the earlier days of American television, the three major networks
(NBC, CBS, and ABC) dominated programming and sought to obtain the
widest audience possible. They avoided programming content that
might appeal only to a small segment of the mass population and
succeeded in their goal by reaching nearly 90% (combined) of the
television viewing audience on a regular basis.
The networks maintained their stronghold until competition emerged
through the addition of many independent stations, the proliferation
of cable channels and the popularity of videocassettes. These competitors
provided television audiences with many more viewing options. Consequently,
the large numbers previously achieved through mass-oriented programming
dwindled and "narrowcasting" took hold.
narrowcasting the programmer or producer assumes that only a limited
number of people or a specific demographic group will be interested
in the subject matter of a program. In many ways, this is the essence
of cable television's programming strategy. Following the format
or characteristics of specialized magazines, a cable television
program or channel may emphasize one subject or a few closely related
subjects. For example, music television is presented on MTV (Music
Television, VH1 (Video Hits One), and TNN (The Nashville Network);
CNN (Cable News Network) offers 24-hour news coverage; ESPN (Entertainment
Sports Network) boasts an all sports format; and C-Span covers the
U.S. Congress. Other cable channels feature programming such as
shopping, comedy, science-fiction, or programs aimed at specific
ethnic or gender groups highly prized by specific advertisers.
For the most part, the major networks continue to gear their programming
to the general mass audience. But increasingly, they, too, are engaged
in forms of narrowcasting by segmenting similar programs that appeal
to specific groups into adjacent time slots. A network, for example,
might target young viewers by programming back-to-back futuristic
space programs on one night, while on a different night, feature
an ensemble of ethnic-oriented programs. This strategy allows the
networks to reach the overall mass audience cumulatively rather
the United States, then, narrowcasting is driven by economic necessity
and competition. In public service systems around the world, where
broadcasting is supported by license fee, by tax, or by direct government
support, there has never been the same need to reach the largest
possible audience. As a consequence, programming for special groups--e.g.
children, the elderly, ethnic or religious groups--has been standard
practice. Ironically, the same technologies that bring competition
to commercial broadcasters in the United States, cause similar difficulties
for public service broadcasters. In those systems new, commercially
supported programming delivered by satellite and cable, often draws
audiences away from public service offerings. Government officials
and elected officers become reluctant to provide scarce public funds
to broadcasters whose audiences are becoming smaller, forcing public
service programmers to reach for larger audiences with different
types of program content. While multiple program sources--cable,
home video--make it unlikely that these systems will move toward
"mass audience programming" it is the case that the face of broadcasting
is changing in these contexts.
Naficy, Hamid. "Narrowcasting and Nationality: Middle Eastern Television
in Los Angeles." Afterimage (Rochester, New York), February,
Judith. "Narrowcasting Opens Up: Cable Is Expanding Its Programming
to Win Bigger Numbers in the Ratings Game." Marketing and Media
Decisions (New York), February, 1986.
Edwin T., and Lynn S. Gross. Programming for TV, Radio, and Cable.
Boston, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 1994.
David. "'Narrowcasting' and 'Broadcasting' on Nonbroadcast Media:
A Program Choice Model." Communication Research (Newbury
Park, California), February 1993.