The Evolution of the Cables-Satellite Distribution System

By Parsons, Patrick | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of the Cables-Satellite Distribution System


Parsons, Patrick, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


The television industry began a dramatic transformation in the mid 1970s following the creation of the cable-satellite programming distribution system. This paper details the evolution of the cable-satellite link, from its conceptual roots in the 1960s, through pioneering efforts by Teleprompter Corp., to the eventual involvement of Home Box Office. It offers a narrative and analysis that fills a gap in the existing historical record and provides an illustration of several themes involving the social evolution of technology.

The introduction in 1975 of the cable-satellite programming distribution system led to a dramatic restructuring of the television industry in the United States. From an industry dominated by three national networks, television evolved into a multichannel environment in which viewers had access to dozens of highly specialized program choices. While NBC, CBS, and ABC remain the most heavily viewed television networks, their market share has steadily eroded since the introduction of the cable-satellite link and the cable programming industry that it spawned.

While this critical inflection point in television history is ritually noted in most textbooks, its evolution has never been substantively detailed. The typical treatment in the literature involves a note to the effect that in 1975 Home Box Office (HBO) inaugurated satellite-delivered programming, helping spark a revolution in television (See e.g., Dominick, Sherman, & Copeland, 1996, p. 70; Head, Sterling, & Schofield, 1994, p. 78; Gross, 1997, pp. 75-77; Parsons and Frieden, 1998, 52-54). Some broadcast and cable history texts offer a bit more detail (Fang, 1997, p. 201; Hilliard & Keith, 1997, p. 213, 216; Southwick, 1998; Sterling & Kittross, 2002, p. 412). Two pieces from the 1970s discuss then-future prospects for cable-satellite interconnection (Shapiro, 1972; Shapiro, Epstein, & Cass, 1975), and Winston (1986, p. 289) mentions early proposals for satellite-cable systems, but only in passing. None have provided the richer description that this key turning point in communications history arguably deserves. This paper is an effort to begin to fill that gap in the historical narrative. Its intent is to explore the development of the cable-satellite union.

The paper is also an effort to illustrate several broader theoretical points about the nature of technological development. It proceeds from the factual observation that the cable-satellite system had a substantial prehistory and the analytical position that technological change is, to a point, evolutionary. This review builds upon models of technological change that posit incremental and gradual, rather than radical and discontinuous, technical innovation (Basalla, 1988; Ziman, 2000). Analysis therefore focuses on the stages in the development of a given device or system. At the same time, this analysis breaks from much of the recent evolutionary literature to suggest that at some point a given idea, design, or device reaches a new phase in its technical development. Coming together, the constituent components offer a new functionality that opens the door to subsequent rapid social deployment. At the same time, appropriate social conditions must be in place to accommodate that deployment. This is a kind of quantum leap in the longer evolutionary path of the technology. Television itself is a classic example. Conceptually, the roots of television are almost timeless and technically they trace back to the discovery of selenium and the work of people such as Nipkow, Jenkins, Farnsworth, and Zworykin (Fisher & Fisher, 1996). The technical, political, economic, and social conditions were not in place for a viable system, however, until after World War II, when, with sufficient convergence of these elements, television took off with dramatic consequences. Therefore, analysis must be sensitive to both the slow accretion of ideas and activities that lead up to a socially operational system and to the subsequent rapid unfolding of that system. …

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