A study of the first half-century of cable television and why it never achieved its promise as a radically different means of communication.
Series: Texas Film and Media Studies
In 1971, the Sloan Commission on Cable Communications likened the ongoing developments in cable television to the first uses of movable type and the invention of the telephone. Cable's proponents in the late 1960s and early 1970s hoped it would eventually remedy all the perceived ills of broadcast television, including lowest-common-denominator programming, inability to serve the needs of local audiences, and failure to recognize the needs of cultural minorities. Yet a quarter century after the "blue sky" era, cable television programming closely resembled, and indeed depended upon, broadcast television programming. Whatever happened to the Sloan Commission's "revolution now in sight"?
In this book, Megan Mullen examines the first half-century of cable television to understand why cable never achieved its promise as a radically different means of communication. Using textual analysis and oral, archival, and regulatory history, she chronicles and analyzes cable programming developments in the United States during three critical stages of the medium's history: the early community antenna (CATV) years (1948-1967), the optimistic "blue sky" years (1968-1975), and the early satellite years (1976-1995). This history clearly reveals how cable's roots as a retransmitter of broadcast signals, the regulatory constraints that stymied innovation, and the economic success of cable as an outlet for broadcast or broadcast-type programs all combined to defeat most utopian visions for cable programming.
2004 Joan and John Goddard Cable Center Book AwardMcGannon Communications Research Award
- 1. Cable History and Television Theory
- 2. Community Antenna Television, 1948-1968
- 3. New Directions for Cable, 1968-1974
- 4. The Rise of Satellite Cable, 1975-1980
- 5. Broadcast Television's Resource-Starved Imitator, 1980-1995: Part I
- 6. A Scheduling and Programming Innovator, 1980-1995: Part II
- 7. Cable Television's Past, Present, and Future
In an important 1971 policy proposal, The Sloan Commission on Cable Communications likened the ongoing developments in cable television to the first uses of movable type and the invention of the telephone. They urged a complete overhaul of existing cable policy, referring to such a measure as "the revolution now in sight" (2). The Sloan Commission was not the only party to hold high expectations for cable during the late 1960s and early 1970s—years that have become known as cable's "Blue Sky" period. In fact, a number of similar proposals were forwarded, suggesting that cable could provide services ranging from coverage of local politics to specialized professional programming to home security. It eventually could remedy all the perceived ills of broadcast television, including lowest-common-denominator programming, inability to serve the needs of local audiences, and failure to recognize the needs of cultural minorities.
Were these expectations met when satellite cable finally arrived in the late 1970s and 1980s? Many analysts, particularly those advocating minimal government intervention in the telecommunications industries, would readily agree that they were. By the early 1990s cable did offer a variety of specialized satellite-carried program services or "networks." Many communities provided programming of local interest—even if this programming drew a minuscule audience share. And some cable networks had tried using some sort of interactivity as a programming strategy. Nevertheless, during U.S. satellite cable's early years it maintained, above all, a strong resemblance to and dependence on broadcast television—featuring a large number of broadcast reruns, old movies, and other inexpensive fare. This precedent still stands in many respects. Understanding why this has been the case is a primary purpose for this study, in which I trace U.S. cable programming back to the late 1940s, well before cable's first trials with satellite technology.
The history of cable television in the United States is both longer and more eventful than many people realize. Those who subscribe to cable today, in order to receive a larger number of channel options than broadcast television alone can offer, have little reason to think about the uses for cable prior to 1980, or about the policy battles surrounding the medium during those earlier decades. Conversely, few of those who relied on cable for basic television service from the 1950s through the 1970s could have foreseen a future in which hundreds of commercial cable networks would compete with broadcast television networks to capture and define the interests of America's television viewers. Nevertheless, the history of U.S. cable is a continuous one, and this is especially apparent when one looks into the historical forces that have shaped today's cable programming. The fascinating blend of caution, controversy, and optimism that defined U.S. cable's early decades greatly influenced the direction of modern cable and related broadband technologies.
It is only in considering the precedents and expectations inherited by those working in the modern cable industries that we can begin to understand the programming choices that have been made. This book thus has two main goals. The first is to survey the historical circumstances that led to cable's reliance on broadcast-type programming. The second is to look critically at the strategies that were developed to make cable programming seem like something new and innovative. Above all, I wish to demonstrate the important connections between these two seemingly unrelated goals.
The parameters of my study are guided by historical events. I begin with cable's own beginning in the late 1940s and end with 1995, the approximate point at which I believe the U.S. cable industry had reached maturity and cable had begun to merge with other technologies. The significance of the starting point should seem clear: cable technology brought with it the earliest cable programming—even if, initially, that meant nothing more than retransmitted broadcast programming.
My reasons for selecting the end point might seem less clear. By the mid-1990s most early cable networks had recovered their start-up costs and had the ability to acquire or produce original programming if they chose to do so. Also the provisions of the 1992 Cable Act had moved beyond discussion to implementation. This act was the second major piece of legislation to amend the 1934 Communications Act in response to cable specifically and, much more than its 1984 predecessor, addressed the viability of cable as a competitor for broadcast television. Finally, around 1995 several events transpired that foretold a future in which cable alone would provide neither the specialization nor the interactivity that consumers desire. First, 1995 saw the rise of Netscape as both a popular Internet browser and a set of standards for networked computer communication. As the Internet has grown more sophisticated and commercialized, we have seen increasing efforts to link its capabilities to services traditionally provided by television. By 2000 most television networks—broadcast and cable—had their own interactive and coordinated websites. Second, since the mid-1990s multichannel television options have been provided by more technologies than cable alone; in fact, the multiplicity of networks in operation today is due in large part to the competition between cable and direct broadcast satellite. And the 1996 Telecommunications Act clearly dealt with cable as only one component of an increasingly multimediated communication environment. A main emphasis of this important and controversial piece of legislation was to foster the growth and convergence of new media technologies by removing obstacles to their development by private enterprise.
