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The History of Television in the United States

by Elisa Toy about a year ago in Historical
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An In-Depth Explanation of the Beginning of Television and Where Its Advancements Are Today

The History of Television in the United States
Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

When many people think of television today, they immediately picture streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and even Disney Plus. However, most fail to understand what technological advances in history have led to the creation of the television platforms we currently use today. This article will discuss the beginning of television and the subsequent advancements made that led us to the technological advancements of today's television.

Started From The Bottom

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The early ownership of television began with television stations being operated by Amplitude Modulation (AM) radio stations and newspapers, instead of individual television networks (Danesi, 2019).

Broadcast Television

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The first television network in the United States was the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), with its headquarters located in New York City, where it’s still headquartered today (Danesi, 2019). Their beginning as a television network led the way for television to be controlled by networks all over the United States. Throughout the beginning of NBC’s days, they would send programming through telephone lines to affiliated stations (Danesi, 2019). Stations during this time would simultaneously broadcast an identical program by two or more connected stations in different time zones. This was called chain broadcasting (Danesi, 2019). Shows that were broadcasted for the East Coast had to be re-performed for the West Coast as videotape did not exist until the year 1956 (Danesi, 2019). This meant that the West Coast would have received variations of the same broadcasted content as the East Coast.

Photo by Ben Burns on DTWR

Shortly after the rise of television networks, television became a scarcity due to it requiring large amounts of frequency space on the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum (Danesi, 2019). Due to this, a reduced number of channels were available to broadcast on very high frequencies (VHF) (Danesi, 2019). These VHF channels were and still are channels 2-13 in the United States (Danesi, 2019). The limited number of VHF channels led to competition amongst television networks for license demands. This increase in competition for license demands led to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) introducing a freeze on the addition of new stations in 1948. The FCC's freeze lasted for over 2 years and was ultimately halted in 1952 when they introduced ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) channels (Danesi, 2019). These UHF channels were and still are channels 14-83 in the United States (Danesi, 2019).

Although more channels were added at this frequency, their signal was less powerful (Danesi, 2019). More power was needed for the UHF signals to reach the same distance as the VHF signals, thus costing more money (Danesi, 2019). Additionally, televisions were also unable to receive UHF signals without modification and reproduction (Danesi, 2019). This produced the All Channel Receiver Act of 1962 in which any television made by 1964 had to pick up both VHF and UHF frequencies (Danesi, 2019).

Photo of CBS Color Television Advertisement by Eyes of a Generation

Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), another popular television network, produced color television in 1950 (Danesi, 2019). However, the mechanical color television sets used, were of poor quality compared to black and white electronic television sets at the time (Danesi, 2019). Furthermore, black and white electronic television sets could not pick up color broadcasts and color television took up three times more frequency than black and white television (Danesi, 2019). Despite all of this, the FCC made CBS’s mechanical television the standard, although incompatible with the current broadcast standard of the black and white electronic television (Danesi, 2019).

Example of CRT TV Scanlines by daren999 on Deviant Art

The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) pointed out this issue to the FCC, and this resulted in RCA creating an electronic color television in 1952 (Danesi, 2019). These televisions had 525 scanlines, which were created from cathode ray tubes (CRT) depicting 525 horizontal lines of pixels to display images on a television (Danesi, 2019). This creation of CRT electronic color television was a huge innovation, however, current television cameras of the time could not shoot in color, and new cameras were needed to do so (Danesi, 2019). This setback led to complications with the diffusion of colored television, and it ultimately took 20 years for colored, electronic television to reach critical mass within the United States (Danesi, 2019).

Cable Television

Photo of Astoria Hotel, Birthplace of Cable Television by Offbeat Oregon History

Cable television became a widely used innovation in the United States following broadcast television. However, in 1948, during the craze of broadcast television, the beginning of cable television's innovation was introduced (Danesi, 2019). During this year, a man living in small-town Oregon installed an antenna on his local Astoria Hotel and connected it to his television set (Danesi, 2019). Subsequently, he then became the first man outside of a populated city or town to receive television programming in the United States (Danesi, 2019).

