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Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting

Sarah Banet-Weiser
Cynthia Chris
Anthony Freitas
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Cable Visions
    Book Description:

    Cable television, on the brink of a boom in the 1970s, promised audiences a new media frontier-an expansive new variety of entertainment and information choices. Music video, 24-hour news, 24-hour weather, movie channels, children's channels, home shopping, and channels targeting groups based on demographic characteristics or interests were introduced.Cable Visions looks beyond broadcasting's mainstream, toward cable's alternatives, to critically consider the capacity of commercial media to serve the public interest. It offers an overview of the industry's history and regulatory trends, case studies of key cable newcomers aimed at niche markets (including Nickelodeon, BET, and HBO Latino), and analyses of programming forms introduced by cable TV (such as nature, cooking, sports, and history channels).

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3924-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Cable TV, on the brink of a boom in the 1970s, promised TV audiences a new media frontier, an expansive new variety of entertainment and information choices. Cable seemed poised to provide access to a greater variety of media forms and points of view than could be found on oligopolistic broadcasting sources, as increasing channel capacity, a regulatory apparatus that had become amenable to the growth of the industry, and consumer demand for new services transformed how homes received television signals. The rapidly expanding industry appeared to lower barriers to entry, allowing independent entities to launch cable networks and allowing...

  5. PART I Institutions and Audiences

    • Introduction
      (pp. 17-23)

      At least since the 1970s and well into the 1990s, cable television has constituted a fast-growing new media market in which large, long-established corporate media entities and feisty upstarts do battle and do business. Over the last decade, cable has been joined by direct broadcast satellite (DBS) systems as the primary means by which U.S. households receive television signals. This section explores aspects of the structure of this industry, which has both mimicked its predecessor and, in many ways, remade the medium of television. What are the individual and corporate entities that have sought to shape the structure of this...

    • Chapter 1 The Moms ’n’ Pops of CATV
      (pp. 24-43)
      Megan Mullen

      Inasmuch as the early 1950s origins of the U.S. cable television industry have been documented at all, the story tends to be one of “mom ’n’ pop” entrepreneurship. In other words, media historians—and others affiliated with the modern cable industry—readily herald the small-town inventors and businessmen who devised ways to bring the television signals of large metropolitan areas into the nation’s hinterlands. Most people enjoy hearing an “American Dream” type of story, especially when contrasted with a broadcast television industry headquartered in major cities and dominated by established corporations.

      There is merit in this approach to cable history....

    • Chapter 2 A Taste of Class: Pay-TV and the Commodification of Television in Postwar America
      (pp. 44-65)
      John McMurria

      In 1950, long before HBO launched its pay-TV service in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on November 8, 1972 with a hockey game and a Hollywood movie, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized three pay-TV companies to conduct tests in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles using devices that required viewers to pay a fee to unscramble programs transmitted over the air.¹ The tests were a technical success, but as the differing perspectives above exemplify, the prospect of having to pay for television programs was not universally embraced.² Movie theater owners, having lost audiences to suburban flight and the rise of television,...

    • Chapter 3 Cable’s Digital Future
      (pp. 66-84)
      François Bar and Jonathan Taplin

      The deployment of digital technology throughout the U.S. communication networks over the last decade promised “the end of scarcity” for television.¹ Not only would fiber optics and electronics increase by orders of magnitude the capacity of each infrastructure—telephone, cable, or wireless—but once-specialized networks would all become able to transmit video streams, adding ever more channels for television distribution. By contrast with the old oligopolistic world of broadcasting and cable, various competing companies would own these new infrastructures, so there would be no single gatekeeper to program distribution. At the same time, digital technology would slash the cost of...

    • Chapter 4 If It’s Not TV, What Is It? The Case of U.S. Subscription Television
      (pp. 85-102)
      Amanda D. Lotz

      British television scholar Charlotte Brunsdon presciently anticipated the quandary that “premium” cable networks would introduce when she titled a 1998 essay, “What is the ‘Television’ of Television Studies?”¹ Brunsdon’s essay attends to the diversity of approaches scholars have used to study television and identifies the multiple characteristics by which they have defined the medium. In the relatively brief history of critical television studies, scholars have focused primarily upon programs, audiences, and institutions as key sites of television research. Examinations of programming and audiences display exceptional breadth while most institutional studies begin from the distinction of public versus commercial systems. As...

