superstation is an independent broadcast station whose signal is
picked up and redistributed by satellite to local cable television
systems. Within its originating market, the station can be received
off the air using a home antenna. Once uplinked to a satellite,
however, the station functions as a cable program service or cable
origins of modern superstations can be traced back to the start
of distant signal importation by early cable (CATV) systems using
microwave relays. At first the relays simply brought signals to
communities too remote to receive them using rooftop or community
antennas, but as cable systems began to penetrate television markets
with one or more local stations, operators often would import the
signals of popular, well-financed stations from major metropolitan
areas to make their service more appealing to potential subscribers.
In effect, the distant signals were combined with local signals
to create a distinct cable programming package. All of today's superstations
were carried by microwave at one time; however, the actual term
"superstation" was not used until the late 1970s, shortly after
Ted Turner's Atlanta station, WTBS, became the first independent
station to be carried by satellite.
only was Turner's station the first satellite-delivered independent
station (and the second satellite-delivered cable program service
overall), it was an innovator in the type of programming that would
be most successful on cable. As with many cable-only program services,
the popularity of superstations stems largely from their numerous
movie screenings and extensive sports carriage--program types available
in much smaller quantities from the broadcast networks and their
affiliates. Superstation status also gives an independent station
an economic advantage when competing with other stations for the
broadcast rights to popular syndicated series. The evolution of
WTBS's successful program schedule represents an aggressive effort
to acquire these sorts of programs.
The existence of WTBS dates back to 1968, when Turner purchased
a failing UHF station. He quickly changed the fortunes of his new
station (which he called WTCG during its early years) by using old
movies and syndicated television series to counterprogram network
affiliate stations, going after such audience segments as children
and people not watching the news. By the early 1970s, Turner's station
also offered local sports programming--first professional wrestling
and later baseball, basketball, and hockey. As of 1972, WTCG had
become popular enough in the Atlanta metropolitan area that its
signal had begun to be carried by microwave to cable systems throughout
Georgia and northern Florida. In 1976, when Turner uplinked his
signal to a communications satellite, WTCG's potential coverage
was extended to locations as distant as Canada and Alaska. The station
was renamed WTBS (for Turner Broadcasting System) in the late 1970s
to reflect the scope of its new operations.
the next few years, the signals of other major-market independent
stations began to be carried on satellite, as well. However, the
stations that followed WTBS to satellite carriage represent a different
category of superstation. WTBS is considered to be an "active" superstation
because it pursues superstation status as part of day-to-day operations:
programming targets a nationwide market more than a local market,
and national advertising is sought. WTBS currently is the only active
"Passive" superstations, by contrast, traditionally have done little
or nothing to acknowledge themselves as superstations. Satellite
common carriers such as United Video, Inc. and EMI Communications
Corp. retransmit the stations' signals without any formal consent,
sometimes against the stations' wishes. In spite of their potential
to be viewed thousands of miles away, passive superstations have
continued to direct the greater portion of their programming and
advertising toward local or regional markets. As with any cable
program service, cable operators pay per-subscriber fees for the
use of passive superstations' signals. However, the fees are paid
to the common carriers, not to the stations.
Courtesy of TBS
cable's popularity continues, passive superstations are giving more
recognition to their own superstation status, often having an employee
who functions as a liaison to the satellite carrier and possibly
to the cable systems taking the service. Nonetheless, most continue
to feel that their priorities remain with their local markets.
The five "passive" superstations currently in operation are: WOR
and WPIX, New York; WSBK, Boston; WGN, Chicago; KTLA, Los Angeles;
and KTVT, Dallas. It is worth noting that this group includes some
of the country's most long-standing broadcast stations. Like WTBS,
these stations have been extremely successful in counterprogramming
other stations. All carry local sports, for example. WOR features
Mets baseball; WPIX the Yankees; WSBK the Red Sox; WGN the Cubs;
KTLA the Dodgers; and KTVT the Rangers. Other sports teams also
are carried by all of these stations. Most also feature regularly
scheduled movie programs, often with well-known hosts.
popularity of independent stations as cable program services has
surprised many, particularly those who have touted cable's potential
to provide programming substantially different from that of broadcast
This popularity indicates quite a lot about the economics of satellite-served
cable, a new vehicle for television programming that has had to
compete with the established and resource-laden broadcast networks.
In many instances, the formula for success has been found in program
schedules that are familiar to television audiences, but which nonetheless
differ from those of the "big three"--a formula independent stations
have been following for decades.
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Story. New York: Crown, 1993.
Ronald. Cable Television: A Reference Guide To Information.
New York: Greenwood, 1988.
Robert, and Gerald Jay Goldberg. Citizen Turner: The Wild Rise
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Mair, George. Inside HBO: The Billion Dollar War Between HBO,
Hollywood, And The Home Video Revolution. New York: Dodd, Mead,
Sharon D. "Turner Superstation: Where Does It Go From Here?" Broadcasting
(Washington, D.C.), 29 October 1990.
Barry L. Telecommunications Management: The Broadcast & Cable
Industries. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
Christian. Lead, Follow Or Get Out Of the Way: The Story of Ted
Turner. New York : Times Books, 1981.
also Cable Networks;
States: Cable Television