“Why can’t HBO be like Netflix?” That is the question a friend asked me the other day. She was annoyed that she couldn’t subscribe to HBO without having a cable subscription. I started to explain it to her but it got very complicated and the more I spoke and thought about it the more I realized I couldn’t answer it easily.
The topic of television and Netflix and HBO and streaming and broadcast and cable and so on is all very complicated. I decided maybe its better to start from the (sort of) beginning and go from there.
How did this all get started?
In the beginning was the word, and that word was radio. I won’t get into the invention of radio and how it works. Instead I’ll begin with a company called American Telephone & Telegraph Company. Does it sound familiar? It should. Around 1915 or so AT&T had the idea of building a nationwide radio network.
I’ve heard of a network. What does it mean in this case?
AT&T’s idea was that it would build stations across the country and then link them so that they would all broadcast the same programming at the same time.
What kind of fancy technology was AT&T going to use to connect the stations?
As you may expect, AT&T decided to connect the stations via telephone lines.
Although AT&T planned to build all the stations in the network, it ended up not needing to. In the early 1920s there was a building boom in radio stations and all AT&T ended up having to do was link the stations. By 1926, AT&T had links to stations in nineteen cities, plus New York where the flagship station was located.
What was this network called?
As the broadcasts originated at WEAF in New York, it was known as the “WEAF Chain”. In addition, as the network was marked out in red in company documents it was also called the “red network”.
Were there other networks?
Sort of. Sometime in the early 1920, General Electric, Westinghouse and their jointly owned subsidiary Radio Corporation of America formed the Radio Group which would create its own network. As this network was formed around WJZ it became known as the “WJZ Chain”. The network was made up of four stations.
I’m getting bored.
Okay. So in 1926, AT&T transferred its radio network to its wholly owned subsidiary, the Broadcasting Company of America. Then, AT&T announced that it was selling its radio network holdings to the Radio Group. The company that took over the network was owned by RCA (50%), GE (30%) and Westinghouse (20%).
What’s the big deal about that?
Oh, did I forget to mention something? The name of the new company was the National Broadcasting Company. The WEAF Chain was called the NBC-Red network and the WJZ Chain was called the NBC-Blue network.
What about CBS?
In early 1927, a network originally called United Independent Broadcasters was formed, and as with the NBC networks it was made up of station affiliates connected by telephone lines. After Columbia Phonograph Record Company provided some cash for the fledgling network, it was renamed the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Be patient, please.
Fine. So what happened next?
The three networks (NBC-Red, NBC-Blue and CBS) expanded until they covered most of the country, or at least all the urban parts of the country.
But this was still radio, right?
It was still radio, but when commercial broadcast television became viable, who do you think had the infrastructure to build television networks?
Will you please just be patient.
Both NBC and CBS (and others) had experimented with television since at least the early 1930s. Finally in 1941, the FCC authorized commercial television. NBC and CBS both began broadcasting about 15 hours of programming a week starting on July 1.
Of course, the US entered World War II in December of that year, which led to the networks cutting back to about 4 hours of programming a week.
What about ABC?
In 1943, the FCC won its suit against NBC with regard to owning two networks. NBC sought FCC approval to sell the Blue Network Company, Inc. (formerly NBC-Blue) to the American Broadcasting System. The sale was approved in 1945 and the Blue Network was renamed the American Broadcasting Company.
Also, in 1946 the call letters of WEAF were changed to WNBC and in 1953 WJZ became WABC.
And the DuMont Television Network?
The DuMont network operated from 1946 to 1956 and for good reason is sometimes called the “Forgotten Network.”
You should forget about it now.
So what happens next?
What happens next is the Golden Age of Television, which began in the late 40s and lasted into the 60s. By 1963, television had been adopted by 90% of US households. If you were lucky, you lived in a place where you could receive signals from each of the networks. However, people in rural areas were not necessarily able to receive signals from each network.
So what could those people do?
For the most part, nothing. However, some lucky people in Mahoney City, Pennsylvania were given a solution to the problem. Although Philadelphia was only 86 miles away, the mountains around Mahoney prevented residents from receiving signals from the three networks. John Walson, a television salesman, set up an antenna on a mountaintop and ran cable to his store and to several households. This was the start of cable television.
What type of cable did he use?
You’re kidding, right? Fine.
Walson first used twin-lead wire and then later started using the type of cable that most of us are familiar with; coaxial cable.
By the way, this happened in 1948.
So cable television was originally just to receive signals from the broadcast networks?
That’s right. But in 1962, AT&T launched the first satellite to be used for television signals. Eventually, people figured out that you didn’t need to be part of a broadcast network to reach a national audience.
In 1975, HBO (then known as Home Box Office) became the first channel to distribute its content exclusively via satellite.
Okay, so we got to HBO. When are we going to get to Netflix?
You’ll have to wait for part two.