Big Three television networks

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The Big Three television networks are the three traditional commercial broadcast (over-the-air) television networks in the United States: ABC, CBS and NBC. From the 1950s to the late 1980s, the Big Three networks dominated U.S. television.[1]


NBC and CBS were both founded as radio networks in the 1920s, with NBC eventually encompassing two national radio networks, the prestige Red Network and lower profile Blue Network. They gradually began experimental television stations in the 1930s, with commercial telecasting allowed in 1941.[2] ABC was spun off from NBC in 1943 when the U.S. government determined that NBC's two-network setup was anticompetitive; NBC chose to sell off the Blue Network operations, which became ABC.[3]

All three networks began regular, commercial television broadcasts in the 1940s. NBC and CBS began commercial operations in 1941, followed by the DuMont Television Network in 1944 and ABC in 1948.[4] The three networks originally controlled only a few local television stations, but they swiftly affiliated with other stations to cover almost the entire United States by the late 1950s.

Of the four original networks, only DuMont did not have a corresponding radio network. Conversely, the fourth major radio network of the era, the Mutual Broadcasting System, never attempted to enter television, nor did it pursue any sort of affiliation with its television-only counterpart, DuMont.

Competition from other networks[edit]

For most of the history of television in the United States, the Big Three dominated, controlling the vast majority of television broadcasting. DuMont folded in 1956; the NTA Film Network signed on that year and lasted until 1961. From 1961, and lasting until the early 1990s, there were effectively only three major networks. Every hit series appearing in the top 20 Nielsen ratings and every successful commercial network telecast of a major feature film was aired by one of the Big Three networks.[5] There were attempts by other companies, such as the Overmyer Network, to enter the television medium, but all of these ventures lasted for brief periods. The prohibitive cost of starting a broadcast network, coupled with the difficulty of competing with the massive distribution of the Big Three networks, and the infancy and complexities of UHF broadcasting before cable television became commonplace in the 1980s, led to the downfall of almost all new companies; most media markets were limited to no more than three VHF channels, and even after the All-Channel Receiver Act was passed in the early 1960s, the VHF stations were far more efficient and could reach a greater range than their UHF counterparts. As the Big Three networks had already affiliated with most of the more desirable VHF stations, and the full-service approach of the time meant that the networks programmed almost the entire broadcast day (leaving little room for even off-prime-time programming), that left any upstart network to settle for the inferior UHF outlets. Those networks that could have had the resources to compete, such as Canada's CTV Television Network (which briefly attempted an American expansion via WNYP (channel 26) in Buffalo, New York, now a religious station), were forced off the air through legal threats.

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/remnants of the DuMont network, which became Metromedia after DuMont folded, and were acquired by News Corporation earlier in 1986). Fox, which began as a distant fourth network, leapfrogged into 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 purchase of New World Communications and the acquisition of professional football broadcast rights brought a wave of new Fox affiliates. Since its founding, Fox has surpassed ABC and NBC in the ratings during the primetime hour blocks in which it competes, becoming the second most-watched network behind CBS of the decade 2000s. During the 2007-2008 season, Fox was the highest-rated of the major broadcast networks (as well as the first non-Big Three network to do so) but lost the spot as a close second in the last 2008-2009 season. From 2004 to 2012, Fox also dominated U.S. television in the lucrative and viewer-rich 18-49 demographics.

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 weekday programming, which lacks a morning newscast, daytime programming, an evening newscast (Fox has a news division that airs on cable and radio, but not on the broadcast television network other than an affiliate news service for its stations called Fox News Edge), a third hour of primetime, late-night talk shows, and (since 2009) Saturday morning children's programming (although Fox had an extensive lineup of children's programs throughout the 1990s before selling its children's division to The Walt Disney Company in 2001 as part of its sale of cable network Fox Family Channel). Local affiliates either produce their own programming during these times or run syndicated shows. Fox is also the only one of the four major networks to include a regular block of infomercials on its lineup, via the Weekend Marketplace Saturday morning block. However, 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.

Likewise, PBS, which has existed since 1970, is not considered part of the "big three" networks; PBS operates as a noncommercial service with a much different distribution model compared to the major networks.

Today, the "Big Three" control only a (relatively) small portion of the market, estimated at a combined 32% in 2005.[1] With broadcast competitors such as Fox, The CW, MyNetworkTV, recently Spanish language network competitors Univision, Telemundo and national cable and satellite channels such as TNT, ESPN and AMC, the Big Three's market share has dwindled considerably.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Hindman, Douglas Blanks; Wiegand, Kenneth (2008). "The big three's prime-time decline: a technological and social context". Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Retrieved 2014-03-19. 
  2. ^ Kisseloff, Jeff (1995). The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. New York: Viking. pp. 42–48, 69–79. ISBN 0-670-86470-6. 
  3. ^ Kisseloff, Jeff (1995). The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. New York: Viking. p. 505. ISBN 0-670-86470-6. 
  4. ^ Castleman, H. & Podrazik, W. (1982). Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill. 314 pp.
  5. ^ McNeil, Alex (1996). Total Television, 4th edition. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 1143–1161. ISBN 0-14-024916-8.