Network TV to Now: How We Got Here

If you look at modern television broadcasting and cable, you’ll find thousands of channels, more content than a single person could ever watch in a lifetime, and some of the best production values to be found in the entertainment industry. No expense is spared for television broadcasting, we expect a constant signal and connection. And at this point, we are right to have those expectations. Yet history is a bit more complicated when it comes to such things, and the thought that the receiver is busted is not all that old (and still exists today in some areas). Even the channels and features you might think of as givens today are likely more recent developments.

It’s a fascinating story, and one we hope you’ll stick with us for it. Yet how did we get here from an expensive, tiny screen about 100 years ago? It is a long story with many parts, so let’s dive right into it:

The First TV and the First Broadcasts

Most people think of television as being an invention of perhaps the 1920s or early 1930s, and for practical purposes, they would be correct. However, it took some time to get even there. As a matter of fact, there were two competing technologies in the forms of mechanical television and the CRTs we are more familiar with today. Though that is a story for a different article, and suffice it to say the CRTs won out after all was said and done, with a few hiccups or last gasps from mechanical TVs (more on that later). 

The first broadcasts were technically tests, involving such things as a line or a dollar sign just to see if a signal could be transmitted. Nearly all televisions were in laboratories at this point, and no one had one for commercial usage. The first mechanical TV station (W3XK) started broadcasting on July 2, 1928. Electronic stations were a bit more common and started showing up in the second half of the 1920s, most commonly in the New York area. There was the occasional program shown during this time, but reports are limited, it would certainly be little like what we have today, and there was nothing consistent. Again, nearly all televisions were still in laboratories, and one could count the number of sets in the hundreds, if not less.

The programs were rudimentary, but all of these were important stepping stones to the regular broadcasts we enjoy today.

Basic Yet Regular Broadcasts

After the purely experimental phase of television was coming to a close, we started to get some regular broadcasts and regular networks people with televisions could rely on. Radio and other forms of entertainment were still dominant, but there were regular shows on the air during this time or at least a few broadcasts. It was proving itself on a regional level, and no one had yet fully capitalized on the opportunities television provided.

We started to see regular segments and programs come on in markets across the country. Something to keep in mind was that local programming was by far the norm and more common back then. Broadcast towers could only go so far, and different markets emerged in different regions. Potentially, there was a lot of variation in the programming they offered. There weren’t many rules or guidelines back then for what people wanted. It was mostly determined by technical limitations and an experimental phase to see what worked. Naturally cost was also a factor. Television wasn’t the most profitable enterprise at this point.

One of the key developments, however, was the start of RCA’s broadcasting and the building of many TV sets. The 1939 World’s Fair was a turning point, featuring a telecast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the opening ceremony. The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) was a part of RCA, and broadcasts from then on were more frequent and sets were regularly available (if expensive and rudimentary by today’s standards).

Meanwhile, in England, there were broadcast developments parallel to or even ahead of the United States. The BBC saw potential in television and some special events such as Wimbledon and the coronation of George VI were broadcast. This led to the adoption of a fair number of sets around the country (several thousand, which is nothing to sneeze at for new technology). 

The progression of television technology and broadcasting infrastructure was heavily stalled or diverted by the outset of WWII. It required a national effort by all involved to win. This meant that consumer electronics such as television sets were not of a high priority. The production of programming for a device that had such a low adoption rate didn’t help much. Combine this with the effects of The Great Depression, and you can see why TV had something of a slow start.

Post-WWII Boom

While television was still getting off the ground in many ways, WWII and the Great Depression took the forefront of most people’s minds. Production of new sets was all but halted, and people were unlikely to spend their money on a new set at the time. However, once all of that passed, people were eager to make up for the lost time in terms of entertainment and improving their lives. Television filled those needs, and there was a boom in both the number of sets sold and the number of programs created. The growth spiraled upwards on both the local and national levels, and the television industry as we know it today was born. In many ways, it paralleled the massive boom in housing and many other appliances of the time.

That is not to say there weren’t changes, setbacks, and a whole host of other developments. Television is messy at the best of times, and beneath the tides of the boom, there were restless currents, ups and downs, and so much more. The channels of then hardly resemble most of the channels of today, and the programming was an entirely different sort.

