2002).

These debates also essentially included negotiations over internal hierarchies and power. Radio, and later television, functioned as a public medium in private space, and its voices and representations became the sites of struggles over participation, inclusion, and control during decades in which nations struggled with massive immigration and the challenges of assimilation, the enfranchisement of women destabilized gendered social structures across the globe, racial struggles led to a period of decolonization and civil rights, and the first stirrings of a global popular culture disrupted national cultures and prerogatives. Broadcasting often served the needs of political elites, keeping cultural power out of the threatening hands of those deemed second-class citizens, even as subordinate groups made use of media on the margins to organize, define themselves, and share their messages with the greater public (Collins, 1990; Hayes, 2000; Scannell & Cardiff, 1991). Broadcasting institutions and industries became enormously powerful and increasingly central not only to national but also to individual life. Cable, arriving at the height of television’s power as a medium, promised at first greater localization of culture within the national address of television (Streeter, 1987) but, combined with the globalizing power of satellites in the late 1980s, began the process that today challenges national sovereignty over media even as it hands ever greater power and global reach to the media productions of certain nations such as the United States, France, Great Britain, India, and China. Broadcasting also developed a significant propaganda presence in the latter half of the 20th century, as nations sent out their political messages to other nations during times of war, tension, and peace. Thus, the social and political significance of broadcasting, cable, and satellites cannot be understood as merely technological, something simply applied to a culture and held in place by laws, structures, and practices (Williams, 1975; Winston, 1990). Rather, just as broadcasting has shaped culture over the past century, cultural processes have shaped the development and uses of broadcast technologies. This chapter traces that process.

Radio Nations

The late teens and early 1920s were a period of immense social and political upheaval in the United States and in much of the world. Immigration, population flows, and the struggles over national identity and assimilation; the nation-defining paroxysms of the “War to end all wars”; the expansion of democracy to include women and other long-subordinated groups; the growth and problems of urban life; and an emerging, increasingly powerful sphere of popular culture challenged preexisting notions of social order and control. In countries around the world but especially in the United States, a new world of popular entertainments—in publishing, advertising, sports, movies, and vaudeville—rose up to amuse, inform, cajole, and educate the polyglot breed of Americans. A different kind of culture developed at the grassroots level that many, especially the established elites, feared and resisted. “Mass communication” began to be recognized as a powerful new social phenomenon in an atmosphere of expanding democracy and social instability.

The advent of radio drew on and affected all these trends. Far from arriving as a finished, uncontroversial technology that could be easily fitted into existing structures and hierarchies, radio stirred up conflicts, offered competing uses, provoked struggles over whose interests would win out over others, and raised fears about the dangerous cultural forces that might be unleashed by this invisible medium of connection and communication (Douglas, 1999; Goodman & Gring, 2000). Out of these many forces, radio broadcasting arose as a vital and necessary participant in the national experience, both in the United States and in other countries developing this promising new technology.

Founding Concepts

Drawing on key technological innovations by Marconi, Fessenden, Armstrong, and DeForest, the idea of “wireless” radio broadcasting emerged from its previous domain in the garages and attics of the amateurs and became a nationally defining social practice. Joining the social upheavals and disturbances of the “Jazz Age,” a time of rising affluence, increasing social tensions, technological advancement, and cultural experimentation, radio added its own unique voice to the mix. New institutions arose to address and control the growing business of radio. The Radio Corporation of America was formed in an atmosphere of nation building following World War I. Though many of its structures were similar to those being built in other nations, significantly, the United States, alone among the major nations of the world, chose to entrust its rapidly growing broadcasting system to the hands of major private corporations rather than to the state, producing its unique commercial network system.

The British Broadcasting Corporation chose another route, one that would be emulated by most of the nations of Europe and put in place in colonial locations around the globe. Based on the idea that a central contradiction existed between the needs of commercial owners and the needs of the state, public service broadcasting provided an alternative model to the American one (Hendy, 2000). Run by state-owned or state-chartered organizations, usually financed by a license fee paid by all and restricted to one or two national channels, public service broadcasting radio sought to educate, uplift, and preserve central cultural values. All association with vulgar commercial influences was to be avoided, and up until the post-World War II period, most nations regarded radio broadcasting primarily as a medium of information, education, and social control and much less as a popular entertainment form.

Many counties adopted some variation on the British model in the 1920s, with its combination of state ownership of broadcasting stations, a centralized programming service, public funding via license fee, and a public service mandate. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland all modeled their basic government-chartered broadcasting institutions after the BBC from the 1920s until the late 1960s or 1970s, with central control in a licensed corporation providing a mix of national and local service. France and Belgium, although allowing commercial radio to exist in the first decade or two, adopted public service systems after World War II. Other countries such as Germany and Italy, whose central governments exercised tight control and state ownership of radio before and during World War II, adopted a more British system after the war. Germany founded the Allgemeinschaft Rundfunk Deutschland (ARD) to provide a national programming service but placed ownership of radio stations in the hands of regional governments, which supplied the programming distributed by ARD as well as local offerings. Funding was provided by a combination of license revenues and sale of advertising. Italy formed the Radio Audizioni Italia (RAI), which operated several national television and radio channels again with a combination of public and commercial funds. France formed Radiodiffusion/Télévision Française (RTF) after World War II, with four national radio channels and one television channel after 1959. The Netherlands, virtually from the beginning, adopted a unique approach, with stations financed by subscription and public subsidy operated by “pillar” groups: organizations that represented large social formations in Dutch society. These were the conservative Protestant channel, the liberal Protestant channel, the Catholic channel, and two operated by radio amateur societies. Some shared facilities, and programming services were provided by a central broadcasting organization, the Nederlanse Radio Unie (NRU) (Emery, 1969).

