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Big Three (American television)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The "Big Three" major United States broadcast networks: NBC, CBS, and ABC, arranged in order by the year each network began regular television broadcasting in the U.S.

In the United States, there are three major traditional commercial broadcast television networks — NBC (the National Broadcasting Company), CBS (formerly known as the Columbia Broadcasting System), and ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) — that due to their longevity and ratings success are informally referred to as the "Big Three". They dominated American television until the 1990s[1] (especially during the network era of the late 1950s to mid-1980s) and are still considered major U.S. broadcast companies to this day.

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The National Broadcasting Company and Columbia Broadcasting System were both founded as radio networks in the 1920s, with NBC eventually encompassing two national radio networks, the prestige Red Network and the lower-profile Blue Network. They gradually began experimental television stations in the 1930s, with commercial broadcasts being allowed by the Federal Communications Commission on July 1, 1941.[2] In 1943, the U.S. government determined that NBC's two-network setup was anticompetitive and forced it to spin off one of the networks; NBC chose to sell the Blue Network operations, which became the American Broadcasting Company.[3]

All three networks began regular, commercial television broadcasts in the 1940s. NBC and CBS began commercial operations in 1941, followed by ABC in 1948. A smaller fourth network, the DuMont Television Network, launched in 1944.[4] The three networks originally controlled only a few local television stations, but they quickly affiliated with other stations to cover almost the entire U.S. by the late 1950s. Several of these stations affiliated with all three major networks and DuMont, or some combination of the four, in markets where only one or two television stations operated in the early years of commercial television; this resulted in several network shows, often those with lower national viewership, receiving scattershot market clearances, since in addition to maintaining limited broadcast schedules early on, affiliates that shoehorned programming from many networks had to also make room for locally produced content. As other stations signed on in larger cities, ABC, NBC, and CBS were eventually able to carry at least a sizable portion of their programming on one station.

Of the four original networks, only DuMont did not have a corresponding radio network. Ironically, the fourth major radio network of the era, the Mutual Broadcasting System, had briefly considered the idea of launching a television network, with consideration being made to have film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer supply programming talent. In fact, Bamberger Broadcasting's WOR-TV and WOIC (both stations affiliated with Mutual, the latter with a Washington, D.C. video outlet) maintained letterhead with "Mutual Television" decorating their identifications. Beyond this, there is no confirmation, however, that a cooperative video service was ever seriously considered, although Mutual's component stations launched television outlets in their home cities. Some of Mutual's component stations bought a stake in the Overmyer Network in 1967 (resulting in a branding change to "The United Network"), but other than a single late-night talk show, The Las Vegas Show, which lasted one month, that network never made it to its full launch.

Network competition

History of television in the United States
Prewar and wartime broadcasting  (1928–1947)
First Golden Age  (1947–1960)
Network era  (1950s–1980s)
Multi-channel transition  (1980s–1990s)
Peak TV/Second Golden Age and post-network era  (1999–c.2023)
Streaming wars  (2019–2022)
History by decade
History of:
· Sports broadcasting
· Public broadcasting
· Children's television
· TV animation (Network era · Modern era)

Early era

For most of the history of television in the United States, the Big Three dominated, controlling the vast majority of television broadcasting.[5] DuMont ceased regular programming in 1955; the NTA Film Network, unusual in that its programming, all pre-recorded, was distributed by mail instead of through communications wires, signed on in 1956 and lasted until 1961. From 1961, and lasting until the early 1990s, there were only three major networks. Every hit series appearing in the Nielsen top 20 television programs and every successful commercial network telecast of a major feature film was aired by one of the Big Three networks.[6]


A viable fourth television network in the commercial sense would not again become competitive with the Big Three until Fox was founded in October 1986 from some of the assets and remnants of the DuMont network, which had become Metromedia after DuMont folded, and were acquired by News Corporation earlier in 1986.[7] Fox, which began as a distant fourth network, rose to major network status in 1994 after must-carry rules took effect; the rules allowed Fox affiliates to force their way onto cable lineups, and the network's affiliation deal with New World Communications, which it later purchased in 1996, and the acquisition of National Football League broadcast rights brought a wave of new Fox affiliates.

Since its founding, Fox has surpassed ABC and NBC in the ratings during the early primetime hours in which it competes against the longer-established networks, becoming the second most-watched network behind CBS during the 2000s. During the 2007–08 season, Fox was the highest-rated of the major broadcast networks, as well as the first non-Big Three network to reach first place, but it lost the spot in the 2008–09 season and dropped to a close second. From 2004 to 2012 and 2020 to 2021, Fox also dominated American television in the lucrative and viewer-rich 18–49 age demographics, in large part due to the success of its NFL coverage and its top rated prime time program, American Idol. Given the network's success in its prime time and sports offerings, it has been occasionally included with the Big Three, in which case the phrase "Big Four" is used.

Although Fox has firmly established itself as the nation's fourth major network with its ratings success, it is not considered part of the Big Three. Among Fox's differences with the Big Three is its reduced weekday programming. It lacks national morning and evening news programs; Fox has a news division consisting of cable and radio operations, but does not provide content for the broadcast television network other than a weekly news analysis program, limited special breaking news reports and an affiliate news service for its stations called Fox News Edge. Fox does not feature any daytime programming, a third hour of prime time, late-night talk shows, or Saturday morning children's programming (though it did previously carry the latter).

