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An American family watching television in the 1950's.
An American family watching television in the 1950's.
A modern High-definition DLP Television.
A modern High-definition DLP Television.
A modern 82" (208 cm) LCD television.
A modern 82" (208 cm) LCD television.

Television is a telecommunication system for broadcasting and receiving moving pictures and sound over a distance. The term has come to refer to all the aspects of television programming and transmission as well. The word television is a hybrid word, coming from both Greek and Latin. "Tele-" is Greek for "far", while "-vision" is from the Latin "visio", meaning "vision" or "sight". It is often abbreviated as TV.


The development of television technology can be partitioned along two lines: those developments that depended upon both mechanical and electronic principles, and those which are purely electronic. From the latter descended all modern televisions, but these would not have been possible without discoveries and insights from the mechanical systems.

Electromechanical television

The German student Paul Gottlieb Nipkow proposed and patented the first electromechanical television system in 1885. Nipkow's spinning disk design is credited with being the first television image rasterizer, however, it wasn't until 1907 that developments in amplification tube technology made the design practical. Meanwhile, Constantin Perskyi had coined the word television in a paper read to the International Electricity Congress at the International World Fair in Paris on August 25, 1900. Perskeyi's paper reviewed the existing electromechanical technologies, mentioning the work of Nipkow and others.

From 1907 to 1910, Boris Rosing and his student Vladimir Zworykin demonstrated a television system that used a mechanical mirror-drum scanner in the transmitter and the electronic Braun tube (cathode ray tube) in the receiver. Rosing disappeared during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, but Zworykin later went to work for RCA to build a purely electronic television, the design of which was eventually found to violate patents by Philo Taylor Farnsworth.

A mechanically-scanned analogue television system was first demonstrated in London in February 1924 by John Logie Baird with an image of Felix the Cat and a moving picture by Baird on October 30, 1925. In 1928 Baird's company (Baird Television Development Company / Cinema Television) broadcast the first transatlantic Television signal, between London and New York, and the first shore to ship transmission. He also demonstrated an electromechanical colour, infrared (dubbed "Noctovision"), and stereoscopic television, using additional lenses, disks and filters. In parallel he developed a video disk recording system dubbed "Phonovision"; a number of the Phonovision[1] recordings, dating back to 1927, still exist. In 1929 he became involved in the first experimental electromechanical television service in Germany. In 1931 he made the first live transmission, of the Epsom Derby. In 1932 he demonstrated ultra-short wave television. Baird's system was tested by the BBC, who later discontinued its use in 1937 in favor of purely electronic television.

In the U. S. Ernst Alexanderson demonstrated a mechanically-scanned television broadcasting system in 1927.

Electronic television

Although the discoveries of Nipkow, Rosing, Baird and others were extraordinary, little of their technology is used in modern television. By 1934, all electromechanical television systems were outmoded.

A.A. Campbell-Swinton wrote a letter to Nature on the 18 June 1908 describing his concept of electronic television using the cathode ray tube, which had been invented in 1897 by the German physicist and Nobel prize winner Karl Ferdinand Braun. He proposed using an electron beam in both the camera and the receiver, which could be steered electronically to produce moving pictures. He lectured on the subject in 1911 and displayed circuit diagrams, but no one, including Swinton, knew how to realize the design. Even though his system was never built, the cathode ray tube is still used in almost all television sets to display images until today.

A fully electronic system was first demonstrated by Philo Taylor Farnsworth in the autumn of 1927. Farnsworth, a Mormon farm boy from Rigby, Idaho, first envisioned his system at age 14. He discussed the idea with his high school chemistry teacher, who could think of no reason why it would not work (Farnsworth would later credit this teacher, Justin Tolman, as providing key insights into his invention). He continued to pursue the idea at Brigham Young Academy (now Brigham Young University). At age 21, he demonstrated a working system at his own laboratory in San Francisco. His breakthrough freed television from reliance on spinning discs and other mechanical parts. All modern picture tube televisions descend directly from his design.

