Television is a major mass media of the United States. Household ownership of television sets in the country is 96.7%, and the majority of households have more than one set. The peak ownership percentage of households with at least one television set occurred during the 1996-1997 season, with 98.4% ownership.  As a whole, the television networks of the United States are the largest and most syndicated in the world.
As of August 2013, approximately 114,200,000 American households own at least one television set.
Over-the-air and free-to-air television do not necessitate any monthly payments, while cable, direct broadcast satellite and IPTV services require monthly payments that vary depending on the number of channels that a subscriber chooses to pay for in a particular package. Channels are usually sold in groups, rather than singularly.
The United States has a decentralized, market-oriented television system. The nation has a national public television service known as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Local media markets have their own television stations, which may be affiliated with or owned and operated by a television network. Stations may sign affiliation agreements with one of the national networks that can last anywhere from one to ten years (although such agreements often last on average between four and six years). Except in very small markets with few stations, affiliation agreements are usually exclusive: if a station is an NBC affiliate, the station would not air programs from ABC, CBS or other networks. Arrangements in which television stations carried more than one network on its main signal were more common between the 1940s and the 1960s, although some arrangements continued as late as 2010; today, programming from networks other than that which the station has a primary affiliation are usually carried over digital subchannels.
However, to ensure local presences in television broadcasting, federal law restricts the amount of network programming that local stations can run. Until the 1970s and 1980s, local stations supplemented network programming with a sizeable amount of their own locally produced shows. Today however, many stations produce only local news programs, while filling the rest of their schedule with syndicated programs, or material produced independently and sold to individual stations in each local market.
The five major U.S. broadcast television networks are NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and The CW. The first three began as radio networks: NBC and CBS in the 1920s, and ABC having spun off from NBC in 1943 as the Blue Network. Fox is a relative newcomer that began in October 1986, although it is built upon the remnants of the former DuMont Television Network, which was an earlier attempt at a "fourth network" that operated from 1948 to 1956. The CW was created in 2006 when UPN merged with the broadcast and cable assets of The WB (The WB's online assets remained separate, although its former web domain – which was revamped as a streaming service – was shut down in 2013 and replaced with a promotional website for Warner Bros. Television programs). All in all, the U.S. broadcasting landscape dramatically evolved towards a conglomeratization of players – an effect also called concentration of media ownership, which describes the narrowing of competition in modern television broadcasting.
Weekday schedules on ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates tend to be similar, with programming choices sorted by dayparts (Fox does not air network programming outside of prime time other than sports programming that airs on weekends and on fairly rare occasions, weekdays). Typically, these begin with an early-morning local news program, followed by a network morning program, such as NBC's Today, which mixes news, weather, interviews and music.
Network daytime schedules consist of talk shows and soap operas, although one network – CBS – still carries game shows (a handful of other game shows otherwise air in syndication); local newscasts may air at midday timeslots. Syndicated talk shows are shown in the late afternoon, followed by additional local newscasts in the early evening time period. ABC, CBS and NBC offer network news programs each evening, generally airing at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. in the Eastern Time Zone and 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. in other areas. Local newscasts or syndicated programs fill the "prime access" hour or half-hour, and lead into the networks' prime time schedules, which are the day's most-watched three hours of television.
At the end of prime time, another local news program is broadcast, usually followed by late-night interview shows, such as Late Show with David Letterman or The Tonight Show. Rather than sign off for the early hours of the morning (as was standard practice until the early 1970s in larger markets and until the mid-1980s in smaller ones), television stations now fill the time with syndicated programming, reruns of prime time television shows or late local newscasts, or 30-minute advertisements, known as infomercials, and in the case of CBS and ABC, overnight network news programs. On some stations, syndicated programming may fill timeslots where local newscasts do not air, either due to the station not programming news in certain time periods or not having a news department; similarly, local news programs in the late evening hours may air during the final hour of primetime (10:00 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific Time Zones and 9:00 p.m. in all others), usually on stations affiliated with networks other than those classified as part of the "Big Three" (ABC, NBC and CBS).
Saturday mornings usually feature network programming aimed at children (including animated cartoons), while Sunday mornings include public affairs programs. Both of these help fulfill stations' legal obligations, respectively to provide educational children's programs and public service programming. Sports and infomercials (and on some stations, syndicated feature film packages) can be found on weekend afternoons, followed again by the same type of prime-time shows aired during the week.