Community Antenna Television became the next innovation that resulted from this man’s small-town experiment (Danesi, 2019). Community Antenna Television allowed for one antenna to be installed for a community rather than singular homes needing their own antenna (Danesi, 2019). Lines would run from a community antenna to individual television sets within a community (Danesi, 2019). This innovation was beneficial for multi-unit homes and communities outside of populated cities or towns, as individuals could share one antenna without the extra cost of multiple (Danesi, 2019).

Photo of Inventor, Percy Spencer in Front of Early Microwave Equipment by Mass Moments

An innovative creation called the microwave oven, accidentally introduced during World War II, led to the invention of the microwave emitter (Danesi, 2019). This microwave emitter pushed broadcast signals further and allowed for television to reach more individuals within the United States (Danesi, 2019). CATV, which is widely known as cable television, was brought to fruition from this invention. Cable television worked by using common coaxial cable to distribute coax, directing cable television signals to households all across the United States. However, with the introduction of cable television, came the disappearance of local stations from programming. This disappearance of essential, local stations led to the FCC proposing the Must Carry Rule in 1965, which forced all cable systems to carry local programming stations (Danesi, 2019).

During this time, the FCC was adamant about preserving the importance and success of local programming stations. In 1972, the FCC created the Non-Duplication Rule for simultaneously broadcasted programming, which meant that if a local station carried a program, cable stations could not carry that same program (Danesi, 2019). This rule preserved local programming stations, as well as mandatorily enforced that cable systems must have at least 20 channels to operate. However, the rule was eventually dropped in 1980 (Danesi, 2019).

Satellite Television

Photo of SMATV Antenna by Exceed UAE

A new decade brought new technology that allowed individuals to cut the cord while still enjoying the entertainment of television (Danesi, 2019). Community receivers were used more than individual dish receivers, which led to the existence of Satellite Master Antenna Television (SMATV) and Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Systems (MMDS) (Danesi, 2019). SMATV provided private, individual cable packages for each household (Danesi, 2019). This allowed the consumer to create a custom cable package consisting of their favorite television channels (Danesi, 2019). MMDS was like cable television in which it provided the same channels as cable services, however, it utilized microwave transmissions to provide television to those who could not gain access to a cable service (Danesi, 2019). TVROS was another technology that intercepted signals from satellites and was not connected to a multichannel system of delivery (Danesi, 2019). This technology was not the best to use, as it utilized massive satellite dishes to pirate other satellite broadcasts (Danesi, 2019).

Now We’re Here


By Kam Idris on Unsplash

The fruition of digital television was a huge technological advancement that provided higher quality images to be displayed (Danesi, 2019). Contrasting the original number of scanlines of 525, digital television, or HDTV consisted of a whopping 1080 scanlines (Danesi, 2019). This was approximately double the scanlines, and these televisions offered higher quality digital signals that took up less space in households (Danesi, 2019). With the advancement of HDTV, television production companies received a mandate that all televisions made after 2009 use analog signals, which was a necessity needed for all HDTVs to work (Danesi, 2019).

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Internet television, also known as streaming, is an innovative technology widely used today. Internet television provides individuals with organized television programming in an a la carte presentation (Danesi, 2019). In other words, individuals are able to pick and choose what programs they want to watch (Danesi, 2019). Due to the rise of streaming television from the internet, both cable and satellite television providers saw a massive decline in customers (Danesi, 2019). In the year 2001, cable and satellite television offered their services to approximately 67 million customers (Danesi, 2019). By the year 2014, the number of customers using cable and satellite television dropped to approximately 50 million (Danesi, 2019).

The sharp decline in customers for these services was solely due to internet television being the more affordable option (Danesi, 2019). Streaming platforms are still the more affordable and widely used options today. An individual can subscribe to streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix, and Disney Plus with the use of a basic internet plan, and pay less per month than the cost of cable television services.

By Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The technological advancements of television in the United States have led us to the widely normalized use of internet streaming platforms. As technology continues in its trend of rapid advancement, we could soon see television that continues to increasingly cater to its audience as well as display more interactive features, leaving individuals with more power to choose what they want to see.


Danesi, M. (2019). Popular culture: Introductory perspectives. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.


About the author

Elisa Toy

Nature Lover | Activist | Cancer Survivor | They/Them

I am a queer writer from Arizona sharing my journey and thoughts with you! My writing focuses on my mental health, love of nature, and everything in between!

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