In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cable Television

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Archives
  • Annuals
  • Trade Publications
  • Convergence of Cable, the Internet, and Digital Media

Communication Cable Television
Megan Mullen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0146


In the United States, cable television refers to both a category of televised entertainment and information programming and the technological means of delivering that programming. In existence for over a half century, cable television has gone through a number of transformations—with regard to its uses, content, industry structure, and regulatory framework. Cable, at first known as community antenna television or CATV, was begun in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a means of redistributing broadcast television signals to small towns that were either too far from the stations originating those signals to receive them over the air, using set-top or even rooftop antennas, or were blocked from receiving the signals by mountains or other obstructions. Local entrepreneurs built very tall receiving towers and relayed the signals gathered there to local “subscribers” via wire for a monthly fee. It was not long before the CATV entrepreneurs came together to form a trade association and to share innovations and know-how. In the decades since, the cable industry (as it became known in the late 1960s) has faced a shifting and uncertain government policy climate. At first, cable was perceived as a threat to the broadcast television industry, both because of its ability to bypass nearby signals to retransmit the signals of better funded stations from larger markets and because some broadcasters claimed that cable systems were unfairly making money from programming that they themselves had paid for the rights to air. By the early 1970s, most of these concerns had abated, and by that point some very utopian expectations had instead been placed on the cable industry—nothing short of making up for the perceived public service failures of the commercial broadcast television system. This was known as the “blue sky” era. What actually emerged, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, were a number of satellite-delivered cable programming networks. These have not exactly addressed the utopian dreams of blue sky. However they eventually came to represent a range of programming niches that generally adhere to established broadcast program genres, which is not surprising given that they generally follow the same commercial imperatives as broadcast television. What is now known as cable television has the appeal to reach many more US households than it once did, even while still serving its initial retransmission function. These days cable itself competes with some very similar multichannel delivery technologies, including direct broadcast satellite, IPTV (high-speed Internet), and others. While these technologies, including cable itself, now are available globally, their existence is due to a range of political, economic, and cultural circumstances—most differing from those that allowed cable television to develop as it did in the United States (and in a somewhat different way in Canada).

General Overviews

It is difficult to keep up with the changing world of cable television—indeed, the world of media in general. Nearly every day there is news of a new technology or innovation, and this is often followed by news of how it will converge with the content and delivery systems of other media industries. Most current writing about the media industries focuses on the convergences among different industries rather than any individual industries. It is too hard to isolate one from another. Thus the most recent overviews of cable television specifically were published in the early 2000s, including the very comprehensive Parsons 2008, aimed at academic and media industry experts, and the much shorter Mullen 2008, aimed at students and others looking for a brief overview. Other sources listed here predate these two books but offer different perspectives. Mullen 2003 examines the evolution of cable-specific programming within the context of technological, regulatory, and other developments within the larger industries of both CATV and pay-television. Baldwin and McVoy 1988 offers a basic, readable (though rather outdated) textbook-style overview. Parsons and Frieden 1998 offers a more recent, technical, and detailed overview. Southwick 1998 is a comprehensive history as of the late 1990s and is filled with a wealth of stories from the author’s years of journalistic experience. The New Yorker series in Whiteside 1985 continues to offer unrivaled detail and insight about how the CATV and pay-television industries gradually merged, overcoming much popular opposition and regulatory stumbling blocks, to become the modern cable television industry.

  • Baldwin, Thomas, and D. Stevens McVoy. 1988. Cable communication. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Now twenty-five years old, this book still provides a good overview of the cable industry in the decades preceding the arrival of fiber optics and digital technology. It offers broad coverage of technology, policy, business, and programming.

  • Mullen, Megan. 2003. The rise of cable programming in the United States: Revolution or evolution? Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    Provides a broadly encompassing look at the development of cable-specific programming in the United States, beginning with simple and irregular original programming by local CATV operators, continuing through cable’s merging with the concurrently developing pay-television industry, and concluding with the efforts of start-up satellite networks in the 1980s and 1990s to develop original programs on very low budgets.

  • Mullen, Megan. 2008. Television in the multichannel age: A brief history of cable television. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This 238-page book, with illustrations and focus boxes, provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of cable history from the late 1940s through the first decade of the 21st century. While the main focus is on the United States, the international status of cable is discussed briefly in each period covered.

  • Parsons, Patrick. 2008. Blue skies: A history of cable television. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    This eight hundred-page volume offers the most comprehensive and detailed coverage of cable history available today. Beginning with critical pre-1940s precursors to cable’s invention and continuing through speculation about cable’s post-2005 future, virtually no critical details have been omitted. A very broad array of primary and secondary sources is represented in the extensive endnotes.

  • Parsons, Patrick, and Robert Frieden. 1998. The cable and satellite television industries. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of cable and related industries as of the late 1990s. Addresses such topics as history, technology, content providers, business operations, law and regulation, and “social issues” (ranging from fragmentation of the television audience to television violence to the impact of multichannel television on political life). Includes several line drawings and data tables.

  • Southwick, Thomas. 1998. Distant signals: How cable TV changed the world of telecommunications. Overland Park, KS: Primedia Intertec.

    Written by the former Washington “insider” editor of Multichannel News and co-founder of Cable World, this comprehensive book contains abundant information on cable history. Its casual narrative style is peppered with photographs and quotations drawn from interviews and the resources of the National Cable Television Center and Museum.

  • Whiteside, Thomas. 1985. Onward and upward with the arts: Cable I. The New Yorker, 20 May: 45–87.

    First part of a lengthy three-part magazine series that examines the status of cable—and its promise—as of the mid-1980s. Focus is on various efforts to distinguish cable from broadcast television. The medium is examined in the context of the larger histories of both CATV/cable and pay-television, dating to the late 1940s or early 1950s. For Parts 2 and 3, see issues May 27, 1985 (pp. 43–73) and June 3, 1985 (82–105), respectively.

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