In Asia, Japan formed the forerunner of its Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) broadcasting authority in 1925 on a publicly funded basis but expanded to include commercial channels after World War II. India, under British rule, established the Indian Broadcasting Company in 1926 as a private enterprise, but it was replaced by the All India Radio service (AIR) in 1936 under government operation. In the early 1960s, television developed under the auspices of Doordarshan, the state-sponsored national network, which expanded to include regional stations and satellite-delivered services in the 1970s and 1980s and began to allow commercial sponsorship of programming.

Other countries made radio broadcasting a direct function of the state. In the Soviet Union, broadcasting was centralized in Moscow and directed by the state under the Ministry of Culture. The Moscow central station sent out programs by shortwave links to other cities across the Soviet Union’s great expanse. In China, though the early 1920s saw a certain number of foreign-owned, private radio stations originate along the east coast and in some major cities, all were closed down in the late 1920s as the civil war raged between the Nationalist Party and the Communists under Mao Ze Dong.

A few nations combined private and public ownership in partnership since the earliest years. Canada actually started out with an American-style privately owned, advertising-supported system, which also imported a steady diet of American programs. Fearing the loss of its national culture in broadcasting altogether, in 1932, the Canadian government made the decision to completely redesign its broadcasting system and fashion a less American-influenced alternative. It created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Company, which in 1936 became the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The CBC’s mission was to build a network of both public-owned and privately owned stations, using a combination of public and commercial funding to provide the entire Canadian public with programs built on Canadian identity and culture. It dedicated itself to seeing that all of its widely scattered and often very sparse population, sprinkled across the immense expanse of Canada, could receive the kind of broadcasting service that a private system would not find profitable and one that focused on Canadian concerns and talent. With a mix of privately owned and public stations as affiliates, financed by a combination of public funding from license fees and the sale of advertising time, the CBC produced national programs and funded local productions (Collins, 1990).

Broadcast Cultures

In the United States, after a brief period of amateur experimentation and relatively uncontrolled local entrepreneurship, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and its smaller but more adaptable rival, the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS), quickly became the two major players, exerting a strong oligopolistic control over radio broadcasting in the United States. Regulators, though expressing the occasional doubt over their highly commercialized operations and the networks’ monopolizing tendencies, in fact built a licensing system that privileged the control of large corporations over radio, to ward off the populist dangers the ineffable medium posed. By the time of the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, the majority of nonprofit stations had been driven off the air, and by 1940, the two major networks controlled most of the nation’s more powerful stations (McChesney, 1993). However, control over programming had been largely turned over to the major advertising agencies and their sponsors, who designed and produced the programs, merely buying blocks of time on the networks. Between them, radio networks, advertising agencies, and the taken-for-granted American public created what some have called the “golden age” of U.S. radio broadcasting. In other countries, such as France, Great Britain, and Germany, the radio units of the state owned the stations and provided the broadcasting service, making radio an increasingly effective means of political propaganda by the late 1930s (Hayes, 2000; Lacey, 1996).

From a collection of individual stations offering an eccentric mix of local entertainments, radio by the 1940s grew into an enormously profitable industry and a central focus of American life. Advertising agencies, networks, and stations, with a heavy dose of influence from Hollywood, created unique new forms of entertainment, information, and expression. Though primarily intended to sell consumer goods, the avenues of creative innovation opened up by this amazingly successful medium allowed a variety of programs, genres, stars, and audiences to emerge that spoke to the hopes, fears, and desires of the American public. Jack Benny became “America’s fall guy” on the most popular type of radio show, the comedy/variety format, providing sophisticated and humorous satire of social pretensions and hierarchies to a new “middlebrow” audience. As the networks divided their schedules into distinct daytime and nighttime realms, daytime became the territory of women. Innovators such as Irna Phillips invented a new form, the daytime serial or “soap opera,” that addressed the interests of women in highly melodramatic, continuing narratives, and Mary Margaret McBride set out on the path that would lead to David Letterman and Oprah (Douglas, 1999; Hilmes, 1997; Smulyan, 1994).

Yet despite radio’s popular success, the medium came under increasingly heavy criticism as the war years drew near. Both conservative and left-wing critics objected to radio’s cultivation of lowbrow tastes and interests and its heavy permeation by advertising. Radio’s very success became a mark of its limitations, and as war rumbled in the distance, it seemed change might be on the horizon. Nowhere was this tension more marked than in Great Britain, where efforts to popularize the BBC service became increasingly difficult because of their association with “Americanization.” It would take the war years to turn public service broadcasting, in Great Britain and in other nations, in a more popular, entertainment-based direction.

