The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution?

By Whitaker, W. Richard | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution?


Whitaker, W. Richard, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States:Revolution orEvolution? Megan Mullen. Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2003. 252 pp. $55 hbk. $22.95 pbk. In the half century from its inception in the late 1940s, cable television evolved from a basic antenna service for communities unable to receive over-the-air TV signals to an entertainment and information medium with virtually hundreds of channels, its growth shaped by a broad range of cultural forces.

Cable's development in its early years, the author notes, was hobbled by economic and regulatory constraints on the part of the television and film industries, which feared the new medium, and policymakers who envisioned more from cable than merely the same fare as network television. Well-intentioned regulators who wanted to steer cable away from its reliance on traditional broadcast programming instead reinforced the growing relationship between cable and traditional TV.

In the end, Mullen contends, it should surprise no one that cable evolved to what it is today because the driving forces always end up being tied to the demands of a free market economy. Cable is as it is because that is where the viewers are, and today's narrowcasting merely allows advertisers to fine tune their messages to more specific audiences. Successful cable programming is that which fits established television genres, she adds. While some specialized channels may seem innovative, they are successful because they have adjusted their programming to provide a balance of the familiar with the new.

This study, an outgrowth of the author 's doctoral dissertation, is a valuable contribution to the literature of broadcast programming in the United States. Mullen does for cable programming's history what Bill Gates did in charting the development of computers in The Road Ahead, providing an informative, generally easy-to-read account of the evolution of cable from Community Antenna Television to today's multi-channel specialization. Major milestones, such as the fortnightly Supreme Court decision that relieved CATV operators of having to pay copyright fees; the Sloan Commission report in 1971 that set lofty goals that were never quite realized; the beginnings of HBO, CNN, and MTV and other services, are discussed in crisp detail. Individual examples are tied together to create a cohesive whole that illuminates basic trends through three major periods of the medium's development.

This well-researched book looks at cable from the standpoint of how social, economic, and political forces interacted with the framework of traditional television to develop a new medium that in many respects paralleled the old.

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