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Superstation is a term used in North American broadcasting that can have several meanings. In its most precise meaning, a superstation is defined by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States as a "television broadcast station, other than a network station, licensed by the FCC that is secondarily transmitted by a satellite carrier."
In the early days of broadcasting, most large media markets had, by standards of the day, a large number of television stations. Generally, these markets had three VHF stations affiliated with NBC, ABC and CBS (the then dominant television networks), one or more public television stations (which usually were member stations of PBS), and one or more UHF stations (and in the largest markets, such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, at least one VHF station) without a network affiliation. These independent stations relied on syndicated reruns, older movies, and local programming such as newscasts, children's programming or sporting events to fill their broadcast days. Smaller media markets, however, often had only the basic three network-affiliated stations. Cable television providers in smaller areas sought a foothold by "importing" signals from the city for their customers. The stations, anxious for more viewers, assisted by relaying their signals by wire or microwave signals to these towns. These stations, especially those independents owned by Gaylord Broadcasting such as WVTV (channel 18) in Milwaukee, KSTW (channel 11) in Seattle, KTVT (channel 11) in Fort Worth-Dallas and KHTV (channel 39, now KIAH) in Houston, which all served their respective states with entertainment programming via these connections, became the first "superstations", on a regional basis.
WTCG: The first national superstation
With the advent of C-Band satellites, Ted Turner came up with the idea of distributing his Atlanta, Georgia independent station WTCG (channel 17; later renamed WTBS, and now WPCH-TV) via C-Band to the entire country (and beyond). This was the first national superstation, and his idea was soon copied by companies who applied for satellite uplinks to distribute other stations, including WGN-TV (channel 9) in Chicago, Illinois.
One key legal point is that Turner's contracts with content providers charged him for content as if his station were reaching only a local market. No one had thought of adding contract language to deal with satellite broadcast to a much larger market. This terrestrial loophole was eventually closed, so other local stations that could get a satellite spot were charged appropriately. American copyright law requires pay television providers that carry superstations or other out-of-market television stations to make royalty payments to the United States Copyright Office under compulsory license retransmission provisions.
Much of the appeal that these superstations had with viewers came from the national carriage of games involving sports teams that the stations held rights to, such as WTCG/WTBS's carriage of the Atlanta Hawks and Braves, and WGN-TV's broadcasts of games featuring the Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bulls.
The distribution of these superstations eventually caused conflict between these stations and providers of similar, or identical, programming in local markets. TBS, the successor to WTCG, eventually gave up its status as a superstation and became a regular cable television channel (outside of Atlanta) in October 2007. The FCC placed tight restrictions on the remaining superstations (excluding WGN America), allowing no new ones and limiting the distribution of the five grandfathered stations to rural areas without distributors of similar programming. Many of the intrastate superstations eventually let their carriage on out-of-market cable providers expire due to contractual restrictions resulting from them becoming affiliated with UPN and The WB, or becoming affiliates of the Big Four networks after network shuffles in their markets during the mid-1990s.
WWOR, although it never formally gave up its superstation status, stopped distributing a national feed when Advance Entertainment Corporation (which had acquired the satellite distribution rights to WWOR and WSBK-TV from Eastern Microwave Inc. in 1996) sold the satellite transponder slot that carried the station's WWOR EMI Service feed to Discovery Communications, which used the slot to expand coverage of Animal Planet on January 1, 1997. After outcry from satellite dish owners, the National Programming Service uplinked to the station's New York City area feed less than one week later, exclusively for distribution by satellite providers; that one would be discontinued in 1999. WWOR is currently (as of 2014) only available nationwide on Dish Network, and in that case only in areas where no local MyNetworkTV affiliate is available.
The remaining "true" superstations
In addition to WGN-TV, the five remaining true superstations – MyNetworkTV affiliates WSBK-TV (channel 38) in Boston, Massachusetts and WWOR-TV (channel 9) in Secaucus, New Jersey (part of the New York metropolitan area), and CW affiliates WPIX (channel 11) in New York City, KWGN-TV (channel 2) in Denver, Colorado and KTLA (channel 5) in Los Angeles, California (the latter three of which are owned by the same company, Tribune Broadcasting) – are carried on some rural cable providers, and on the Dish Network direct broadcast satellite service. However, syndication exclusivity blackout requests have led Dish Network to stop selling one or more of the stations in some markets. Effective September 19, 2013, Dish stopped selling superstations outside of their home markets, only limiting them to those who were already subscribed to them at that point.