National Conflicts

Radio broadcasting played an extremely central role in nations around the globe during the wartorn years of the 1940s. Wartime tensions would change the medium forever and eventually usher in its greatest rival, television, whose structure and practices would reflect the deep changes wrought by war and peace. Because of the importance of recruiting national publics for war, radio would expand its mission and address, reaching out to groups disdained and overlooked before the war to draw them into the national fold. At the same time, radio would allow nations to turn their politics and culture outwards, creating international services such as the Voice of America and the BBC World Service as adjuncts to the war machine, which would become even more important during the different kind of conflict brought about by the cold war. Radio would become a crucial news medium, overturning pressures that had kept news coverage minimal in most nations in the 1920s and 1930s. Television would enter into this cauldron of political and cultural tensions promising education, international understanding, and the “end of ideology” but would end up embroiled in bitter cultural battles of its own.

Much of the concern over radio involved ideas about the audience, the “national public,” that broadcasting, more than any other medium, addressed: Did radio create a susceptible, easily manipulated “mass public” that needed to be firmly directed by “experts” disseminating the “right kind” of information? Or did radio reach a rational, reasonable group of responsible individuals who could make informed decisions based on a range of information and opinion? In Europe, Hitler’s Nazi state used radio as a central means of propaganda. Mussolini brought Italian radio under his control. In the United States, demagogues such as Father Coughlin inflamed the debate even as the Roosevelt administration approached radio as an adjunct of state. Roosevelt sought to tighten the regulatory framework under which broadcasting operated, commissioning a series of investigations that led to industry reforms. As a result of one of these, NBC was forced to divest itself of one of its two national networks—the Blue, which became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1943.

At the same time, as the war heightened the need to define “who we are and why we fight,” radio offered up increased opportunities for marginalized and oppressed groups to demand the ability to speak for themselves, to address the inequities and antidemocratic aspects of American life. For the first time, programs that explicitly addressed the history of racism and prejudice in the United States reached a broad public on the airwaves (Savage, 1999). Though these first efforts were cautious and hampered by oppositional views, they provided a vital forum for the momentum that would lead to civil rights reforms after the war. Other programs recruited American women into a newly defined sphere of paid work and public service (Horten, 2002). Advertisers, stations, networks, and government agencies worked hand in hand, though not without friction, to build public morale and spread important wartime information and encouragement. Programs produced for American troops abroad boosted morale overseas but also reflected the racial divide in U.S. culture (Meckiffe & Murray, 1998).

Beginning in the World War II years and intensifying during the cold war, the U.S. government began to take an active interest in aggressively promoting its capitalist, democratic ideology abroad via the strategic use of media. International shortwave radio, in particular, was able to break into the closed nationalistic broadcasting systems with a rival, outsider’s voice. The international radio service, Voice of America (VOA), was initiated in 1944 to spread American values and propaganda messages worldwide and to counterbalance the radio propagandists of the Axis powers. Originally operated by the Office of War Information, in 1948, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act to create the U.S. Information Agency, which took over the VOA as well as a host of other activities designed to “tell America’s story to the world,” as its motto states. Interestingly, the law authorizing the agency to distribute information about the United States to other countries forbade it to disseminate this information at home, to offset any fears about domestic propaganda. In 1951, another outreach service, Radio Free Europe (RFE), was created by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with broadcasts aimed specifically at Eastern Europe under the Soviet bloc; in 1953, it formed Radio Liberty (RL), transmitting directly into the Soviet Union (Nelson, 1997).

These stations did not just spread information about the United States and U.S. culture; they provided an oppositional source of news about the recipient nations themselves. The VOA showcased the United States to other nations; RFE and RL showed other nations to themselves from an American perspective, countering Soviet-centered news and information with anti-Communist propaganda. The United States was not the only country transmitting outward. The BBC’s World Service became the single most-listened-to radio program around the world, with an estimated regular audience of 120 million. France created Radio France International to bolster French culture worldwide. Both the USSR’s Radio Moscow and China’s Radio Beijing maintained extensive shortwave broadcasting services to spread political messages throughout their areas of influence.

During the war, U.S. radio networks proved themselves the best and most trusted avenues of news from the fighting fronts for the majority of the American public. NBC and CBS had been slow to take on news programming as part of their in-house duties, preferring instead to allow sponsors to provide commentators and analysts in commercial programs. But in the late 1930s, with the resolution of the press-radio war, networks began to establish news bureaus across the nation and in hotspots overseas. The journalists who made their reputation on radio during the war would become not only household names but also television’s first news anchors in the postwar period. CBS in particular served as the home of distinguished journalism, with Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Erik Sevareid, William L. Shirer, Chet Huntley, Elmer Davis (head of the Office of War Information from 1942-1945), Charles Collingwood, and Howard K. Smith as primary figures. Murrow served as CBS’s European news director. His live reports from London during the blitz, in the air over Berlin in 1943, and as American troops entered German concentration camps in 1944 still mark a high point in journalistic immediacy and impact. NBC had H. V. Kaltenborn and George Hicks. As NBC Blue became ABC after 1943, it too established a lineup of news commentators, including H. R. Baukage, Martin Agronsky, and Raymond Gram Swing.

