No. of TV channels in Britain vs. US

How many TV stations can you receive in the US? Terrestrial analogue channels I mean, I’m not talking about cable/satellite/digital here. In Britain, there are now 5 terrestrial stations (“stations” rather than “channels”, to avoid confusion with the frequency channels of UHF), and even squeezing that fifth one in took a bit of doing. There is basically no room for any more.
But most Americans I encounter find it hilarious that there are only 5 terrestrial stations here, apparently “back home” most people can receive a lot more than 5 through their antenna. AFAIK the laws of physics are the same in Britain and America, so I imagine it is something to do with population density. But I need a sound technical explanation that I can use to shut these smug Yanks up.

Maybe part of it is that more frequencies are dedicated to television use in the US? Here, TV stations, in addition to broadcasting in the UHF band, also broadcast in the VHF band.

It depends where you are. If you’re close to a big city, you will have affiliates for the four major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox) within receiving distance. Note that these do not appear on the same channel in different geographical regions. Most of the individual broadcast stations are owned seperately from the networks and get paid to broadcast network content.

In the VHF band, there are 12 possible channels, (2-13) however, usually only five or six of those are used in a given market. In NYC, you’ve got:

2: CBS
4: NBC
5: Fox
7: ABC
9: UPN
11: WB
13: PBS (Not technically considered a network, as I learned in another thread…)

In addition, there is also the UHF band, which can carry a few dozen more channels. This band is usually sparsely populated with low-powered local stations that carry all variety of weird, mundane and sometimes interesting stuff.

The answer varies according to geography, but probably six or more on the average.

The typical Chicagoan has twelve stations at his disposal, 9 allocated to the DMA proper and 3 that are allocated to other DMAs within the same metropolitan area (i.e., a radius of 50 miles). Milwaukee is 100 miles from Chicago, a much smaller DMA with 6 stations of its own, though no doubt within the metropolitan area of an adjacent DMA.

Some cities, such as Kenosha WI, are too small to constitute a DMA of their own, but due to its geography – just a few miles north of the Illinois border – it lies smack between Chicago and Milwaukee and receives more than a dozen channels due the overlap.

Milwaukee, WI (33rd largest DMA)

04 - WTMJ - NBC
06 - WITI - FOX
10 - WMVS - PBS
12 - WISN - ABC
36 - WMVT - PBS
58 - WDJT - CBS

Chicago, IL (3rd largest DMA)

02 - WBBM - CBS[1]
05 - WMAQ - NBC[1]
06 - WLS - ABC[1]
09 - WGN - Independent; Superstation[2] / WB
11 - WTTW - PBS
26 - WCIU - Independent
32 - WFLD - FOX[1]
38 - WCFC - Independent / CBN (religious)
44 - WSNS - Independent / Univision (Spanish)
50 - WPWR - Independent[3] / UPN : Gary,IN
60 - WXFT - Independent[3] : Aurora, IL
66 - WGBO - Independent[3] : Joliet, IL

See Designated Market Areas for a list of US markets sorted by rank, and Television Comes to Chicago for a history of the local broadcast industry.

[1] Network owned and operated station.
[2] A “Superstation” is a local independent station distributed nationally via cable; compare WTBS (Atlanta), WOR (New York).
[3] These stations are allocated to other markets but broadcast primarily to the Chicago metropolitan area.

The short answer is that there are many more than 5. In many areas, the frequency channels 2-13 have stations on at least half the channels (either 3 or 4 will generally be left empty in a region, to leave space for your VCR or other equipment to modulate), plus there are more stations (usually smaller, local stations) on the “UHF” channels. I’d guess 10 to 20 stations is typical in a populated area.

An interesting thing for americans to note is that when british people say they only have 5 channels, that really means they have 5 stations (as indicated in the OP). They still have something on the order of 70 channels just like we do (although the frequency spacing is slightly different), but the idea is that there are only programs on 5 of those channels, and which 5 frequencies they’re on varies from area to area. You program your TV to know that “channel 3” is really tuning to the frequency we’d call “channel 37” or whatever. So from the user’s perspective, you don’t turn to channel 37, you turn to channel 3. Hence the idea that there are only 5 channels.