Half a century of cable history is more than enough to fill a book, and the development of cable as a distinct medium is an area that has received little attention from scholars. The post-1995 telecommunications environment surely merits consideration on its own terms—a project that is under way on several fronts. This important work has begun to consider cable television and related technologies in their role as content providers, not simply as delivery systems. A study demonstrating that cable has, in fact, been a content provider and innovator for decades seems an essential link between this newer work and existing work in television history. That is the project I have undertaken in this book.
A Brief (and Personalized) History of Cable Television in the United States
My television-viewing experiences while growing up in Oneonta, New York, during the 1960s and 1970s were the primary inspiration for this study. Oneonta is a small city, located some 150 miles northwest of New York City. The nearest broadcast television stations are located in Utica, Binghamton, Albany/Schenectady, and Syracuse. Each of these cities is at least 45 miles away, and all are separated from Oneonta by mountains. People in Oneonta have tried using rooftop antennas, but even the most elaborate of these can pick up nothing more substantial than a static-filled picture from Binghamton's one VHF station. So for Oneonta residents, cable television has seemed almost as essential as garbage collection or telephone service. Without cable, we would have had no television service at all. In fact, Oneonta was one of the earliest communities in the United States to have cable service—starting in 1954.
Cable television, first known as "community antenna television" (or CATV), emerged in the late 1940s, only a few years after the founding of commercial broadcast television, on which cable has been extremely dependent over the years. The earliest CATV systems consisted of very tall antennas erected by small-town entrepreneurs as a way to bring the closest available broadcast signals into their communities. The need for CATV had arisen in towns like Oneonta that were too small to sustain broadcast stations of their own and too remote or mountainous for their residents to receive signals using home antennas. Upon reaching the towering community antennas, the desired signals were "cleaned up" (i.e., interfering signals and other kinds of distortion were eliminated), amplified to their original strength, and then transmitted to subscribers' homes by wire. CATV operators charged monthly fees for the service. At this point, cable programming consisted of nothing more than a collection of the nearest available broadcast signals. This early form of cable was, in effect, nothing more than a retransmission medium. However, community antennas had been in use for only a few years before this began to change. By the early 1950s a distinct CATV industry had emerged, and there were indications that it would develop as a supplement to, rather than simply a retransmission of, broadcast television.
As detailed in Chapter 2, the 1950s were a decade of entrepreneurship and technological innovation for the new medium—as well as a period of very rapid growth. Terrestrial microwave relays, which were introduced to the industry in the early 1950s, not only increased the distances over which television signals could be carried, but also allowed operators some choice as to which broadcast signals they would offer on their systems. A few CATV operators also experimented with program origination, efforts ranging from primitive local newscasts to Hollywood movies and kinescoped television programs.
In a few places, community antenna service was combined with pay-TV, a concurrently developing industry that had been started by some Hollywood studios and other established media corporations. Of course the full convergence of CATV and pay-TV in the form of pay-cable networks remained years in the future. By themselves, the various wired and broadcast forms of pay-TV were perceived as a viable threat to the existing system of advertiser-supported broadcast network television. Indeed, in spite of pay-TV's promise, organized opposition and regulatory debate prevented most systems from moving beyond early experimentation; the fledgling CATV industry naturally was reluctant to become involved with such an uncertain enterprise. Still, the simple fact that pay-TV existed and was discussed at this early stage tells us quite a lot about society's expectations for television and the degree to which they were being met by the existing system.
Throughout the 1950s the CATV industry itself remained largely unfettered by government regulations. But the 1960s proved to be a dramatically different stage in its development. By 1960 CATV had become a viable presence in the television industry, serving 650,000 television households. Many of the small-town, mom-and-pop CATV systems begun in the 1950s were being bought out by multiple system operators (MSOs)—corporations that, in some cases, had ties to other entertainment industries. This new class of cable operators wanted to expand their business into markets already served by broadcast television. Thus, the medium no longer could be dismissed by either government regulators or the general public as some sort of temporary measure or cottage industry that would disappear after enough television stations had been launched.
During the 1960s the Federal Communications Commission grew extremely concerned about protecting the interests of broadcasters. The Commission felt that CATV service might jeopardize its cherished doctrine of localism in television service—a concern prompted in large part by complaints registered by several small broadcasters during the late 1950s. What ensued was a series of strict regulatory pronouncements by the FCC, including the 1965 First Report and Order, 1966 Second Report and Order, and 1968 freeze on the development of cable systems in the top 100 broadcast markets. These measures severely hindered the industry's expansion—particularly with regard to its entering communities already served by one or more broadcast television stations. Additionally, a number of landmark court cases were tried during the 1960s. At issue in these cases were CATV systems' rights: to use microwave relays to bypass local signals, to use copyrighted program material, and to operate in or near broadcast markets.