The sheer popularity and centrality of news during the war years made sponsorship of news programs irresistible. This meant that sponsors, who in effect owned and produced the programs, could if they wished intervene in editorial content. Under pressure from sponsors, a change took place in the rhetoric of news delivery. From frankly personalized accounts—in which reporters spoke in first person and delivered the news through the lens of their own opinions—an openly expressed, less personalized, more generalized, and neutral style came into use. In 1939, CBS announced a new policy encouraging this change: It would no longer have news commentators; it would have news analysts. Erik Barnouw gives an example of how that affected one of H. V. Kaltenborn’s newscasts from 1940, covering a speech by presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie. Kaltenborn’s first version read, “I listened to Wendell Wilkie’s speech last night. It was wholly admirable.” But Kaltenborn crossed this out and substituted a new introduction: “Millions of Americans of both parties listened to Wendell Wilkie’s speech last night. Most of them agreed that it was a wholly admirable speech” (Barnouw, 1968, p. 136). This was both less honest (because Kaltenborn had no information about how most Americans felt) and less controversial (masking editorializing behind a tone of objective reporting). It was the shape of things to come.

But despite the networks’ growing commitment to news provision and despite the high level of confidence expressed in radio news by the American public, broadcast news as an objective presentation of fact, untainted by product pitches or by overt editorializing, had yet to appear as an industry standard. This state of affairs would continue into television—only breaking free after the “quiz show scandals” helped to reduce the power of sponsors and news coverage developed enormously—but still struggled with the conflicts between commercial and informative agendas, between self-interest and objectivity. The line between entertainment and news, always a slippery one, had begun to formalize in a way that network television would negotiate anew.

The Shining Center of the Home

Television rolled off the war-greased assembly lines and into America’s living rooms with astonishing ease and rapidity after the disruptions of the war years were over. From the beginning, dominated by the forces of big industry, there was never any doubt that television would develop along the lines laid out by radio into a commercial network system, controlled by the former radio networks and funded by advertising. Cold war tensions only heightened the close relationship between government and industry, and despite considerable social unrest brewing among America’s minorities and redomesticated former wartime workers, television promised a “normalizing” nation the good life. Decisions made in the regulatory sphere consolidated the big networks’ hold over the developing medium and put them in a strong position once the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “freeze” on TV station licenses had ended.

Television programs resembled their radio counterparts more than a little. The networks encouraged the transition to TV by siphoning off radio profits to support the new medium and encouraging sponsors, agencies, and stars to jump onto the TV bandwagon. Overseas, commercial television had made its debut in Britain in 1955, amid much debate that had echoed across the Atlantic. The careful separation of advertising from production, mandated by the new British Independent Television Authority, set a model that many U.S. critics thought American TV should follow. In the British system, commercial station operators produced their own programs and bought others from the United States and elsewhere, although in 1982, Channel 4 (the then-new second commercial channel) initiated a new system of buying programs from domestic independent producers as well. Advertisers were allowed to buy time in a totally separate process without even knowing what program their ads would appear next to. Selection and scheduling of programs stayed in the hands of licensed station operators exclusively, with no input from advertisers. In addition, advertising was restricted to set points at the beginning and end of programs only, cutting out the intervention of commercials mid-program that so many found so intrusive—and advertisers found so effective.

In the United States, meanwhile, a corrupt and lazy FCC seemed to have abandoned its regulatory responsibilities. In 1946, the New Deal-influenced FCC, under Clifford Durr, had published the most critical and proscriptive report in its history, the so-called “Blue Book,” more than a little influenced by the BBC-derived perceptions of its primary author, former BBC executive Charles Siepmann (Hilmes, 2003). Yet its reforms had been largely ignored and barely considered in the light of television hoopla. U.S. critics and reformers looked for a way to reverse this downward spiral, especially in light of the British example, and seized on a few reports in the press about unfair quiz show practices as a way to intervene. In September 1958, a New York grand jury launched an investigation of quiz show fraud (most of the popular game shows were produced in New York), and in 1959, the FCC began its own investigative efforts. What made the scandal influential, though, was the second set of tensions operating during this time: the desire of the networks to break free of the domination of sponsors and advertising agencies that they had tolerated for the past 30 years.

The networks, led by NBC, had already begun to advocate a new kind of relationship of sponsors to TV: the magazine concept, developed by NBC chief Pat Weaver after the style of women’s daytime talk shows, which substituted multiple sponsorship for single sponsors and made spot advertising the new order of the day. This system prevented a single sponsor from exercising the power over programming and scheduling that it previously had, and it let the networks regain the control over programming and scheduling decisions that they had lost in the 1930s. Seizing on the opportunity presented by the quiz show scandal and investigations, the networks promised that from now on they would take on a new, activist role in programming. Gone would be the dependence on corrupt, ratings-driven advertisers; here to stay would be a new era of centralized network responsibility and control. It was the blueprint for the classic network system, the era of network dominance that would reign supreme from the 1960s until cable and new regulations broke it up in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, instead of ushering in reforms, the profitable oligopoly of commercial television simply consolidated its power. The U.S. television industry would experience the most tightly centralized, vertically integrated, standardized, and profitable period in its history. The rest of us would experience Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, and Happy Days, our now-classic television heritage.

