Even 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 written.

All 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.

The 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 channels.

But 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 deem suitable.

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.

Word 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.

But 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 quickly evaporated.


Los 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Satellite 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.

As 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.

-Mark Williams


Godfrey, Donald, and Michael Murray, editors. Television in America: Pioneering Stations. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996.