    • Chapter 5 Where the Cable Ends: Television beyond Fringe Areas
      (pp. 103-126)
      Lisa Parks

      Why is it that in the United States there are 65.4 million homes with cable television subscriptions and only 26.1 million with direct satellite broadcasting services?¹ This numerical disparity involves a complex set of issues ranging from federal policies to product designs, from landscape topographies to population densities, from cultural sensibilities to technological anxieties. Different TV distribution systems have emerged in different parts of the country at different times for different reasons. This essay explores sites beyond cable infrastructures in an effort to develop a more relational understanding of cable and satellite systems that can account for their distinct distribution...

  6. PART II Channels

    • Introduction
      (pp. 129-136)

      In its brief history, television has experienced an explosion of networks. Especially since the implementation of fiber-optic and satellite digital delivery, channel availability in the United States has mushroomed from a few broadcast channels to hundreds of channels and on-demand programming. The expansion of channel capability has led, and continues to lead, many to claim that cable television offers extraordinary possibilities for communications technologies.¹ In this sense, television is framed in “the rhetoric of the electrical sublime”—a rhetoric that represents new technologies as salves to society’s ills.² As discussed earlier in this volume, people from a range of political...

    • Chapter 6 Discovery’s Wild Discovery: The Growth and Globalization of TV’s Animal Genres
      (pp. 137-157)
      Cynthia Chris

      In the 1970s and into the 1980s, nonfiction wildlife filmmaking reached American television audiences largely in the form of low-cost, syndicated half-hours, such asMutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,and highbrow series and specials, such asNatureandNational Geographic,featured by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).¹ Wildlife could be found by viewers only on the fringes of an industry dominated by three commercial networks. By the end of the 1980s, however, the wildlife genre served not only as a flagship of The Discovery Channel’s innovative and profitable programming strategy, but also as part and parcel of a widespread proliferation...

    • Chapter 7 Tunnel Vision and Food: A Political-Economic Analysis of Food Network
      (pp. 158-176)
      Cheri Ketchum

      In the 1980s, television executives would have probably scoffed at the idea of a channel devoted entirely to food. Cooking shows were relegated mostly to public television channels or the occasional weekend afternoon slot of a commercial station’s offerings. Though programs like Julia Child’s had been successful and were relatively cheap to produce, they weren’t considered prime-time material. However, in 1993, Food Network was launched with the hope that there was room for this type of niche programming in the expanded channel offerings of cable. In the beginning the network struggled. But through its selection and creation of sexier, more...

    • Chapter 8 Target Market Black: BET and the Branding of African America
      (pp. 177-193)
      Beretta E. Smith-Shomade

      In November 2000, BET founder, President, and CEO Robert L. Johnson sold the then twenty-year-old Black Entertainment Television to Viacom, Inc. This sale hoisted Johnson into the billionaire’s club while simultaneously eliminating one of the few black-owned media entities. Before America and its scholars had time to fully appreciate the impact of the sale and ponder its legacy, Johnson won his 2003 bid for the new Charlotte (North Carolina) professional basketball franchise. His establishment as the first black NBA owner swept virtually all critical attention away from BET to celebrate Johnson’s inclusion (and by extension, all of black America) into...

    • Chapter 9 Monolingualism, Biculturalism, and Cable TV: HBO Latino and the Promise of the Multiplex
      (pp. 194-214)
      Katynka Z. Martínez

      Home Box Office (HBO) is often described as a pioneer, a risk-taker, and even as a channel to which the title of “auteur” can be applied.¹ Such titles were originally given to HBO because it was one of the first premium cable networks to offer original programming. It also drew from genres that were not initially staples of other premium cable networks, such as live sporting events and comedy shows. While such nontraditional approaches to programming characterize the channel’s early efforts at establishing an audience, HBO’s relationship with its Latino audience is more rooted in traditional Hispanic marketing conventions. This...

    • Chapter 10 Gay Programming, Gay Publics: Public and Private Tensions in Lesbian and Gay Cable Channels
      (pp. 215-233)
      Anthony Freitas

      Between 2001 and 2005, several media firms introduced commercial channels aimed at lesbian and gay viewers. These very narrowly targeted channels employed innovative funding and programming strategies to overcome financial and regulatory barriers as well as anticipated negative reactions from both anti-gay groups and lesbian and gay communities.¹ Like other media outlets targeted toward particular demographics or interests, these channels necessarily imagine an audience or public and hope to attract them to their channels. This chapter examines the creation of some of the channels targeted at gay audiences and the publics that they imagine.²

      Conceived of and built by established...