Radio, though diminished, did not die but morphed into a new form. The all-music DJ format emerged from Black radio practices, and a new kind of sound filled the airwaves. Rock and roll debuted as a new musical form out of the collision of Black and White audiences, crossover DJs, and the newly opened sphere of radio (Barlow, 1999). On television, meanwhile, a brief period of live drama, influenced by the New York theatrical scene, brought bold new fare to the small screen and launched dozens of new careers. Many consider this TV’s “Golden Age.” But variety shows, westerns, and situation comedies also thrived and prospered. The situation comedy, in particular, developed in large part by radio’s female stars during the war years, would bring a new, feminine voice to prime time and soon came to dominate television schedules. News experimented and adapted to the visual demands of television, as did sports. The daytime remained a relatively undeveloped part of the schedule until the late 1950s.

Yet barely had the quiz show scandal faded away when the period of tight network control began to totter under a new dystopian rhetoric that blamed the vertically integrated commercial network oligopoly for a host of problems. The emergence of PBS in 1968 pointed exactly to all those things that the commercial networks failed or refused to do: educational programs for kids, serious public affairs and documentary series, coverage of art and culture, inclusion of racial minorities, and a host of other long-awaited program initiatives. The commercial networks responded by creating “youth-oriented” shows that either stifled political comment, as with the Smothers Brothers, or created double-edged, compromised messages (Bodroghkozy, 2001). Network news covered the struggle for civil rights and for women’s equal rights but reproduced the repressive racial and gender system in its own organization and basic orientation.

Pressures from reformist, political, and competing industry groups created a groundswell for regulatory measures that would undermine the tight network cartel. The financial interest and syndication (fin/syn) and primetime access rules (PTAR) were passed to reduce the power of the “big three” networks over their increasingly vertically integrated business. Simultaneously, newly deregulated cable television pointed to a new, diverse, multichannel television universe still unavailable, yet beckoning.

Enter Cable

Community antenna television started out as a way for communities inaccessible to over-the-air television signals to bring TV into homes via a wire. A monthly fee could be levied for such a service, and the local cable TV operator could also set aside a channel for televising local events and send those out too, as a freebie. As station building spread in the late 1950s, local affiliates began to serve these communities, but many customers found that they enjoyed having a few distant signals from nearby cities beamed in as well. This was especially true when the nearly metropolis had a high-power independent television station that aired programming different from the networks, even more so if it included local sports or lots of old movies. By 1975, almost one sixth of the nation’s homes were wired for cable. There were more than 3,500 local cable companies serving these homes, and most of them had the capacity to send 10 or more channels over the wires to their customers. A few companies began to buy and consolidate local systems, becoming the first cable multiple-system operators (MSOs). The National Cable Television Association (NCTA) was formed to lobby against its usual foe, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), and to push for cable expansion. As early as 1970, the FCC, worried about concentration of ownership, passed rules forbidding local telephone companies or existing broadcasters to operate cable television systems.

It had been unclear exactly how much power the FCC had to regulate cable because cable did not use the public airwaves that the FCC had been formed to supervise. In 1968, a Supreme Court ruling upheld the FCC’s authority over cable, as long as it had a direct relationship to over-the-air broadcasting, as it clearly seemed to. In 1972, the FCC finally issued some clear rules that both inhibited cable development in some ways and yet also signaled its legitimacy and viability as a medium. Cable was free to expand in the top 100 TV markets. Cable operators had to offer at least one public/educational/government access channel, and the “must-carry” rules required that “all significantly viewed local stations” had to be retransmitted over the cable wires. This change had been sparked by a coalition of interest groups, which, despite competing agendas, had all seen in cable a solution to some of the problems that were beginning to be identified with commercial broadcast television (Streeter, 1987). Cable was seen as providing a useful alternative to the big-three bottleneck of the airwaves (largely produced by the VHF frequency allocation decisions of the 1940s) and as a way to bring more diversity and innovation onto the tube. Pay TV over cable, now permitted, promised a new market for movies and sports. Hollywood, which had been thwarted in its earlier pay TV plans, began to take notice (Balio, 1990).

But a potentially greater market began to open up as cable systems put the must-carry rules into effect, and small, low-power UHF independent stations found themselves rubbing shoulders on cable TV dials with their formerly dominant VHF rivals. This provided an enormous boost for independent and educational stations, raising viewership levels and program ratings and lifting the price that they could charge for advertising. Formerly shoestring stations began to buy more expensive programming, often network reruns, but also movie packages, older syndicated series that had reverted from network ownership, and a few so-called first-run syndication productions. These were shows produced especially to be sold to stations, not to nets. In the 1960s and 1970s, they usually consisted of “specialty” formats, such as game shows, talk shows, and specials. More independent production companies began to specialize in these types of programs, sold directly to independent stations.

In addition, the syndicated market for off-network programs—reruns—also boomed in the 1960s. Not only independent stations but also affiliates—using the extra hour of prime time that they gained—and even networks themselves, especially in the summer months, began to rerun their own shows. In many ways, syndicated programs were the ideal broadcast fare: Already successful, a known quantity that took little promotion, a series successful in prime time could be recirculated for years to eager audiences (Kompare, 1999). Though network deals meant that often the producers of these series received only limited compensation for their afterlives in syndication, studios and independents became increasingly unwilling to sign away their rights as the 1970s progressed. The promise of the cable-enhanced syndication market swelled the agitation for regulatory and structural change.

