An Unfettered Press

The Electronic Media

By Christopher Sterling


The first experimental broadcast stations operated in the United States in the years prior to World War I. They had sporadic schedules of but a few hours a week. The first broadcast in the world was probably done by Reginald Fessenden in 1906 from a transmitter south of Boston, Massachusetts.

AM (or medium wave) radio broadcasting began on a regular basis in late 1920, when several stations first went on the air, primarily to sell radio receivers (the first stations were owned by major electrical manufacturers). In 1922, the number of stations shot up from about 30 to more than 500 -- with 30 to more than 500, with no overall supervision or regulation about access to spectrum. The public craze for radio dates to this time. Only after much pressure from radio operators did the U.S. Congress finally agree to set up a regulatory scheme to license stations in 1927.

Until 1941, broadcasting consisted only of AM stations and networks. In 1926 to 1928, both the CBS and NBC networks began operation, rapidly establishing the pattern of advertising-supported entertainment programs that still characterizes the American system of electronic media.

Just before the United States entered World War II (December 1941), FM (or VHF) radio and television broadcasting was approved for regular operation. Only a few stations of either service got on the air before a wartime freeze on most civilian construction, which lasted until 1946.

From 1945 to 1952, the industry and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grappled with allocation problems for FM and television, and getting both services up and running. FM was moved from its old allocation to the present 88-108 MHz in 1945.

Television networks owned by ABC, CBS, and NBC began regular operation in 1948. Then, just as the public's appetite for television was at its height, the FCC had to suspend accepting applications for new television stations from 1948 until 1952, while crucial decisions were made to add UHF frequencies (to the 12 VHF channels already in use) to allow more television stations in more communities and to reserve some frequencies for noncommercial TV stations. In a parallel proceeding, color television standards were issued late in 1953 (though color was not commercially important until the late 1960s).

The number of stations on the air grew slowly after 1952 as both television and AM expanded. For much of that decade, FM radio stagnated due to lack of original programming, limited numbers of receivers, and almost total disinterest in the secondary radio service by advertisers because of tiny audiences. Only after 1958 did the number of FM radio stations begin to climb as interest in high-fidelity sound aided its expansion, which was pushed further by agreement on FM stereo standards early in 1961 and requirements after the mid-1960s that most FM stations program differently from co-owned AM operations. That gave the medium an identity of its own for the first time, and by 1979, more people listened to FM than AM. A decade later, three quarters of all radio listening was to FM stations.

Competition for broadcasting was slow in developing. The first community antenna television (CATV, now usually called cable) systems began operation in the Rocky Mountains and in the Appalachians, where small towns could not get signals from distant markets and were too small to support stations on their own. Only a tiny proportion of Americans were "on cable" until well into the 1970s.

In 1975 came two separate developments that would show the way to a more competitive future in electronic media. Sony placed the first Betamax VCRs on sale, and Home Box Office, a pay-cable service, announced plans to begin use of a domestic communications satellite (domsat) transponder to deliver its signal across the nation.

Fifteen years later, two-thirds of all American households had VCRs and could "time-shift" their viewing, about 60 percent had "basic" cable television service (that supported by advertising), about 30 percent subscribed to one or more pay cable networks, and virtually all national electronic media program services were distributed to stations and cable systems by means of domsats.

Cable program networks expanded rapidly after the late 1970s, with Cable News Network (CNN) and others beginning operation by 1980. At the same time, the number of noncommercial and independent (of network affiliation) stations grew, giving viewers more choice of programming.

Where the networks dominated prime time viewing (usually between 7 and 11 p.m.), controlling about 90 percent of those watching television in 1980, a decade later their share of the TV audience had dwindled to between 55 and 60 percent. The audience was making increasing use of competitive cable services, rental movies for their VCRs, and independent or noncommercial broadcast stations.

Broadcasting in America is based on a system of privately owned local radio and television stations and cable television systems. While these outlets are widely diversified in their ownership, nearly all subscribe (contract for) one or more national program services or networks.

In round numbers, there are nearly 12,000 broadcast stations in the country -- more than 5,000 AM and 5,000 FM stations -- and nearly 1,500 television stations. Major markets often have 30 or more radio stations and five to seven television stations.

