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Television started in the United States long before it became available anywhere else. A lot of people were involved in developing various pieces of it. Vladimir Zworykin invented the picture tube; Philo Farnsworth started the Philco brand of radios, and later television.
Television stations in the United States were started as experimental stations operated by private companies, but the experiment was stopped when World War II intervened and the equipment and many of the men involved were busy in foxholes and tanks trying to win the war.
After the war ended, television in the United States more-or-less took off. A few television stations were started as early as 1948. With the discovery that they could sell commercials - the first one was a film showing a Bulova watch during a sports game - there was a realization that money could be made in this way. (Well, not a lot of money at first; Bulova paid only $7 to run its ad, but it was a start.)
Originally, television stations operated on Channels 1 through 13 (VHF). Channel 1 was never really used, and its frequencies were released to the military. Later, there were so many television stations around that it was becoming harder to find free space for new channels. So the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] issued a freeze on further licenses for television stations. This continued for several years.
Eventually the FCC developed the UHF television band, and added TV channels numbered 14 through 83. They also set up an allocation system: Each community in the United States was assigned a series of channel allocations, generally designed to prevent stations from interfering with each other, usually with 150 miles distance between two channels (Chicago shares the same channels as Wausau, Wisconsin, for instance). Also, to prevent interference with radioastronomy, Channel 37 is not used.
With the lack of use and need by other services for the frequencies, eventually the FCC dropped TV channels 70-83 and released them for other services, so currently the highest channel that can be assigned is 69. With the creation in the late 1990s of digital television, and the 2008 conversion of analog broadcast television to digital, some of the high-end channel assignments are also being reassigned to other services, so currently the UHF band ends at Channel 51, with 52-69 assigned for other purposes. Channel 55 was bought by Qualcomm for their Flo TV mobile television service nationwide, a service that flopped for multiple reasons (including equipment costs and a monotonous schedule); Channel 55 was then sold to AT&T to expand their 4G footprint.
During the analog TV era, the prevention of co-channel and adjacent-channel interference from other stations was one of the FCC's top priorities. On the VHF band, no two stations could be assigned next to each other, so there would never, for example, be a Channel 9 and Channel 10 in the same area. (The minimum separation distance was 60 miles.) There are some exceptions: Because of a 4 megahertz distance between their frequencies, a Channel 4 and Channel 5 can be in the same area (e.g., the Twin Cities). Also, Channel 6 is at the high end of the FM band, so any FM radio can pick up the audio of Channel 6.
Generally speaking, in the UHF band at least six channels separated stations located within 20 miles of each other. There were rare exceptions to this rule. For instance, in Sacramento, Channel 31 had been on the air since 1974 with its transmitter located with the rest of the city's TV transmitters about halfway between Sacramento and Stockton to the south. In the late 1980s, the FCC assigned Channel 29 to Sacramento with the proviso that the new station's transmitter could only be located about 15 miles north of the city. However, with the advent of digital TV, which has fewer problems with co-channel and adjacent-channel interference, Channel 29 has since relocated its transmitter near the rest of the Sacramento transmitters.
UHF stations are also allowed to use much higher power output than VHF. In the analog era, this was 5000 kilowatts compared to 100 kilowatts for Channels 2-6 and 316 kilowatts for channels 7-13. However in the digital age, channels 2-6 are undesirable for transmissions due to signal noise, so they have been rarely assigned for digital television outside wide flat areas (such as the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas).
This also made for some strange channel configurations. Channel 3 is used mostly in cities that live in the shadow of other larger cities -- like Philadelphia to New York, or Sacramento to San Francisco -- or in fairly remote areas. The nearest Channel 3 for Southern California is over 100 miles away in Santa Barbara. Los Angeles was allocated 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. San Diego was allocated Channels 8 and 10, but as a sop to the Mexicans, Tijuana was allowed to have Channels 6 and 12.
The addition of the UHF band allowed for the addition of something else: Educational Television. This originally began in the mid-1960s with the National Educational Television network, which was privately operated but had government grants to help with some of the operating costs. Also, educational stations are not permitted to run commercials, so most of them were started by local governments who used them to run programs to their local schools. In some of the larger cities (Los Angeles, New York City, Washington DC) educational television stations were licensed by private non-profit groups. Some stations are run by colleges.
Unlike the choices made by other nations, the U.S. government never got into the broadcast business for domestic consumption. All U.S. broadcast stations, radio and television, are privately owned. Some stations were operated by municipal governments for educational television services, but in general, in the United States, private for-profit companies operate television stations. This is the reason why most countries have fewer than 10 broadcast television stations, and the United States has over 7,000.
Same thing for broadcast networks. There are no federal networks; all broadcast networks, radio and television, are operated by private organizations. Even the educational networks are operated privately, although they do receive some public funding.
Until around the 1980s, the maximum number of television stations that could be owned by an organization was limited to seven, of which a maximum of five could be VHF stations. This rule was later changed to limit stations by amount of coverage of the country rather than absolute number. Also, during the 1970s a rule was created that prohibited a major newspaper from owning a television station in its home market. (Many television stations were owned by the local newspaper, one example being WTMJ Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee, was, and still is, owned by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.) Many newspapers solved this problem by making trades with other newspapers in other cities to own a station outside their home area.
