In 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.

With 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 than simultaneously.

In 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.

-Kimberly Massey


Naficy, Hamid. "Narrowcasting and Nationality: Middle Eastern Television in Los Angeles." Afterimage (Rochester, New York), February, 1993.

Reitman, 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.

Vane, Edwin T., and Lynn S. Gross. Programming for TV, Radio, and Cable. Boston, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 1994.

Waterman, David. "'Narrowcasting' and 'Broadcasting' on Nonbroadcast Media: A Program Choice Model." Communication Research (Newbury Park, California), February 1993.


See also Cable Networks; Demographics; Market; Mass Communication