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In the United States, the term refers to the three commercial television systems CBS, NBC, and ABC. These networks, with local broadcast stations throughout the country, dominated television broadcasting from the 1950s through the 1980s. At their peak, at the end of the 1970s, they captured 90% of the television audience. Even in 2000, they had 50% of the television audience, despite competition from cable and satellite channels. Network stations broadcast their transmissions over the airwaves and so are theoretically accessible to any television receiver within their range, without the necessity of subscribing to a service.

From the start, the networks were financed by advertising. At first, this took the form of sponsorship of entire programs, with the advertisers controlling the content. This changed by the ...

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