    • Chapter 11 The Nickelodeon Brand: Buying and Selling the Audience
      (pp. 234-252)
      Sarah Banet-Weiser

      As is well-known in the media industry, five multimedia conglomerates—Viacom, Disney, News Corporation, NBC Universal, and Time Warner—exert unprecedented power in marketing messages and products to young people, capitalizing on the lifestyle culture of “cool” and incorporating what historically have been subversive and anti-establishment ideologies as the very center of their marketing strategies. This marketing trend has been a major impetus for the development of brand culture, where the brand matters more than the product, and corporations sell an experience or a lifestyle more than a thing. As cultural theorist Naomi Klein points out, “What these companies produced...

  7. PART III Cable Programs:: The Platinum Age of Television?

    • Introduction
      (pp. 255-260)

      In recent years, cable programs have achieved the reputation of “quality TV”—expensively produced, intelligently written, they utilize edgy and graphic themes and are often humorous in a dark, ironic sort of way. The flexibility of the cable industry is largely responsible for these quality programs: the relatively light FCC regulation in terms of language, action, and sexuality, the ability to air episodes multiple times during the week, and the freedom from the traditional broadcast confines of “least objectionable programming” have all helped create an environment that allows for interesting, edgy shows to air. Home Box Office (HBO), said by...

    • Chapter 12 Cable Watching: HBO, The Sopranos, and Discourses of Distinction
      (pp. 261-283)
      Dana Polan

      How might we write about the ways in which, in the complicated landscape of today’s big business media production, certain cultural products seem to stand out and gain distinction? To offer some reflections on cable television’s performance of distinction, I divide the following essay into two parts. The first starts with the point of reception—in large part because we often imagine, in our neo-liberal moment, that the exercise of taste happens in a free and spontaneous gravitation of audiences to just those sorts of cultural work that are ready-made for them. I concentrate here on one such mythology of...

    • Chapter 13 Bank Tellers and Flag Wavers: Cable News in the United States
      (pp. 284-301)
      Toby Miller

      Forty-five years ago, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Federal Communications Commissioner, Newton Minow, called U.S. TV a “vast wasteland.”¹ He was urging broadcasters to embark on enlightened Cold-War leadership, to prove the United States was not the mindless consumer world the Soviets claimed. The networks would thereby live up to their legislative responsibilities to act in the public interest by informing and entertaining. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commissioner, Mark Fowler, argued that “television is just a toaster with pictures” and hence in no need of regulation, beyond ensuring its safety as an electrical appliance.² Both expressions gave their vocalists...

    • Chapter 14 Dualcasting: Bravo’s Gay Programming and the Quest for Women Audiences
      (pp. 302-318)
      Katherine Sender

      In the summer of 2003, gays were big news in the United States and Canada: the U.S. Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in all states, the Canadian government decided to award marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and Gene Robinson was confirmed as the bishop of New Hampshire, making him the first openly gay and partnered Episcopalian bishop in the Anglican church. The television show that catalyzed the national imagination was Bravo cable channel’sQueer Eye for the Straight Guy,a makeover show in which five gay men worked with the raw material of a stylistically and socially incompetent heterosexual in...

    • Chapter 15 “I’m Rich, Bitch!!!”: The Comedy of Chappelle’s Show
      (pp. 319-337)
      Christine Acham

      In the Winter Quarter of 2003, I taught my first African-American television course. I introduced my students to the rarely screenedThe Richard Pryor Show,which debuted on NBC in 1977. The thematically innovative and racially provocative show lasted just six episodes. While there are several factors that led to the downfall ofThe Richard Pryor Show,one of the key causes was the inability of Pryor to freely express himself on network television. He could not invest himself in the medium on a long-term basis because of the limitations imposed on him by NBC. In newspaper and magazine articles,...

    • Chapter 16 Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment’s Global Reach: Latino Fans and Wrestlers
      (pp. 338-358)
      Ellen Seiter

      In 1999, community leaders in a working class, ethnically diverse neighborhood of a large Southern California city invited me to design a computer lab and an after-school program for children aged 8–12. This was the year that the federal government initiated its Community Technology Center grants program, and optimism about the educational benefits of Internet access ran high. As I conducted research for my book,The Internet Playground,I found that conflicts immediately arose between children’s desire to use the Internet to pursue their fan interests (largely derived from television) and the more narrowly educational goals of most technology...

  8. About the Contributors
    (pp. 359-362)
  9. Index
    (pp. 363-368)