In other countries, where television began as a state-sponsored public service monopoly, great effort was expended to ensure that broadcast reception was available nationwide from the beginning. Competition with state broadcasters was not allowed. In areas where reception difficulties abounded—within large apartment buildings in major cities or in mountainous areas—cable was used much as in the United States, as a retransmission device, from the early 1950s on. But until satellite transmission promised an outside source of programming, cable was limited in more public service-based systems to the two or three state services available. Few incentives for expansion existed. In some countries, however, particularly Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, cable was used more extensively to relay multiple public service stations into areas outside their reach (Humphries, 1996). In Canada, with its mix of public and commercial broadcasting, cable expanded much more rapidly, mostly as a vehicle for bringing American programming into Canadian homes via microwave. Thus, cable’s ability to serve local communities, fulfilling the principle of localization so predominant in U.S. thinking about broadcasting, swiftly became secondary to its national and even global capabilities, thanks to its conjuncture with satellites.

Global Footprints

Opposed by broadcasters and regulators, limited to 12 or fewer channels, and faced by high system construction costs, cable might have remained forever a secondary medium were it not for two technological developments of the late 1970s: satellite broadcasting and fiber optics. Yet even before these technologies expanded cable’s abilities, the early 1970s in the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, and other leading television nations, began to witness a rise in perceptions of cable’s social potential. Pressure was building to break free of broadcast television’s limitations, whether commercial or public, and expand the number and types of service available.

In the United States, commercial network television was increasingly perceived as a “vast wasteland” dominated by greedy sponsors and a “lowest common denominator” programming mentality. Cable promised the “narrowcasting” of more specialized minority programming, local access channels that could pick up the community television function that local commercial stations had long since dropped, and commercial-free film channels: a television of abundance rather than scarcity. (The fact that the UHF band remained largely empty and might have provided many of these same services went unexamined in the rush to embrace the “new” technology.)

In Europe, where some countries had begun to privatize broadcasting and expand the number of public channels, the promise of cable’s interactivity proved compelling, evoking visions of public participation in civic decision making. Cable was seen as the potential backbone of the burgeoning deployment of information technology. It also allowed the growing pressure toward expansion of media systems to bypass the difficult battles over terrestrial broadcasting and move into a new, promising arena uncolonized by established interests. In Canada, regulators’ attempts to limit cable to communities that already had two or more Canadian stations available, as well as allow only one commercial and one public U.S. channel on those that met that standard, sparked general outrage, and the proposal was dropped (Rutherford, 1990). In Great Britain, cable began to be studied for its potential, and in 1983, a few companies would begin to offer regional services. Yet cable was expensive to install and still depended largely on broadcast programs for its material. In 1975, cable subscription rates stood at only 12% of homes in the United States. Struggling local franchisees began to sell out to larger companies, creating the first MSOs (Parsons & Frieden, 1998).

However, in 1975, Time Inc.’s subsidiary, HBO (Home Box Office), launched the first service to take advantage of satellite distribution of unique, film-based programming to local cable franchises nationwide. Leasing a commercial satellite transponder and using it to beam its signal across the satellite footprint, HBO was only the first of cable’s rapidly expanding specialized services that began to find a niche. Simultaneously, fiber-optic technology—sending data through bundled glass fibers in place of the old copper wire—allowed cable systems to expand their channel capacity exponentially in the 1980s. Atlanta station owner Ted Turner beamed his WTBS, with its exclusive franchise over the Atlanta Braves (also owned by Turner), up onto a satellite transponder, founding the first cable “superstation.”

These developments depended on the vital technology of the geostationary satellite. The first satellites used for communication purposes were launched in the early 1960s by U.S. telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Hughes, and RCA. COMSAT (the Communications Satellite Corporation) was formed in the United States in 1962 with the encouragement and participation of the U.S. government, much as RCA had been formed earlier at the outset of radio, to coordinate American satellite development, investment, and use. In 1964, INTELSAT (the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization) brought together a consortium of countries to serve a similar purpose for international satellite operation; at first managed by COMSAT, it became an independent corporation in 1973, with shares owned by its more than 100 member nations (the United States, through COMSAT, owns 25%) (Parsons & Frieden, 1998).

At first, satellites orbited around the Earth at speeds faster than the Earth’s own rotation; this meant that they had to be tracked as they moved across the sky by large arrays of receiving dishes. But the development of the geostationary, or synchronous, satellites in the early 1970s meant that now satellites could be launched into orbit in the exact spot—22,300 miles above the equator—that allowed them to remain stationary in relation to the rotation of the Earth. A dish could be set to receive the continuous signal of one satellite in one particular place in the sky and never be moved. This made distribution and reception of satellite signals much more regular and reliable. Early satellites transmitted back to Earth on the C-band, between 4 and 6 gigahertz (GHz), and required enormous, bulky dishes for reception; more recent ones operate on the higher frequency Ku-band, between 11 and 14 GHz, and enable the use of tiny, pizza-size receiving dishes. Most satellites contain 24 transponders, or individual channel transmitters, though today’s technology allows each transponder to be split to handle two or more separate signals.