There is, however, an exception to the seven-station rule for educational television networks which are operating on a state-wide basis, they can run as many stations in the state as they can find the funding for. Yes, I did say "find funding". With the exception of a small amount of money from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, educational stations have to find ways to raise money on their own; they generally do not get public subsidies. Since educational stations can't show commercials, most educational television stations have "pledge weeks" where, instead of running commercial breaks, they have people come on and beg viewers to call in and subscribe to the station, usually asking for about $10 a year or so, with the amount rising with inflation, and as of 2010, the usual request is for about $30. Many stations offer premium gifts such as boxed sets of various programs, book tie ins, and other special offers in exchange for larger donations of $150 to $365 a year, along with the omnipresent (and often mocked) tote bag.
The above seven-station rule (for commercial stations) meant that even the networks could only own seven stations around the country. Typically they owned the three major markets (LA, Chicago and New York), but beyond that the locations differed. Currently, the four major networks own stations in the following markets:
- ABC: New York (WABC), Los Angeles (KABC), Chicago (WLS), Philadelphia (WPVI), San Francisco (KGO), Houston (KTRK), Durham-Raleigh (WTVD), Fresno (KFSN);
- CBS: New York (WCBS), Los Angeles (KCBS), Chicago (WBBM), Philadelphia (KYW), Fort Worth-Dallas (KTVT), San Francisco (KPIX), Boston (WBZ), Detroit (WWJ), Minneapolis-St. Paul (WCCO/KCCO/KCCW), Miami-Fort Lauderdale (WFOR), Denver (KCNC), Sacramento (KOVR), Pittsburgh (KDKA), Baltimore (WJZ);
- Fox: New York (WNYW), Los Angeles (KTTV), Chicago (WFLD), Philadelphia (WTXF), Dallas-Fort Worth (KDFW), Boston (WFXT), Atlanta (WAGA), Washington DC (WTTG), Houston (KRIV), Detroit (WJBK), Phoenix (KSAZ), Tampa-St. Petersburg (WTVT), Minneapolis-St. Paul (KMSP), Orlando (WOFL), Memphis (WHBQ), Austin (KTBC), Ocala-Gainesville (WOGX);
- NBC: New York (WNBC), Los Angeles (KNBC), Chicago (WMAQ), Philadelphia (WCAU), Fort Worth-Dallas (KXAS), San Jose-San Francisco (KNTV), Washington (WRC), Miami-Fort Lauderdale (WTVJ), San Diego (KNSD), New Britain-Hartford-New Haven (WVIT).
Another major change in the 1990s and beyond is that the FCC now allows duopolies, where one company can own two stations in the same market. Originally, this was allowed only if the second station was at risk of failing, but in recent years, it's become pretty easy to get an FCC waiver under just about any circumstances. FOX owns MyNetworkTV O&Os in many of its major markets, and CBS owns five CW stations in markets  where it also owns its station; the other three CW O&Os  are not paired up with CBS stations. A number of other companies, including Sinclair and Raycom, own legal duopolies, and semi-legal ones (where they own a holding company that owns the second station in the market).
Until the 1970s, most stations only operated from about 5 a.m. until about midnight or 1 a.m. While television stations were always licensed to operate 24/7, most did not. See ANSI Standard Broadcast TV Schedule for more details. This changed when the FCC changed the rules on commercials.
Until the 1980s, a television station was restricted to 21 minutes of commercials per hour. In fact, they were required to list every time that they exceeded 21 minutes at any time. However, when this rule was in place, it typically was a technical error; e.g., a station at one time might have accidentally run 21:10 of advertising.
This rule limiting advertising to 21 minutes in any hour was eliminated in the 1980s. This then allowed the stations to sell time during what would normally be off-air time to producers of infomercials. So stations that don't have enough material to fill the late-night time can sell the otherwise off-air time to infomercial producers.
At the very least, they do have to provide three hours of Edutainment Shows a week to serve their younger viewing audience with educational and informational content as a condition of their license. Most stations take this as a chore however (since nobody wants to advertise on them anymore because parents think that Lunchables will kill our children) and instead of actual enlightening programming, air either three hours of animal shows deep on Sundays when nobody is watching, quiz shows that think their audience has the intelligence of tree moss or, for the stations that really don't care but the FCC thinks they do, Saved by the Bell. Networks have sold their children's blocks off to other companies which actually produced true educational programming or somehow are able pass off that Hannah Montana has lessons about friendship and the music industry.
Which brings up another thing: any person can visit a television (or radio) station by asking to see the documents called its "public inspection file". Since television stations are privately licensed, the licensee is supposed to show that his license to operate a station is in "the public interest, convenience and necessity". So they keep files of all the comments they get, public and negative, as well as information about what good stuff they do, in hopes that their license will be renewed. In reality, a station is about as likely to have its license renewed as a single candidate in a dictatorship is likely to be re-elected. It basically takes either serious corruption by the licensee (like RKO General's various practices through the 1960s and 1970s), incredible technical incompetence (the CW affiliate in Evansville, Indiana lost their license for taking forever to build their digital transmitter and for their owners being in a deep financial mess with syndicators to the point where their spotlight program is the long-canceled Judge Hatchett; they still broadcast over a network of low-power translators), taking too long to file paperwork (this is the most common reason for license denials, though it's mainly among rural stations or a station where the owner treats it more like a fun hobby than Serious Business), or some other misconduct (in the case of a station in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, complete denial of any airtime to African-Americans both locally and through NBC-transmitted programming) before it would not be re-licensed.