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 dominated U.S television.
NBC and CBS were 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 1940s. ABC was spun off from NBC in 1943 when the US government determined that NBC's two-network setup was anticompetitive; NBC chose to sell off the Blue Network operations, which became ABC.
All three networks began regular television broadcasts in the 1940s. NBC began operations in 1946, followed by CBS and ABC in 1948. 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.
Competition from other networks
For most of US television history, the Big Three dominated US television, controlling up to 99% of television broadcasting. During the 1950s and lasting until the early 1990s, every hit series appearing in the top 20 Nielsen ratings and every successful commercial network telecast of a famous film was aired by one of the Big Three Networks. There were attempts by other companies, such as the Overmyer Network, to enter the television medium, but other than the DuMont Television Network all 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 became commonplace in the 1980s, led to the downfall of almost all new companies. Those that did have the resources to compete, such as Canada's CTV Television Network (which briefly attempted an American expansion via WNYP-26 in Buffalo, New York, now a religious station), were forced off the air through legal threats.
Although PBS could be considered a "fourth network", a viable fourth network would not again become competitive with the Big Three until Fox was founded in 1986 (from some of the assets/remnants of the DuMont network, which became Metromedia after DuMont folded). Since its founding, Fox has surpassed ABC and NBC in the ratings during the primetime hours in which it competes, becoming number two to CBS. In the 2007-2008 season, Fox was number one, but it lost the spot as a close second in the last 2008-2009 season. Despite its ratings, however, Fox 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), 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 ABC). 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. 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.
Today, the "Big Three" control only a (relatively) small portion of the market, estimated at a combined 32% in 2005. With broadcast competitors such as Fox, The CW, and MyNetwork TV, satellite channels, and national cable channels such as TNT and AMC Network, the Big Three's market share has dwindled considerably.
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