term "Distant Signal" refers to a television station transmission
made available to one or more local cable systems by means other
than off-air reception. Traditionally, distant signals have been
imported via terrestrial microwave relays; today, however, communications
satellites are also used for distant signal importation.
earliest cable systems of the late 1940s and early 1950s, then known
as CATV (Community Antenna Television), comprised little more than
very tall community antennas connected by wire to homes within a
given community. Under these conditions, retransmission of distant
signals was limited to communities no more than approximately 100
miles from the nearest television stations. Consequently, many communities,
particularly small communities in sparsely populated states of the
western United States, were unable to benefit from community antennas.
the mid 1950s, however, a number of these western towns had CATV
systems served by microwave relays. The relays made it possible
to retransmit broadcast signals over many hundreds of miles. The
first such system, launched in 1953, brought a Denver signal to
Casper, Wyoming. Within the next decade, microwave relays--many
of which had been connected to form networks--covered a large portion
of the West.
microwave technology began to be used as more than simply a substitute
for community antenna service. By the late 1950s, some cable operators
were using microwave-carried signals to supplement signals received
off the air. As improved technology brought about increased CATV
channel capacity, operators began to seek extra programming options
in order to make their service more attractive to potential subscribers.
In the early 1960s, independent stations from large cities such
as New York and Chicago became popular CATV channel options because
of the amount of movies and local sports in their schedules.
in the mid-to-late 1959s some operators began using microwave relays
to bypass local or nearby signals entirely in order to provide their
subscribers with more popular stations from distant cities. In most
cases, the program quality of a local station serving only several
thousand people could not be expected to equal that of a station
serving millions, and with the technical capability to carry distant
stations, CATV operators had little incentive to use the lower quality
local programming. An outcry arose from the small-market broadcasters,
who felt that CATV would draw viewers away. As local viewership
decreased, they argued, so would advertising revenues. Hearings
on this issue were held throughout the late fifties by both Congress
and the Federal Communications Commission, but no decisive regulatory
action was taken to limit this type of CATV competition with broadcasters
until a landmark 1963 court decison.
this case, Carter Mountain Transmission Corp. v. FCC, a small
Wyoming broadcast station challenged the FCC's licensing of a microwave
company that intended to deliver distant signals to a CATV system
in a community where the station's signal could be received off-air.
The FCC ultimately denied the microwave license because the microwave
outfit not only refused to guarantee the local station protection
against program duplication on imported stations, but also refused
to require the CATV to carry the local station's signal. The Commission
reasoned that, because microwave threatened to destroy a local broadcaster,
it also threatened the loss of television service to a substantial
rural population without access to CATV as well as to any other
CATV non-subscribers. To grant the microwave company a license unconditionally
would have been in direct conflict with the Commission's policies
favoring localism in broadcasting.
Carter Mountain decision set in motion a series of FCC decisions
on the status of CATV, culminating in its 1965 First Report and
Order and the 1966 Second Report and Order. These two rulings recognized
that CATV had become more than simply a retransmission medium for
areas not served by broadcast television. It was beginning to enter
broadcast markets, sometimes replacing local signals with distant
signals. Even when local stations were offered in addition to distant
stations in these markets, subscribers often would watch the distant
rather than local stations. Thus the two rulings focused on setting
guidelines for the carriage of local signals by CATV systems and
on restricting the duplication of the local stations' programming
by channels that carried imported distant stations. In addition,
the 1966 rules temporarily limited growth of CATV in the nation's
top 100 broadcast television markets, a provision strengthened by
a 1968 FCC ruling which completely froze growth in the top 100 markets,
pending further study of cable developments.
1972 Cable Television Report and Order, the next major FCC ruling
regarding cable, also focused in large part on the importation of
distant signals into broadcast markets. This extensive ruling contained
one provision that affected the importation of distant independent
stations and another that protected local stations' exclusive rights
to syndicated programming. The latter, known as "syndicated exclusivity"
or "syndex," became increasingly difficult to enforce as the number
of cable program services increased, especially after satellites
were introduced to the cable industry in the mid-seventies. Still,
pressure from broadcasters continued to focus regulators' attention
on the issue, and in 1990, an updated version of the syndex rules
was enacted. Since then, cable operators have been obligated to
black out any syndicated programming on distant signals that duplicates
syndicated programs offered by local stations.
signal importation has been important to the growth of the cable
industry in that it has allowed cable operators some degree of selection
in the types of broadcast signals they retransmit to their subscribers.
The most popular distant signals used by modern cable systems are
satellite-carried superstations such as WGN-Chicago, WOR-New York,
and Ted Turner's WTBS, Atlanta.
Verne. "Syndex Simplified," Newsday, Dec. 31, 1989, p. 69.
Don R. Cable Television and the FCC: A Crisis in Media Control.
Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1973.
Martin H. Cable Television U.S.A.: An Analysis of Gevernment
Policy. New York: Praeger, 1972.