Vladimir Zworykin is also sometimes cited as the father of electronic television because of his invention of the iconoscope in 1923 and his invention of the kinescope in 1929. His design was one of the first to demonstrate a television system with all the features of modern picture tubes. His previous work with Rosing on electromechanical television gave him key insights into how to produce such a system, but his (and RCA's) claim to being its original inventor was largely invalidated by three facts: a) Zworykin's 1923 patent presented an incomplete design, incapable of working in its given form (it was not until 1933 that Zworykin achieved a working implementation), b) the 1923 patent application was not granted until 1938, and not until it had been seriously revised, and c) courts eventually found that RCA was in violation of the television design patented by Philo Taylor Farnsworth, whose lab Zworykin had visited while working on his designs for RCA.

The controversy over whether it was first Farnsworth or Zworykin who invented modern television is still hotly debated today. Some of this debate stems from the fact that while Farnsworth appears to have gotten there first, it was RCA that first marketed working television sets, and it was RCA employees who first wrote the history of television. Even though Farnsworth eventually won the legal battle over this issue, he was never able to fully capitalize financially on his invention.

Broadcast television

The first long distance public television broadcast was from Washington, DC to New York City and occurred on April 7, 1927. The image shown was of then Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover. The first analogue service was WGY, Schenectady, New York inaugurated on May 11, 1928. The first British Television Play, "The Man with the Flower in his Mouth", was transmitted in July 1930. CBS's New York City station began broadcasting the first regular seven days a week television schedule in the U. S. on July 21, 1931. The first broadcast included Mayor James J. Walker, Kate Smith, and George Gershwin. The first all-electronic television service was started in Los Angeles, CA by Don Lee Broadcasting. Their start date was December 23, 1931 on W6XAO - later KTSL. Originally, mechanical equipment was used, but in June of 1936 a 300-line all-electronic service was started.

In Germany, regular service started on March 22, 1935, and one year later, the Berlin Summer Olympic Games were televised to places in Berlin and Hamburg.

In 1932 the BBC launched a service using Baird's 30-line system and these transmissions continued until 11 September 1935. On November 2, 1936 the BBC began broadcasting a dual-system service, alternating on a weekly basis between Marconi-EMI's high-resolution (405 lines per picture) service and Baird's improved 240-line standard from Alexandra Palace in London. Six months later, the corporation decided that Marconi-EMI's electronic picture gave the superior picture, and adopted that as their standard. This service is described as "the world's first regular high-definition public television service", since a regular television service had been broadcast earlier on a 180-line standard in Germany. The outbreak of the Second World War caused the service to be suspended. TV transmissions only resumed from Alexandra Palace in 1946.

Braun HF 1, Germany, 1958
Braun HF 1, Germany, 1958

The first regular television transmissions in Canada began in 1952 when the CBC put two stations on the air, one in Montreal, Quebec on September 6, and another in Toronto, Ontario two days later.

The first live transcontinental television broadcast took place in San Francisco, California from the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference on September 4, 1951. In 1958, the CBC completed the longest television network in the world, from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia. Reportedly, the first continuous live broadcast of a breaking news story in the world was conducted by the CBC during the Springhill Mining Disaster which began on October 23 of that year.

Programming is broadcast on television stations (sometimes called channels). At first, terrestrial broadcasting was the only way television could be distributed. Because bandwidth was limited, government regulation was normal. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission allowed stations to broadcast advertisements, but insisted on public service programming commitments as a requirement for a license. By contrast, the United Kingdom chose a different route, imposing a television licence fee on owners of television reception equipment, to fund the BBC, which had public service as part of its Royal Charter. Development of cable and satellite means of distribution in the 1970s pushed businessmen to target channels towards a certain audience, and enabled the rise of subscription-based television channels, such as HBO and Sky. Practically every country in the world now has developed at least one television channel. Television has grown up all over the world, enabling every country to share aspects of their culture and society with others.

By the late 1980s, 98% of all homes in the U.S. had at least one TV set. On average, Americans watch four hours of television per day. An estimated two-thirds of Americans got most of their news about the world from TV, and nearly half got all of their news from TV. These figures are now estimated to be significantly higher.

Color Television

Guillermo González Camarena (1917-1965), invented the first color TX and first TV XEG. He holds the design and patent to color television systems from 1940, 1942, 1960 and 1962.