By the later part of the decade the industry was in a state of confusion and frustration. The changing climate of this time is the focus of Chapter 3. The "cable" industry, as it was called by that point, had developed new programming capabilities, had increased channel capacity, and was ready to expand into larger communities. However, the overbearing regulatory climate made it virtually impossible for cable companies to pursue any of these areas of expansion. Then, around 1968, attitudes toward cable began a sharp reversal; suddenly it was being hailed as the medium that would expand and improve television service. Idealistic "Blue Sky" planners—including government policymakers, consumer advocates, and academics—envisioned cable becoming "an electronic highway" (Ralph Lee Smith) or "the television of abundance" (Sloan Commission). For the most part, these visionaries did not advocate specific services for cable to provide. Instead they outlined plans by which the medium and its users might be encouraged to develop new and beneficial applications as needs arose. The parties engaging in Blue Sky discourses represented a surprising array of interests. As Thomas Streeter explains, regardless of whether people expressed optimism about cable's capabilities and wished to tap into its benefits or were more concerned that without guidance cable would grow into a negative social force, most were united in a sense of urgency about establishing effective policy for the medium (1987, 176).
There were several factors fueling this new interest in cable's potential. First, the debates and hearings surrounding the mid-1960s regulations had put cable in the public spotlight. Simply having an awareness of the medium and its function caused many people to begin contemplating its potential. Also, the space race was at its peak by this point, and communications satellites were very much on the public agenda. Cable presented itself as a terrestrially based distribution technology that could complement satellites. Finally, it was becoming an accepted reality that broadcast television never would be able to provide local service to the entire nation. Cable instead began to be perceived as the medium that would accomplish this, as well as eliminate channel scarcity and provide special-interest programming.
In an effort to follow the tide of popular optimism the FCC, in 1969, required systems with 3,500 or more subscribers to begin offering local programming. The cable trade press immediately filled with programming suggestions and success stories. In 1972 the FCC passed yet another Cable Television Report and Order—this time buttressing the program origination requirement with a mandate for all medium and large cable systems to provide production facilities for public, educational, and government (PEG) access programming. To compensate for the additional financial burden imposed by this requirement, the FCC also included several regulatory provisions allowing cable operators to enter broadcast markets and to expand the number and types of broadcast signals they carried. The 1972 rules represented an attempt to bring about implementation of the optimistic Blue Sky plans without creating economic hardship for the cable systems that were affected.
Nonetheless, many cable operators still claimed the program origination and access provisions presented an unreasonable financial and technological burden; and over the course of the next several years, either the FCC or the federal courts lifted them, one by one. Thus, it was the leniency provisions that were to remain in place, rather than those promoting public service. No federal program origination or PEG access requirements remained in effect as of 1980. In fact, the regulatory stance toward cable grew progressively more lenient throughout this decade. So, in spite of the resolute public service intent of the 1972 rulemaking, it actually had the effect of initiating a deregulatory trend in cable—a trend that was complemented by the concurrent deregulation of the domestic communications satellite industry under an FCC policy called "Open Skies."
This was the environment in which the earliest satellite-carried cable networks were started. The first of these was Time Inc.'s Home Box Office (HBO), a pay-cable service that had been transmitting movies and sports programming by microwave to cable systems throughout Pennsylvania and upstate New York (including the cable system in Oneonta) since 1972. In 1975 HBO leased a transponder on RCA's recently launched Satcom 1 satellite, and very quickly became a cable network with the potential for nationwide viewership. HBO's satellite debut created an entirely new market for cable service among television viewers already well served by broadcast stations—a market that would grow exponentially as more satellite services launched and more cable operators gave their subscribers access to this programming.
In 1976 Ted Turner's Atlanta independent station, WTBS, became the second satellite network and the first cable "superstation." Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network launched its CBN-Cable service in 1977. Several other satellite-carried cable networks were launched prior to 1980, including two additional superstations, WGN-Chicago and WOR-New York; Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL; Univision/Galavision, the Spanish-language service; ESPN, the sports service; Nickelodeon for children; C-SPAN, the public affairs service; The Movie Channel; and Showtime. The rise of U.S. cable's first wave of satellite networks is covered in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 then follows the fortunes of these early satellite networks, as well as those of the many new entrants in the cable programming marketplace, into the 1980s and early 1990s.
Chapter 6 takes a different turn in that its focus is not a specific time period. Rather, the goal of this chapter is to discuss and analyze the programming, promotion, and scheduling strategies that emerged with satellite cable and that have distinguished it from broadcast television. Most of cable's early satellite networks relied heavily on program genres—often actual programs—already proven successful on broadcast television. Uplinking to satellite was a major expense, and the additional cost of instituting major new programming infrastructures would have put most of them out of business. While numerous additional satellite cable networks have been launched since 1980, most similarly have adopted programming and scheduling strategies that either rely on actual broadcast television programming (syndicated movies or off-network reruns) or imitated broadcast formats. Off-network reruns and old movies already have established popularity with audiences, and often these types of syndicated programming can be acquired at a low cost. Even original cable programming has been most successful when it has fit within established television genres—such as news and sports—and drawn from the conventions of those genres.
There have been exceptions to this pattern—notably the music video and home shopping formats, as I will discuss in later chapters—but these new programming formats are extremely amenable to the imperatives of commercial television. Consequently they have been absorbed by the program-recycling strategies more than they have supplanted them. While cable has been hailed repeatedly as having the potential to reach cultural minorities and niche audiences, the commercial imperative to program inclusively has counterbalanced most attempts at specialization. Regardless of the extensive variety of cable programming outlets in existence by the 1990s, each continues to be shaped by the same imperative that has always driven commercial television: to draw the largest possible audience within a self-defined market niche.
