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Cable television in the United States

Cable television first became available in the United States in 1948, with subscription services following in 1949. Data by SNL Kagan shows that as of 2006 about 58.4% of all American homes subscribe to basic cable television services. Most cable viewers in the U.S. reside in the suburbs and tend to be middle class; cable television is less common in low income, urban, and rural areas.

First systems

It is claimed that the first cable television system in the United States was created in 1940 in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania by John Walson to provide television signals to people whose reception was poor. because tall mountains and buildings blocked TV signals. Mahanoy City was ideally suited for CATV services, since broadcast television signals could easily be received via mountaintop antennas and retransmitted by "twin-lead" or "ladder-lead" cable to the valley community below (where broadcast reception was very poor). Walson's "first" claim is highly disputed, however, since his claimed starting date cannot be verified.[4] The United States Congress and the National Cable Television Association have recognized Walson as having invented cable television in the spring of 1948.

A CATV system was developed in the late 1940s by James F. Reynolds in his town of Maple Dale, Pennsylvania, which grew to include Sandy Lake, Stoneboro, Polk, Cochranton, and Meadville.

Basic cable

Cable television programming is often divided between basic and pay television (or premium programming). Basic cable networks are generally transmitted without any encryption or other scrambling methods and thus anyone connected to the cable television system can receive the basic channel. Basic cable networks receive at least some funding through "per-subscriber fees," fees paid by the cable television systems for the right to include the television network in its channel lineup. Most (though not all) basic cable networks also include advertising to supplement the fees, since their programming costs are not usually covered by per-subscriber fees alone.


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In 1950, Robert Tarlton developed the first commercial cable television system in the United States. Tarlton organized a group of fellow television set retailers in Lansford, Pennsylvania, a town in the same region as Mahanoy City, to offer television signals from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania broadcast stations to homes in Lansford for a fee. The system was featured in stories in The New York Times, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. The publicity of this successful early system set off a wave of cable system construction throughout the United States, and Tarlton himself became a highly sought-after consultant.

Even though Eastern Pennsylvania, particularly the counties of Schuylkill and Carbon in the anthracite coal region, had several of the earliest CATV systems, there were other CATV entrepreneurs scattered throughout the United States. One was James Y. Davidson of Tuckerman, Arkansas. Davidson was the local movie theater manager and ran a radio repair business on the side. In 1949, he set up a cable system to bring the signal of a newly launched Memphis, Tennessee station to his community, which was located too far away to receive the signal with set-top antennas alone.

"The first basic cable network, launched via satellite in 1976, was Ted Turner's superstation WTCG (channel 17) in Atlanta, Georgia (standing for "Turner Communications Group"). Turner had contacted Howard H. Hubbard to set up a cable network from a satellite feed when Turner wanted to watch his Atlanta Braves baseball team from the Hood Yacht Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts.[citation needed] Turner subsequently changed the call sign of channel 17 to WTBS (standing for "Turner Broadcasting System"). During the 1990s, once syndication exclusivity and E/I regulations took effect, the company split the Atlanta broadcast station feed from the satellite-delivered cable channel feed and marketed the channel to cable providers as a "free market superstation"; the broadcast and cable versions, however, paralleled most of their programming until 2007, when Turner Broadcasting System decided to make TBS cable-exclusive by separating the programming on both feeds and changing the call sign of the channel 17 Atlanta signal to WPCH-TV."

The FCC's definition of "superstation" is a popular broadcast television station whose signal has been up-linked to satellite for redistribution by local cable systems outside the station's local and regional coverage area. The practice has since been restricted by the FCC, although seven stations that began superstation coverage prior to the ban (including WPCH) are covered under a grandfather clause.

In more recent years, premium cable refers to networks, such as HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz and (prior to 1997) the Disney Channel, that scramble or encrypt their signals so that only those paying additional monthly fees to their cable system can legally view them (via the use of a converter box); however, premium services have the discretion to offer the service unencrypted in conjunction with a certain number of cable providers during a short-term free preview period to allow cable subscribers that do not subscribe to a premium service to sample its programming, the concept being that interested subscribers could consider subscribing to the pay service during the preview period. Because their programming is commercial-free (except for promotions in-between shows for the networks' own content), these networks command much higher fees from cable systems.

The origins of premium cable lie in two areas: early pay television systems of the 1950s and 1960s and early cable (CATV) operators' small efforts to add extra channels to their systems that were not derived from broadcast signals.

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In1975, HBO became the first cable network to be delivered nationwide by satellite transmission. Prior to this, starting in 1972, it had been quietly providing pay programming to CATV systems in Pennsylvania and New York, using microwave technology for transmission. HBO was also the first true premium cable (or "pay-cable") network. However, there were notable precursors to premium cable in the pay-television industry that operated during the 1950s and 1960s (with a few systems lingering until 1980), as well as some attempts by over-the-air broadcasters during the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to the aforementioned aspects that distinguish cable television from broadcast, since cable television channels cannot be viewed by those (such as children) without the proper equipment, the Federal Communications Commission's rules regarding acceptable content do not apply to cable television networks, allowing greater freedom in the use of profanity, sex and violence. The lack of restrictions on content has led to cable television programs with more adult-oriented content.

Premium cable networks have traditionally been the loosest with regard to content, since they require a cable converter to view, making it easier to restrict children's access to them. Thus, one can find nudity, strong language, and even pornography on these networks. Basic cable, on the other hand, has not traditionally been as loose with regard to content.