TBS Superstation is now simply known as TBS, and WTBS is now known as WPCH-TV and only available in and near the Atlanta market. WGN formerly branded itself as "Superstation WGN," but changed its name to "WGN America" in May 2008. While the FCC defines "superstation" as a term, it does not prohibit its use by others such as KYUR (channel 13) in Anchorage, Alaska, an affiliate of ABC and The CW that has a network of repeater stations in other parts of that state, which are collectively branded as "The Alaska SuperStation". Some Spanish language networks like Telemundo and Univision may only have one station in an entire state that serves the largest city in their market and is distributed statewide by cable providers; this is the case for Milwaukee Telemundo affiliate WYTU-LD (channel 63), which has statewide distribution through Wisconsin's major cable providers, Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, along with extended coverage on low-power stations in Rockford, Illinois and South Bend, Indiana, giving it coverage resembling a regional superstation, but not marketed as such. The term is used by many other television and radio stations, but none of these operations is a superstation as defined by the FCC.
Canada does not have any television stations that operate as "superstations" in the official sense of the term. Technically, almost every broadcast television station in Canada is a superstation, as almost all local television stations in that country – most commonly those that are owned-and-operated stations (along with a few affiliates) of CBC Television, CTV, CTV Two, City and Global and French language networks Ici Radio-Canada Télé, V and TVA – are carried nationally by one or both satellite providers (Bell TV and Shaw Direct), and any of these stations can be carried by any Canadian cable provider, at least on digital cable. The closest Canadian equivalent to the "superstation" model is an independent station (the number of which had grown to some extent with the 2009 demise of E!), and to some extent the television system. Moreover, Canadian providers are able to distribute American television stations in their digital package, regardless of whether or not they are licensed superstations.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Canadian Satellite Communications began distributing CHAN-TV (channel 8) from Vancouver, British Columbia, CITV-TV (channel 13) from Edmonton, Alberta, and CHCH-TV (channel 11) from Hamilton, Ontario, primarily for distribution by smaller cable systems throughout Canada. Coincidentally, these stations were, like Cancom, owned (or later acquired) by Western International Communications. As a result of their early availability, which predated most Canadian specialty channels, these stations (the first two are now owned by Shaw Media, the latter by Channel Zero) continue to have a superstation-type status on analog cable in many smaller Canadian communities, and in the United States along border-area cable systems (such as Buffalo/Niagara Falls, New York, Burlington, Vermont and Bellingham, Washington).
Presently, both the aforementioned CHCH and CJON-TV (channel 21) in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador use slogans referring to each as a "superstation" (the stations have no formal network affiliation, although CJON carries news and entertainment programming from Global and news programming from CTV). However, once again, neither station has any special regulatory status at present conferring that title.
Canadian subscribers to premium movie channels The Movie Network and/or The Movie Network Encore, Movie Central or Super Channel also receive several major U.S. superstations like WGN-TV, KTLA and WPIX, depending on their cable provider. TBS was removed from the Canadian market when it became a cable-exclusive channel in the U.S., as this would have required approval by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to be carried on Canadian cable providers. However, it has been replaced with WPCH-TV, the former Atlanta feed of TBS.
Much like Canada, Mexico has almost all its television stations available on satellite and carried on select Mexican cable providers. And just like Canada, Mexican providers can obtain American television stations in their digital package, even if they are not licensed superstations.
Radio stations in North America are permitted to uplink to satellite. Nashville, Tennessee's WSM received a lot of attention in the 1980s as it was delivered via C-band alongside The Nashville Network. Very few stations actually distribute themselves through C-band, as there is not much reason to do so and the station's audio can be dialed in through either ISDN lines, or listened to via an audio stream over the internet (if the station offers such). Ones that do, like Boston's WEEI, often do so to feed their station to others which simulcast it. This is the case with several stations in Mexico, as radio broadcasting in that country is very nationalized and most local stations are merely 24-hour-a-day affiliates of a national network.
