Pay television, subscription television, premium television, or premium channels are subscription-based television services, usually provided by both analog and digital cable and satellite television, but also increasingly via digital terrestrial and internet television. Subscription television began in the multi-channel transition and transitioned into the post-network era. Some parts of the world, notably in France and the United States, have also offered encrypted analog terrestrial signals available for subscription.
Subscription-based or pay television has resulted in a change in what type of content is broadcast by these networks. This model has led to networks creating much more specialized types of shows to influence viewers to subscribe. Subscription networks are most concerned with providing content that will make people want to subscribe as well as renew subscriptions rather than who is watching and when this viewing is taking place.
Due to the unedited nature of premium services, it is typical for them to showcase programming that includes large amounts of profanity, sexual activity and nudity, graphic violence and other adult content (the inclusion of any such content depends on the program, as services may also include content that is at least partially, if not entirely, devoid of material that may be inappropriate for some viewers). To notify viewers of program content, most premium channels air advisory bumpers immediately before each program, mentioning the program's rating (this typically does not apply to live sporting events) and program content information. Since the 1990s, premium channels in the United States use content descriptors that describe potentially objectionable content included in the program, such as mild violence (identified as "MV") or strong sexual content (identified as "SSC"); additional features included in the television program such as closed captioning and surround sound functions, and alternate-language audio tracks via secondary audio program feeds may also be mentioned.
Movies comprise much of the programming content seen on most pay television services, particularly those with a general entertainment format and those that focus exclusively on films; films that are broadcast on most premium channels air in their original theatrically-released (and in some cases, unrated home video or DVD) versions; this is in comparison to films aired on terrestrial television or basic cable, which may be subject to edits for time and/or content, depending on what content a jurisdiction allows to be shown over-the-air or on basic cable. Many pay television services obtain rights to films through exclusive agreements with film distributors (this did not become the norm in the U.S. until the mid-1980s, as it would be common for the same film to be broadcast on unrelated pay services during its term of license); films acquired during the original term of license agreements with a distributor may also be broadcast as "sub-runs," in which a service holds rights to film long after the conclusion of a distribution agreement (under this arrangement, the pay service that originally licensed the rights to a particular film title, or one other than that which had held rights, may hold the broadcast rights through a library content deal).
Many general interest premium channels also produce original television series, which feature content that in some jurisdictions may be edgier – and therefore, often more risque – than such programs seen on broadcast networks; many of these series (such as HBO's The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and Showtime's Dexter) have gone on to achieve viewer, critical and accolade success, though they are subject to a lower audience ratings threshold to be considered a hit than programs on broadcast television because these channels are subscription-based and therefore only appear in a fraction of homes with at least one television set. Some premium channels also broadcast television specials, which most commonly consist of concert events, documentary films and stand-up comedy acts, and in the past, have also included theatrical plays.
Sports programming is also featured on some premium services, in particular HBO and Showtime in the United States are both notable for their carriage of boxing events, while Showtime and Epix also carry mixed martial arts events; some general interest premium channels have aired other professional sporting events in the past: HBO for example, has carried games from the National Hockey League (NHL), National Basketball Association (NBA) and American Basketball Association (ABA) in its early years and from 1975 to 1999, aired the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Specialty pay sports channels such as Setanta Sports and Fox Soccer Plus exist, and are typically sold at a higher expense than traditional premium services; out-of-market sports packages in North America are multi-channel pay services carrying professional or collegiate sporting events which are sold in a seasonal package – these are typically the most expensive type of pay services, generally running in the range of $35 to $50 per month.
Some pay services also offer pornographic films; a few mainstream services (such as Cinemax in the U.S. and The Movie Network's MExcess in Canada) carry a limited amount of softcore content during late night time periods. Specialized channels dedicated to pornographic films also exist that carry either softcore adult programs (such as Playboy TV) or more hardcore content (such as The Erotic Network and Hustler TV), these channels are often sold on a night-by-night basis similar to the pay-per-view model, even though they commonly operate as 24-hour channels.