Federal regulation allows any company or individual to control up to 12 AM, 12 FM, and 12 television stations, no more than one of each kind in a given market. There are no ownership limits on the number of cable systems or subscribers one company can control. Telephone companies are not allowed to own cable systems where they also provide telephone service, a limitation presently under attack by the telephone industry. One owner cannot control a television station and cable service in the same marketplace.

Most television stations sign a contract with a national network in order to carry its programs. Fewer radio stations are network affiliates.

There are four major television broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox), which each owns a few stations in large markets (called O&Os, for owned-and-operated) and is affiliated by contract with about 200 other stations across the country.

There is no ownership connection between the networks -- they are held independently of one another. Network programs are beamed to O&O and affiliate stations by means of satellites. The broadcast networks (except Fox) each operate news divisions that present daily newscasts and specials. Entertainment programming is leased from independent companies.

There are nearly 60 cable networks, all of which are distributed nationally by means of domestic satellite transponders that beam signals to the "headends" of cable systems for distribution to homes. Of these networks, a few are pay networks (Home Box Office, owned by Time Warner, is the oldest and largest), where viewers subscribe by paying a monthly fee averaging nearly $10 to $50 a month. The rest are advertiser-supported services such as Turner Broadcasting System, the Discovery Network, and the USA Network.

Many cable networks are very specialized -- in comedy, weather forecasts, business news. More services are announced all the time.

Dozens of radio networks -- most of them music services -- deliver programming by satellite or mailed recordings. A few provide regular news services.

Broadcasting and most cable services in America are supported by the sale of advertising time. Of all advertising dollars spent each year, television takes about 22 percent and radio another 7 percent. Cable advertising is negligible thus far -- perhaps 1 percent of the total. For comparison, newspapers account for about 29 percent of all advertising dollars. The largest portion of broadcast advertising revenue comes from sales to local advertisers.

Most commercial television stations devote between 10 and 12 minutes per hour to advertising, usually less in prime-time hours. Radio stations carry more advertising -- often 18 to 20 minutes per hour. Cable advertising is relatively undeveloped thus far.

The electronic media industries are not large. About 100,000 people work directly in radio or television broadcasting, mostly for local television stations. The typical radio station may have just two or three employees in small markets and up to several dozen in bigger cities. Increasing use of automation has cut the size of station staffs.

Television outlets have anywhere from 25 to several hundred employees. Cable systems have many employees in customer relations and repair, but only a few are needed in technical operation and program categories.

Most of this article deals with commercial broadcasting, since that is the most widely available and most listened to service. But there is an alternative service in both radio and television -- noncommercial service.

The first noncommercial radio stations went on the air in the 1920s (and, experimentally, even earlier). Many school systems and universities operated stations -- but most had given up their licenses by the early 1930s under financial pressure, lack of sure need for the facilities, and demands for their frequencies from commercial operators. By the end of World War II, there were only about 25 AM educational stations on the air.

When the FCC approved FM radio on its present spectrum in 1945, it set aside the lowest 20 channels for noncommercial operation.

Beginning in the late 1940s, and growing steadily ever since, the noncommercial radio industry had expanded to some 1,400 outlets by 1990.

Key to that expansion was a rising federal government funding role. Prior to 1963, there was no federal funding for noncommercial radio. The chief national supporter, through grants, was the Ford Foundation. Formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in 1967 and its creation of National Public Radio (NPR) a year later gave the noncommercial stations their first nationwide identity.

Noncommercial television stations lacked reserved channels until 1952 and got them then only after several years of government debate over the idea. The first stations, mainly on the UHF band, went on the air in 1953 and 1954. Early years saw the slow growth of stations, usually for lack of financing. Well into the 1970s, many major U.S. cities and some whole states lacked even one noncommercial station.

As with radio, Ford Foundation funding was central to the survival of the pioneering noncommercial stations, most of which were run by universities or community organizations.

The creation of CPB and its formation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) helped give the scattered noncommercial television stations a national identity. Increased federal funding and those national programs pushed the number of noncommercial stations to well over 300 by 1990. Several states operate networks of public TV stations, enabling statewide coverage of important events.

Until recently, about half of all money helping to support the noncommercial stations and networks came from taxes -- federal funds through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or state taxes in support of stations in that state. Tax support by 1990 amounted to under 40 percent of total revenues. The remainder comes from businesses providing program grants (called underwriting), individual donations, foundations, and other sources.

