Community Antenna Television Is Introduced

Community Antenna Television answered the demands of outlying regions for better television reception and formed the basis for later cable and direct broadcast satellite television systems.

Summary of Event

Television broadcasting in the United States began in the late 1930’s. After delays resulting from World War II, it exploded into the American public’s consciousness. The new medium relied primarily on existing broadcasting stations that quickly converted from radio to television formats. Consequently, the reception of television signals was centralized in large cities. Community Antenna Television
[kw]Community Antenna Television Is Introduced (1949)
[kw]Television Is Introduced, Community Antenna (1949)
Community Antenna Television
[g]North America;1949: Community Antenna Television Is Introduced[02750]
[g]United States;1949: Community Antenna Television Is Introduced[02750]
[c]Radio and television;1949: Community Antenna Television Is Introduced[02750]
[c]Communications and media;1949: Community Antenna Television Is Introduced[02750]
[c]Science and technology;1949: Community Antenna Television Is Introduced[02750]
Tarlton, Robert J.
Parsons, Ed

The demand for television quickly swept across the country. Ownership of television receivers increased dramatically, and those who could not afford their own flocked to businesses, usually taverns, or to the homes of friends with sets. People in urban areas had more opportunities to view the new medium and had the advantage of more broadcasts within the range of reception. Those in outlying regions were not so fortunate, as they struggled to see fuzzy pictures and were, in some cases, unable to receive a signal at all.

The situation for outlying areas worsened in 1948, when the Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission
Television;commercial broadcasting licenses (FCC) implemented a ban on all new television stations while it considered how to expand the television market and how to deal with a controversy over color reception. This left areas without nearby stations in limbo, while people in areas with established stations reaped the benefits of new programming. The ban would remain in effect until 1952, when new stations began construction across the country.

Poor reception in some areas and the FCC ban on new station construction together set the stage for the development of Community Antenna Television (CATV). CATV did not have a glamorous beginning. Late in 1949, two different individuals, frustrated by the slow movement of television to outlying areas, set up what would become the foundation of the cable industry.

Robert J. Tarlton was a radio salesperson in Lansford, Pennsylvania, about 65 miles from Philadelphia. He wanted to move into television sales but lived in an area with poor reception. Together with friends, he founded Panther Valley Television Panther Valley Television and set up a master antenna in a mountain range that blocked the reception of Philadelphia-based broadcasting. For an installation fee of $125 and a fee of $3 per month, Panther Valley Television offered residents clear reception of the three Philadelphia stations via a coaxial cable wired to their homes. At the same time, Ed Parsons, of KAST radio in Astoria, Oregon, linked homes via coaxial cables to a master antenna set up to receive remote broadcasts. Both systems offered three channels, the major network affiliates, to subscribers. By 1952, when the FCC ban was lifted, some seventy CATV systems provided small and rural communities with television reception. That same year, the National Cable Television Association National Cable Television Association was formed to represent the interests of the young industry.

Early systems could carry one to three channels. In 1953, CATV began to use microwave relays, which could import distant signals to add more variety and pushed system capability to twelve channels. A system of towers began sprouting up across the country. These towers could relay a television signal from a powerful originating station to each cable system’s main antenna. This further opened the reception available to subscribers.

The notion of pay television also began at this time. In 1951, the FCC authorized a test of Zenith Radio Corporation’s Zenith Radio Corporation Phonevision Phonevision in Chicago. Scrambled images could be sent as electronic impulses over telephone lines, then unscrambled by devices placed in subscribers’ homes. Subscribers could order a film over the telephone for a minimal cost, usually $1. Advertisers for the system promoted the idea of films for the “sick, aged, and sitterless.” This early test was a forerunner of the premium, or pay, channels of later decades, as well as pay-per-view television.

Network opposition to CATV came in the late 1950’s. RCA chairman David Sarnoff Sarnoff, David warned against a pay television system that could soon fall under government regulation, as in the case of utilities. In April, 1959, the FCC found no basis for asserting jurisdiction or authority over CATV. This left the industry open to tremendous growth.

By 1960, the industry included 640 systems with 700,000 subscribers. Ten years later, 2,490 systems were in operation, serving more than 4.5 million households. This accelerated growth came at a price. In April, 1965, the FCC reversed itself and asserted authority over microwave-fed CATV. A year later, the entire cable system came under FCC control. The FCC quickly restricted the use of distant signals in the largest hundred markets.

The FCC movement to control cable systems stemmed from the agency’s desire to balance the television market. From the onset of television broadcasting, the FCC strived to maintain a balanced programming schedule. The goal was to create local markets in which local affiliate stations prospered from advertising and other community support and would not be unduly harmed by competition from larger metropolitan stations. In addition, growth of the industry ideally was to be uniform, with large and small cities receiving equal consideration.

