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The evolution of cable television

Post Author Take1 / May 1st 2015

The Evolution of Cable Television

It’s hard to imagine life without cable television. In the UK, it is commonly bundled into a subscription service for your phone line or broadband – a service that you’re expected to want. That’s because we are a nation of TV lovers, so the more the merrier. Plus, cable is often cheaper than satellite TV services like Sky.

So it remains a popular service.

But where did our beloved cable TV begin and how has it evolved?

In this blog, we’re going to take a brief look at the evolution of cable television.


You may be surprised to learn that the start of cable TV can be traced as far back as 1938. In this time wires were used to carry TV signals to homes in Bristol that were unable to receive transmission through the air. But those were cable TV’s primitive years. It wasn’t until the ‘60s that cable TV really became useful. By the late 1970s around two million British homes were enjoying cable TV, but it still had a way to go.

Fast forward 20 years.

Rediffusion Vision – the business that brought us cable in the ‘60s – renamed themselves Rediffusion Cablevision at the start of the 1980s and started supplementing their services with other channels like The Music Box, Sky Channel, and Screensport, giving viewers more options than ever.

The next few years would prove key to the growth of cable TV.

Next Generation Cable

In 1984 the first operator to be licensed under a new regime came about. That operator was Swindon Cable. The new regime would soon see cable franchises pop up around the UK at an astonishing rate. The Cable and Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications act now meant cable systems could carry as many new channels as they liked too, as well as being allowed to offer a telephone service, skyrocketing the services popularity.

The development of “broadband” cable, which was capable of supporting a 750MHz+ bandwidth, helped carry cable through into the mid 1990s, but competition had emerged, and cable TV found itself up against newer, more attractive TV technology.

Tough Competition

The next few years saw the small cable operators that had been licensed by the old Cable Authority – which had become ITC – taken up by bigger players in the industry. Cable had also come up against tough competition in the form of satellite TV and BSkyB.

Over the next few years there was a flurry of mergers. Big names in the industry bought up smaller franchises, over and over and over again. This eventually came to a head, leaving just two cable networks left to fight BSkyB and the satellite revolution.

Those two networks were NTL and Telewest.

One Last Merger

The next few years saw NTL and Telewest co-operate, but in 2005 it was announced the two companies, as predicted, were to merge. For a short while, the two were branded separately, just as they had been in the years previous. But following NTL’s acquisition of Virgin Mobile, they were joined together under the name Virgin Media in 2007.

This created one single cable operator that covered over 90% of the UK cable market.

They’re still going today.

There are however, a small percentage of cable television companies in the UK that aren’t part of NTL that still exist. These include WightCable (for the Isle of Wight), and Smallworld. But it’s predicted that these two will fall victim to the intense competition posed by Virgin and digital television services.

As for Virgin – well they’re facing the same problem any “traditional” TV system is facing – on-demand video. Services like Netlfix and Blinkbox are forcing their way into the industry allowing users to watch what they want, when they want it.

Only time will tell if cable can survive the next few years.

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