New satellite-distributed cable channels began to proliferate in the 1980s, from Turner’s second effort, the Cable News Network (CNN), to music video-dominated MTV, all sports all the time on ESPN, and other more varied offerings such as CSPAN (televising Congress and other governmental activities), USA (a varied-format channel owned mostly by movie studios), the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Black Entertainment Television (BET), various home shopping channels, and pay TV services such as Showtime and The Movie Channel. Must-carry rules imposed by the FCC meant that cable operators were obliged to carry all “significantly viewed” local stations in each franchise area, giving a boost to independent stations that would eventually lead to the inception of new, movie studio networks Fox, UPN (United Paramount Network), and the WB (Warner Bros.).

The demand for programming created by this upsurge in venues sparked the growth of independent production in Hollywood and elsewhere and created new television outlets for such marginalized forms as independent films, documentaries, children’s programs, and ethnic/foreign language film and television. Eventually, the film and television industries would become so tightly intertwined through cross-investment and production that they could hardly be separated any longer. Original production for cable would, in the 1990s, begin to rival both network television and film for audience and critical acclaim, as with HBO’s series The Sopranos. In 1999, the networks’ combined audience share dropped to a new low of 58%, with cable making up the difference. By 2001, the number of television channels available in the average U.S. home had reached 55, up from 39 only 8 years before (Rutenberg, 2001).

Cable expanded across the globe. Canada’s subscription rates had exceeded 80% by the early 1990s. In Europe (Kelly, Mazzoleni, & McQuail, 2003; McQuail & Siune, 1998), as a wave of privatization and commercialization transformed the public service environment, cable was envisioned as playing a key role in the new telecommunications infrastructure. It could be used to open up limited national systems to the new, combined public and commercial multichannel service now prevalent in most countries. By 1992, cable had become very popular in the smaller European nations, reaching as many as 92% of homes in Belgium and 87% in the Netherlands, but remained much less in demand in the larger nations such as Britain, France, and Italy. The availability of satellite TV was a significant factor in this scenario (Humphries, 1996).

By the mid-1980s, satellite broadcasting and cable had become deeply intertwined. Cable as we know it could not exist without the national and international distribution that satellites make possible. On the other hand, as direct broadcast satellite (DBS) became a medium in its own right, it promised the first real competition to cable television services. With the success of HBO and other cable channels, the demand for commercial transponder space, usually leased from the satellite operator, soon rose to such an extent that the aerospace industry could hardly keep up. Not only cable but also network and syndicated programming are distributed via satellite, as are radio, data, and voice communications, all vying for transponder space. Live coverage of events across the globe depends on it. Add to this most nations’ use of satellite communications for defense and information-gathering operations—not to mention the burgeoning cellular phone industry and, increasingly, wireless Internet transmission—and the demand for satellite capacity seems infinite. The geostationary band is becoming full.

Global Impact

The half-hemisphere-sized footprint of the typical satellite signal began to change the rules of the national media game radically. Because in the early stages of satellite television, transmission dishes were so large and expensive to install, most satellite reception was done through cable channels: Cable systems provided the middleman between service providers and the home audience. This fact alone helped to slow the development of cable in some European countries, such as France and Great Britain, because so much of the early television material available via satellite consisted of U.S.-based entertainment and news programming. State broadcasters and agencies (particularly those that already produced the bulk of programs viewed in their home countries) saw no need to invest public dollars to bring American programming to their national audiences, and would-be commercial providers needed government permission to operate, usually meeting with opposition from state broadcasting interests. However, in more heavily cabled countries, the importation of American and other European programming on the satellite channels was widespread.

In the United States, DBS—sending satellite signals directly to receivers in people’s homes—became a small but thriving industry in the 1980s, subscribed to mostly by residents of rural areas with no access to cable and by some city dwellers through SMATV (satellite master antenna TV) systems that wired apartment buildings, dormitories, and hotels with a dish on the roof and wires running to the units within. It did not yet present much of a challenge to the expanding cable industry. However, by the mid-1990s, with the deregulation of cable television and with most local franchises remaining monopolies in their areas, dissatisfaction with rising subscription rates, limitations on channels carried, and the kind of less-than-perfect service that monopolies tend to provide began to encourage DBS ownership. Yet in the United States, satellite broadcasting’s role up until now has been primarily linked to the cable television revolution. In an already commercial and fairly diverse environment, DBS presented simply one more option for delivery of the same kinds of entertainment, news, and specialty channels that American audiences have regarded as normal since the 1980s. And the United States’ large landmass (nearly the size of a satellite footprint) meant that importation of other countries’ signals was not an immediate challenge, though Canadian and Mexican channels should certainly be receiving more widespread distribution in the United States than they currently are.

In Europe and across the globe, however, the impact of satellite broadcasting has been profound. Coming at a time in the late 1980s, when deregulation and commercialization of broadcasting systems was taking place in most countries, as one author puts it, “The rapid expansion of satellite channels had a tremendous impact. It removed, effectively, all practical constraints on the prompt development of private commercial channels” (Humphries, 1996, p. 169). For many countries, one of the primary cultural effects of satellite broadcasting was an influx of American films and series, as well as entire channels of American programming, offered via satellites services that crossed the borders of many nations. It is also significant that the late 1980s saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and renewed movements toward political reorganization and liberalization across the globe. Satellite broadcasting played a significant role in the liberalizing and globalizing of media systems that went along with this process.