And while we generally don’t want to mention too many specific programs here (we could go on forever), I Love Lucy was a monumental step forward for television. It the most popular program in the country for years. It was also one of the first examples of a filmed TV show that could easily be rerun and syndicated in the future. It was groundbreaking in so many ways. There would be many future shows that followed this model.

And with the boom in television, how networks operate and the standards they are held to became more important as well. There were more regulations placed on network television. Things such as the Fairness Doctrine were instituted to promote standards. While people disagree about the necessity or effectiveness of such measures, they did shape the way television developed for decades to come. At least this was the case until cable and other content distribution methods effectively made them more or less irrelevant.

Color Television 

After a television set was in many households across the United States (and in a fair number of other countries), what came next? Paralleling the movie industry, color was next. Interestingly, the first color televisions came out relatively early, though they were mechanical televisions produced by CBS, incompatible with the other technology of the time. While it was adopted as a standard by the FCC, it didn’t catch on too well. RCA instead opted to develop a color television compatible with everything released so far and the current broadcasting technology, and in 1953 the FCC declared it the standard.

Note that the advent of color television didn’t just happen all at once. When the first sets were released, there were only a couple of shows that were broadcast in color, and those sets were extremely expensive. In short, it wasn’t worth it for the average family. However, much like most other technologies, color television became the standard as sets became cheaper to produce and there were more reasons for a family to own one. 

Eventually, nearly all television was in color, and color of some sort became the standard that we still go by today. It might not have looked the way it does now (just compare a show of 50 years ago to one today), but it was a huge step forward and laid the groundwork for some of the best shows that we know today.

Up into the early 60s television became increasingly important and commonplace, with Americans seeing important news broadcasts, presidential debates, and more on their screens. It went from pure entertainment to a vital piece of the household, and it’s never gone back, except for the occasional artistic reason.

Regulation, Standardization, and Changing Times

As television grew, we saw a greater number of channels, and parallel to that, we saw a greater government interest in this new point. The developments happened over decades and don’t necessarily fit into any one section. However, we thought this a necessary detour to provide a full understanding of television today. With regulations come changes in networks and changes in programming. A lot of what we see on TV comes as an indirect result of the restrictions placed on networks.

Regulations are regularly changing, so don’t think of this as a list of current guidelines and regulations. We also simply cannot list every change, so here are some of the most important developments:

1934: Congress Passes the Communications Act of 1934. It allows the FCC to regulate and oversee broadcast frequencies. While meant mostly for radio broadcasts, this act would become more important for regulating television over time.

1949: Congress institutes the Fairness Doctrine. It required broadcasters to devote equal time to both sides of a contentious issue.

1952: Congress holds hearings on obscenity on obscenity in television. While they took no direct action, it is mostly because the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters chose to regulate itself instead. 

1970: Congress disallows the advertising of cigarettes on television.

1978: In FCC v. Pacifica, the U.S. Supreme Court confirms that the FCC has the authority to restrict indecent broadcast content. It was a close case and there are still disagreements over the matter. Nonetheless, it has shaped government regulation to this day.

1987: The Fairness Doctrine, previously established in 1949, is dropped. This led the way to much more political and opinion-based news programming that we commonly see on news networks today.

1997: Given the wide variety of content found on television and a relaxing of obscenity standards, especially on cable, TV networks introduce ratings, not unlike those used for films.

Naturally, if you are interested in further details, we strongly encourage you to seek them out as you can. Such terms as “indecent”, “the public good”, and “censorship” are constantly being debated. There is also the matter of premium cable and online programming, which are effectively their own thing as far as regulation is concerned. Where the industry is going, and whether it will be companies or Congress that leads the way, remains to be seen.

Mainstream Cable

In some ways, cable has been around nearly as long as television. Communities would come together and effectively create their own cable networks to share programming. However, cable as we know it today, with dozens of high-quality and specialist programming options, didn’t come about until the 1970s and 1980s. Then the connections were more easily possible and the first few pay channels took off in popularity. A nationwide network of unified programming was the reality, and it provided people with something in common to look forward to, however niche it might be.

Also, with the coming of cable was the loosening of some of the restrictions placed on networks in the past. The FCC did regulate cable starting in 1963, but cable was harder to regulate on many grounds, and it opened up the way for a lot more content options. Premium channels such as HBO and Cinemax became known for occasionally showing more explicit content. And since they were opt-in networks, there wasn’t as much controversy regarding them.