Some local radio stations are, or have been distributed on satellite radio throughout the United States, and Canada in select cases. Stations once distributed on satellite radio include WLTW/New York City, KHMX/Houston, KIIS-FM/Los Angeles, KNEW/San Francisco, WTKS-FM/Orlando, WLW/Cincinnati and WSIX-FM/Nashville on XM Satellite Radio, and WSM on Sirius Satellite Radio. XM, in particular, used superstations owned by Clear Channel Communications for much of its early programming, and still had two superstations from Clear Channel as recently as late 2008 (talk radio station WLW and country music station WSIX); both of those have been dropped as of March 2009. WSIX, KIIS and WLTW returned to the now-merged Sirius XM lineup in June 2011, along with new additions WHTZ/New York City and WGCI/Chicago. KDIS will convert to superstation status in 2014; the station, the flagship of Radio Disney, is set to become the only terrestrial broadcaster of the network as the station's remaining affiliates are either sold or shut down.
Two other stations, both of them specialty stations, are currently distributed on satellite radio; these are Bloomberg Radio affiliate WBBR in New York City and C-SPAN Radio station WCSP-FM in Washington D.C. Most of WBBR's programming is also syndicated terrestrially to other stations through United Stations Radio Networks; as of 2011, it is the only terrestrial superstation (KPIG-FM ended its terrestrial syndication deal with Dial Global in 2010).
CBS Radio has begun using HD Radio technology to introduce its major market stations to other markets. For instance, KFRG in San Bernardino is carried on KTWV-HD3 in Los Angeles, KSCF in San Diego is heard on KAMP-HD2 in Los Angeles, WBZ-FM in Boston is heard on WTIC-HD3 in Hartford, KROQ-FM in Los Angeles is heard on KSCF-HD2 in San Diego and an affiliate in New York City which is yet to be determined (likely current K-Rock WXRK-HD2), and WFAN in New York City is simulcast on three affiliates in Florida (WOCL-HD3 in Orlando, WLLD-HD3 in Tampa, and WEAT-HD3 in West Palm Beach).
In many of these cases where stations are distributed outside of their market area, some concessions are made, such as the original local advertising being replaced with either national advertising or a bed of production music which plays over commercial breaks. Also in the example of WFAN, that station's play-by-play coverage of the New York Mets and Giants, the New Jersey Devils and the Brooklyn Nets is not carried on the Florida HD Radio affiliates and replaced with alternate programming, as the station only has rights to broadcast the programming in the New York metropolitan area.
List of superstations
|Originating city of license/market||Station||Owner||Affiliation||Superstation
|Atlanta, Georgia||WPCH-TV 17||Turner Broadcasting System
(operated under local marketing agreement by the Meredith Corporation)
|Independent||1976||The signal of what was then WTCG was began to be carried on cable in Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina in the early 1970s; it was uplinked to satellite in December 1976, becoming the first designated national superstation, and was carried on cable systems in all 50 states by 1978. A separate feed of the station – whose callsign had became WTBS by that point – for cable providers outside of the Atlanta market was launched in 1981, featuring national advertising (program substitutions were very limited, as WTBS licensed the vast majority of its programming for broadcast both within and outside of the Atlanta market). The national TBS feed became a conventional cable channel in October 2007, following WTBS' callsign change to WPCH and rebranding as "Peachtree TV".
WPCH remains available in Canada as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission had only approved the Atlanta broadcast station signal, and not the TBS cable feed, to be carried on domestic cable and satellite providers.
|Boston, Massachusetts||WSBK-TV 38||CBS Television Stations
|MyNetworkTV||1970s||Was carried as a national superstation until it reduced its national cable coverage in the mid-1990s.