Premium television services are commonly devoid of traditional commercial advertising, therefore programs on most pay television channels are uninterrupted by television commercials within the broadcast; instead, breaks are inserted between programs, which typically advertise promotions for upcoming programs and feature special behind-the-scenes interstitials (this is the main reason why most subscription television channels are able to run programs without any editing, as they are not subject to pressure from advertisers to tone down content); some sports-based pay services, however, may feature some commercial advertising, particularly if they simulcast sporting events that are broadcast by advertiser-supported television networks. In addition, most general interest or movie-based pay services do not adhere to the common top and bottom of the hour scheduling of other cable channels and terrestrial broadcasters. As such, programs often air using either conventional scheduling or have airtimes in five-minute increments (for example, 7:05 a.m. or 4:40 p.m.); since such channels broadcast content without in-program break interruptions, this sometimes leads to extended or abbreviated breaks between programs, depending on when the previous program concludes and when the start time of the next program is.
Pricing and packaging
Pay television channels come in different price ranges. Many channels carrying advertising combine this income with a lower subscription fee. These are called "mini-pay" channels (a term also used for smaller scale commercial-free pay television services) and are often sold as a part of a package with numerous similarly priced channels. Usually, however, the regular pricing for premium channels ranges from just under $10 to near $25 per month per suite, with lower prices available via bundling options with cable or satellite providers, or special limited offers which are available during free preview periods or before the launch of a network's prestige series. However, some other channels, such as sports and adult networks may ask for monthly pricing that may go as high as near $50 a month. There are also premium television services which are priced significantly higher than the mini-pay channels, but they compensate for their higher price by carrying little or no advertising and also providing a higher quality program output. As advertising sales are sensitive to the business cycle, some broadcasters try to balance them with more stable income from subscriptions.
Some providers offer channels owned by the same company in a single package. For example, American satellite provider DirecTV offers the Encore channels along with the Starz multiplex (both owned by Starz Inc.) in its "Starz Super Pack"; and The Movie Channel, Flix and SundanceTV (the latter of which continues to be sold in the DirecTV package despite Showtime Networks no longer owning Sundance, that channel is now owned by AMC Networks) along with Showtime in its "Showtime Unlimited" package; Cinemax and its multiplex networks, in turn, are almost always packaged with HBO (both owned by Time Warner). Many pay television services offer multiplex services that are also sold with the main channel, which broadcast a different schedule from that of the service's main channel and often use separate formats focused on genre-based programming (for example; one channel may feature family-oriented programming, another may feature action films) or programming aimed at a specific target audience. In Canada, HBO Canada is packaged with two separate pay services: The Movie Network and Movie Central (as the two services are territorially restricted by choice to respectively serve Eastern Canada and Western Canada; the owners of both channels, Bell Media and Corus Entertainment, each own the territorial rights to HBO Canada in their respective areas).
Though selling premium services that are related by ownership as a package is common, that may not always be the situation: for example, Canada's Family Channel was generally sold independently from The Movie Network and The Movie Network Encore while all were under common ownership (all three networks were owned by Astral Media until that company's 2013 merger with Bell Media; Family – which unlike the TMN channels, is distributed throughout the country – is now owned by DHX Media); The Movie Network Encore is also sold separately from The Movie Network (which spun off the channel in 1994 as TMN Moviepix) by some cable and satellite providers in Eastern Canada, though other providers offer both networks and their multiplex channels as a package. In the United States, Cinemax and Encore are optionally sold separately from or in a single package with their respective parent networks HBO and Starz, depending on the service provider. The Movie Channel and Flix meanwhile, are usually sold together with Showtime (all three channels are owned by CBS Corporation); though subscribers are required to purchase Showtime in order to receive Flix, The Movie Channel does not have such a restriction as a few providers optionally sell that service without requiring a Showtime subscription.