In August 31, 1946 he sent his first color transmission from his lab in the offices of The Mexican League of Radio Experiments in Lucerna St. #1, in Mexico City. The video signal was transmited in 115 MHz. and the audio in a band of 40 meters.

RCA claims they did it in 1946 but Camarena's patent has an earlier month. Also, there are previous attempts or designs but none worked properly. Camarena's was the first successful one.



See broadcast television systems.

There are many means of distributing television broadcasts, including both analogue and digital versions of:


TV sets

The earliest television sets were radios with the addition of a television device consisting of a neon tube with a mechanically spinning disk (the Nipkow disk, invented by Paul Gottlieb Nipkow) that produced a red postage-stamp size image . The first publicly broadcast electronic service was in Germany in March 1935. It had 180 lines of resolution and was only available in 22 public viewing rooms. One of the first major broadcasts involved the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Germans had a 441-line system in the autumn of 1937. An example of an early television set is called a rotary dial-tune TV is outdated technology for a television set. This is one of the earliest technologies for TV turners. When the quartz-synthesized turners for TVs came out, rotary dial-tune turner technology was gradually obsoleting.

Rotary dial-tune TVs discontinued production somewhere around the mid and late 90's. (Source: Early Electronic TV)

Television usage skyrocketed after World War II with war-related technological advances and additional disposable income. Prior to the war, in the 1930s, TV receivers cost the equivalent of US$7000 in 2001, and had little available programming. Rotary dial-tune TVs were the earliest method of channel tuning until it became obsolete in the 90's.

For many years different countries used different technical standards. France initially adopted the German 441-line standard but later upgraded to 819 lines, which gave the highest picture definition of any analogue TV system, approximately four times the resolution of the British 405-line system. Eventually the whole of Europe switched to the 625-line standard, once more following Germany's example. Meanwhile in North America the original 525-line standard was retained.

A television with a VHF "rabbit ears" antenna and a loop UHF antenna.
A television with a VHF "rabbit ears" antenna and a loop UHF antenna.

Television in its original and still most popular form involves sending images and sound over radio waves in the VHF and UHF bands, which are received by a receiver (a television set). In this sense, it is an extension of radio. Broadcast television requires an antenna (aerial). This can be an external antenna mounted outside or smaller antennas mounted on or near the television. Typically this is an adjustable dipole antenna called "rabbit ears" for the VHF band and a small loop antenna for the UHF band.

Some early television sets, especially British ones, contained valves and other pre-solid state electronic components which generated a considerable amount of heat even when the set was switched off. As a result, up until at least the mid-1970s, television stations would air announcements reminding viewers to unplug their sets before going to bed for the night, since the heat build-up in the back of the set was a considerable fire hazard.

Color television became available in the U.S. on December 30 of 1953, backed by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network. The government approved the color broadcast system proposed by CBS, but when RCA came up with a subcarrier system that made it possible to view color broadcasts in black and white on unmodified old black and white TV sets, CBS dropped their own proposal and used the new one (see NTSC).

The first publicly announced experimental TV broadcast of a program using RCA's "compatible color" system was an episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie on August 30, 1953. NBC was the first network to have a regularly scheduled color program on the air (Bonanza, starting in 1959). The networks slowly reformed into the color standard, and all three broadcast networks were airing full color schedules by the 1966-67 broadcast season.

European color television was developed somewhat later and was hindered by a continuing division on technical standards. Having decided to adopt a higher-definition 625-line system for monochrome transmissions, with a lower frame rate but with a higher overall bandwidth, Europeans could not directly adopt the US color standard, which was widely perceived as wanting anyway, because of its tint control problems. There was no urgency either, since there were still few sets overall and no commercial motivations, European television broadcasters being state-owned at the time.

As a consequence, although work on various color encoding systems started already in the 1950s, with the first SECAM patent being registered in 1956, many years had passed till the first broadcasts actually started in 1967. Unsatisfied with the performance of NTSC and of initial SECAM implementations, the Germans decided to create PAL (phase alternating line) at the beginning of the 1960s, staying closer to NTSC but borrowing some ideas from SECAM. The French continued with SECAM, notably involving Russians in the development.