Fifth and sixth networks

Other networks eventually launched in an attempt to compete with the Big Three as well as Fox, although these "netlets" have been unable to ascend to the same level of success. The WB[8] and UPN launched in 1995; like Fox, they both added nights of prime time programming over the course of a few years, although The WB was the only one that aired any on weekends, carrying a Sunday night lineup for all but its first half-season on the air.[9]

Both networks mainly aired only prime time and children's programming. The latter was the only form of weekday daytime programming offered by either one, although UPN discontinued its children's lineup in 2003 at the conclusion of a content deal with Disney, and UPN aired sports programming via the short-lived XFL, as well as WWF SmackDown!.[10][11]

While The WB and UPN each had a few popular series during their existences, they struggled for overall viewership and financial losses. This led their respective parent companies, Time Warner and CBS Corporation, to shut them down and jointly launch The CW in 2006.[12] The CW initially featured a mix of programs from both predecessors, as well as some newer shows after the launch. The last surviving series of The CW's predecessors — Supernatural, from The WB — continued until its finale on The CW in 2020.[13]

Fox launched MyNetworkTV at the same time as The CW, with a lineup of English language telenovelas;[14] it later shifted toward unscripted programs and movies, though its persistent lack of ratings success led News Corporation to convert it into a programming service, relying on a lineup of acquired series, in 2009.[15]


Likewise, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which has existed since 1970, is not considered part of the "big three" networks. PBS operates as a noncommercial service with a very different distribution form compared to the major networks; its member stations basically own the network instead of the traditional mode of a network owning some of its stations and affiliating with additional stations owned by other broadcasters, and it maintains memberships with more than one educational station in a few markets.[16]

Market share

In the 21st century, the "Big Three" have controlled only a relatively small portion of the broadcasting market in the United States; by 2007, their collective share was estimated at a combined 32%.[1] The Big Three's market share has declined considerably as a result of growing competition from other broadcast networks such as Fox, The CW, and MyNetworkTV; Spanish language networks such as Univision, UniMás, and Telemundo; national cable and satellite channels such as TNT, ESPN, and AMC; and streaming channels such as Netflix.[1]

Each of the Big Three networks is now owned by a media conglomerate, providing corporate synergy with various cable channels, a major film studio, a companion streaming service, and other sibling media assets. NBC is owned by NBCUniversal, a Comcast company, (whose assets include Universal Pictures, Peacock, Universal Destinations & Experiences, E!, MSNBC, and Golf Channel) since 2004,[17] CBS is owned by Paramount Global (who also owns Paramount Pictures, MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon and Paramount+, among other units) since 2019,[18] and ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Company (whose assets consist of, but not limited to, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, Disney Channel, Walt Disney Pictures, 20th Century Studios, and Disney+) since 1996.[19]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Douglas Blanks Hindman; Kenneth Wiegand (2008). "The big three's prime-time decline: a technological and social context" (PDF). Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Retrieved March 19, 2014.
  2. ^ Jeff Kisseloff (1995). The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920–1961. New York: Viking. pp. 42–48, 69–79. ISBN 0-670-86470-6.
  3. ^ Jeff Kisseloff (1995). The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920–1961. New York: Viking. p. 505. ISBN 0-670-86470-6.
  4. ^ H. Castleman; W. Podrazik (1982). Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 314.
  5. ^ Schneider, Michael (December 27, 2016). "Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2016's Winners and Losers | IndieWire". Retrieved August 11, 2017.
  6. ^ Alex McNeil (1996). Total Television, 4th edition. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 1143–1161. ISBN 0-14-024916-8.
  7. ^ "Murdoch acquired six Metromedia TV stations". Los Angeles Times. March 7, 1986. Retrieved May 9, 2014.
  8. ^ "Time Warner TV Network to Cover 40% of Nation". The Buffalo News. HighBeam Research. November 2, 1993. Archived from the original on June 10, 2014. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
  9. ^ Braxton, Greg (May 23, 1995). "WB Beefs Up Its Prime-Time Lineup : Television: With the addition of Sunday, the network will have two nights and 13 hours of programming, aimed at kids, teens and families". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 23, 2023.
  10. ^ Bernstein, Paula; Schneider, Michael (May 19, 2000). "UPN Kicks off Sundays with Extreme Football". Variety. Archived from the original on October 15, 2015. Retrieved January 21, 2023.
  11. ^ Dempsey, John (May 12, 2001). "It's Sudden Death for XFL". Variety. Archived from the original on October 15, 2015. Retrieved January 21, 2023.
  12. ^ "UPN and WB to Combine, Forming New TV Network". The New York Times. January 24, 2006.
  13. ^ Pedersen, Erik (August 17, 2020). "The CW Fall Sets Premiere Dates For 'Supernatural', 'Swamp Thing', 'Devils' & More". Deadline. Retrieved January 22, 2023.
  14. ^ "News Corp. Unveils My Network TV". Broadcasting & Cable. February 22, 2006.
  15. ^ Michael Malone (February 9, 2009). "MyNetworkTV Shifts From Network to Programming Service". Broadcasting & Cable. Retrieved September 23, 2012.
  16. ^ "CPB FAQ". January 6, 2016. Retrieved May 21, 2023. PBS is a private, nonprofit media enterprise owned by its member public television stations.
  17. ^ Keating, Gina (December 3, 2009). "TIMELINE: NBC, Universal through the 20th century and beyond". Reuters. Retrieved May 21, 2023.
  18. ^ Littleton, Cynthia (December 4, 2019). "CBS and Viacom Complete Merger: 'It's Been a Long and Winding Road to Get Here'". Variety. Retrieved May 21, 2023.
  19. ^ Wollenberg, Skip (February 9, 1996). "Disney Completes $19 Billion Buyout of Capital Cities/ABC". AP NEWS. Retrieved May 21, 2023.
This page was last edited on 11 December 2023, at 05:58
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