The Complete History of Cable TV

While you may take your cable subscription and services as mainstays in your home or apartment, cable hasn’t always been with us, and it certainly hasn’t been around in its current form for very long. It’s constantly adapted from its early and localized form and now is ubiquitous with modern life. Cable is how millions get their news, entertainment, and more, and in recent years it’s allowed them to get it where and when they want it.

Join us as in this piece we go over the history of cable, review some of its impacts and adaptations, and look over the developments of the last decade to see where the industry might be headed.

The Birth of Cable (1948-1950)

While one might think cable originated in one place, in truth it was developed in a unique fashion in the areas of Arkansas, Oregon, and Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, where satellite signals were weak, lacking, or simply nonexistent. Additional satellite dishes were placed in strategic locations to pick up the best signals, and then cables were utilized to bring the improved signals to homes for entertainment.

While you may think of cable as something more commonly set up in urban areas with larger markets, the opposite is true for the early history of cable. Broadcast networks were more interested in urban centers where the most people could be reached. Yet the signals weren’t perfect and would grow weaker quite easily when compared to more modern options. Cable television in its early form was the solution to this, so there is planted its roots.

As systems were more readily set up and there were dozens of systems and cable networks in place, providers saw an opportunity: they could pick up signals and provide people with more programming options than they would otherwise have. While dates may vary depending on which metrics you follow, it can be generally assumed that the birth of cable (or perhaps more specifically community antenna television that led to cable) took place in 1948.

The First Burst of Growth, Then Stagnation (1950-1962)

As it turns out, cable grew, and it grew in the following years due in large part to inadvertent help from the FCC, which put a freeze on the creation and licensing of new broadcasting towers for four years (1948-1952). This led to more people being interested in and signing up for cable to view content that originated hundreds of miles away.

And as cable operators started to see both growth and opportunity, programming options expanded. While there was no original programming for cable services as we know it today, the expanded offerings were more than enough to pique the interest of 1950s audiences. Cable operators knew how to pick-up broadcast signals from further away, and by the late 1950s, there was a lot of hope and possibility within the industry.

Growth continued to the point whereby 1962 there 850,000 customers within the confines of about 800 cable systems. We would like to point out that this is a much larger segment of the population than it would be by today’s considerations, and that these numbers were both the result of and impetus for major investment in cable programming and technology. It should also be noted that cable technology was being implanted and becoming more popular in major cities and metropolitan areas at around 1960 as well.

Regulation and Stagnation (1962-1972)

While previously cable was mostly unregulated by the FCC, heavily in part due to a decision made in 1956 (cable didn’t technically use the airwaves, and as such, the agency determined it did not have the jurisdiction to regulate it), in 1962 things changed a great deal, as cable had grown and had enough influence to seriously affect broadcast television, which the FCC had a vested interest in protecting.

There was still growth, as there were still more than 4.5 million cable subscribers as of 1970, but there were limits as to what content was available. Cable operations had to carry local broadcasts, and there were rules against duplicating locally available channels. These regulations and others somewhat limited the extent of cable beyond rural areas.

There was stagnation when it came to major developments in the market, despite the subscribers and profits available. Fewer people and companies were willing to invest heavily, and with good reason, if the government would only step in and cut the head off any growth that could occur. Cable companies over the decade would get into many legal battles over regulations, technicalities, and more, as the space was still getting defined in both a legal and physical sense.

Deregulation, Satellites, and Renewed Growth (1972-1980)

The dry spell for cable eventually ended in 1972, when due to the concerted efforts of the industry at several levels, the heavy regulations were slowly diminished or lifted, allowing for networks to carry more programming to more people. Cable companies could bring in longer-range signals, although there were still limitations that affected some markets and provided technical regulations to cable providers.

In some ways more important was the creation of HBO, which, while you know it today as the creator of premium programming using a subscription model, was originally a method for people (originally on the East coast) to be able to watch programming such as movies or exclusive sporting events. This model opened up an even greater market potential for cable, as watching something on cable became to many an event in itself.

Meanwhile, in the early half of the 1970s, satellite technology was improving, and with it came new opportunities for broadcasting. Seeing this, the head of HBO took measures to allow the broadcasting of programming via satellite in 1975, in many ways cutting the current technological limitations of cable. They even provided local cable providers with satellite dishes to properly pick up the signal. HBO also led the charge against the remaining regulations restricting cable companies in the late 1970s, and over time decisions were overturned or new precedents were set in cable’s favor, allowing for more programming options and additional markets to be reached, as well as allowing cable to more directly compete with network television.

Simultaneously, right after HBO started working with satellites, Ted Turner started the WTBS (Turner Broadcasting System) to allow for the distribution of older films, sports, and other programming. Other networks soon followed, and the cable industry and satellites were forever linked, never to look back.

The Cable Act, Network Programming, and a New Era for Cable (1980-1992)

By 1980, there were plenty of cable networks providing excellent programming across the board in genres of all types, to audiences of all ages and sorts. We couldn’t possibly list all of the innovations in programming that were made in the early 1980s, but suffice it to say people were loving cable, and millions of people were subscribing each year to the degree that by 1980 there were about 16 million total cable subscribers (and a household doesn’t need more than one subscription).

