though television networks and syndicators have garnered the lion's
share of historical and critical attention in the United States,
these entities could not have existed without local television.
In the early struggles surrounding the establishment of television,
crucial decisions were made with regard to the structure of the
new industry. Central to many of those decisions were those of the
Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Commission grounded
the organization, financing, and regulation of the television industry
for the existing radio model of broadcasting, which had insured
nationwide service. Thus local TV stations came to serve as the
infrastructure of the industry. Local stations negotiated the role
TV would play in their communities, coordinating the new medium
to local rhythms, interests, sentiments, and ideologies. They have
therefore contributed immeasurably to the growth, allure, and impact
of television in the United States. The considerable history--or
rather, series of histories--of local television are still being
of the earliest television stations were necessarily local stations.
Most began in an "experimental" status, non-commercial and sporadically
scheduled. Applications for early stations had come from a range
of potential participants, but many of the first to become truly
operational were owned by radio networks or broadcast equipment
manufacturers with strong financial reserves; costs for construction
and research-and-development were high, and revenues were low or
non-existent for many years and much of the television industry
was developed by those who could withstand continuing financial
losses. Nevertheless, stations independent of such corporate ties
were started by newspapers, automobile dealers, and other local
entrepreneurs in major cities across the country. These groups and
individuals had also often owned radio stations, or were otherwise
experienced in radio.
advantages of multiple station ownership were clear to some of these
early investors, but they were faced with regulatory restrictions.
Companies that hoped to attain a network-like reach were allowed
to own only a handful of stations--up to five in the early years--each
in a different market. As the technology for linking stations emerged,
station affiliations grew. A few cities featured stations owned-and-operated
by the existing national broadcasting networks, but most had stations
affiliated with more than one networks, and some had so few stations
that each could feature multiple affiliations, often for many years
to come. And some cities did maintain additional, fully independent
in every city and market, local stations worked to invent, adapt,
and expand what television had to offer their specific audiences.
Each station produced a great deal of its own programming, increasingly
so as the television schedule expanded to include more daytime and
weekend hours. Viewers had a different relationship to the performers
and personalities on local stations, a sense of accessibility and
proximity that was inflected by all things regional--from speech
patterns to weather systems to fashion tastes. Station personnel
tended to perform in different capacities and roles throughout the
programming day--news reader at one point, talk-show host at another,
children's show performer in still another--all lending them a familiarity
and informality that often proved welcom by the audience. Local
television could even seem quasi-interactive, and many programs
included responses to viewer mail or even phone calls to viewers.
For most local programs, budget constraints translated to a lack
of production spectacle, but the same financial restriction led
to a yen for ingenuity. In some cases this could afford marvelous
and bizarre performers and programming formats, often outside the
boundaries of what networks--already seeking a "national" audience--would
Certain programming similarities existed among stations of course,
especially regarding TV's emerging relationship to the rhythms of
everyday life, a relationship that presumed a family work-week and
school-day, conventional gender roles, and regularized daily patterns
of behavior and involvement. Kids' shows quickly became a late afternoon
staple. Cooking and homemaking shows were popular around midday.
Movies and sports programs could dominate evening and weekend hours.
Most of the conventions of television news were also developed at
the local level, typically out of necessity rather than conscious
design or analysis.
quickly spread when a programming innovation proved successful at
a local station, often insuring imitations at other stations and
in other markets. Many stations featured disc jockeys who played
favorite records, cartoon show emcees in the guise of friendly authority
figures, afternoon movie hosts who proffered quizzes and give-aways.
In some instances, local talent went on to national success: Ernie
Kovacs and Dick Clark began locally in Philadelphia; Dave Garroway,
Burr Tillstrom, and Fran Allison first appeared on TV in Chicago;
Liberace, Alan Young, and Betty White started their TV careers on
local Los Angeles stations.
local television was more than just a supplement to the networks.