From 1955 until 1986, all English-language stations not affiliated with the big three networks were independent, airing only locally produced and syndicated programming. Many independent stations still exist in the U.S., usually historically broadcasting on the UHF band. Syndicated shows, often reruns of television series currently in or out of production and movies released as recently as three years prior to their initial syndication broadcast, take up much of their schedules.
However in 1986, the Fox Broadcasting Company launched a challenge to the Big Three networks. Thanks largely to the success of shows like The Simpsons, as well as the network's 1993 acquisition of rights to show National Football League games, Fox has established itself as a major player in broadcast television. However, Fox differs from the three older networks in that it does not air daily morning and nightly news programs or have network-run daytime or weeknight late night schedules (though late night shows do air on Saturday nights). Its nightly prime-time schedule is only two hours long (three hours on Sundays), and some of its major market affiliates used to broadcast on UHF before the transition to digital. Many of its mid-size and small market affiliates outsource news production to Big Three affiliates rather produce their own newscasts, and its flagship stations in New York City and Los Angeles do not include the network's name within their callsigns (Fox's New York City and Los Angeles stations instead use the respective callsigns WNYW and KTTV).
Fox's only scheduled news program is Fox News Sunday, which it airs on Sunday mornings; special news coverage on Fox comes from the staff of its sister cable network Fox News Channel, though not all affiliates carry breaking news bulletins from Fox News outside of primetime presidential addresses. Most of Fox's affiliates now have local newscasts, often scheduled in primetime usually airing an hour earlier to which they compete with network dramas, rather than other local newscasts, and in the morning for two additional hours that overlap with morning news programs on ABC, NBC and CBS.
Three new networks launched in the 1990s: The WB (which launched in January 1995), UPN (which also launched in January 1995) and Pax TV (which launched in August 1998, Pax later became i: Independent Television in July 2005 and then Ion Television in September 2007) -- launched. The fledging WB and UPN merged into The CW in September 2006, while News Corporation's MyNetworkTV, created to replace UPN programming on Fox's O&Os, debuted that same month, albeit two weeks earlier.
Ion broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week (though only fifteen hours of its schedule on Saturday through Thursdays and nineteen hours on Fridays consist of entertainment programming, with infomercials and religious programming making up the remainder of the schedule), making the Ion network the largest English-language commercial television network to be totally responsible for its affiliates' programming.
The CW broadcasts ten hours a week of programming in prime time (all airing only on Monday through Fridays) and five hours on Saturday mornings (its children's program block may bleed into the afternoon hours on weekends on a few stations due to other locally scheduled programs). MyNetworkTV originally started as a conventional network, however after experiencing continued low ratings for its prime time-exclusive schedule, it converted into a "broadcast syndication service" in 2009, that broadcasts reruns of series originally aired on other networks for ten hours a week on Monday through Fridays.
Broadcast television in languages other than English
French language programming is generally limited in scope, with some locally produced French and creole programming available in the Miami area (serving refugees from Haiti) and Louisiana, along with some locales along the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard. Francophone areas near the eastern portion of the Canada-United States border generally receive their television broadcasts from French Canadian channels, which are widely available over-the-air and on cable in those areas.
Especially after the transition to digital television, many large cities have Asian-language broadcast stations, such as KYAZ in Houston.
Public television has a far smaller role than in most other countries. The federal government does produce NASA TV (three channels featuring space program information and educational programs) and The Pentagon Channel (a military news outlet) for public consumption, but only distributes them via satellite and the Internet and not through terrestrial outlets. In addition, Broadcasting Board of Governors content (the most well-known being Voice of America) have been available to U.S. consumers since the partial repeal of the Smith–Mundt Act in 2013; VOA and its sister outlets are likewise restricted to shortwave and Internet broadcasts. However, a number of states – such as Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Carolina – have state-owned public broadcasting authorities that operate and fund all public television stations in their respective states. The Alabama Educational Television Commission, licensee for the nine stations comprising Alabama Public Television, was established by the Alabama Legislature in 1953. In January 1955, WCIQ on Mount Cheaha began operation as the nation's ninth non-commercial television station. Four months later, with the sign-on of WBIQ in Birmingham, Alabama became the first state in the nation with an educational television network. Alabama Public Television made its first broadcast as a network in April 1955.