The Cable Communications Policy Act, passed in 1984, was a major change in the industry, providing companies with a new way to look at their efforts and providing the impetus for more infrastructure to be build relating to cable and for billions of dollars to be spent on it. Up until 1992 did cable companies make active and vigorous construction efforts, and it resulted in more than 50 million households getting a cable subscription by 1990, and the number of networks going well over 50 by that time.

Over the course of the decade, several of the major networks and names we know today got their start. Here are a few:

  • CNN launched in 1980, and while small at first, quickly grew into the institution it is today and paved the ground for other cable news channels.
  • ESPN, founded in 1979, quickly became the center for sports despite a similarly interesting start (they had early difficulties getting big-name broadcasting rights).
  • MTV was founded in 1981, primarily showing music videos at the time, launched and grew to have a profound impact on popular culture. Later on, MTV would spear the trend towards reality television that still has a hold to this day.
  • The Disney Channel might be widespread on cable today, but it originated as a premium service channel in 1983.

Further Regulations and Growth (1992-2000)

Congress grew suspicious of big cable around 1992 and passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, which effectively froze prices for customers as a protection measure. It allowed for communities to have greater control over the cable companies operating in their area and gave more compensation and control back to major broadcast networks. This, alongside general dissatisfaction with cable companies at the time, led to a temporary stagnation and drop and growth, although it should be noted that market saturation was rather heavy at the time.

Regardless of these developments, more cable channels and networks kept popping up, to the tune of well over 100 channels earlier in the decade. The average subscriber could count on at least 50 channels available to them. More households had a cable subscription than didn’t have one, and cable television was firmly a part of American life.

Later on, many cable companies decided to invest further into infrastructure, leading to many of the upgraded broadband lines we use today. These lines improved telecommunications across the board and allowed for digital cable services in more recent years. Cable was effectively defined by broadband for the latter half of the decade, at least in terms of prospects for the future.

Deregulations in the industry occurred in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and this allowed for cable companies, phone companies, and others to provide multiple types of telecommunications services. More companies would throw their hats into the ring, and while some quickly exited the cable space, overall there was greater competition across the country. Perhaps most notable from this time period is the merger of AOL and Time Warner.

Acceleration, Expansion, and More (2000-2010)

The dawn of the millennium made people want, hope, and expect more, and effectively got it. Cable companies tried to come out with new features, services, and other things in order to compete with each other, hoping to find the next big thing for cable. Many of the services you use today (DVR, modern on-demand programming, and streaming) all found their start in the millennium’s first decade, if not full adoption by this point.

The infrastructure and technology improvements of the previous decade continued, if not always at the same breakneck pace. Cable companies started planning to take advantage of the more advanced telecommunications technology found in every home, and larger corporations more commonly offered complete bundles and dominated local markets. More nationwide cable channels arose, leading to hundreds of options for subscribers. Billions of dollars were spent each year on expenditures and expansion.

You likely remember it as perhaps a somewhat boring time by some metrics for cable, but things were building, and in some ways, these threads still continue to this day.

The Information Age Crossroads (2010-Present)

While the internet came into being decades earlier, it perhaps wasn’t until the early 2010s until connection speeds were both fast and reliable enough to be able to provide a viewing experience comparable to cable. Many cable providers also got into providing broadband internet services as well, even more so than in the previous decade and bundles of the two have become assumed.

The infrastructure involved also has resulted in major developments, and more than 90 percent of all households in the country have access to some form of broadband connection, granting access to nearly all of the modern cable conveniences.

Now with the trend of streaming and TV Everywhere dominating media in all forms, and internet availability (both wireless plans and fast connections) being cheaper and more widespread than ever, many people are choosing to cut traditional cable out of their lives, and are finding that they aren’t missing much.

And this cuts to the truth of the matter: cable companies over the last ten years are not only competing with traditional network television like in the past or with each other as in the last few decades of the 1900s, but they are also competing with other options to receive content, the internet in general, and a level of connectivity that just can’t be ignored.

We expect that this will force cable companies and networks to adapt, and in many ways, they have, to some successes and failures (if in implementation, not in concept). The reinvention of how cable and television operation is both necessary and slowly happening.

Moving Forward

While we would not like to speculate too much on where cable might be headed in the future, if only because we live in such uncertain technological (and quickly moving) times, anyone who takes an interest in the industry might want to look for a few key things:

  • Anything that the FCC or other regulatory bodies might do to create or remove regulations regarding. Similarly, you will want to look for regulations regarding the internet and other forms of technology as well, given their heavily interconnected nature at present.
  • New methods of distribution, improvements to existing infrastructure (or entirely new infrastructure), and the use of existing Internet technology to further allow customers to have access to programming. Alternatively, you might see the discontinuance of some technology that only serves a limited market. It seems unlikely, but its unlikely a company is willing to continue with an unprofitable activity.
  • Extreme changes to the preferences of customers when it comes to the types of content they consume. While it is unlikely the infrastructure of cable will change entirely, cable companies might try to adapt and experiment beyond the standard formats people are used to.

Few people foresaw the developments that have led us to today. It only stands to reason that there will be further developments that we cannot foresee now, in both the United States and across the world.

Conclusion

And as we close the last chapter, we now turn the corner to the point where the digital age and traditional cable companies are intermingling in a most interesting manner. And now that you better understand where cable has been and where it is going, we hope that you can better appreciate the influence it has had over entertainment and perhaps be more informed as to what the best choices moving forward for you are.