A term like "revolution" or even "fundamental change" hardly seems appropriate for such a situation. Still, there have been a number of innovations in modern cable that cannot be dismissed as mere imitation. They must be considered instead as responses to the bifurcated demand that has always characterized television: a demand for programming that is innovative while nonetheless adhering to long-established standards. In other words, in the process of trying to differentiate their schedules from those of both broadcast and cable competitors, while also offering audiences what is familiar and builds cultural cohesion, cable networks have introduced some captivating and influential programming strategies. Indeed, innovations first observed on cable in the 1980s can now be seen on broadcast networks and stations as well.
To a large extent, modern cable became an aftermarket for broadcast television programs and theatrical films. A 1991 study found that more than 95 percent of "dramatic" (i.e., fiction) programming on basic cable and 91 percent on premium cable consisted of material that already had appeared either on broadcast television or in movie theaters in the United States (or, in a few instances, abroad). Since their production costs already have been recovered in earlier exhibition windows, these kinds of programs are available from syndicators for much less money than it would cost to produce new programs. Furthermore, broadcast-type programming has shown itself, time and again, to be popular with audiences. Even much of cable's original programming has shown a strong resemblance to what is available on broadcast television. This was evident as of 2000, when most cable networks were no longer struggling to find resources for original programming; certainly it had been evident a decade earlier when they were struggling. While the 1991 study found a large percentage of "informational" and "performance/event" programming to have been produced originally for cable, a more detailed breakdown of these categories would show that they consist primarily of news, sports, children's programs, and other established broadcast genres.
Economic information such as this does not, by itself, explain the failure of satellite cable to emerge as an entertainment and information medium significantly different from broadcast television. Since the introduction of satellites, we have witnessed cable networks either fail because their programming was too specialized or succeed only after adjusting their program schedules to accommodate a balance of the familiar and the new. It should not be surprising that cable networks' survival often has meant drawing from a large stockpile of syndicated broadcast programming or producing low-budget imitations of familiar broadcast genres. But the fact that cable networks economize on production and acquisition expenditures by using broadcast-type programming offers only a partial explanation of common programming practices. And it does very little to explain why established networks continue to draw from the same sources of familiar programming long after they have accumulated the resources to afford newer and more innovative fare.
Such a programming strategy would not succeed if the audience were not willing to watch—and pay for—programming that is extremely familiar. Thus, it is necessary to examine why broadcast-type programs have continued to draw large numbers of viewers, even when rerun or produced on lower budgets, and therefore have generated substantial advertising and subscriber-fee revenue. It is necessary to consider the role of television as a cultural mediator and source of shared knowledge—to ask, in other words, how television programming both reflects and shapes viewers' tastes and expectations. Such a mode of inquiry not only provides an explanation for the cable programming strategies that emerged under open-entry competition; it also gives insights into why various policy initiatives instituted in response to Blue Sky quickly gave way to open-entry competition in cable in the first place.
Background and Relevant Literature
Dating back to the late 1940s, each successive stage of cable programming development has represented an extension of what already was available and succeeding on television at the time of a particular innovation. Thus, the first principal objective of this study is to establish how and why cable, from its earliest days as CATV, has depended on broadcast television in essential ways—even while forging its own distinct path. Some of the most successful early strategies for enhancing CATV/cable service involved the "importation" of distant broadcast signals, particularly those of major-market independent stations that scheduled many reruns and old movies. Groundbreaking modern cable networks continued the tradition by promoting themselves as "homes" for old movies and television reruns (some of the more obvious examples being American Movie Classics, Turner Classic Movies, Nick at Nite, and TV Land). Moreover, the audience-targeting strategies of individual cable networks often have resembled the daypart segmentation of broadcast networks, indicating that the reliance goes beyond simply imitating broadcast television's programming selection.
The second principal objective of this study is to survey and analyze the characteristic programming types and programming strategies used by modern cable networks. Exhibiting cable programming so as to make it appealing to viewers who might otherwise turn to the newer and higher-budget programming of broadcast networks presented both a creative and a financial challenge to fledgling cable networks. They had to plan program contexts at least as carefully as they chose program content. In other words, they had to make what was old—or cheap, or overused—seem new again. So, rather than simply showing broadcast reruns or old movies, as most independent broadcast stations have done, many cable networks devised strategies to recontextualize, reinvigorate, and occasionally, reconfigure that programming. This study ultimately will suggest that what constituted cable programming in the presatellite era was both expanded and reshaped—though by no means replaced—by the programming of modern cable.
A look at television history is the necessary starting point for this project, since it allows us to see how deeply established the American audience's expectations for television programming were by the time of Blue Sky. It also allows us to see how great a role cable already played in providing television programming by that stage. Cable's reliance on broadcast-type programming has a lengthy history; indeed cable technology came to exist exclusively for the purpose of retransmitting broadcast signals. In cable's early decades, improvements in technology increased the number of channels per system, and the additional channels nearly always were employed to carry additional broadcast signals. Even various strategies that cable entrepreneurs devised over the years to distinguish their service constituted supplements to, not replacements for, the broadcast programming carried on their systems. And the lengthy government policy-making processes designed to steer cable away from its reliance on broadcast programming usually resulted, instead, in reinforcing the existing relationship between cable and broadcast television.
