How Was Cable Invented?

It's hard to imagine our lives today without cable television. Not only is it one of our primary sources of entertainment, but it's also a key source of news, as well as a pillar of modern pop culture.

However, as important as cable TV has become, it is still a relatively new feature of our lives. If we go back just a half-century, we would find ourselves in a world where cable TV was not only rare but also served an entirely different purpose.

This is because cable TV was invented alongside traditional television, and its original purpose was to help connect rural areas that could not access television over the air. But since that day, cable has gone through several significant changes that have brought us to where it is today.

So, let's explore how cable was invented, as well as some of the key developments that led to it becoming such a mainstay in our modern lives.

How Was TV Invented?

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To understand how cable TV was invented, it's important, to begin with the invention of television. In reality, scientists had been working on what would eventually become television as early as the late 19th century. But much of what they invented during this time did not resemble what television has become.

Instead, it wasn't until January 26, 1926, when Scottish inventor John Logie Baird transmitted images using radio signals that television, as we know it, became a reality. 

His choice of content for this momentous occasion? A ventriloquist dummy's face. But the content of the transmission doesn't matter, its significance was that it was the first-ever transmission of video using radio signals. 

In other words, it was the birth of television.

TV Becomes More Mainstream

However, while this breakthrough occurred in the 1920s, it took another 20 years for television to make its way into American households. 

Up until that point in time, radio was the preferred means of consuming information and entertainment, and the low quality of initial television broadcasts, combined with the lack of television sets in people’s homes, made it difficult for TV to compete with radio.

As part of the post-World War II boom, televisions became more common in American households throughout the 1940s, and by 1948 all of the major broadcasting networks in the United States – CBS, ABC, NBC, and the Dumont television network, which only lasted for a few years – all had full television schedules from 8 PM to 11 PM.

The focus on this time slot, which was when most people were at home and able to watch television, led to the designation of "prime time." The first television show to reach wide-scale popularity was the Texaco Star Theater.

The growth in popularity of this show also coincided with the growth and popularity of television. When it first aired, in 1948, just 2 percent of American homes had televisions. However, just seven years later, when the show was discontinued, around three-quarters of American households were quick to the television.

The Texaco Star theater certainly helped propel this growth, but it was not the only reason. Instead, it was improving television technology, along with growing incomes in the United States, and also the desire to consume new forms of entertainment, that made television so popular and truly got the revolution started.

The Birth of Cable: Filling an Unmet Need

In the early days of television, and really until just recently, television was broadcast "over the air" using radio signals. This made it free, just like radio was, but it also meant that you had to be relatively close to the station’s broadcast tower to be able to receive the signal.

This meant that people living in cities and other densely populated areas could easily access television signals. But those living in rural areas, or in smaller cities where there was no broadcast tower, could not access television.

The solution? Community antennas. First constructed in 1948 in Arkansas, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, these antennas, which were built on top of large towers, were able to pick up broadcast signals from far away. These signals could then be transmitted via "cables" to people's homes, giving them access to the television stations that their urban counterparts could watch for free.

Therefore, while we often think of cable television as more of a luxury, or as a premier service that can replace the free version, it first was invented as a way to make sure that everyone could access this new technology that was rapidly changing the way we communicate and entertain ourselves.

The First Decade of Cable: Rapid Growth

After the construction of these initial "community antennas," cable television grew across the United States. However, it was pretty much only used by those living too far from the station's broadcast tower to be able to receive a signal.

This changed in 1948, the same year cable burst onto the scene, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to step in and start regulating television essentially

Because TV was becoming so popular so quickly, new stations were popping up all over the country. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but since all of these stations were broadcasting over the air, airspace became very crowded, and it became difficult to receive a clear signal even if you were living close to where it was being broadcast.

Therefore, to improve service, and also to assert its regulatory powers, the FCC froze the creation of new broadcasting stations in 1948. 

This was bad news for traditional broadcast stations, as it prevented them from growing further. But it was great news for cable companies. 

This is because cities and towns that did not have their own broadcast station could no longer hold out until they got one. Instead, if they wanted to access television, they would have to have cable.

Because of this, cable subscriptions grew considerably to the point where there were 14,000 across the country in 1952, just four years after the first towers were built.

At first glance, 14,000 subscribers might not seem like much. But considering just four years prior this technology did not exist, this uptick in the number of customers is rather significant. 

Over the next 10 years, cable subscriptions would grow even more. By 1962, there were around 850,000 cable-TV subscribers in all fifty states. This is more than six times what there was in the early days of cable TV.

Several corporations, mainly Westinghouse and Cox, invested heavily in cable during this time, and this helped spur its growth. These companies recognized that cable was an effective way for people to access television even if they lived in areas without service, and so they spent money building the infrastructure necessary to connect more homes to the service.