For the UK folks, it’s slightly less simplified in the US. You have to remember that when you’re in San Jose, NBC is channel 4, whereas in Los Angeles, NBC might be channel 7. Also, there is often more than one NBC in a given area. In the southern SF Bay area, for example, channel 4 is a strong NBC signal, and channel 8 is another NBC signal coming from further down the coast – a smaller station which carries the major NBC shows, but also lots of more local programming.

To prevent terrestrial stations from interfering with each other in the U.S., our Federal Communications Commission generally requires that stations operating on the same frequency be about 250 miles apart, and stations operating on adjacent frequencies be about 125 miles apart (the distances are closer for UHF stations, and there are 70 UHF frequencies, compared to 12 VHF frequencies.) That means basically that there can be stations operating on a given channel in, say, New York, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Chicago or Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and so on, with stations on the adjacent channel in Philadelphia, Cleveland and so on.

The FCC originally allocated frequencies so that large cities would have more VHF stations than small cities, but every place in the U.S. would be able to receive at least one VHF station.

Your American friends are thinking about the number of stations in their own home city, but forgetting that England is a much smaller country. I don’t have a map of Europe handy, and my knowledge of geography is a little shaky, but isn’t EVERY place in England within 250 miles of everywhere else? In fact, aren’t Paris and Amsterdam only about 250 miles from London?

So England only has five VHF stations because that’s about all you can fit into your country, and other western European countries get to have some, too.

What I meant to say here is that channel 3 or 4 will be left empty, not 3 or 4 channels.

Broadcast channels are allocated by the Federal Communications Commission by geographical areas. The country is divided up into television broadcast markets and the number of channels is allocated according to the population. The assigned channels are kept apart on the spectrum as well as apart from those of neighbouring television markets.

The basic unit of broadcast television is the local station. Each local station is assigned a channel and it is associated with a license that is given to a private entity. The licensee is subject to a number of obligations, principally that its purpose is to serve the local geographic area. Most stations are owned by large media companies, some of which also own one of the networks.

Note that a local station’s “real name” is its call letters, a four-letter sequence that starts with “W” in the east or “K” in the west. Some older stations still have three-letter call letters.

A medium-sized market, like Dayton, Ohio, has about six local stations —

Channel 2 - WDTN - ABC
Channel 7 - WHIO - CBS
Channel 16 - WPTD - PBS
Channel 22 - WKEF - NBC
Channel 26 - WBDT - WB/Pax
Channel 40 - WRCX-LP - Independent
Channel 45 - WRGT - Fox

Some of the stations are “low-power” stations, which have a smaller broadcast reach and are meant to serve specialised audiences. Several stations have also been assigned additional channels for the switchover to digital broadcasting.

Cable systems usually preserve the channel assignments for the low-number stations, but shuffle around the higher-numbered channels.

Note that no local station is obligated to be affiliated with a network, but network programming usually gets better viewership than syndicated programming, which is sold on a station-by-station basis.

Syndicated programmes, therefore, might be broadcast on an ABC affiliate in one market and and indpendent (unaffiliated) station in another market. Most syndicated programmes are old shows that have already been shown on one of the networks. Older episodes of a show that is currently a network show can be syndicated, so a particular programme can be a network show (original run) and a syndicated show (repeats) at the same time.

Each market is also assigned at least one educational station. These licenses require the licensee to be a not-for-profit company and ban commercial advertising on the station (although they do allow “underwriting spots,” which can sometimes be little different from advertisements). Educational stations get most of their operating budget in the form of voluntary contributions from viewers (“members”) and usually carry PBS programming, if they can afford it.

The largest number of educational stations is owned by state governments. The next type is those licensed to universities (usually state universities) and some school districts. The smallest group of stations are “community stations,” which are licensed to independent not-for-profit corporations whose sole business is to run the local educational station.