Alabama Public Television was a model for other states in the nation and for television broadcasters in other countries. 25 other states copied Alabama's system of operation to provide service through multiple, linked television stations. The federal government does subsidize non-commercial educational television stations through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The income received from the government is insufficient to cover expenses and stations rely on corporate sponsorships and viewer contributions.
American public television stations air programming that commercial stations do not offer, such as educational, including cultural and arts, and public affairs programming. Most (but, by no means, all) public television stations are members of the Public Broadcasting Service, sharing programs such as Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theatre. Unlike the commercial networks, PBS does not officially produce any of its own programming; instead, individual PBS stations, station groups and affiliated producers create programming and provide these through PBS to other affiliates; there are also a number of syndicators dealing exclusively or primarily with public broadcast stations, both PBS and independent public television stations; additionally, there are a number of smaller networks feeding programming to public stations, including World, Create and MHz Worldview; the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle has also provided blocks of programming to a variety of affiliates in the U.S., and increasingly feeds from other national broadcasters have been playing through digital subchannels belonging to public stations in the U.S. New York City's municipally-owned broadcast service, NYCTV, creates original programming that airs in several markets. Few cities have major municipally-owned stations.
While pay television systems existed as early as the late 1940s, until the early 1970s cable television only brought distant over-the-air television to rural areas without local stations. This role was reflected in the original meaning of the CATV acronym: community antenna TV. In that decade, national networks dedicated exclusively to cable broadcasting appeared along with cable systems in major cities with over-the-air television. By the mid-1970s some form of cable television was available in almost every market that already had over-the-air television service. Today, most American households receive cable television, and cable networks collectively have greater viewership than broadcast networks, even though individual programs on most of the major commercial broadcast networks often have relatively higher viewership than those seen on cable channels.
Unlike broadcast networks, most cable networks air the same programming nationwide. Top cable networks include USA Network (which maintains a general entertainment format), ESPN and Fox Sports (which focus on sports programming), MTV (which focuses on music and reality television programming), CNN and Fox News Channel (which are dedicated news channels with some opinion and other feature-driven programming), Syfy (which focuses on science fiction), Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network (which focus on children's programming, although the latter two run blocks aimed at an adult audience), Discovery Channel and Animal Planet (which focus on reality and documentary programs), TBS (a general entertainment network with a principal focus on comedy), TNT and FX (also general entertainment networks, with some focus on drama) and Lifetime (which is targets at a female audience).
The national cable television network became possible in the mid-1970s with the launch of domestic communication satellites that could economically broadcast television programs to cable operators anywhere in the continental United States (some domestic satellites also covered Alaska and Hawaii with dedicated spot beams). Until then, cable networks like HBO had been limited to regional coverage through distribution over expensive terrestrial microwave links leased from the telephone companies (primarily AT&T). Satellites were generally used only for international (i.e., transoceanic) communications; their antennas covered an entire hemisphere, producing weak signals that required large, expensive receiving antennas. The first domestic communications satellite, Westar 1, was launched in 1974. By concentrating its signal on the continental United States with a directional antenna, Westar 1 could transmit to TVRO ("television receive-only") dishes only a few meters in diameter, well within the means of local cable television operators.
Satellite TV receiver dishes.
Cable system operators now receive programming by satellite, terrestrial optical fiber, off the air, and from in-house sources and relay it to subscribers' homes. Usually, local governments award a monopoly to provide cable television service in a given area. By law, cable systems must include local broadcast stations in their offerings to customers.
Enterprising individuals soon found they could install their own satellite dishes and eavesdrop on the feeds to the cable operators. The signals were transmitted as unscrambled analogFM that did not require advanced or expensive technology. Since these same satellites were also used internally by the television networks, they could also watch programs not intended for public broadcast such as affiliate feeds without commercials and/or intended for another time zone; raw footage from remote news teams; advance transmissions of upcoming programs; and live news and talk shows during breaks when those on camera might not realize that anyone outside the network could hear them.
