Cable television in the United States is a common form of television delivery, generally by subscription. Cable television first became available in the United States in 1948, with subscription services 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 US are in the suburbs and tend to be middle class; cable television is less common in low income, inner city, and rural areas.
The origins of premium cable lie in two areas: early pay TV 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.
In more recent years, premium cable refers to networks, such as Home Box Office (HBO), Cinemax, Showtime, Starz, and the Disney Channel (prior to 1997) that scramble or encrypt their signals so that only those paying additional monthly fees to their cable TV system can legally view them (via the use of a Cable converter box). Because their programming is commercial-free (except for promos in-between shows for the networks’ own content), these Television network command much higher fees from cable TV systems.
In 1975, HBO was 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).
There are several features of modern cable programming that distinguish it from broadcast television. Because cable television carries more bandwidth than broadcast TV (10 to 20 times as many channels), there is channel capacity for more specialty channels catering to particular television market demographics or interests. Also, because cable TV networks rely much less, or in some cases not at all, on revenue from television commercials, they can feature programming (such as specialty sports television or programming in foreign languages) that draws much smaller viewer numbers than what television networks would find acceptable. And finally, since cable TV channels cannot be viewed by those (e.g., children) without the proper equipment, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rules regarding acceptable content do not apply to cable TV networks, allowing greater freedom in the use of profanity, sex and violence.
The lack of restrictions on content has led to cable TV 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. While there are no FCC rules that apply to content on basic cable networks, many basic cable networks self-regulate their program content because of viewer and advertiser expectations, particularly with regard to language and nudity. In recent years though, some basic cable networks have begun to relax their self-imposed restrictions, particularly late at night. Thus, programs like Comedy Central’s South Park often contain content deemed unsuitable for U.S. broadcast TV. Networks have recently aired R-rated movies, uncut, late at night. Other networks such as FX have begun to position themselves as a lighter version of premium stations by developing shows that attract such critical acclaim that sponsors will overlook controversial content for solid demographics. Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Independent Film Channel (IFC) and Sundance Channel are commercial-free basic cable channels that are uncensored and from time to time are known to show R-rated movies on their channel (which are far more prevalent on IFC and Sundance Channel, though all three channels do not use the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings for any of its films, instead rating films using the TV Parental Guidelines) and films may feature nudity, sexual content, violence and profanity.