The first color broadcast in Europe was by BBC2 in the UK in the summer of 1967, using PAL. Germans did their first broadcast in September (PAL), while the French in October (SECAM). PAL was eventually adopted by West Germany, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, much of Africa, Asia and South America, and most Western European countries except France.

Apart for France and Luxembourg, SECAM was adopted by Soviet Union, much of Eastern Europe, much of Africa and of the Middle East. Both systems broadcast on UHF frequencies, the VHF being used for legacy black & white, 405 lines in UK or 819 lines in France, till the beginning of the eighties!

Modern displays

Starting in the 1990s, modern television sets diverged into three different trends:

  • standalone TV sets;
  • integrated systems with DVD players and/or VHS VCR capabilities built into the TV set itself (mostly for small size TVs with up to 17" screen, the main idea is to have a complete portable system);
  • component systems with separate big-screen video monitor, tuner, audio system which the owner connects the pieces together as a high-end home theater system. This approach appeals to videophiles who prefer components that can be upgraded separately.

There are many kinds of video monitors used in modern TV sets. The most common are direct view CRTs for up to 40 inch or 100 cm (in 4:3) and 46 inch or 115 cm (in 16:9) diagonally; most big screen TVs (up to over 100 inch (254 cm)) use projection technology. Three types of projection systems are used in projection TVs: CRT-based, LCD-based, and DLP(reflective micromirror chip)-based.

Modern advances have brought flat screens to TV that use active matrix LCD or plasma display technology. Flat panel LCDs and plasma displays are as little as 4 inch or 10 cm thick and can be hung on a wall like a picture or put over a pedestal. They are multifunctional, because they are used like computer monitors too (VGA and DVI or HDMI connections).

Nowadays some TVs integrates a pair of ports to connect computer cases and peripherals to it or to connect the set to an A/V home network (HAVI) (USB port for cord connection and BlueTooth/WiFi for wireless).

See also: Liquid crystal display television; plasma display

Signal connections

Even for simple video, there are six standard ways to connect a device to a television. These are as follows:

  • HDMI - a small 19 pin connector that carries all-digital video and audio signals via High-Definition Multi-media Interface. Essentially an enhanced version of DVI that includes copy protection with HDCP, designed to carry HDTV but also used in current DVD players and latest digital displays. This provides the highest quality picture and sound currently available.
  • Component video - three separate RCA jacks (colored red, green and blue) carry three video signals, one brightness (luminance) and two colors (chromas), and is usually referred to as "Y, B-Y, R-Y", "Y Cr Cb" (interlaced) or "Y Pr Pb" (progressive), or YUV. Audio is not carried on this cable. This connection provides for picture quality superior to S-Video and is typically used in home theater for DVDs, satellite and analogue HTDV; less common in Europe but is starting to become more widely available.
  • SCART - a large 21 pin connector that may carry: one video signal composite video; or two video signals S-Video; or for picture quality similar to Component video, three signals of separate red, green and blue or RGB; or for best picture quality, four video signals of separate red, green, blue and sync or RGBS; plus right and left line-level audio channels; along with a number of control signals including an aspect-ratio flag (e.g. widescreen). This system has been standard in Europe since mid-1980s for all consumer electronics, which meant that RGBS was available on even the earliest PAL DVD players and satellite receivers, but this multi-format connector is rarely found elsewhere.
  • S-Video - small round connector with two separate video signals, one carrying brightness (luminance), the other carrying color (chroma). Also referred to as Y/C video. Provides most of the benefit of component video, with slightly less color fidelity. Use started in the 1980s for S-VHS, Hi-8, and early NTSC DVD players to relay high quality video before component was available. Audio is not carried on this cable.
  • Composite video - The most common form of connecting external devices, putting all the video information into one signal. Most televisions provide this option with a yellow RCA jack. Audio is not carried on this cable, though two separate cables with similar red and white RCA jacks for right and left line-level audio are commonly bonded to composite video cables.
  • Coaxial RF - All audio channels and picture components are transmitted through one coaxial cable and modulated on a radio frequency. Most TVs manufactured during the past 15-20 years accept coaxial connection, and the video is typically "tuned" on channel 3 or 4. This is the type of cable usually used for cable television. Unfortunately, many DVD players and some other components now fail to provide an RF coaxial output, forcing consumers to buy a somewhat expensive modulator in order to view it on older TV sets made before composite video jacks became commonplace.
Aspect ratios

