Cable Television Transmission Technology

The 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.

The 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.

By 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.

Eventually, 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.

Also, 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.

In 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.


The 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.

The 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.

Distant 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.

-Megan Mullen


Gay, Verne. "Syndex Simplified," Newsday, Dec. 31, 1989, p. 69.

LeDuc, Don R. Cable Television and the FCC: A Crisis in Media Control. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1973.

Seiden, Martin H. Cable Television U.S.A.: An Analysis of Gevernment Policy. New York: Praeger, 1972.


See also Microwave; Must Carry Rules; Superstation; Translators; United States, Cable