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Media of the United States

The media of the United States tends to be primarily controlled by for-profit corporations based on advertising, subscription, and other sales-related revenues. Thanks partly to the strong backing of the U.S. foreign policy, many are the leading global players, generating profits as well as criticisms in many parts of the world. Further deregulation and convergence are under way, leading to mega-mergers, further concentration of media ownership, and emergence of media conglomerates.

While these trends may lead one to imagine a stifling world of monopolies, new media, notably the Internet, are creating new opportunities, and old giants are not necessarily the ones who seize them.

Table of contents
1 Television
2 Radio
3 Motion Pictures
4 Newspapers
5 Magazines
6 Book Publishing
7 Internet Content Production


Television often plays an important role in introducing American children to new ideas and developing common views of the world. Many shows are broadcast over the entire U.S., delivered to the home via the air or by cable and thus have an influence on a very large set of the population, as 98% of all American households have at least one television and the majority of households have more than one. It is through the mass media that Americans develop their sense of the rest of the world. The national broadcasts are in English, though many more urbanized areas of the country have some local broadcasts in languages other than English, such as Spanish, Chinese or Korean, and the Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision network are available in large parts of the country.

Stations and Networks

In the United States, TV industries can be divided into two distinctive sectors— local TV stations and TV networks.

TV stations are local in nature. They hold license from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use a part of the broadcast spectrum in a designated area to broadcast TV programs. Their programs come from three sources in most cases: in-house production, syndication and, most important, TV networks. Their revenue is based on local advertising and network compensation (a fee received from a network in exchange for airing the network's programs and advertisements).

The local market boundaries are drawn by the FCC.

When a station is not affiliated, i.e., does not have contractual relations to exchange airtime with programs and money with a particular network, that station is called independent.

TV networks are not bound to a specific local area. The best-known networks operate nation-wide. The less-known ones are regional, or consist of alliances of groups of stations. The major three networks have traditionally been:

In the 1990s and on, others have joined the ranks: Networks have so-called "affiliate" stations in multiple local areas which carry their programs and advertisements. In many cases, the affiliation is an exclusive contract between a network and a station. As a result, if a station is an NBC affiliate, the station would not air programs from ABC, CBS or other networks. The major exception to this rule occurs in local markets in which there are only a very small number of stations. When a station has affiliation with two networks, one would be primary affiliation and the other would be secondary affiliation. When a station has a secondary affiliation with a network, it means that the programs supplied by that network would be rescheduled (such as to late at night) rather than shown as they are received from the network.

The networks produce their own programs, and may purchase programs from independent production companies. Before the 1990s, when the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) dominated the landscape, the federal government instituted financial interest and syndication rules, which limited the Big Three's ability to produce in-house, syndicate or have financial interests in their programming. This was done for fear of a lack of voices in the US media environment. With the emergence of hundreds of cable television channels in the 1990s, this requirement was dropped.

Although stations and networks are very different entities in regulatory terms, one company may own multiple stations and a network at the same time, and make those stations affiliates of its own network. This rather common practice results in many 'O&O' (owned and operated) stations.

Oftentimes, multiple stations are owned by a company which does not own any network. The company is called "station group owner."

Some stations act as a supplier of original contents. By distributing the programs via satellite to stations and cable operators in other areas, the stations can reach a wider audience beyond their local market. Those stations are called "super stations."

Non-Commercial TV

Non-commercial television is a visible player in the United States. It is characterized by the relative independence from such governmental branches as Congress and the Administration. It is designed, and more or less functioning, as a "civic" than rather than as a "governmental" operation.

There are many non-commercial stations throughout the country, and some are "member stations" of PBS, Public Broadcasting Service—a non-commercial equivalent of networks.

The major differences between commercial and noncommercial TV have to do with programming and revenue sources. Non-commercial TV stations, some educational, some religious, may broadcast the kind of programs that commercial stations are less likely to air. The stations are technically prohibited from airing advertisements, and therefore there is supposedly no advertisement revenue. However, the stations may have corporate "underwriters," and announcements of underwriters may be aired. These messages may not promote specific product or service to the viewers. Another source of income is donations from viewers.

In reality, however, non-commercial broadcasting may or may not be distinctively different from its commercial counterparts from an uninformed viewer's eyes. The programs are sometimes very similar to some of the programs on cable networks, such as A&E and Discovery. The underwriter's messages may appear more like advertisements.

PBS is a network which commissions production of programs by member stations. Its revenue comes from member stations' membership fees, underwriters, and funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

CPB is another key player in the realm of non-commercial broadcasting. CPB receives funding from Congress, and distributes the money to PBS and NPR (National Public Radio, a non-commercial network for radio stations.)