In fact, many original formats and regional distinctions emerged
in local TV before being subsumed or displaced by network schedules
and priorities. In Chicago, for example, pioneer telecasters like
William Eddy and Jules Herbuveaux helped to develop a casual but
intelligent style of programming that became known as the "Chicago
School." Many of these programs, featuring the likes of Garroway,
Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and even Studs Terkel; appeared on NBC affiliate
WNBQ. But when Chicago became networked to the East Coast in 1949,
many of the most popular shows were re-tooled according to standards
in the New York offices or dropped entirely, and the regional style
Angeles was in a slightly different situation, for the network lines
did not arrive until late 1951, and only one or two national "feeds"
were possible for some time thereafter. Partially due to this, Los
Angeles was a strongly independent early TV market: it had a full
complement of seven stations by January 1949, yet the network affiliates
were the last on the air. Network stars such as Milton Berle were
enormously popular, of course, even via kinescope, but for many
years local programs dominated the ratings. The leading station
until the mid-1950s was KTLA, owned by Paramount Pictures, Inc.
and run by German émigré Klaus Landsberg, who had helped to telecast
the 1936 Olympics before coming to this country later in the decade.
Often utilizing "remote" coverage, programming in Los Angeles was
surprisingly diverse, reflecting local tastes in a variety of musical
shows and featuring any number of sporting events. The 1951 network
link-up was complemented by a shift in TV production from New York
to Los Angeles, especially after NBC and CBS opened elaborate new
facilities there in 1952. The independent stations which had dominated
were no longer able to compete with network practices, with the
stars and spectacle that national advertising rates could afford.
same pattern prevailed at almost every local station. Nationally-syndicated
shows blossomed on local stations through the 1950s, followed in
turn by reruns of network programs which began to be syndicated
in the early 1960s. Of course there have been exceptions to the
hierarchies of the network-dominated system, and the boom in UHF
stations in the 1960s insured a fair amount of locally-produced
programming. Some stations have even been able to produce work syndicated
outside their own markets, sometimes via regional networks. But
as more network programs became available for syndication, the demand
for them generally meant fewer opportunities for programming tailored
to local tastes. Nearly all of television began to reflect past
or present nationally-distributed fare. Even the Prime Time Access
Rule, designed to promote local programming by blocking out network
shows for an hour each weeknight, resulted in a boom for the syndication
industry. Measured against the costs of original production and
the possibility of lower return in advertising dollars, the expense
of acquiring syndicated offerings still seemed a clear economic
advantage. Game shows such as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune,
and slick "infotainment" programming such as Entertainment Tonight
became television institutions.
new technologies of the modern television era have complicated these
dynamics. Cable television systems brought a range of new national
competitors to existing local broadcast stations, but they also
created local access channels. Public access television has in many
cases featured informative and alternative programming (often syndicated
among stations), as well as a range of often peculiar and amusing
fare. But hopes that these channels might produce an enhanced televisual
public sphere seem all but exhausted. Many of the more politically
oriented activist users of access television are likely to turn
to the Internet as a site for communicating with interest groups
that share concerns and extend beyond the local arena.
technology has similarly both enhanced and threatened local television.
The availability of international newsfeeds enabled even local newscasts
to compete with what was available from cable networks, and raised
opportunities for examining the local ramifications of nonlocal
incidents. But satellites have also made available a ready stream
of sensationalistic footage and feature stories of little consequence.
Conversely, a few local stations have come to enjoy national distribution
via cable and satellite: the so-called "superstations," such as
TBS, WOR, WGN, and KTLA. But many other local stations have faced
being eclipsed by these same delivery systems, especially since
satellite programming packages typically include network affiliates
from other parts of the country, but none of the local broadcast
stations from the audience's "home" area.
a result of these shifts in technology and programming strategy,
the future of local television seems uncertain. Certainly the dollar
value of local stations has only escalated, especially in light
of the competition for affiliates which resulted from the rise of
FOX and other fledgling networks. The extent to which these stations
will continue to provide truly local service--whether by audience
demand or by regulatory edict--remains to be seen. But whatever
the changes in technology, industrial organization, or commercial
exigency, it will continue to be important to study the consumption
and effects of local television--the medium's role in helping define
the very concept of the local.
Donald, and Michael Murray, editors. Television in America: Pioneering
Stations. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996.