Before the BBC started its own cable channel in the United States, PBS relied heavily on imported programming from England. The joke was that PBS (the “Public Broadcasting System”) really stood for “Primarily British Shows.” Even now, many educational stations carry a lot of British shows.

Gets really interesting in border cities. In Buffalo, with a decent antenna, the terrestrial channel selection looks something like this.

2 - WGRZ/NBC (Buffalo)
4 - WIVB/CBS (Buffalo)
5 - CBLT/CBC (Toronto)
7 - WKBW/ABC (Buffalo)
9 - CFTO/CTV (Toronto)
11 - CHCH/Ind (Hamilton)
17 - WNED/PBS (Buffalo)
19 - CICA/TVO (Toronto)
23 - WNLO/Ind (Buffalo)
25 - CBLFT/R-C (Toronto)
29 - WUTV/Fox (Buffalo)
47 - CITY/Ind (Toronto)
49 - WNYO/ (Buffalo)
51 - WPXJ/PAX (Buffalo)
67 - WNGS/ (Buffalo

Slight correction here. There are no VHF TV channels now operating here in the UK. The old VHF frequencies ( Band 1 and Band 3 ) were closed down and re-allocated for other uses ( mainly mobile radio ) when the old black and white , 405 line service closed down at least 15 years ago. Band 2 is still in use for FM radio . The Government also wants to sell off parts of the UHF band to cell-phone companies by 2010. They hope to achieve this by moving everybody over to digital TV.

Can’t offer a technical reason but the fact is that all UK broadcasting should be digital by 2010 - slight set back this year but it’s still, broadly, on target. Official Goverment policy, etc…

Not exactly a great time to be investing in analogue broacasting.

Just to add something. There’s actually 6 stations in the UK. Channel 6 is something called the Oxford Channel and can only be picked up around oxfordshire.

Thanks for the replies. I didn’t realise you could broadcast colour TV on VHF, I wonder why we never did. And how come Oxfordshire gets its own TV station?

In the US, the VHF band is divided into twelve channels numbered 2 to 13, and the UHV into 70 channels numbered 14 to 83.

How many stations one can receive is (as many above explained) dependent on where you’re located, and the power of your receiver.

Sorry, I meant the UHF is divided into 70 channels.

I thought I understood the question in the OP, but now I’m thoroughly confused.

Did Usram mean that there were only five television stations (what we would call channels) in Britain, or is it that there are only five SOURCES of television programs (what we would call networks)?

And do these sources of television programs broadcast the same programs simultaneously on different frequencies with transmitting stations throughout the island (what we would call network affiliates)?

In the UK, radio and TV spectrums are over-allocated to the BBC, which swamps the airwaves with signals aimed at every tiny hamlet around. Half or more of the available channels are dedicated to duplicating other channels to ensure the 5% of the population living in the sticks get the same range of stations as the 95% in the cities. The city dwellers therefore get a smaller range of stations, which suits the BBC fine. Sweep the FM radio next time you’re in the UK, and you’ll get the same BBC stations over and over. It’s their way of getting commercial stations out of the way. Anywhere else in the world, your average city would have 10 or 20 commercial radio stations. In the UK, it’s 2 or 3. This is called “public service”.

Actually, its now 56 UHF channels, numbered 14 to 69. About 15 years ago the Federal Communications Commission deleted the 14 over-the-air UHF channels above channel 69, and reassigned the spectrum space to things like Cellular Wireless. So, in addition to his classic Why isn’t there a Channel One on TV?, Cecil might want to add a “What ever happened to channels 70 to 83?” update.

kunilou, I meant 5 networks. One of them, ITV, is divided into regional affiliates, but with only minor differences in their schedules, and none at all during peak hours. BBC1 has regional news programmes and some different scheduling in Scotland/Wales/NI, but otherwise shows the same stuff everywhere.

Just chiming in to add that it really does boil down to geography. Where I grew up, we only received 3 stations. If we had lived a few hours to the northwest, we’d have only gotten one. This was, for the record, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I assume the situation was even worse in truly remote areas of the US, like Alaska.