Public broadcasters agree that their chief problem is and always has been to raise sufficient money to operate. They note that public radio and television in the United States operate with a fraction of the revenue of commercial broadcasting. Some critics have suggested that the lack of a clear agreement on the role of a noncommercial service in the largely commercial American system is at the heart of the continuing quest for funds.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the two network operations, National Public Radio for radio and the Public Broadcasting Service for television, largely represent noncommercial broadcasting in the Washington policy arena. NPR connects some 250 noncommercial radio stations -- the larger and better-financed outlets. It provides popular news programs in the early evening and weekday mornings. NPR produces much of what it provides to stations.

On the other hand, PBS only operates the interconnection of the television network. All PBS programs are produced by a few major public TV stations (such as those in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Washington), overseas broadcast systems (especially those in Britain), and independent producers. Through a complicated "Station Program Cooperative" voting process each year, PBS member stations vote their support dollars for programs they want.

Proponents of public service broadcasting have argued for years that only noncommercial stations can offer the culture, education, and other programs to balance the largely entertainment fare offered by the networks and cable.

Critics say that as the number of channels received in most houses increases, and as VCR ownership surges past two-thirds of all American homes, noncommercial broadcasting is too expensive to continue to support. Those who desire such programs can receive them less expensively by means of videotapes or other methods, while the channels now held by noncommercial stations could be put to far more efficient use by others.

The development of children's, science, and other specialized cable networks has only added pressure on noncommercial broadcasters to justify why they should continue to enjoy reserved channels and other exemptions from rules that apply to other broadcasters.

The chief and continuing problem for the electronic media generally is the appetite of stations and channels for program material. The entertainment programming that occupies most network time (and makes up the majority of syndicated programming) is produced by independent companies, most based in southern California.

Prime time is the most important competitive showcase for television network programming and is largely devoted to comedy and drama programs. Schedules are set early each year to begin the new TV season in September. Unsuccessful programs (those with low ratings) are replaced throughout the year as needed.

Local network affiliates simply carry network programming in prime time and many daytime hours. Remaining time is nearly all filled with other entertainment programming (chiefly game shows and reruns of network material) offered to stations on a syndicated basis (the station buys the rights to air a program two or three times over a given period, usually exclusive rights for that city).

Virtually no television entertainment programming is produced locally -- it is far too expensive.

The vast majority of radio programming consists of various types of recorded popular music. In major cities, some stations emphasize news and talk formats, but most exist to play records and provide short newscasts -- and lots of advertisements! Radio networks were important until the 1950s, when television competition killed them off. In recent years, use of satellites to distribute radio program formats has revived some degree of national programming.

Some surveys suggest that most Americans get most of their news (especially national and international coverage) from television. With the rise of CNN and other cable information services, this may be even more true. Many Americans get their view of the world from five-minute radio newscasts or short items on network or local station programs.

News is popular with audiences and advertisers. The evening network half-hour newscasts get most of the news viewership. In recent years, CNN's two news networks have become something of a viewing habit with many Americans, given their 24-hour availability in homes that have cable television.

Other serious information programming -- interviews, public affairs programs, documentaries -- are in decline because audiences are small.

The content of all these programs is largely determined by the networks (or local stations for their own local evening newscasts -- major attractions for advertisers and audiences). National news agencies provide considerable input, but most American networks have their own reporters and use stringers in more remote areas.

Certainly the best-known American television program for children is "Sesame Street," a product of the Children's Television Workshop in New York, which first aired on public television in 1969. "Big Bird," "Kermit the Frog," and other characters are known around the world in various national versions of this highly successful combination of live action, animation, and lessons.

The television networks all reach children Saturday mornings with action-adventure cartoons.

Professional and college football is the most popular continuing sports coverage on television. Radio and television also present hours of baseball and basketball coverage, with less time given to other sports. The general public also gets very interested in Olympic coverage. There is some evidence (falling audience ratings) that audiences may have reached the saturation point with certain sports coverage.

Since about 1930, ever-better means of researching and reporting audience listening and viewing habits have had a major impact on program trends. A.C. Nielsen (a division of Dun & Bradstreet) and Arbitron (part of Control Data Corporation) are the major national ratings firms. Nielsen reports network and local market TV ratings, while Arbitron reports local market television and radio ratings. There is no ownership connection between these companies and any broadcasting entity.