A Brief Setback In the 1960s is Followed By Massive Growth

After experiencing nearly a decade of exponential growth, cable TV experienced a setback in the early 1960s.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, this setback was driven by the broadcast networks. These networks, which traditionally dealt with radio, had become major players in the television world, and they saw cable as a threat to their own profitability and survival.

Essentially, because cable subscribers could choose to watch stations from all over the country, they would often bypass local channels, and this would lower their viewership ratings and decrease their advertising revenue. And since many of these local channels were affiliates of the national broadcasters, these large corporations had a vested interest in trying to change the structure of the industry.

So, they did what any good corporation in America does, they put pressure on the government. Specifically, they pressured the FCC to step in and use its regulatory power to weaken cable and give the networks the advantage they once had.

But what did the FCC actually do?

Well, it passed a resolution that forbade cable companies from importing signals from long distances away. This essentially killed cable TV.

As we said, the initial driver of growth was that cable allowed people to watch television even if they were living in an area that was far from the network's broadcast station. Bypassing this regulation, the SEC seriously limited what cable companies could do, and this dramatically reduce their appeal.

All in all, the big impact this had was that it dramatically slowed down the growth of cable television in the United States. No longer able to enjoy the benefits it had provided in the 1950s, people began turning back to traditional over-the-air broadcasts and away from cable.

The Invention of Modern Cable

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Clearly, cable television as it existed in its early forms was quite a bit different than how it exists now. However, you can see its roots. For example, being able to import programming from all over the country was a major draw. But in its early days, cable was more of a necessity than it was a luxury this would all change in the 1970s.

The first thing that happened was that the FCC loosen some of the restrictions it had placed on cable in the 1960s. The most significant thing they relaxed was that cable companies were no longer prohibited from importing broadcasting signals from far away.

The ability to watch television originating from all over the country immediately reignited interest in cable. But then things got even more exciting in 1972 when Charles Dolan and Gerald Levin launched the nation's first-ever pay-TV network. What was it called? Home Box Office, also known as HBO.

For a monthly fee, subscribers to HBO could access movies and other highly desirable television programs no matter where they were in the country. This development was significant because it showed that cable TV not only had the technology to bring television from around the country to your home, but it also showed that people were willing to pay for the privilege to watch these programs.

New Cable Networks

As you might expect, HBO was really just the beginning. Just four years later, in 1976, a man named R. E. Ted Turner launched a new subscription television service that was going to broadcast exclusively sports and classic movies. This channel, which was known then as WTBS, was dubbed the nation's first "superstation."

Those who paid could watch TBS no matter where they were, and this provided them with access to exclusive content. The success of this station, along with that of HBO, prompted the founding of many other networks that are now staples of cable television.

For example, shortly after WTBS launched, so too did Showtime, USA Network, Nickelodeon, and ESPN.

The early success of the stations proved that cable did in fact have tremendous potential. These channels were unlike any other before them and they were highly specialized. 

For example, ESPN covered nothing but sports. At the time, few thought that such specialized networks could succeed. But their initial popularity, followed by their sustained growth, proved that they could, and this launched a revolution.

Throughout the 1980s, new channels, such as MTV, the Disney Channel, AMC, and FX, all hit the airwaves, and they found tremendous success.

In this sense, cable TV was invented as a response to what the people wanted using a technology that was once developed as a necessity.

Cable News

Something else that happened in the 1980s that is significant to the overall evolution of cable was the advent of cable news.

The first station, known as the Cable News Network, or CNN, launched in 1980 as a part of Ted Turner's media empire. Much like people doubted that networks such as ESPN could be successful, few thought that a 24-hour news channel would be able to generate enough interest to remain profitable in the long term.

At first, this seemed like it might be the case, for viewership did lag. But by the early 1990s, when CNN was able to provide unprecedented coverage of the Desert Storm conflict, viewership took off and launched a revolution.

By the early 1990s, CNN had two new competitors: Fox News Channel and MSNBC. And by the turn of the millennium, Fox News had become the leader in cable news, and these three networks dramatically reshaped how people consume and relate to the news.

Together with entertainment channels, new stations make up an important part of modern cable packages. And because the first of these news channels was launched by Ted Turner, who also launched the nation's first superstation, perhaps he deserves the title of "the father of cable television."

Whether or not you think that is true is up to you, but it's hard to deny the impact that Ted Turner has had on growing cable to where it is today.

The Switch to a Premium Service

The most important thing to remember about how cable grew and changed in the 1980s is that it went from being essentially a public utility to a premium service. In the very beginning, people only got cable when they couldn't access broadcast signals.

However, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, people began signing up for cable-less out of need and more out of want. They saw that cable could provide them with access to channels from all over the country, as well as premium content, and so they were willing to pay extra to have cable in their home.

This continued throughout much of the 1990s and into the 2000s, and by now, you can almost say that having cable is a necessity for modern life. A great many television shows are released directly onto cable networks, and it's also rather difficult to access many live sporting events without a subscription.

This transition, interestingly, came about as a result of cable's growing popularity. But it also contributed to cable's popularity in that it made it a more desirable service, and also because it demonstrated its profitability as a business. 

Therefore, companies were more willing to invest in the infrastructure needed to bring cable to more areas, which allowed for more subscribers and for the growth of cable TV.

New Regulations in the 1990s

Much like it did in 1962, the government, attempting to act in the best interest of the people, stepped in and introduced radical changes to the cable TV landscape.

This time, however, the changes didn't come from the FCC but rather from Congress. But in both cases, the government interfered to try and protect traditional broadcasters from the growth of cable.

But instead of prohibiting cable companies from importing signals from far away, this time, Congress, using legislation, required cable companies to carry local channels and also made it illegal for them to charge local broadcasters to appear on cable subscriptions. 

This was an attempt to make the television market more competitive. Because cable companies were not allowing local broadcasters to transmit signals via cable, people often had to choose between watching local channels and getting all the premium content that came with cable. Congress felt this was unfair, so they introduce legislation to try and change it.

In addition to this, the law also prevented cable companies from continuing to raise prices on consumers. But considering cable prices have significantly outpaced inflation over the past few decades, it's worth wondering if this law had its proper impact.

Nevertheless, the result was that the growth in the number of cable subscribers, as well as the profitability of the industry, slowed throughout the 1990s. But even though things were slowing down, cable had proved itself to be a staple in the American entertainment diet. Throughout the 1990s, more than 100 new stations emerged, and cable television was found in homes across America.

The End of Cable?

Cable continued to grow throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and it seemed as though this trend would continue, but then a little company called Netflix burst onto the scene in 2007.

Yes, Netflix had been around for some time before this. But it existed solely as a DVD rental service. But in 2007, it released its streaming service, which would allow subscribers to view content from the Netflix library directly online. 

Today, we call this streaming, and it's an essential component of entertainment. At the time, however, it was brand new and no one could have known just how much it would disrupt the industry.

Fast forward to today and people are starting to wonder if cable TV might actually be dead.

Why? Well there are a couple of different reasons, such as:

The Rise of Streaming

Initially, streaming lets you watch movies and old television series directly from your computer or your TV. It wasn't seen as a threat to cable but rather a complement to it.

This has changed in recent years thanks to the release of services such as YouTube TV and Hulu Live TV. These services offer many of the same channels originally found only on cable but via streaming. In other words, you can watch many of your favorite cable stations without having to have a cable subscription.

This, plus the growth in on-demand streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, has given consumers more options than ever when it comes to their television entertainment services. This has led people to turn away from cable, which is part of the reason why people are wondering if we've reached the end of an era.

The Cord Cutting Phenomenon

Another reason why many are wondering if cable is dead is that people are canceling their subscriptions in record numbers. It seems that every quarter cable companies lose hundreds of thousands of subscribers and are unable to replace them with new customers.

One big reason for this is that television consumers now have more choices than ever thanks to streaming. But there is also something else at play: people are mad at cable companies.

For years, they were the only show in town, and they responded by continuously charging higher and higher prices despite not offering more value. People became increasingly fed up, but without any viable alternatives, they were forced to continue to pay for cable even though the cost was going up.

Today, people have more choices than ever, and so they do not have to put up with this kind of treatment. This has led to what is known as the cord-cutting phenomenon or revolution. 

Essentially, people, especially millennials, are choosing to completely bypass cable subscriptions and instead get their television exclusively from streaming. This is good news for television networks, as it means they can reach more viewers. But it's terrible news for cable companies, as each person who cuts the cord is unlikely to ever return to cable.

Here's a look at some numbers that document just how big of a revolution this is:

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As you can see, things do not look good for cable companies. But, there's no way to predict the future and despite these difficult times, it's hard to count out the cable companies. They face diversity before and almost always come out winning.


In the end, it's hard to provide an answer to the question: how was cable invented?

This is because there was no one moment when cable was "invented." 

Instead, it evolved using existing technologies in response to the unmet needs of certain consumers. Then, as time went on, people realized that cable was both valuable and desirable, and so its growth was pushed across the country and led to it taking its modern form.

At this moment, the future of cable remains uncertain, but given its past, we can expect it to be around for many more years to come. But, stranger things have happened, and no matter what transpires, we will never forget the role that cable television has played in the growth and development of modern entertainment.

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