cable television

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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cable television

cable television, the transmission of televised images to viewers by means of coaxial cables. Cable systems receive the television signal, which is sent out over cables to individual subscribers, by a common antenna (CATV) or satellite dish. Early cable systems developed in the late 1940s to improve reception of commercial programming in rural areas. In the 1960s, cable systems expanded to large urban areas, where reception can also be poor, and the cable television industry began introducing its own networks, such as Home Box Office (HBO), founded in 1972, to provide programming exclusively to subscribers. Beginning in 1975, cable networks began distributing their shows to local cable operators via satellite, thus increasing the amount of programming available nationally. Heavily regulated in their early years, cable systems in many instances were required to provide channels for community access programming, and rate increases were controlled by local authorities. The financial problems caused by the high cost of wiring cities for cable led to legislation deregulating the industry in 1984. Cable operators were able to set their own rates until 1992, when complaints about the industry's monopoly power led to new legislation that gave the Federal Communications Commission the authority to limit rate increases.

During the 1980s and early 90s, the growing number of cable networks, improved programming, increased channel capacity (which reached 150 in some systems by 1992), and greater freedom in terms of programming content greatly expanded the industry. There are 10,828 operating cable systems in the United States serving 28,798 communities and 62 million subscribers; this comprises about 64% of all households. Viewers pay a monthly fee for a package of cable television programming, known as basic cable, and additional monthly fees for networks such as HBO, which are known as pay TV services. Cable television offers a wide variety of specialized programming, including channels devoted to specific interests, such as news, sports, movies, business information, weather, cooking, home shopping, and family viewing. It can also transmit programs from foreign cities, such as the proceedings of the British House of Commons. The industry finances its programming from subscriber fees and advertising revenue. New technologies, such as fiber optics, digital compression, and interactive television, allow cable operators to offer more programming choices and services. The cable lines installed by cable operators are also to use to provide broadband Internet access to the homes of subscribers.

See G. Mair, Inside HBO (1984); T. Baldwin, Cable Communications (1988).

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