Documenting cable's place within television history
While much of this study deals with modern, satellite-served cable, the beginning of which I attribute to events in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is necessary first to establish a historical context for those events. The fact that cable has received relatively little consideration in existing television histories obscures the integral role it has played in providing virtually universal television service in the United States for nearly half a century. Since the 1950s basic cable has been vital to television service for much of the country, and pay-TV has been on the public agenda at least as long. The few standard television histories that mention either cable or pay-TV at all give them very little attention.
Various Blue Sky articles and policy proposals include details of cable history as background to arguments about cable's future. There is some useful detail in these, but the information tends to be anecdotal and sometimes is poorly substantiated. At the present time, comprehensive historical accounts of cable and pay-TV are scarce. The most informative discussion of early cable is Mary Alice Mayer Phillips's CATV: A History of Community Antenna Television (1972). Though long out of date and primarily a regulatory history in the first place, the first 45 pages provide a detailed and interesting account of the invention and growth of CATV. In fact, many of the more detailed histories of early cable focus on regulatory and economic aspects of the medium. Among these are Cable Television and the FCC: A Crisis in Media Control by Don R. LeDuc (1973) and Cable Television U.S.A. by Martin Seiden (1972). A much more recent book, Stephen Keating's Cutthroat: High Stakes and Killer Moves on the Electronic Frontier (1999), discusses the business history of U.S. cable in the context of chronicling the battle between the cable and direct broadcast satellite industries that took place during the 1990s.
A few sources look at early forms of pay-TV separately from cable. Early pay-TV is discussed by Timothy R. White in "Hollywood's Attempt at Appropriating Television: The Case of Paramount Pictures." A more comprehensive resource, The Electronic Box Office: Humanities and the Arts on the Cable (1974), edited by Richard Adler and Walter S. Baer, provides overviews and analyses of various pay-cable systems proposed during the early 1970s, as well as consideration of the overall role it was believed pay-cable would play in providing entertainment, information, education, and other services. Also, Subscription Television: History, Current Status, and Economic Projections (1980), a research study completed by H. H. Howard and S. L. Carroll, provides detailed information about both cable and over-the-air forms of pay television from the 1940s through the late 1970s.
A handful of histories on specific modern cable networks have been written, including Inside HBO (1988) by George Mair, Inside MTV (1988) by R. Serge Denisoff, CNN: The Inside Story (1990) by Hank Whittemore, ESPN: The Uncensored History (2000) by Michael Freeman, and a number of accounts of Ted Turner's rise to prominence in cable programming.
The cable industry's historical relationship with the Hollywood film industry, an important consideration in understanding cable programming, has been discussed by two writers: Thomas Whiteside in his lengthy, three-part New Yorker magazine series, "Onward and Upward with the Arts" (1985); and Michele Hilmes in Hollywood and Broadcasting (1990). Whiteside's piece provides important details about both cable and pay-TV history. It offers a thorough consideration of the industrial connections between these two industries. Hilmes's more scholarly work discusses pay-TV ventures in the 1950s, noting briefly their significance to the emerging CATV industry. Also, Hilmes's final chapter, "Film/Television/Cable," details the involvement of Hollywood studios with cable programming during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Furthermore, while none of the historical works described so far adequately theorizes of how economic, regulatory, and technological developments in cable history have affected modern cable programming, Hilmes's Hollywood and Broadcasting suggests a model for such an undertaking. Hilmes draws from a wide range of primary sources, including trade press articles, corporate records, government publications, and radio program texts. She also builds a cultural studies-based theory of textual production. Hilmes combines textual analysis with a chronological history of the relationships among the film, broadcasting, and cable industries.
Similarly, I will use archival resources, including periodical articles, government documents, and oral history transcripts, to build a historically grounded consideration of modern U.S. cable's programming, scheduling, and promotion practices. For my study, the pivotal decade is 1965-1975, for it is during these years that a future path for cable was articulated, plans for its realization were implemented, and then its direction was almost completely reversed. Understanding this surprising and ironic turn of events—as well as the cable programming climates that preceded and followed it—involves examining primary documents from the time, as well as considering scholarly work that deals with textual production, audience behavior, and industry structure and economics.
Understanding Blue Sky
As discussed above, the various Blue Sky documents have proven somewhat useful as secondary historical sources; however, their greater significance here lies in their role as primary documentation of an era in which cable's future was perceived as both promising and uncertain. In this book I am situating cable's Blue Sky period (1968-1974) as the immediate predecessor to, and foundation for, modern cable in the United States. As I will demonstrate, there were important programming precedents set during cable's early (CATV) decades. But it was not until the late 1960s that policymakers and the general public began operating under the assumption that cable would, and should, function as more than a retransmitter of broadcast programming. Idealistic wired television scenarios were laid out in such documents as the Sloan Commission report, On the Cable: The Television of Abundance (1971); Ralph Lee Smith's The Wired Nation (1972); "The Rostow Report," prepared by President Johnson's Task Force on Telecommunications Policy (1968); various Rand Corporation studies; and a host of other reports and popular press articles.