The first commercial satellite to debut in Europe was the Astra satellite operated out of Luxembourg, launched in 1988 with 16 channels. In Great Britain, the Independent Broadcasting Authority in 1986 had authorized British Sky Broadcasting (BSB), a consortium composed mostly of U.K. commercial TV providers, to introduce satellite television to Britain in a regulated, public service context. However, due both to technical and administrative problems, its launch was delayed until 1990; in 1989, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Channel beat it to the punch, broadcasting into Britain from the Astra satellite, outside of British regulatory control. By 1991, Murdoch had bought out the struggling BSB operation and renamed it BSkyB (Crisell, 1997). Despite offering a mix of music videos, news, popular films and television series (many of them American), and sports, BSkyB’s success has mainly been limited to Britain and Ireland.

The European Community Directive on Television attempted to impose some order on satellite channels, including a vague ruling that “a majority proportion of their transmission time, excluding the time appointed to news, sports events, games, advertising and teletext services” be reserved for European-produced programs, yet it simultaneously confirmed the fact, now raised to a principle, that if a satellite service launched from one member country passed its own local regulations, it could not be screened out by any other member nation (Negrine, 1994). By 1991, a host of pan-European satellite services were on offer: 21 English-language services, 10 German, 11 French, and 29 others. Some of the most popular channels were Sky1, Eurosport, MTV, CNN, Euronews, Canal Plus, and the TNT Cartoon Network. In Québec, satellite channels became an important source of French-language programming.

The rise of satellite television was not confined to the United States, Canada, and Europe. Satellites were a much-commented on feature of the globalization process in the 1990s. CNN, MTV, and HBO, along with competitors from other nations such as the BBC World News, the European ARTE, India’s Zee-TV, and Mexico’s Televisa, were amongst those broadcasters who took the lead in this area. In India, the first major competitors to state broadcasters emerged, often based around regional cultures and languages (Kumar, 1999). In Taiwan, pirate cable systems began to spring up, bringing in foreign television channels via satellite but also providing one of the few spaces for oppositional political programs (Lin, 2000). In mainland China, illegal home dishes picked up Murdoch’s STAR TV signals from Hong Kong, breaking the communications isolation that had for so long prevailed in that country.

Satellite transmission also opened up whole new vistas for state-sponsored propaganda services. The CIA ceded its broadcasting operations to the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1971. In 1985, President Reagan authorized a service to Cuba, called Radio/TV Martí, committed to an anti-Castro mission. In 1996, the USIA began its Radio Free Asia (RFA) service into China and Southeast Asia. All are operated under the auspices of the U.S. State Department/USIA’s International Broadcasting Bureau as of 1994. Though television did not work as well as radio in terms of global reach and ease of reception, most countries set up satellite-distributed international television services in the 1980s and 1990s. The USIA initiated its World Net channel “to present a balanced picture of American society” in 1983, broadcast from Washington, D.C. to stations and cable channels, as well as U.S. embassies and cultural centers, around the world. The BBC initiated its World Television News service, and France set up Canal France International and TV5, a joint venture with other francophone state broadcasting organizations. In 1991, the BBC launched a more extensive World Service Television but as a commercial cable subscription venture because the British government declined to provide funding, broadcasting to Europe, Asia, and Africa.

In the globally connected world of the 1990s, World Net and the USIA radio services compete as well with the Cable News Network and other commercial cable nets to provide U.S.-oriented news and information to the world. In more developed countries, the Internet provides additional global information that threatens to make more traditional forms of radio and television obsolete. However, it must be remembered that 80% of the world’s population still cannot rely on regular electric service, placing television and computers out of reach. Radio is the medium, still, that speaks to most of the world. In Africa, a continent whose continuing struggles with poverty, political instability, and war have kept broadcasting from developing consistently, digital satellite radio promises to reach populations long isolated. WorldSpace, a commercial enterprise owned by Noah Samara of Ethiopia, extends its broadcasts to 80% of the world’s population with three satellites positioned over Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. A wide variety of radio services in languages including English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Wolof, Swahili, Portuguese, and Afrikaans, with a diversity of styles and content, is available for those who can get access to digital receivers—still a minority, but growing (Whelan, 1998).


As the new millennium begins, we are witnessing a very rich period in U.S. and global media, with a plethora of channels, media, products, and voices to choose from. Despite some disturbing tendencies for power to concentrate at the top in global industrial mergers and consolidations, here on the ground we seem to be experiencing an exponential breakthrough in the quantity, diversity, inclusiveness, and even quality of the media that surround us. However, we should remain mindful of the disparities and inequities that such abundance can conceal. New technologies do not “automatically” take care of social problems; indeed, they tend to become the heart of the next social problem unless we keep our historical perspective firmly in mind.

Culture, rather than nation, promises to define the media of the 21st century and to present the battleground on which most of its struggles will be waged. Yet the means of culture still fall under the sway of nationalized organizations, as of now, or of commercial concerns that threaten to replace the flawed power distribution of national governments with the often even less scrutable mechanisms of marketplace and profits. Although technology—inseparably allied with culture, the market, and the state—does occasionally hand us ways to redistribute communicative power in a more equitable manner, the forces of containment and control just as rapidly move in. As concentration, economic power, and political containment seek to find their own self-interested path through the maze of new opportunities, it is more crucial than ever to work to ensure that access, choice, diversity, and freedom continue to characterize the media environment in which we live and breathe.