Unlike other cable networks, premium services are almost always subscribed to a la carte cable television, meaning that one can, for example, subscribe to HBO without subscribing to Showtime (in Canada, there are slight modifications, as most providers include U.S. superstations – such as WGN-TV, KTLA and WPCH-TV – with their main premium package by default). However, subscribing to an "individual" service automatically includes access to all of that service's available multiplex channels and, in some cases, access to content via video-on-demand (in the form of a conventional VOD television service, and in some cases, a companion on-demand streaming service as well). Most pay television providers also offer a selection of premium services (for example, the HBO, Showtime and Starz packages) in one bundle at a greatly reduced price than it would cost to purchase each service separately, as an inducement for subscribers to remain with their service provider or for others to induce subscribers into using their service. Similarly, many television providers offer general interest or movie-based premium channels at no additional charge for a trial period (often one to three months, though there have been rare instances of free trials for pay services that last up to one year) for newer subscribers to that provider's television service.
Pay television has become popular with cable and satellite television. Pay television services often, at least two to three times per year, provide free previews of their services, in order to court potential subscribers by allowing this wider audience to sample the service for a period of days or weeks; these are typically scheduled to showcase major special event programming, such as the pay cable premiere of a blockbuster feature film, the premiere (either a series or season premiere) of a widely anticipated or critically acclaimed original series or occasionally, a high-profile special (such as a concert).
Subscription services transmitted via analogue terrestrial television have also existed, to varying degrees of success. Canal+ operated a national analogue terrestrial pay channel in France from 1984 until the 2011 closedown of analogue television, when it transitioned to digital with the other terrestrial analogue channels. Its Spanish counterpart, Canal+ Spain, also broadcast nationally between 1990 and 2005. Some U.S. television stations launched pay services (known simply as "subscription television" services) such as SuperTV, Wometco Home Theater, PRISM (which principally operated as a cable service, only being simultaneously carried over-the-air for a short time during the 1980s, and unlike other general-interest pay services accepted outside advertising for broadcast during its sports telecasts), Preview, SelecTV and ONTV in the late 1970s, but those services disappeared as competition from cable television expanded during the 1980s.
In some countries, the launch of digital terrestrial television has meant that pay television has become increasingly popular in countries with regular antennas. Conversely, even as cordcutting by pay television subscribers due to price increases resulting from rising carriage fees and as the use of digital multicasting by terrestrial broadcasters has increased since the late 2000s, there have not been any attempts to launch new over-the-air pay services in North America.
In Australia, Foxtel, Optus Television and TransACT are the major pay television distributors, all of which provide cable services in some metropolitan areas, with Foxtel providing satellite service for all other areas where cable is not available. Austar formerly operated as a satellite pay service, until it merged with Foxtel and SelecTV. The major distributors of pay television in New Zealand are Sky Network Television on satellite and Vodafone on cable.
Since the late 2000s, internet video services which distribute original and acquired movies and television shows (including Netflix, Amazon Video and Hulu Plus) have become major competitors to pay television channels, offering very similar programming content. According to the UK Government website Gov.uk, Nick Markham's Top Up TV "was the first successful pay TV operator on digital terrestrial television in the world".
Pay-per-view (PPV) services are similar to subscription-based pay television services in that customers must pay to have the broadcast decrypted for viewing, but usually only entail a one-time payment for a single or time-limited viewing. Programs offered via pay-per-view are most often movies or sporting events, but may also include other events, such as concerts and even softcore adult programs. In the U.S., the initial concept and technology for pay-per-view for broadcast television was first developed in the early 1950s, including a crude decrypting of the over-the-air television signal and a decoding box, but never caught on for use at that time. It took another four decades when cable broadcasters started using pay-per-view on a widespread basis.
"Free" variants are free-to-air (FTA) and free-to-view (FTV); however, FTV services are normally encrypted and decryption cards either come as part of an initial subscription to a pay television bouquet – in other words, an offer of pay-TV channels – or can be purchased for a one-time cost. FTA and FTV systems may still have selective access. Australia Plus is one example, as much of its programming content is free-to-air except for National Rugby League (NRL) games, which are encrypted.