While various economists and policy analysts have examined the failure of Blue Sky policy initiatives, only one scholar has dealt in depth with the sociopolitical climate that generated the Blue Sky documents. Thomas Streeter (1987) offers a unique and illuminating perspective on the relationships between government policymakers and the general public by analyzing the discourses of the Blue Sky era. He suggests that the optimism surrounding cable technology—optimism that brought about dramatic policy changes—derived much less from debate among divergent factions than from an uncritical faith in the ameliorative powers of new technology. This supports the notion that modern cable represents a set of compromises between the expectations of Blue Sky and the preexisting practices and imperatives of the television industry overall.
In a comprehensive study that includes a brief discussion of cable, Streeter (1996) critiques commercial broadcasting policy in the United States over the course of the twentieth century. Among various other insights, this book lends a new insight to an old problem: how to account for the repeated triumph of private interests over government policy—an issue critical to explaining the outcomes of the Blue Sky era. One tendency in explaining this outcome has been (as in Don R. LeDuc's Beyond Broadcasting, 1987) to attribute it to the greater power and influence of media corporations vis-à-vis government agencies. Theoretical discussions range from blaming structural failures (often due to limited staff and financial resources) within government agencies to perceiving the agencies to have been taken over or "captured" by corporate interests. What many of these theories seem to overlook is the process of negotiation between society's idealistic uses for communication media and people's real-life relationships with, and expectations for, those media and their content. Streeter tries to sort through this problem using an interdisciplinary methodology that ranges from critical legal studies to feminist theory.
Streeter's work also makes us aware that the Blue Sky reports, while a new phenomenon in cable specifically, represented only the latest set of public service initiatives in electronic media generally. The larger issue of how to provide comprehensive and varied broadcasting service in the United States has been examined with regard to earlier media. For example, both Susan Douglas (1987) and Robert McChesney (1993) have written detailed accounts of the popular and political discussions that preceded passage of the Radio Act of 1927 and the 1934 Communications Act. Though their interpretations differ, both Douglas and McChesney consider the effects of industrial precedent and competing business agendas on the development of radio and its programming. Also some writers recently have turned their focus to how policy issues involving media of the past are resurfacing with the Internet.4 In all of this work, a major focus has been reconciling the economic imperatives and the public service goals of commercial media.
It is particularly worth noting here that, during the 1980s and 1990s, cable television was part of a larger U.S. media environment that was becoming more and more consolidated. Growing numbers of local cable systems were being bought out by MSOs. The MSOs, in turn, were part of larger corporations that typically held a stake in cable network ownership. The large parent corporations or media conglomerates—entities such as Time-Warner, TCI, Disney, and Viacom—were increasingly driven by "synergy," the desire to control a diverse, yet nonetheless coordinated, collection of smaller companies. Synergy serves as the vehicle for cross-promotion of a media product or "event" (such as a blockbuster movie or a major music CD release) and distribution of that product through different media outlets or "windows." Thus, a cable network might help promote a theatrical film by running publicity programs for it (e.g., "The Making of . . .") and later receive first television rights to exhibit that film.
The goals of conglomerate formation and synergy hardly have been compatible with those articulated by most Blue Sky visionaries. Certainly any local programming efforts would have been antithetical to the synergistic goal of coordinating programming and distribution operations from national headquarters. And moves toward producing original niche-interest programming would have been countered by budget-minded corporate executives wishing to channel existing media products through as many windows as possible before investing in new production. Furthermore, the neoconservative political climate of the 1980s did nothing to hinder consolidation in the media and other industries—and everything to promote it. Federal policymakers repeatedly asserted a need to remove obstacles to private enterprise and thereby foster economic growth and development of new products. McChesney, Edward Herman, Norman Solomon, and Patricia Aufderheide are some of the scholars who have harshly critiqued the effects of free enterprise on media content in the United States. None of these scholars deals with cable exclusively, but clearly the effect of free enterprise on cable programming—as a long-heralded alternative to commercial broadcast television—has been a particular source of concern for them and many others.
What economics can (and cannot) explain
In the United States a long-standing and contentious policy issue has been how to foster the goals of democratic communication with minimal government intervention in actual program content. Most scholars readily agree that, with the commercial broadcast network system so firmly entrenched and the supply of broadcast-type programming so plentiful, it would take a monumental policy effort to steer any form of television toward a new programming model. There is less agreement about whether or not open-entry competition can lead, through consumer mandate, to a program selection that proportionately reflects the interests of the American public and provides maximum benefit to all viewers. Neoclassical economic programming models advocate open-entry competition as the most efficacious path to programming diversity. On the surface, open-entry competition indeed does seem to have resolved any technological limitation to providing a wide variety of programming, and therefore seems well suited to demonstrating the validity of neoclassical models. But a counterargument to this notion is that, without the necessary regulatory catalyst, cable generally has fallen back on long-established broadcast programming patterns. As Streeter explains, it is not that modern cable lacks diversity of perspectives or fails to serve a variety of interests; rather, the limitation lies in cable programmers' overreliance on syndication libraries and other sources of familiar programming. This is a matter of economics, not a matter of technological capability (1996, 236\-237). Rather than introducing new content types into the larger pool of television programs, as would be expected in a neoclassical model, satellite cable has fed the demand for existing categories of syndicated product. In the open-entry environment of modern cable, reruns, old movies, and other recycled programs are the dominant programming fare. This material quite simply is the cheapest and most readily available.
