Decline of the Big Three Networks Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The “Big Three” networks—NBC, CBS, and ABC—dominated television for more than three decades, but during the latter half of the 1980’s, this domination was increasingly challenged on a number of fronts.


The increased number of television stations led to more choices for viewers, but in the early 1980’s, the material such stations could broadcast was largely limited to network reruns or recently released films, and there just were not enough of these programs to fill the available airtime. To vie with the networks, the new outlets had to create more original programming. By the close of the 1980’s, many of the newer stations were producing made-for-television specials and films at a rate unprecedented in the history of the medium. These stations were also more progressive than the networks and provided some highly stimulating and controversial programming, as they were not under the same “public air” constraints that the networks were. For the first time in television history, the medium indeed offered something for everyone. Big Three (television networks)

The highly specialized market-segmented stations also had their impacts. MTV revolutionized the music recording industry. In MTV’s wake, no record label could think of releasing a pop record without simultaneously releasing a video, so integral had video become to record sales. The high cost of video production made some labels more cautious in promoting new talent, as many executives hesitated to spend large sums of money on unknown artists.

Many critics initially scoffed at the notion of an all-news channel, but CNN revolutionized the news industry, making the prime-time newscast almost an anachronism. The additional airtime available for its news broadcasts enabled CNN to devote more time to its stories, providing a depth of information unobtainable during the networks’ thirty-minute nightly news programs. Additionally, other news sources (including the networks) soon came to rely on CNN for up-to-the-minute worldwide coverage of events. Although not single-handedly responsible for the decline of the once ubiquitous United Press International and Associated Press wire services, CNN made plain their obsolescence. CNN’s success also stimulated the establishment of more news-devoted channels, such as the Fox News Channel, Fox News Channel which quickly challenged CNN for dominance, and MSNBC, which emerged as a distant third in this competition.

The VCR, too, had impacts beyond simply freeing viewers from network time constraints and commercials: It created a revolution in the motion-picture industry by giving birth to the new multibillion-dollar home video market. Film attendance dropped, but Hollywood studios made more money than ever. The creation of the home video market meant that films no longer had to make money primarily at the box office, as they traditionally had been expected to do. Instead, films could be made with an eye to the profit that could be generated through video sales and video rentals. Films began to make their way out of theaters faster than ever before and often bypassed the medium of television entirely to move directly into viewers’ homes on videotape; consumer demand thus created the need for more new films than ever before.

Video sales and rentals created a boom for Hollywood, but they were a major factor in the lack of growth for subscription television services. Such services were the primary outlet for nontheatrical showings of new films in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and viewer interest in recent films was one of the major reasons for pay television’s initial rapid growth. Poised with 6 percent of the market in 1982, subscription stations appeared about to take off; soon, however, the VCR began to make inroads, and subscription services started to lag behind. By 1990, they were succeeding no better than public television, garnering only 5 percent of viewer subscriptions. The only profit-making subscription station at the outset of the 1990’s was HBO, and that was largely the result of HBO’s diversification of its programming to include original series and specials. The VCR, then, promoted the growth of the video rental industry while casting a shadow over the continued existence of cable subscription stations that relied extensively on Hollywood releases.

The VCR and cable’s growth had extraordinary impacts on the once-powerful Big Three television networks. The mass audience of the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s no longer existed by the end of the 1980’s; it had been shattered into fragments courted by dozens of smaller programming providers. The question posed at the end of the 1980’s was whether the networks would survive the 1990’s. Survive they did, although with a far smaller share of the viewing audience and much less influence than had been the case in the years in which they enjoyed oligopolistic control over the broadcasting market.

Certainly, the networks could not continue to exist as they once did; their days of total domination of mass viewership were clearly over. This was not their death knell, however; the networks showed an ability to adapt to new exigencies. Programming in the early 1990’s indicated that the networks were more willing to take chances on shows that might not have been considered for broadcast in the Big Three’s glory days. Competition shook up the networks and made them work harder, and the result was more dynamic programming. Big Three (television networks) National Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company Columbia Broadcasting System Cable television Television;broadcast networks

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dolan, Edward. TV or CATV? A Struggle for Power. Port Washington, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1984. Presents a detailed account of the early rise and initial challenges posed by cable television. Makes a strong case for cable and amply documents the resistance of the networks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geltner, Sharon. “Matching Set: Brian Lamb and C-SPAN.” In American Mass Media: Industries and Issues, edited by Robert Atwan, Barry Orton, and William Vesterman. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 1986. Traces the segmentation, or “narrowcasting,” of programming. Shows how the educational aspect of C-SPAN, which carries live coverage of Congress, appeals to a growing viewership. Includes a profile of C-SPAN’s founder, Brian Lamb, and shows how one individual can still make a substantial impact on television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Negrine, Ralph M., ed. Cable Television and the Future of Broadcasting. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Collection of eight essays examines the growth of cable television as a worldwide phenomenon. Includes a short glossary of technical terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Papazian, Ed, ed. TV Dimensions ’91. New York: Media Dynamics, 1991. Collection includes a statistical compilation of pertinent information, special reports on the state of the television industry, and discussion of important trends. One of the few sources that presents information on competitive stations as well as on programs other than those carried by the major networks. Includes an in-depth section on the impact of cable and the influence of VCRs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pember, Don. “Television.” In Mass Media in America. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992. Presents a straightforward discussion of network television and alternative stations, analyzing the complex relationship between the two. Clearly defines basic terms and sketches the rise of alternative formats. Includes numerous charts and graphs, key comparative industry statistics, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roman, James. Love, Light, and a Dream: Television’s Past, Present, and Future. New York: Praeger, 1996. History of television focuses on the medium’s cultural significance. Chapter 10 is devoted to the advent of cable television. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterling, Christopher H., and John Michael Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. Comprehensive one-volume history of radio and television in the United States. Includes discussion of the changes that cable competition brought to network television broadcasting.

Relevance Programs Change Entertainment Standards

Silverman Rescues ABC Television’s Ratings

Cable News Network Debuts

MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture

EWTN Begins Religious Broadcasting

Home Shopping Service Is Offered on Cable Television

Fox Television Network Goes on the Air

Cable Television Challenges Network Television

Categories: History