The station is currently distributed through select cable providers in the New England region of the United States, through Dish Network in the U.S. and on most Canadian cable and satellite providers.
|Chicago, Illinois||WGN-TV 9||Tribune Broadcasting
(CW programs not available on the WGN America feed, but are carried through the Chicago area signal in Canada)
|1978||The Chicago area signal was distributed in much of the U.S. until January 1990, when an alternate feed (branded as WGN America since 2008) with separate national advertisements and program substitutions for shows not cleared to air nationally due to Syndex claims was launched. The schedules of WGN-TV and the national feed were largely identical for much of the 1990s (from that network's January 1995 launch until October 1999, the national feed even carried programming from The WB, with whom WGN-TV served as a charter affiliate from 1995 to 2006); programming on WGN's national and local feeds have become increasingly disparate since then. As of 2013, WGN-TV programs that are cleared for national carriage by WGN America consist of a limited amount of locally produced newscasts (currently the first hour of WGN-TV's weekday morning newscast and the second hour of its midday newscast; a simulcast of the 9 p.m. (Central Time) newscast ran until February 2014, two months before the premiere of the network's first original series Salem, with the 4 a.m. (Central) hour of the WGN Morning News being added to fulfill internal contractual obligations) and syndicated programs, televised games from the Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bulls (with select Bulls games and all Blackhawks games televised by WGN-TV restricted from airing outside the Chicago market by the NBA and NHL), public affairs programs, occasional specials and certain movies.
WGN America is the only nationally distributed superstation remaining in the U.S. since the split of WPCH and TBS; it is available on most U.S. and select Canadian cable providers, Dish Network and DirecTV, and is particularly widespread in the Midwestern United States. Because of higher carriage fees for distributing the national feed, Shaw Broadcast Services replaced it with WGN's Chicago area signal in 2007; that feed is available on most other Canadian cable and satellite providers. Since the early 2010s, WGN America, like TBS, has been transitioning to a conventional cable channel, phasing out its local news and sports programming.
|Denver, Colorado||KWGN-TV 2||Tribune Broadcasting
|The CW||1960s||At its peak, the station was available on cable providers throughout Colorado's Western Slope, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The station is currently distributed through select cable providers in the Rocky Mountain region of the western United States, and on Dish Network in the U.S. Despite being among the U.S. superstations authorized for distribution by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, KWGN is not currently available on cable and satellite providers within Canada.
|Los Angeles, California||KTLA 5||Tribune Broadcasting
|The CW||1970s||At its peak, the station was available on cable providers throughout much of the western half of the United States.
The station is currently distributed through select cable providers in the Southwestern U.S., on Dish Network in the U.S. and on most Canadian cable and satellite providers.
|New York City, New York||WPIX 11||Tribune Broadcasting
|The CW||1978||Was originally available throughout the U.S., many cable providers outside of the New York City market that carried WPIX replaced it with the superstation feed of WGN-TV in the early 1990s.
The station is currently distributed through select cable providers in the Northeastern United States, on Dish Network in the U.S. and on most Canadian cable and satellite providers.
|San Juan, Puerto Rico||WAPA-TV 4||InterMedia Partners (73%)
Azteca Acquisition Corporation (27%)
|Independent||1999||National feed is branded as WAPA America and is available through select cable providers, and on Dish Network and DirecTV in the U.S.|
|WKAQ-TV 2||NBCUniversal||Telemundo||1970s||National feed is branded as Telemundo Puerto Rico and is available through select cable providers, and on Dish Network and DirecTV in the U.S.|
|Secaucus, New Jersey
(New York City)
|WWOR-TV 9||Fox Television Stations
(21st Century Fox)
|MyNetworkTV||1965||Was distributed on cable via microwave relay throughout much of the Northeastern United States beginning in 1965, and uplinked via satellite in April 1979 to cable and C-band satellite providers throughout the remainder of the country. WWOR's national feed (known as the WWOR EMI Service) began substituting programs not cleared to air nationally due to Syndex claims in January 1990; the WWOR EMI Service was discontinued on January 1, 1997, with Advance Entertainment Corporation (which acquired the satellite distribution rights from original uplinker Eastern Microwave, Inc. the previous year) turning over WWOR's satellite transponder slot to Animal Planet. National Programming Service, LLC uplinked the station's New York City area broadcast signal on another transponder less than a week later for satellite providers, before the feed was displaced by Pax TV (now Ion Television) in 1999.