Public goods such as media products are inherently recyclable since one person's consumption of a particular product does not limit the possibility for other people to consume the same product simultaneously or in the future. Television programming outlets, whether broadcast or cable, can maximize their production investments through both widespread circulation of the same programs and reuse of older programs, provided adequate means of distribution are in place. The supply of high-budget television programming has increased over the years, particularly as new distribution and exhibition windows such as cable, VCRs, and independent broadcast stations have become available. The larger the potential audience for a program, and the greater the possible number of exhibition outlets, the more likely are the chances of recovering an investment and ultimately making money from that program. Thus, the main incentives to finance and produce new programming also are guided by the proliferation of syndication.
This helps us to understand why both niche-interest and locally oriented programming are at a considerable disadvantage when no subsidies are available. LeDuc explains that locally produced programming did not come to dominate broadcast television because both economics and viewer expectations would have made it unfeasible. Without network feeds, independently owned stations could not afford the high-budget productions that draw audiences. The affiliation process has been sanctioned by the FCC because it helps the survival of local stations, even if the degree of local service is compromised (1987, 13\-14). This also explains why most modern cable programming has been made available by nationwide satellite services rather than by locally based producers. LeDuc does not go into much detail about the combined effect of economics and viewer expectations, but such an inquiry seems critical to understanding why modern cable networks have been as successful as they have.
LeDuc's political economy-based theory differs dramatically from the neoclassical models mentioned above; he advocates greater regulatory intervention while the neoclassical theorists generally oppose any regulatory constraints. Yet both approaches seem to presume a much less nuanced cable programming environment than the one that has evolved under open-entry competition. When applied to television, economic models tend to relegate programs to functional categories based on length, genre, etc. In many instances, economists do not go beyond the use of the term imperfect substitute when accounting for content variations in television programs or schedules. Certainly economic models provide a starting point for understanding the constraints of the television marketplace, but the fact that there is necessarily variation among individual programs must be taken into account in any practical applications of the models (a point that usually receives at least a footnote in economic theories). In order to understand the strategies cable networks have employed to compete within these constraints, it is essential to analyze the texts of individual programs as well as the strategies for positioning those programs within larger schedules. As discussed below and in Chapter 6, strikingly innovative strategies of intertextuality and self-promotion were devised as a means of distinguishing schedules of routine broadcast-type fare while fledgling cable networks gained financial stability. In turn, these short-term strategies became distinctive characteristics of programming in a mature cable industry; many networks continue to rely on familiar program types long after the practice ceased to be necessary for recovering start-up costs. Obviously, the economics of public goods are complemented by television viewers' persistent willingness to watch rerun material.
Public sphere versus cultural forum
In order to understand why television programs remain meaningful over time, it is necessary to consider the degree to which television viewing has supplanted traditional community-building activities. Does television provide a central place in which a society's interests and concerns can be shared? Does it provide common points of discussion? Or does it, instead, offer only an illusory sense of community? The simple fact that this is a topic of discussion for scholars and policymakers is evidence of the enduring and pervasive presence of television. That it has been a matter of concern indicates that people have not accepted passively and uncritically the notion that an entirely commercial medium can promote cultural cohesion and foster dialogue among citizens. This is the tension that fueled the Blue Sky discourse, but its origins correspond to the rise of commercial media—well before the advent of cable.
The work of the Frankfurt School, for instance, speaks to a scholarly dissatisfaction with the impacts of industrialization on traditional forms of cultural expression. Many criticisms of early mass media—as laid out, to give just one example, in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's seminal 1944 essay, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"—addressed a perceived dulling of thought and homogenization of cultural expression. While Adorno and Horkheimer wrote this particular piece too early to consider television specifically, their sentiments were echoed by television reformers of the 1960s. In his provocative 1961 "Vast Wasteland" speech, FCC commissioner Newton Minow called for extensive reform of U.S. broadcast television. Similar ideas were expressed later by Ralph Lee Smith in The Wired Nation, where he called upon U.S. regulators and citizens in general to reform cable policy before it became too late to accomplish such a goal.
The debates carried on during cable's pivotal Blue Sky years, by Smith and many others, helped Americans articulate the terms of their frustration with commercial television. The debates also encouraged people to believe that cable could reintegrate communities and turn passive viewers into active participants. One of the benefits of cable most highly promoted in the various Blue Sky documents was its potential for interactivity—ranging from participation in town meetings to at-home schooling for bedridden children to church services for distant or disabled parishioners. While services such as these were used primarily as examples of new functions cable might take on, their selection clearly points to an expectation that cable would allow many functions associated with public spaces to be relocated to the domestic sphere. Even the discussion of various potential cable program services—ballet, theater, classical music performances—alludes to scenarios in which the small screen could beneficially supplant traditional public gatherings.
Jürgen Habermas's argument in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989) is relevant here. He, similar to most Blue Sky visionaries, believes that a mass-mediated public sphere is possible, but can be achieved only with an intervention of massive proportions (222-235). According to Habermas, the function of the Enlightenment's "public sphere of letters," which he characterizes as the ideal, began to shift as industrialized consumer society began to flourish, and critical debate among the literate public was curtailed. The need for shared experience itself was not diminished; rather, it has continued in the false consensus engineered by the public relations industry to give consumer products the credibility typically reserved for public authority—a trend magnified by the rapidity of electronic media. With the entrenchment of private interests in the political process, citizens have become more subjects of publicity than members of participatory publics (194-195).
