A 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 "network."

The 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.

Not 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.

Within 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 superstation.

"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

As 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.

The 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 television. 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.

-Megan Mullen


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See also Cable Networks; Turner Broadcasting Systems; Turner, Ted; United States: Cable Television