Encrypting was introduced to prevent people from receiving pay content for free, and nearly every pay channel was encrypted by the mid-to-late 1980s (this did not happen without protest, such as an incident in which a satellite dealer intecepted HBO's signal during a film telecast in 1986). Satellite television also began a digital transition, well before over the air broadcasting did the same, to increase satellite capacity and/or reduce the size of the receiving antennas, and this also made it more difficult for individuals to intercept these signals.
Eventually, the industry began to cater to individuals who wanted to continue to receive satellite television (and were willing to pay for it) in two ways: by authorizing the descrambling of the original satellite feeds to the cable television operators and with new direct broadcast satellite television services using their own satellites. These latter services, which began in the mid-1990s, offer programming similar to cable television. DirecTV and Dish Network are the major DBS providers in the country, with 20 and 14 million customers respectively as of February 2014. Meanwhile, the major cable television providers are Comcast with 22 million customers, Time Warner Cable with 11 million, and Cox Communications, Charter Communications, AT&T U-Verse and Verizon FiOS with five to six million each.
Although most networks make viewers pay a fee to receive their programming, some networks broadcast using unencrypted feeds. After broadcast television switched to a digital infrastructure, new channels became available on unencrypted satellites to bring more free television to Americans; some of these are available as a digital subchannel to local broadcasters, this reason may be for the expensive costs of the DVB-S equipment. NASA TV, Pentagon Channel, ABC News Now, This TV, TheCoolTV and Retro Television Network (through its affiliates) are examples, international news channels like Al Jazeera English are commonly watched this way as a result to the lack of availability on cable, DBS and IPTV.
Some cable providers use interactive features in their set-top boxes to distribute video on demand within their internal networks.
IPTV is similar to a cable subscription, but instead of the set-top box receiving information via a dedicated wire, video is transmitted over the public Internet or private internet protocol-based network to a set-top box.
The company Aereo provides a cloud-based digital video recorder service for over-the-air broadcasts; although it and the similarly structured FilmOn have run into legal problems with broadcasters who accuse the services of transmitting programs from broadcast television stations in violation of copyrights (Aereo and FilmOn both state that their use of "miniature" antennas for transmission of programs to individual users is legal, although they have experienced mixed decisions declaring them either legal or in infringement of copyrights).
The business of television
The main characters in Frasier selling U.S. Treasury Bonds.
Over-the-air commercial stations and networks generate the vast majority of their revenue from advertisements. According to a 2001 survey, broadcast stations allocated 16 to 21 minutes per hour to commercials. Most cable networks also generate income from advertisements, although most basic cable networks also receive subscription fees. However, premium cable networks, such as HBO, do not air commercials. Instead, cable television subscribers must pay extra to receive the pay television services.
Networks traditionally allocate a portion of commercial time during their shows to the local affiliates, which allow the local stations to generate revenue. In the same manner, cable television providers generate some of their revenue by selling local commercial time for each cable network being broadcast. The other main source of revenue for the cable operators are subscription fees.
Cable companies are required by the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act to negotiate for retransmission consent, usually paying broadcasters for the right to carry their signals; this method has resulted in problems between pay television providers and companies that own subscription television services, as disagreements sometimes arise leading to carriage disputes that result in broadcast stations or cable channels being pulled for a protracted period of time, often due to carriage fee increases that a provider may consider to be too expensive (since retransmission consent fees are a form of subscriber fee, any increase in fees that a provider carries will be passed on to the subscriber, which providers are hesitant to do out of concern that it may result in subscriber defections due to the increased rates of program packages).
American television has had very successful programs that have inspired television networks across the world to develop shows of similar types or to syndicate these shows to other countries. Some of these shows are still on the air and some have maintained decent runs in syndication. The opposite is also true; a number of popular American programs were based on shows from other countries, especially the United Kingdom and Canada.
Television series featuring fantasy and science fiction are also popular with American viewers, since these programs take elements of comedy, drama, adventure, or a combination of all of the above. Among the most notable fantasy series in this genre include Touched By an Angel (centering on angels helping humans in times of personal crisis), Bewitched (a sitcom centering on a witch adjusting to married life), Fantasy Island (which was set at a resort where people live out their fantasies, but at a price), Drop Dead Diva (focusing on a deceased model inhabiting the body of a lawyer), and Once Upon a Time (centering on fairytale characters that are trapped in the present day after a curse was enacted), while Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and the British series Doctor Who rank among the most watched programs in the sci-fi genre.