Cable systems, particularly those that could receive distant signals via microwave relay, upset the balance. For example, a small Ohio town could receive New York channels as well as Chicago channels via cable, as opposed to receiving only the channels from one city. The balance was further upset with the creation of the Communications Satellite Corporation Communications Satellite Corporation
Satellites, artificial;telecommunications (COMSAT) in 1963. COMSAT developed technology that allowed a signal to be sent to a satellite, retransmitted back to Earth, and then picked up by a receiving station. This further increased the range of cable offerings and moved the transmission of television signals to a national scale, as microwave-relayed transmissions worked best in a regional scope. These two factors led the FCC to freeze the cable industry from new development and construction in December, 1968. After 1972, when the cable freeze was lifted, the greatest impact of CATV would be felt.


The founding of cable television had a two-tier effect on the American public. The immediate impact of CATV was the opening of television to areas cut off from network broadcasting as a result of distance or of topographical obstructions. Cable brought television to those who would have otherwise missed the early years of the medium.

As technology furthered the capabilities of the industry, a second impact emerged. Along with the 1972 lifting of the ban on cable expansion, the FCC established strict guidelines for the advancement of the industry. Issuing a five-hundred-page blueprint for the expansion of cable, the FCC included limits on the use of imported distant signals, required the blacking out of some specific programs (films and serials, for example), and limited pay cable to sports and to films that were more than two years old. Another component of the guidelines required all systems that went into operation after March, 1972 (and all systems by March, 1977) to provide public access channels for education and local government.

Further FCC involvement came in the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act Cable Communications Policy Act (1984) , which deregulated the industry and opened the door for more expansion. This act removed local control over cable service rates and virtually made monopolies out of local providers by limiting competition. The late 1980’s brought a new technology, fiber optics, which promised to further advance the industry by increasing the quality of cable services and channel availability.

One area of the cable industry, pay television, took off in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The first major pay channel was developed by the media giant Time-Life. It inaugurated Home Box Office (HBO) in 1975 as the first national satellite interconnected network. Early HBO programming primarily featured films but included no films less than two years old (meeting the 1972 FCC guidelines), no serials, and no advertisements. Other premium movie channels followed, including Showtime, Cinemax, and The Movie Channel. By the late 1970’s, cable systems offered multiple premium channels to their subscribers.

The impact on the American public was tremendous. Information and entertainment became available around the clock. Cable provided a new level of service, information, and entertainment unavailable to nonsubscribers.

The cable industry was not without its competitors and critics. In the 1980’s, the videocassette recorder (VCR) opened the viewing market. This created competition for the cable industry, in particular the premium movie channels. To combat this competition, channels began to offer original productions unavailable on videocassette. Competition also arose from direct broadcast satellite (DBS) networks that served as competitors to ground-based cable systems. Cable systems countered by offering package deals for Internet service and cable connections. DBS networks followed with their own Internet service.

The impact on cable’s and DBS’s subscribers, especially concerning monthly rates, came under heavy debate in public and government forums. What was clear was that the cable and DBS industries had transformed the television experience and were going to remain powerful forces within the medium. Regulators and television industry leaders were left to determine how to maintain an equitable coexistence within the medium. Community Antenna Television

Further Reading

  • Baldwin, Thomas F., and D. Stevens McVoy. Cable Communication. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988. Provides a detailed look at the cable industry, including the technological and business sides of the medium. No discussion of fiber optics, a later technology.
  • Brenner, Daniel L., Monroe E. Price, and Michael I. Meyerson. Cable Television and Other Nonbroadcast Video: Law and Policy. 1986. Rev. ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson West, 2003. Presents the regulatory and deregulatory framework of cable television and its carriage, and includes a comprehensive overview of the Cable Communication Policy Act of 1984, FCC rulings, and judicial decisions. Of value to both researchers and general readers.
  • Lockman, Brian, and Don Sarvey. Pioneers of Cable Television: The Pennsylvania Founders of an Industry. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Traces the history of cable television’s beginnings in rural Pennsylvania, with biographical accounts of the pioneers who brought clarity to fuzzy television. Discusses “the roots of cable television, problems of early cable systems, and the advent of HBO and its consequences.”
  • Negrine, Ralph M., ed. Cable Television and the Future of Broadcasting. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. A comparative analysis of the cable industries in the United States, Great Britain, France, West Germany, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Japan. Discusses the notion of a global informational society.
  • Scott, James D. Cable Television: Strategy for Penetrating Key Urban Markets. Ann Arbor: Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Michigan, 1976. Following up on the 1972 FCC regulations for the cable industry, this book discusses the movement of cable systems into urban areas. Useful as a measure of the costs of setting up a new system in an urban setting. Also examines the notion that cable provides more than improved reception.

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