Later on, starting in 1980 we started to see those famous channels we know today. Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980, and MTV also launched the same year. And pick a famous cable channel and it likely started after 1970. The history of cable itself is a story of its own, but suffice it to say it became the norm for anyone with a bit of income and a television set.

Expansion and Specialization

After the expansion of cable became standard in many homes, the history of television itself wasn’t marked by dramatic improvements so much as small changes which built up to a better experience for the average viewer.

Networks saw the potential in more specialized programming on cable. As such, we got the birth of additional sports channels, additional kids or nature channels, and more. Premium cable channels became more popular. Subscriber numbers reached new heights regularly. We also saw the advent of pay-per-view programming. It was harder to implement previously, for several logistical reasons. Sports events, special programming, and more were now in reach to people across the country.

In the mid-2000’s we started to see some major developments with television in HDTVs and flat screens, changing the way we look at TVs and use them. Programming took some time to catch up to higher resolutions, but truly high-quality visuals were not only possible but commonplace soon after.

This leads us to the programming of today. There isn’t as much that is a new development, though TV constantly strives to perfect itself. Higher resolutions were used in sports broadcasting and news programming. This normalized them and provided a much better viewing experience. Interaction took an upturn due to the internet and the accessibility of cell phones. However, interactive programming was hardly a new concept at the turn of the century.

It was during this period that we also saw the first DVRs become commercially available, allowing watchers to not stick to a strict schedule to watch their favorite shows. While there was taping using a VHS in the past, it was a more complicated and expensive process in the long run, and not a practical option for most people. This led the way to a more on-demand mindset that dominates today’s TV market.

Netflix, Streaming, and the New Normal

So where are we at today? Much of the same, though the internet has made its way into matters, upending traditional broadcast TV and cable. We hardly need to go into detail here, but as of 2007 Netflix started to stream, and internet connections became good enough to handle it (with a bit of buffering in some cases).

In terms of physical TV sets, we also saw the transition to Smart TVs becoming the norm. These sets were in some ways a combination of the previous developments in television technology. The development of the Internet of Things also saw a key role. Now practically every television being made is a Smart TV. They’re practically necessary to engage with television and content on a big screen in today’s world. 

As far as the aforementioned streaming is concerned, it grew popular quickly. To put it into perspective, there are currently more than 200 million Netflix subscriptions worldwide. That number is still expected to increase over time. And many people have more than one subscription to the point where people “cut the cord” and just use them. However, they might be missing out on some live and sports programming. There may come a day when the number of subscribers in the United States overshadows the number of cable subscriptions. Depending on how you count things, we may have passed it already.

Television in the Future

All the above makes us ask one simple question: what can we expect from television in the future? Now that digital content has become the norm and people effectively stream content as much as if not more than television, we need to rethink what is considered programming, and so have network executives and television professionals. While we cannot predict the future, here are some trends and likelihoods.

  • People watch a lot of content on their phones now, and every device with a screen seems capable of streaming something or another these days. Television has more competition these days, and people want to watch what they want when they want to. Cable companies and broadcast channels must adapt to this new reality to remain relevant. 
  • User-created content on platforms such as YouTube has also made us rethink television and video content. What took a full setup and multiple people decades prior could now be done by an amateur in the backyard with a bit of tenacity and a good smartphone. And while user-created content (usually) doesn’t hold a candle to the meticulously produced programming of the major networks, there is something to be said about the popularity of such creations.
  • Of course, the top end of technology able to be used by television production is astounding these days. Computer effects can make the imagination come to life. It’s beyond what we could even dream of a few decades ago. And then there are the sets themselves. We may see innovations such as more 3D technology (after the last wave didn’t go over so well) and an overall better viewing experience.


Television sure has come a long way, and there is so much more to talk about than we had room for in this article. There could easily be books written on the subject, and we encourage you to satisfy your curiosity and seek out the ones already written. We know that television is going to evolve, and there is only so much we can predict. Yet we hope that this information has allowed you to get an understanding of the rapid progress we’ve made so far and how wondrous it can be. Keep on watching to your heart's content and keep exploring one of the major driving forces of society today, in whatever form it might take.

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