Ratings are gathered because advertisers need to know who and how many are watching programs -- this information being crucial in deciding which media to "buy" for a given product. Broadcasters (and increasingly cable networks) "sell" audiences to advertisers, using ratings to measure their reach -- how many of the potential audience are in the actual audience.

Ratings are based on the principle of sampling. For example, Nielsen draws its national ratings from a sample of about 4,000 homes scientifically selected to represent various geographic regions of the country, along with different economic and social groups. These ratings are said to be a fair representation of national listening patterns, plus or minus about 3 percent.

Ratings are gathered by different methods. Most recent -- and controversial -- is the use of the people meter, a device requiring viewers to punch in on a remote control device when prompted by a computer in their receiver.

Older methods include telephone surveys of various kinds and keeping paper diaries of listening or watching activity over a week or so.

In the United States, the electronic media play a vital role in the election campaigns for both local and national office. Television time is expensive and makes up the largest portion of election campaign budgets.

It is now traditional (but certainly not required) for presidential candidates to debate one another on television a few times during the campaign. These "debates" are usually in the form of candidates answering questions rather than directly arguing with one another.

The media in the United States and elsewhere are also said to have an agenda-setting effect on listeners. If the media cover a given event or problem area, then surveys show that most viewers more readily think of that issue as a serious matter.

Two provisions of the American Constitution govern the regulation of communications. The Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8) gives Congress the right to regulate commerce between and among the states and between the states and foreign countries. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press. From these two precedents, both over 200 years old, comes all governmental activity in communication.

Congress first passed laws regulating wireless in 1910 and 1912. Only in 1927 was the first law passed specifically to regulate the licensing of broadcasting stations. That law created the all-important "public interest, convenience, and necessity" (PICON) standard by which licensing and other regulatory decisions are judged.

Congress felt broadcasting needed regulation, in part because the industry itself had requested it to reduce interference on the air, but also because there was (and is) insufficient spectrum to accommodate all who wish to broadcast. Further, the electromagnetic spectrum is held to be a natural public resource, and thus government oversees its use by licensing services needing spectrum.

In 1934, Congress passed the more comprehensive Communications Act, which brought telephone and broadcasting regulation under one agency and which still governs federal regulatory policy, though it has been amended several times since. That law continued the "PICON" standard and established the FCC.

The Federal Communications Commission consists of five commissioners who are appointed by the president and approved by the U.S. Senate, and some 1,800 civil servants who provide the legal, engineering, and economic expertise required to regulate modern telecommunications. The FCC's annual budget is about $110 million, relatively small by federal government standards. The FCC's Mass Media Bureau of some 300 people oversees broadcasting. Its chief function is to license stations.

Broadcast stations are licensed for seven years (radio) or five years (television), and these licenses may be and usually are renewed time and again. The licensing of services is the single most important function of the FCC. Cable systems, on the other hand, are franchised by local communities, and there is little federal regulation of cable.

The FCC has the authority (delegated by Congress) to set technical standards for telecommunication services. Until the early 1980s, companies and industry groups would test competing systems for a given standard and would recommend a standard to the FCC which would usually then approve (mandate) that standard. The standards for black-and-white and color television (the NTSC system) and stereo FM were derived in this fashion.

With its decision on AM stereo broadcasting in early 1982, the FCC moved away from that approach, leaving it to the undefined "marketplace" to decide on a specific standard. The very limited success of AM stereo suggests that the marketplace approach does not work well in this case.

There is little regulation of programming in America. The primary reason for this is the First Amendment to the Constitution. There are federal limits on the use of obscene program materials, and there are requirements on access by candidates for political office.

Otherwise, the amount and type of programming provided by stations and cable systems are a matter of managerial choice, not government fiat. Most particularly, there is no government control over the broadcasting of news and public affairs programs.


Christopher Sterling is a professor with the National Center for Communications Studies at The George Washington University in Washington.


The American Press

Constitutional Protection

The Right To Know

Editing the Washington Post

The Small-Town Newspaper

The Business Side of a Newspaper

Rights and Responsibilities

Libel Law in the United States

Minorities in Journalism

Targeting an Audience

The Sweet Sound of Conflict

The Business of Radio Broadcasting

On the Air in Springville

The High-Tech Trib

Electronic Newspapers

The Center for Foreign Journalists

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