Habermas offers a point of departure for understanding the limitations of mass media in promoting public debate and fostering the circulation of ideas, and his work reveals a great deal about the goals of Blue Sky. Still, some scholarship has suggested that his notion is unrealistic in today's society. Nicholas Garnham (1992) notes that recent scholars, including Habermas, "fail to start from the position that the institutions and processes of public communication are themselves a central and integral part of the political structure and process" (361).
In fact, many scholars see the connections among individuals in postindustrial society as too complex and too widespread to allow the sorts of discourse Habermas attributes to the bourgeois public sphere. But they do not all lament this or see it as a limitation to the terms of public discourse in the ways Habermas does. Implicit in the work of scholars like Marshall McLuhan is the idea that more rapid means of transportation and communication in the postindustrial era have replaced the bourgeois public sphere of letters with a more widespread and inclusive forum. Drawing in part from the ideas of McLuhan, Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) discusses how mass media (particularly television) actually have broken down many of the boundaries that once separated categories of individuals and excluded many from the public sphere. The public sphere in the postindustrial era, his argument suggests, is more inclusive than it was previously, largely because of the role mass media have played in challenging traditional power structures and hierarchies.
It is important to consider James Carey's (1989) ritual view of communication in this regard, for this view challenges the idea that communication necessarily is used by central authorities to exercise control (18). In the ritual view, communication is seen as a consensual process of cultural meaning-making—or, as Carey puts it, "a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed" (23). This idea has been discussed with regard to television specifically. John Fiske and John Hartley (1978) refer to television's "bardic" function. They explain that "television functions as a social ritual, overriding individual distinctions, in which our culture engages in order to communicate with its collective self" (85). Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch (1983) similarly describe television as a "cultural forum," a site in which societies negotiate meaning.
In one way or another all of these scholars implicitly address the reason why cable networks have been so successful in continuing to provide broadcast-type programming. Like any form of television, modern cable networks thrive on familiarity, repetition, and common experience and thus can be understood as engendering social discourse, not opposing it. Audiences state their preference for innovation, but gravitate toward what is familiar—a tendency of which those in the television industries are well aware. As much as people idealized the scenarios described by the Blue Sky writers, and as much as they initially appeared to support government policy aimed at bringing those scenarios to fruition, most actually used their television dials to "vote" in support of traditional broadcast fare—whether received over the air or by cable. Most people expected a steady supply of new programs and new episodes of existing programs, but they did not, at least in the short term, expect so much innovation that familiar genres and scheduling patterns would be disrupted.
The balance between familiar and new that is so essential to successful television programming posed a creative challenge for start-up cable networks. While they had no trouble supplying the familiar, most had difficulty finding the resources to balance it with the new. The dilemma led to a variety of strategies intended to address the audience's familiarity with older material and older programming conventions head-on, but also to suggest new ways of relating to them. So the most successful and enduring innovations in cable programming have been those that have recognized and exploited the textual complexity of television, combining traditionally discrete schedule components (programs, commercials, network IDs) into programming that is both old and new. An overview of theoretical work on television texts will shed more light on this idea.
The Television Text
In order to approach the extreme complexity of television texts in general and cable texts specifically, it is necessary to turn to more text-centered theoretical work. As the widespread use of empirical research (such as ratings data, demographics, and psychographics) by broadcast networks and cable networks clearly indicates, the television schedule is hardly a random juxtaposition of heterogeneous programs and commercials. Some of the most important contributions to television scholarship have been those that attempt to define or delimit the object of study by considering the interactions—both planned and coincidental—among program and commercial texts. Some theoretical work in the area of broadcast television programming written during the 1970s and 1980s suggests important ways of conceptualizing television text that highlight the differences between them and other media texts (such as theatrical film).
In Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), Raymond Williams uses the term "flow" to stress that commercial television programming is "planned in discernible sequences which . . . override particular programme units." Williams identifies three sequences of television flow—programs, commercials, and self-promotional material—which are combined strategically to "capture" and "retain" viewers for a given period of time (91). Nick Browne expands upon the idea of flow in "The Political Economy of the Television (Super)Text" (1984), speaking more directly to the nature of the relationships among programs and "interstitial" material. What Browne calls the television "supertext" (i.e., the sequence of material during a period of viewing) both mirrors and constructs the daily schedule and work week of the general population (589).
The notion of television as a single unbounded text is critical to understanding how units of programming and commercials can be recombined in service of television's overriding commercial imperative. Yet these studies do not account for all of the historical factors shaping the development of broadcast television programming. Most notably, Williams and Browne assign more importance to the coherence of complete program schedules than they do to the coherence of individual programming units that comprise those schedules. In fact, though, nearly all television programs and commercials are designed so that they can fit a variety of different schedules—what John Ellis (1992) describes as the balance between "autonomy" and "contingency" that continues to characterize segments of programming after they have been positioned within particular schedules (117-118). Individual units of programming must be structured in a way that facilitates their inclusion in virtually any scheduling sequence without loss of relevance to viewers. For decades, television programmers have fragmented and rearranged programming units within television schedules—in "magazine format" commercials, syndicated reruns, spin-off programs and TV characters' "guest appearances."
In two important articles, Mimi White (1986, 1989) characterizes the television text that has been cultivated, both directly and indirectly, on American commercial television over a period of several decades as a single, endlessly self-referential diegesis. She explains that
“This is an important contribution to the literature on media history and institutions. The book also is written in an accessible style and definitely not aimed only at those in media or communication studies.”
Janet Wasko, author of Hollywood in the Information Age: Beyond the Silver Screen