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Television Basics

How do TV programs get to your home? In a large majority—sixty percent—of American homes today television is received by way of a twisted copper cable. But even cable stations get their local television signals the way the rest of us receive television, by way of the public airwaves.

The airwaves, the electromagnetic spectrum, are public property, like the rivers and the air. Because only one broadcaster can use a spectrum frequency without interfering with another, the airwaves are considered scarce. Because of this scarcity, the federal government gives licenses to local television broadcasters to use the public airwaves to transmit a signal and prohibits interference by others.

Who determines what programs get on television? In exchange for the free public license to broadcast a local signal, the local television station owner is obligated to act as a trustee, a sort of protector, of public property. The local television broadcaster is responsible to determine which programs will best meet the obligation to justify his government license. One obligation is be financially responsible, but there is also an obligation to serve the local citizens.

To say who is responsible, unfortunately does not say who determines what programs get on television. Most local television stations are owned by large groups, and their programming decisions are influenced by those large groups. . .not local needs. The local stations take satellite signals from the networks (Disney/ABC, GE/NBC, Westinghouse/CBS, Fox, et cetera) and a few programs from large production houses (such as King World). Sometimes the large group owners, the networks, and the large production houses are one and the same. And though these networks and production houses determine what programs get on television, unlike the local station, they have no obligation to the local citizen/viewer.1


  1. http://www.benton.org/Policy/TV/whatslocal.html

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