Television production companies either commission teleplays for television pilots or buy spec scripts. Some of these scripts are turned into pilots. The production company markets those they consider commercially viable to television networks – or television distributors for first-run syndication (for example, CBS Television Distribution distributes Dr. Phil in first-run syndication, because that show is syndicated – it is not carried with a particular network). A few things in consideration for a television network to pick up a show is if the show itself is compatible with the network's target audience, the cost of production, and if the show is well liked among network executives.
Networks sometimes preemptively purchase pilots to prevent other networks from controlling them – and the purchase of a pilot is no guarantee that the network will order additional episodes. Pilots that do get "picked up" get either a full or partial-season order; the show goes into production, usually establishing itself with permanent sets. The producers hire writers, directors and other crew members, and work begins – usually during the late spring and summer before the fall season-series premieres (shows can also serve as a midseason replacement, meaning they are ordered specifically to fill holes in a network schedule created by the failure and cancellation of shows that premiered in the fall; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Office are examples of successful midseason replacements).
The standard broadcast television season in the United States consists of 22 episodes; sitcoms may have 24 or more; animated programs may have more (or fewer) episodes; cable networks with original programming seem to have settled on about 10 to 13 episodes per season, much in line with British television programming.
American soap operas air in the afternoon, five days a week, without any significant break in taping and airing schedules throughout the year. This means that these serials air approximately 260 episodes a year, making their cast and crew members the busiest in show business. These shows are rarely, if ever, repeated, making it difficult for viewers to "catch up" when they miss an episode. Cable channel SoapNet provided weekly repeats for some broadcasts until it shut down in December 2013, after which TVGN (originally a television listings service formerly known under several names including the Prevue Channel) began airing some network soaps in a same-day repeat.
Networks use profits from commercials run during the show to pay the production company, which in turn pays the cast and crew, and keeps a share of the profits for itself (networks sometimes act as both production companies and distributors). As advertising rates are based on the size of the audience, measuring the number of people watching a network is very important. This measurement is known as a show or network's ratings. Sweeps months (which occur in November, February, May, and to a lesser extent July) are important landmarks in the television season – ratings earned during these periods determining advertising rates until the next sweeps period, therefore shows often have their most exciting plot developments happen during sweeps.
Shows that are successful with audiences and advertisers receive authorization from the network to continue production, until the plotline ends (only for scripted shows) or if the contract expires. Those that are not successful are often quickly told to discontinue production by the network, known as cancellation. There are instances of initially low-rated shows surviving cancellation and later becoming highly popular, but these are rare. For the most part, shows that are not immediately or even moderately successful are cancelled by the end of November sweeps, if not shortly thereafter or earlier. Usually if a show is canceled, there is little chance of it ever coming back again especially on the same network it was canceled from; the only show in the U.S. to ever come back from cancellation on the same network is Family Guy (which was cancelled by Fox in 2001 and was revived by the network in 2005 due to the popularity of reruns on cable and DVD releases of the series). However, canceled shows like Scrubs, Southland, Medium and Wonder Woman have been picked up by other networks, which is becoming an increasingly common practice. It is also somewhat common for series to continue production on a series for the purpose of completing a DVD set, even if these episodes will never air on television (these episodes would, in years past, be "burned off" by airing them in less-prominent time slots).
Once a television series reaches a threshold of approximately 88 to 100 episodes, it becomes a candidate to enter reruns in off-network syndication. Reruns are a lucrative business for television producers, who can sell the rights to a "used" series without the expenses of producing it (though they may have to pay royalties to the affected parties, depending on union contracts).
Sitcoms are traditionally the most widely syndicated reruns and are usually aired in a five-day-a-week strip. Marginally performing shows tend to last less than five years in broadcast syndication, sometimes moving to cable channels or into limited-run barter syndication (such as through The Program Exchange) after the end of their syndication runs, while more widely successful series can have a life in syndication that can run for decades (I Love Lucy, the first series designed to be rerun, remains popular in syndication more than 60 years after its 1951 debut).