All of these early TV systems shared the same aspect ratio of 4:3 which was chosen to match the Academy Ratio used in cinema films at the time. This ratio was also square enough to be conveniently viewed on round cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), which were all that could be produced given the manufacturing technology of the time. (Today's CRT technology allows the manufacture of much wider tubes, and the flat screen technologies which are becoming steadily more popular have no aspect ratio limitations at all.)

In the 1950s, movie studios moved towards widescreen aspect ratios such as Cinerama in an effort to distance their product from television. Although this was initially just a gimmick widescreen is still the format of choice today and square aspect ratio movies are rare. Some people argued that widescreen is actually a disadvantage when showing objects that are tall instead of panoramic, others would say that natural vision is more panoramic than tall, and therefore widescreen is easier on the eye.

The switch to digital television systems has been used as an opportunity to change the standard television picture format from the old ratio of 4:3 (approximately 1.33:1) to an aspect ratio of 16:9 (approximately 1.78:1). This enables TV to get closer to the aspect ratio of modern widescreen movies, which range from 1.78:1 through 1.85:1 to 2.35:1. There are two methods for transporting widescreen content, the better of which uses what is called anamorphic widescreen format. This format is very similar to the technique used to fit a widescreen movie frame inside a 1.33:1 35mm film frame. The image is squashed horizontally when recorded, then expanded again when played back. The anamorphic widescreen 16:9 format was first introduced via European PAL-Plus television broadcasts and then later on "widescreen" DVDs; the ATSC HDTV system uses straight widescreen format, no image squashing or expanding is used.

Recently "widescreen" has spread from television to computing where both desktop and laptop computers are commonly equipped with widescreen displays, and it remains to be seen whether work or movie enjoyment will take over. There are some complaints about distortions of movie picture ratio due to some DVD playback software not taking account of aspect ratios; but this will subside as the DVD playback software matures. Futhermore, computer and laptop widescreen displays are in the 16:10 aspect ratio both physically in size and in pixel counts, and not in 16:9 of consumer televisions, leading to further complexity.

Aspect ratio incompatibility

The television industry changing aspect ratios is not without teething difficulties, and can presents a considerable problem.

Displaying a widescreen aspect (rectangular) image on a conventional aspect (square) display can be shown:

  • in "letterbox" format, with black stripes at the top and bottom
  • with part of the image being cropped, usually the extreme left and right of the image being cut off (or in "pan and scan", parts selected by an operator)
  • with the image horizontally compressed

A conventional aspect (square) image on a widescreen aspect (rectangular) display can be shown:

  • in "pillarbox" format, with black vertical bars to the left and right
  • with upper and lower portions of the image cut off
  • with the image horizontally distorted

A common compromise is to shoot or create material at an aspect ratio of 14:9, and to lose some image at each side for 4:3 presentation, and some image at top and bottom for 16:9 presentation.

Horizontal expansion has advantages in situations in which several people are watching the same set, as it compensates for watching at an oblique angle.


See : NICAM.

New developments

Refresh Rates --

What is Monitor Refresh Rate?

Geographical usage

US networks

Main article: Television in the United States

In the US, the three traditional commercial television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) provide prime-time programs for their affiliate stations to air from 8pm-11pm Monday-Saturday and 7pm-11pm on Sunday. (7pm to 10pm, 6pm to 10pm respectively in the Central and Mountain time zones). Most stations procure other programming, often syndicated, off prime time. The FOX Network does not provide programming for the last hour of prime time; as a result, many FOX affiliates air a local news program at that time. Three newer broadcasting networks, The WB, PAX, and UPN also do not provide the same amount of network programming as so-called traditional networks. Sinclair Broadcast Group operates the largest network of local television stations, reaching about 24% of US households. In 2004 it was involved in controversies surrounding editorial control by the company over the content of its local stations.