Cable Television

Cable television in the United States started as a Community Antenna Television (CATV) - retransmission of the over-the-air local stations' programs through cable. One of the earliest services was by a retailer Robert J. Tarlinton of Lansford, Pennsylvania in order to boost the sales of TV receivers. The primary subscribers to the service were the households which could not receive a clear signal due to interference from a nearby mountain.

Like the television industry, cable television industry is consisted of two parts. Cable systems are local entities that own the physical cable connecting to the individual households. Cable systems usually have to obtain franchise (permission to operate their business) from local government. They may pay part of their profit to the government, or offer a part of their channels for public, educational, and governmental (PEG) use. Such channel would carry town meeting, theater performance by a local school, and/or programs produced by a local resident. Unlike television stations, cable systems are mostly local monopolies.

Multiple systems operators are often owned by the same company, (called MSO, multiple system operator). The best known MSO’s include Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and Cox. Cable operators were the target of mergers and acquisitions from the mid 1990's to the early 2000's, because of the expectation that it is one of the two major high-speed Internet infrastructures connecting the backbone to individual households, or the last mile. The other last mile infrastructure was the local telephone networks. TCI and MediaOne were purchased by AT&T, which then sold its cable division to Comcast. Time Warner Cable, part of Time Warner, was purchased by AOL. (See also Broadband open access)

Retransmission of the local programs is regulated by so-called must-carry rule. According to the rule, cable systems are obligated to carry all the local stations that ask for the carriage - except for those stations that request payment in exchange for the retransmission.

Programs cable systems carry mostly come from cable networks, national or global entities distributing contents via satellite to local cable systems. Well known cable networks include MTV, CNN, ESPN, HBO, C-SPAN and Discovery. They are usually packages into two classes of services "basic" and "premium." Basic cable service typically includes retransmission of local television stations' programs, as well as some cable networks.

Some contents are offered as pay-per-view.

Revenues of the cable systems come from two sources - subscription and local advertisements. Subscription fees are divided among the cable systems and cable networks. The revenue from pay-per-view programs are handled much the same way. Cable networks' revenue are from subscription fees and national advertisements.

Satellite Television

Beginning in the 1990s, media companies became to deliver television signals by direct broadcast satellite or DBS, led by DirecTV and followed shortly thereafter by EchoStar and Dish Network. By the first decade of the 21st century, DirecTV and EchoStar had merged, and we then sold to international satellite TV provider News Corporation. There are currently about 16 million DBS subscribers in the United States.


American radio broadcasts in two bands: FM and AM. Some stations are only talk radio"--featuring interviews and discussions--while music radio stations broadcast one particular type of music: Top 40, hip-hop, country, etc. Radio broadcast companies have become increasingly consolidated in recent years. National Public Radio is the nation's primary public radio network, but most radio stations are commercial and profit-oriented.

Motion Pictures

See also: Cinema of the United States


Newspapers have declined in their influence and penetration into American households over the years. The U.S. does not have a national paper per se, although the influential dailies New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are sold in most U.S. cities. Instead, metropolitan areas have their own local newspapers. Typically, a metropolitan area will support at most one or two major newspapers, with many smaller publications targeted towards particular audiences. Although the cost of publishing has increased over the years, the price of newspapers has generally remained low, forcing newspapers to rely more on advertising revenue and on articles provided by a major wire service, such as the Associated Press or Reuters, for their national and world coverage.

With a very few exceptions, all the newspapers in the U.S. are privately owned, either by large chains such as Gannett or Knight Ridder Inc, which own dozens or even hundreds of newspapers; by small chains that own a handful of papers; or in a situation that is increasingly rare, by individuals or families.

Most general-purpose newspapers are either being printed one time a week, usually on Thursday or Friday, or are printed daily. Weekly newspapers tend to have much smaller circulation and are more prevalent in rural communities or small towns. Major cities often have "alternative weeklies" to complement the mainstream daily paper(s), for example, New York City's Village Voice or Los Angeles' L.A. Weekly, to name two of the most venerable. Major cities may also support a local business journal, trade papers relating to local industries and papers for local ethnic and social groups.

Probably due to competition from other media, the number of daily newspapers in the U.S. has declined over the past half-century, according to Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of American newspapers. In particular, the number of evening newspapers has fallen by almost one-half since 1970, while the number of morning editions and Sunday editions has grown.

For comparison, in 1950, there were 1,772 daily papers (and 1,450--or about 70 percent--of them were evening papers) while in 2000, there were 1,480 daily papers (and 766--or about half--of them were evening papers.)

Daily newspaper circulation is also slowly declining in America, partly due to the near-demise of two-newspaper towns, as the weaker newspapers in most cities have folded:

196058.8 million
197062.1 million
1980 62.2 million
1990 62.3 million
2000 55.8 million

The primary source of newspaper income is advertising--in the form of "classifieds" or inserted advertising circulars--rather than circulation income.

The largest newspapers (by circulation) in the United States are USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.


See also: List of magazines

Book Publishing

Internet Content Production