Cable networks and digital broadcast channels have provided outlets for programming that either has outlived its syndication viability, lacks the number of episodes necessary for syndication, or for various reasons was not a candidate for syndication in the first place. Popular dramas, for instance, have permanent homes on several basic cable channels, often running in marathons (multiple episodes airing back-to-back for several hours), and there are also cable channels devoted to game shows (Game Show Network), soap operas (the now-defunct SoapNet), Saturday morning cartoons (Boomerang) and even sports broadcasts (ESPN Classic). Most reality shows perform poorly in reruns and are rarely seen as a result, other than reruns of series still in production, on the same network on which they air (almost always cable outlets), where they air as filler programming.
Broadcast television is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC awards licenses to local stations, which stipulate stations' commitments to educational and public-interest programming. The FCC also prohibits the airing of "indecent" material over the air between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.
Broadcast stations can legally air almost anything they want late at night – and cable networks at all hours. However, nudity and graphic profanity are rare on American television. Such content, however, is common on pay television services that are free from FCC regulations and pressure from advertisers, and often require a subscription. Broadcasters fear that airing such material would alienate advertisers and encourage the federal government to strengthen regulation of television content.
Premium cable networks are exceptions, and often air very racy programming at night, though premium channels often air program content with strong to graphic profanity, violence and nudity in some cases during the daytime hours. Some networks, such as Playboy TV, are devoted exclusively to "adult" content and therefore viewers may find scenes of simulated or graphic sexual intercourse and nudity on such channels.
Cable television is largely, but not entirely, unregulated. Cable systems must include local over-the-air stations in their offerings (stations can opt to gain carriage by seeking a must-carry option) and give them low channel numbers, unless the stations decide to demand compensation of any sort (through retransmission consent).
The systems cannot show broadcast network affiliates from other parts of the country (this regulation has largely been openly ignored in recent years during carriage disputes), however cable systems can air stations out of nearby markets if there are no stations affiliated with one of the major networks (though this is becoming far less common with the existence of over-the air stations carrying one network affiliation on the main channel, and affiliating with another network on a digital subchannel, thus allowing these network-affiliated digital subchannels to be carried via digital cable).
Cable systems can also air satellite-relayed over-the-air stations originating from other areas of the United States, known as superstations (of which there are currently only six around the country, the most prominent being WGN America, which airs select programming carried by WGN-TV in Chicago), which for the most part are often aired in rural areas and if carried nationally, may have a separate feed carrying different programming than that of the local area feed that is SyndEx-proof (in other words, syndicated programming that the superstation has obtained full signal rights to) and may omit network programming from that station's network affiliation; all superstations, are currently affiliated with a broadcast television network: WGN-TV, WPIX in New York City, KWGN in Denver and KTLA in Los Angeles are all affiliated with The CW, and WWOR-TV in Secaucus, New Jersey and WSBK-TV in Boston are affiliated with MyNetworkTV.
The FCC has virtually no jurisdiction over the content of programming exclusively broadcast on cable. As a result, anyone is free to create any number of channels or any sort of programming whatsoever without consulting the FCC. The only restrictions are on the ability to secure carriage on cable or satellite (or, failing that, by streaming on Internet television) and securing rights to programming. Because of this lack of restriction, channel drift is much more common in the United States than in other countries.
Because of the United States having relatively weak copyright terms until 1976, a large body of older television series have lapsed into the public domain and are thus free to redistribute in any form.
After years of experimental broadcasts, television first became commercialized in the United States in New York City on July 1, 1941, initially by RCA (through NBC, which it owned) via their station WNBT (now WNBC) and CBS, via their station WCBW (now WCBS-TV). A number of different broadcast systems had been developed through the end of the 1930s. The National Television System Committee (NTSC) standardized on a 525-line broadcast in 1941 that would provide the basis for television across the country through the end of the century.
After a flood of television license applications, the FCC froze the application process for new applicants in 1948, due to concerns over station interference. At the time, there were only a few dozen stations operating at the end of the decade, concentrated in many (but not all) major cities. The FCC began handing out broadcasting licenses to communities of all sizes in the early 1950s, spurring an explosion of growth in the medium.
A brief dispute over the system to use for color broadcasts occurred at this time, but was soon settled. Half of all U.S. households had television sets by 1955, though color was a premium feature for many years (most households able to purchase television sets could only afford black-and-white models, and few programs were broadcast in color until the mid-1960s).