Canadian networks

In Canada, there are three national television networks. One, the CBC, is a government-funded Crown corporation. The other two, CTV and Global, are privately-run. The private networks usually rebroadcast U.S. shows, while the CBC airs more Canadian programming. The CRTC requires all television services in Canada to broadcast a minimum percentage of Canadian production. This proportion is set higher during the prime-time hours.

Latin American networks

National networks and stations

Television has reached a great expansion in all the Latin American scope. Currently, there exist more than 500 television stations in all Latin America, according to the number of apparatuses by homes (more than 60 million), of more than two hundred million people. Because of the financial and political troubles that occurred between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s, television networks in some countries of this region had a development more irregular than the North American and European networks. In countries like Mexico or Brazil, one or two networks claim almost all the audience. In other countries like Colombia, television broadcasting has historically been state dominated until the 1990s. In countries like Nicaragua or Peru, television had a troubled history. Some prominent Latin American Television Networks are:





European networks


In much of Europe television broadcasting has historically been state dominated, rather than commercially organised, although commercial stations have grown in number recently.

In the United Kingdom, the major national broadcaster is the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), commercial broadcasters include ITV (Independent Television), Channel 4 and Five, as well as the satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting.

Other leading European networks include SVT (Sweden), RAI (Italy), TF1 and France Télévisions (France), ARD (Germany), ORF (Austria), ERT (Greece), YLE, MTV3 and Nelonen (Finland), RTÉ (Ireland), TVP (Poland), RTP (Portugal), TVR (Romania), TVE (Spain), RTV (Slovenia) and the largest commercial European broadcaster, Germany-based RTL Group.

Europe-wide networks

  • Euronews, a pan-European news station, broadcasting both by satellite and terrestrially (timesharing on State TV networks) to most of the continent. Broadcasted in several languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and Italian) it draws on contributions from State broadcasters and the ITN news network. It also produces Romanian language programs for the Romanian Television.
  • Euro1080, the first HDTV broadcaster available in the whole of Europe.
  • Eurosport

Asian networks and stations

In Asia, television has traditionally been state-controlled, although the number of private stations is increasing, as is competition from satellite television. Japan's NHK is a non-commercial network similar to the BBC, funded by a television licence fee, and has more editorial independence over news and current affairs than broadcasters like India's state-run Doordarshan or China's China Central Television. Star TV based in Hong Kong has expanded to other areas recently. Number of private broadcasters are indeed increasing in some countries (2004) for example: Indonesia's 10 private national stations compare to only 1 in 1989.

Middle East networks and stations

Similarly in the Middle East, television has been heavily state-controlled, with considerable censorship of both news coverage and entertainment, particularly that imported from the West. This control of the medium has been eroded by the increasing availability of satellite TV, and the number of satellite channels in Arabic is second only to the number of satellite channels in English, the best known of which being the Qatar-based news service Al-Jazeera.

African networks and stations

Despite being the most economically advanced country on the continent, South Africa did not introduce TV until 1976, owing to opposition from the apartheid regime. Nigeria was one of the first countries in Africa to introduce television, in 1959, followed by Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1961, while Zanzibar was the first in Africa to introduce colour television, in 1973. (Tanzania itself did not introduce television until 1994). The main satellite TV providers are the South African Multichoice DStv service, and the predominantly French language Canal Horizons, owned by France's Canal Plus.

(See the list of television stations in Africa.)


Australian television began in 1956, just in time for the Melbourne Olympics. Australia has three nationwide metropolitan commercial networks (Seven, Nine and Ten) as well as the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), a government owned, commercial free network; and SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) a commercial-supported, multi-lingual, government-owned station. The Australian Broadcasting Authority has also issued licenses to community groups to establish "community television stations" in most capital cities on the UHF Ch 31 frequency.

New Zealand networks and stations

Through a Crown Entity named Television New Zealand (TVNZ), the New Zealand government owns two television networks Television One and TV2. Although both networks are required to screen advertisements to pay for their operation, the One network receives additional funding to provide local content under a government broadcasting charter. A purely commercial network, TV3 is owned by CanWest, a Canadian media company. Another network called Prime Television is a subsidiary of Australia's Nine network. A pay television company, SKY Network Television operates a UHF terrestrial and digital satellite TV service. The New Zealand government also funds the controversial Maori Television Service with the aim of putting Maori language and culture on New Zealand television screens. This service is delivered via Sky's UHF and satellite services.



