Broadcasting Networks Define the TV and Radio Business

A photo of the NBC and CBS broadcast booths at a political convention
••• Photo © Andy Nelson / Getty Images

A broadcasting network is a collection of radio or tv stations that air programming from the same unified source. Local stations sign agreements to become affiliates of a network, which gives the station popular programming and allows the network to widen its reach across the country.

In television, the major U.S. broadcasting networks are ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The CW, and PBS. The network airs programs that run on all of its stations — like The Big Bang Theory, which airs on the CBS network nationally in primetime.

How the Network/Station Relationship Works

When TV stations got their start, they needed programming. The networks had some but needed a way to get it to viewers, much as had already been done for decades through the radio.

In those early days, networks paid stations to air their programs. That helped early shows, such as I Love Lucy, become national hits. The comedy aired on CBS. Because CBS paid stations to become affiliates, Lucy was seen across the country, and because of that, CBS could sell TV advertisements that would reach millions of people.

That was also good for local CBS stations, which had a hit show. The only downside is that the network typically kept most of the commercial inventory for itself, which remains true in network TV today. A local station may have the Super Bowl but only has a few slots to sell local commercials during the big game. It may get a lot of eyeballs, but not a lot of money to have such a popular broadcast.

Today, a TV network is widely stopping the practice of paying stations to air its programs. In fact, the reverse is becoming commonplace. A network wants the local station to pay for the right to be an affiliate. A network expects a local station owner to realize that the station is much more valuable as an affiliate of NBC than trying to go it alone as an independent station.

But that's not always the case. In 2002, the owner of longtime CBS affiliate WJXT in Jacksonville, Florida, decided that it made business sense to drop CBS and become an independent. Because of the station's strength in the Nielsen ratings and its determined owners, the station thrived by offering more local news instead of CBS shows.

Not every local station is an "affiliate" of the network it represents. Some networks own and operate the network themselves. These are called O&O stations or "O&Os." In the country's largest DMAs, such as New York or Los Angeles, the ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations are owned by the networks and not an outside company.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) won't allow a network to own every station in every city across the country because of concerns that it would put too much control over media in the hands of too few people. But a situation like what happened in Jacksonville, Florida, won't happen in the nation's largest cities because there's no network-affiliate deal to make or break.

How Fox Became a Major Network Power

Historically, the U.S. had the so-called "big three" networks; that all started to change when the Fox network hit the airwaves in 1986.

Fox was originally a collection of O&O stations in a few big markets and many tiny stations that had been independents. Fox only produced a few hours of programming each evening and didn't attempt a network morning show or evening newscast.

Thanks to The Simpsons and other breakout programs, Fox made a brand for itself but was still considered a weak rival of the ABC, CBS and NBC powerhouses.

That all changed in the mid-1990s - Fox was able to get some larger market stations to switch their "big three" affiliations and become Fox affiliates instead. From Detroit to Atlanta to Dallas, Fox now had stronger stations with a big local news presence. Fox also had the rights to broadcast some NFL football games, which put it in the big leagues of sports broadcasting.

Today, Fox may still be without newscasts in the mornings or evenings, and its primetime schedule still ends an hour earlier than the other networks. But it has achieved parity with its rivals and thanks to hits like American Idol; it can regularly win the Nielsen ratings.

What Networks Are Not

In cable television, some channels use the word "network" in their name even though they are a single channel and do not meet the definition of a network. The Food Network and the Game Show Network are two examples. They don't have local stations broadcasting their signal.

CNN's official name is the Cable News Network. While it is a cable channel, it does have agreements with many local stations across the country to share news stories and video, which makes it similar to a network. Those stations sign contracts with CNN to share resources, even though the stations are also affiliates of one of the broadcasting networks.

Stations do that to double their news resources. A station that's an affiliate of both CBS and CNN can use either source as it sees fit. CNN may have a better video of a tornado touching down than CBS, so the station may choose to air CNN's video. Viewers at home may not realize that their local station has a relationship with CNN. They only know that the station had the best tornado video.