WWOR's Secaucus/New York City area feed is currently distributed through Dish Network in the U.S. and on select Canadian cable and satellite providers.
|Originating city of license/market||Station||Superstation from||Availability||Status|
|Dallas, Texas||KTVT 11||1970s–1995||Was carried regionally on cable across the Midwestern and South Central United States; KTVT lost its superstation status after becoming a CBS affiliate in July 1995.||CBS owned-and-operated station owned by the CBS Television Stations division of CBS Corporation|
|Houston, Texas||KIAH 39||early–late 1980s||Was carried regionally on cable across portions of the South Central United States, before it gave up superstation status.||CW affiliate owned by the Tribune Company|
|Kansas City, Missouri||KSHB-TV 41||1976–1986||Was carried regionally on cable across Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma; KSHB-TV lost its superstation status upon becoming a Fox affiliate in October 1986.||NBC affiliate owned by the E. W. Scripps Company|
|Milwaukee, Wisconsin||WVTV 18||1970s–1998||Was carried regionally on cable in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota; statewide coverage faded out over a period of five years upon becoming a WB affiliate in January 1998.||CW affiliate owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group|
|Minneapolis, Minnesota||KMSP-TV 9||1976–1986||Was carried regionally on cable across much of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin; KMSP lost its superstation status upon the start of its first tenure as a Fox affiliate in October 1986.||Fox owned-and-operated station owned by the Fox Television Stations division of 21st Century Fox|
|Phoenix, Arizona||KPHO-TV 5||1970s–1994||Was carried regionally on cable in much of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as parts of California, Nevada and Utah; KPHO lost its superstation status upon becoming a CBS affiliate in September 1994.||CBS affiliate owned by Meredith Corporation|
|San Francisco, California||KTVU 2||1976–1986||Was carried as a national superstation in the early 1980s, primarily on Cox Cable systems, before reducing its coverage to cable providers in portions of California, Nevada, Oregon and Utah; KTVU gave up its superstation status upon becoming a Fox affiliate in October 1986; the station later served as the West Coast Fox network feed on Primestar, thus regaining national availability for five years during the mid-to-late 1990s, until the satellite provider sold its assets (and effectively, transferred its subscriber base) to DirecTV in 1999.||Fox affiliate owned by Cox Media Group|
|Seattle, Washington||KSTW 11||1970s–1995||Was carried regionally on cable across much of Washington, as well as in northern Idaho and much of the Canadian province of British Columbia; KSTW lost its superstation status upon the start of its third tenure as a CBS affiliate in March 1995.||CW owned-and-operated station owned by the CBS Television Stations division of CBS Corporation|
|St. Louis, Missouri||KPLR-TV 11||1970s–late 1980s||Was carried regionally on cable across portions of Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas. KPLR lost its superstation status before becoming an affiliate of The WB in January 1995.||CW affiliate owned by the Tribune Company|
|Tampa, Florida||WTOG 44||1970s–1986||Was carried within the state of Florida on cable in portions of central and southwestern of the state; WTOG gave up its superstation status after becoming a Fox affiliate in October 1986.||CW owned-and-operated station owned by the CBS Television Stations division of CBS Corporation|
|Washington, D.C.||WDCA 20||1970s–1980s||Was carried regionally on cable across portions of the Eastern Seaboard; WDCA gave up its superstation status in the late 1980s.||MyNetworkTV owned-and-operated station owned by the Fox Television Stations division of 21st Century Fox|
- 47 CFR 76.120
- Title 37: Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights: PART 256—ADJUSTMENT OF ROYALTY FEE FOR CABLE COMPULSORY LICENSE
- Rate Adjustment for Satellite Carrier Compulsory License
- McConville, Jim. "N.Y.'s WWOR loses super status; satellite distributor discontinues service contract with television station", Broadcasting & Cable, January 6, 1997. Retrieved February 24, 2011 from HighBeam Research.
- Paikert, Charles. "Discovery dogs WWOR; Animal Planet gets leg up on Open Slots", Multichannel News, January 6, 1997. Retrieved February 24, 2011 from HighBeam Research.
- "WTBS to become Peachtree TV". Atlanta Business Chronicle (American City Business Journals, Inc). 2007-06-27. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
- Time Warner Takes Crucial Step Toward New Network Television: A pact with superstation WGN-TV gives it access to 73% of homes. Analysts say that will still leave gaps., Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1993. Retrieved 12-10-2010.
- "WGN news loses national platform". Robert Feder. 5 February 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2014.