From the earliest days of the medium, television has been used as a vehicle for advertising. Since their inception in the USA in the late 1940s, TV commercials have become far and away the most effective, most pervasive, and most popular method of selling products of all sorts. US advertising rates are determined primarily by Nielsen ratings.


Getting TV programming shown to the public can happen in many different ways. After production the next step is to market and deliver the product to whatever markets are open to using it. This typically happens on two levels:

  1. Original Run or First Run - a producer creates a program of one or multiple episodes and shows it on a station or network which has either paid for the production itself or to which a license has been granted by the producers to do the same.
  2. Syndication - this is the terminology rather broadly used to describe secondary programming usages (beyond original run). It includes secondary runs in the country of first issue, but also international usage which may or may not be managed by the originating producer. In many cases other companies, TV stations or individuals are engaged to do the syndication work, in other words to sell the product into the markets they are allowed to sell into by contract from the copyright holders, in most cases the producers.

In most countries, the first wave occurs primarily on FTA television, while the second wave happens on subscription TV and in other countries. In the US however, the first wave occurs on the FTA networks and subscription services, and the second wave travels via all means of distribution.

First run programming is increasing on subscription services outside the US, but few domestically produced programs are syndicated on domestic FTA elsewhere. This practice is increasing however, generally on digital only FTA channels, or with subscriber-only first run material appearing on FTA.

Unlike the US, repeat FTA screenings of a FTA network program almost only occur only on that network. Also, affiliates rarely buy or produce non-network programming that isn't intensely local.

Social aspects


Paralleling television's growing primacy in family life and society, an increasingly vocal chorus of legislators, scientists and parents is raising objections to the uncritical acceptance of the medium. For example, the Swedish government imposed a total ban on advertising to children under twelve in 1991 (see advertising). In the US, the National Institute on Media and the Family (not a government agency) points out that US children watch an average of 25 hours of television per week and features studies showing it interferes with the educational and maturational process.

A February 23, 2002 article in Scientific American suggested that compulsive television watching was no different from any other addiction, a finding backed up by reports of withdrawal symptoms among families forced by circumstance to cease watching.

The 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd" critiques the television industry, in this tale of a TV reporter who turns a hobo into a TV star.

Technology Trends

In its infancy, television was an ephemeral medium. Fans of regular shows planned their schedules so that they could be available to watch their shows at their time of broadcast. The term appointment television was coined by marketers to describe this kind of attachment.

Today, the viewership's dependence on schedule has lessened due to the invention of programmable video recorders, such as the Videocassette recorder and the Digital video recorder. Consumers can watch programs on their own schedule once they are broadcast and recorded. Television service providers also offer video on demand, a set of programs which can be watched at any time.

Mobile phone networks are capable of carrying video streams, and some predict that video on demand will be soon available through them.

Suitability for Audience

Recently, television broadcasting companies have come under fire for the content of their shows. A flurry of fines by the FCC have fallen on various stations following the Janet Jackson affair at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Even radio shows have been affected. Measures are being considered to have certain shows only air past certain times of night.

Colloquial names

  • TV
  • telly
  • the box
  • the idiot box
  • the shit box
  • the tube
  • boob tube
  • glass teat
  • cultural barbiturate
  • goggle box
  • the cyclops
  • die Kiste, die Glotze (German)
  • kijkbuis (Dutch)
  • telkku, telkkari, töllö (Finnish)
  • bilžukaste, teļļuks (Latvian)
  • electronic babysitter
  • la máquina cazabobos (Spanish)
  • Familie alteret (Danish) The Family Alter

Further Reading

  • Erik Barnouw: Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, Oxford University Press 1992.
  • Pierre Bourdieu: On Television, The New Press 2001
  • Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books 1995
  • Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Perennial 1978


David E. Fisher and Marshall J. Fisher, Tube, the Invention of Television, Counterpoint, Washington D.C. USA, (1996) ISBN 1887178171



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