Many of the earliest television programs were modified versions of well-established radio shows. Barn dances and opries were regular staples of early television, as were the first variety shows. Reruns of film shorts, such as Looney Tunes, Our Gang and The Three Stooges, were also staples of early television and to a certain extent remain popular today. The 1950s saw the first flowering of the genres that would distinguish television from movies and radio: talk shows like The Jack Paar Show and sitcoms like I Love Lucy. Although sitcoms were a radio fixture since the late 1930s (many 1940s radio sitcoms jumped directly to television), television allowed far greater use of physical comedy, an advantage that early television sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, My Little Margie and I Married Joan used to its full potential.
Other popular genera in early television were westerns, police procedurals and soap operas, all of which were adapted from the radio medium; suspense thrillers, a radio staple, were less common on television but were occasionally produced (the best known being The Twilight Zone, a mediocre performer in its time but one that has developed a major following in the decades of reruns that followed). The big band remote, for the most part, did not survive, with one exception: The Lawrence Welk Show, a big band-driven musical variety show, ran from 1951 until Welk's retirement in 1982 and in reruns from then onward. Game shows were also a major part of the early part of television, aided by massive prizes unheard of in the radio era; however, the pressure to keep the programs entertaining led to the quiz show scandals in which it was revealed many of the popular high-stakes games were rigged or outright scripted. The Saturday morning cartoons, animated productions made specifically for television (and, accordingly, with much tighter budgets and more limited animation), also debuted in the late 1950s.
Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, concurrent with the development of color television, the evolution of television led to an event colloquially known as the rural purge; generae such as the western, variety show, barn dance, and rural-oriented sitcom all met their demise in favor of newer, more modern series targeted at wealthier suburban and urban viewers. Around the same time, videotape became a more affordable alternative to film for recording programs.
Stations across the country also produced their own local programs. Usually carried live, they ranged from simple advertisements to game shows and children's shows that often featured clowns and other offbeat characters. Local programs could often be popular and profitable, but concerns about product promotion led them to almost completely disappear by the mid-1970s. The last remaining locally originated shows on American television as of 2012 are local newscasts and some brokered programming paid for by advertisers.
Subscription television (such as cable and satellite) became popular in the early 1980s, and has been growing in significance since then – spurring the emergence of multinational conglomerates such as Fox. As the number of outlets for potential new television channels increased, this also introduced the threat of audience fracturing, in that it would become more difficult to attain a critical mass of viewers in this highly competitive market.
As ratings declined, the number of game shows and soap operas followed, with the former genre almost completely disappearing from American daytime television, to be replaced by much cheaper and more lowbrow tabloid talk shows, many of which in turn were canceled and replaced by televised binding arbitration court shows beginning in the late 1990s.
Infomercials were legalized in 1984, approximately the same time that cable television became widespread. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, stations began airing infomercials throughout the night instead of signing off; infomercials also began to overtake other less-watched dayparts (such as weekends and during the daytime), which forced series that would otherwise be syndicated onto cable networks or off the air entirely. Cable networks have also begun selling infomercial space, usually in multiple-hour blocks in the early morning hours. Infomercials have earned a reputation as a medium for advertising scams and products of dubious quality.
The U.S. has now moved to digital television. U.S. networks began transitioning to recording their programs in high-definition television in the late 1990s, a process that is now mostly complete. A law passed in 2006 required over-the-air stations to cease analog broadcasting in 2009, with the end of analog television arriving on June 12 of that year.
The late 1990s also saw the invention of digital video recorders. While the ability to record a television program for home viewing was possible with the earlier VCRs, that medium was a bulky mechanical tape medium that was far less convenient than the all-digital technology DVRs use. DVR technology allowed wide-scale time shifting of programming, which had a negative impact on programming in time slots outside of prime time by allowing viewers to watch their favorite programs on demand. It also put pressure on advertisers, since DVRs make it relatively easy to skip over commercials.
During the 2000s, the major development in U.S. television was the growth of reality television, which proved to be an inexpensive and entertaining alternative to scripted prime time programming. The process of nonlinear video editing and digital recording allowed for much easier and less expensive editing of mass amounts of video, making reality television more viable than it had been in previous decades. All four major broadcast networks carry at least one long-running reality franchise in their lineup at any given time of the year.
In 2008, there were an estimated 327 million television sets in the United States.