In the early days of broadcasting, most large media markets had, by standards of the period, a large number of television stations. Generally, these markets had three VHF stations that were respectively 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 City, Los Angeles and 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 schedules. Smaller media markets, however, often had only the basic three network-affiliated stations.
Cable television providers in smaller municipalities and rural areas sought a foothold by "importing" signals from larger nearby or distant cities for their customers. Anxious for more viewers, the stations assisted by relaying their signals by wire or microwave transmission to these towns. These stations, especially independents that were 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.
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). WTCG, which had already been distributed via microwave to cable systems in much of the Southeastern United States, became the first national superstation; Turner's idea was soon copied by companies who applied for satellite uplinks to distribute other independent stations, including WGN-TV (channel 9) in Chicago, Illinois.
One key legal point is that Turner's contracts with content providers charged him for programming content as if his station were reaching only a local market. No one had thought of adding contract language to deal with satellite broadcasts of a television station to a much larger market. This terrestrial loophole was eventually closed, so other local stations that could get a satellite transponder 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 to viewers these superstations had came from the national carriage of games involving sports teams that the stations held broadcast rights to in their home markets, such as WTCG/WTBS's carriage of the Atlanta Hawks and Braves, and WGN-TV's broadcasts of sporting events featuring the Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bulls.
The distribution of these superstations eventually caused conflicts between these stations and providers of similar, or identical, programming in local markets. In 1989, the Federal Communications Commission drafted the Syndication Exclusivity Rules (or "SyndEx") to resolve some of these conflicts; the law requires cable providers to black out any syndicated programs carried on out-of-market stations if a television station exclusively holds the local broadcast rights to a particular program, even if the out-of-market station has the same owner as the station with that particular exclusive program.
After the SyndEx rules became law, some nationally distributed superstations (such as WGN-TV and WWOR-TV) decided to launch separate feeds on January 1, 1990, to avoid potential blackouts. These also ran separate national advertising. WTBS effectively limited the number of necessary substitutions by licensing the majority of its programming for carriage on both its national and Atlanta area feeds (certain local programs carried by the station, such as public affairs and educational children's programs, were not carried on the TBS national feed, but these omissions were generally not because of market exclusivity claims). The uplinkers of WGN and WWOR opted to instead devise alternate schedules with a mix of programs aired by the parent station that were not subject to market exclusivity claims, and substituted programs seen only on the national cable feed. Sports programming on the nationally distributed stations was sometimes replaced with other programming due to broadcast rights restrictions imposed by the major professional sports leagues on the number of game telecasts that the stations could air outside of their local markets on an annual basis (this particularly affected WGN-TV, whose national feed was not able to carry select Bulls, White Sox and Cubs and, from 2008 onward, any Chicago Blackhawks games; in the cases of WGN, WWOR and WPIX, which each had news departments, regularly scheduled newscasts often were subjected to substitutions if a sports event – particularly one shown during prime time – was preempted).
The FCC placed tight restrictions on the remaining superstations (excluding the WGN national feed), 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 agreements with out-of-market cable providers expire due to contractual restrictions resulting from them becoming affiliates of either UPN, The WB or, after network shuffles in their markets, one of the Big Four networks during the mid-1990s. Incidentally, Paramount Television (which operated the network in a joint venture with WWOR's owner at the time, Chris-Craft Industries) used a syndication exclusivity claim to prevent the WWOR EMI Service from carrying programming from UPN when it launched in January 1995, which had the side effect of preventing that network's programming from reaching markets where no affiliate was initially present. The WB, in contrast, allowed WGN (whose corporate parent, the Tribune Company, held minority ownership in the network) to carry its programming from that network's January 1995 launch until October 1999, when the network's national affiliate coverage was considered sufficient enough for the superstation feed to stop carrying it. The regional superstations carried on direct broadcast satellite and C-Band providers were not subject to SyndEx claims, so for the most part, satellite viewers saw all programming seen on the local broadcast signals of these stations.
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 its 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; the NPS feed would be discontinued in 1999. WWOR is currently (as of 2014) only available nationwide on Dish Network, in areas where no local MyNetworkTV affiliate is available.
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 City television market), 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 are owned by the same company, Tribune Broadcasting, which is also the owner of WGN-TV) – are carried on some rural cable providers, C-Band providers and on the Dish Network satellite service. However, syndication exclusivity blackout requests led Dish Network to stop selling one or more of the stations in some markets in recent years. Dish stopped selling all five true superstations outside of their home markets on September 19, 2013, limiting their distribution to customers who were already subscribed to the a la carte tier at that point.
TBS, the successor to WTCG, eventually gave up its status as a superstation and became a conventional cable channel (outside of Atlanta) in October 2007; its former parent station, WTBS, is now known as WPCH-TV and in the United States, is only available in and near the Atlanta market as well as in Canada. WGN's national feed was formerly branded as Superstation WGN from November 2002 until May 2008, when it changed its name to WGN America. WGN also decided to give up its status as a superstation (in the United States) and formally began a conversion into a basic cable network on December 16, 2014, when its first deals with cable providers to move the channel from limited to expanded basic tiers went into effect. However, WGN-TV suddenly regained its superstation status as the Chicago area feed was included as part of the initial offerings of Channel Master's LinearTV service, which launched in the spring of 2015.
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 and it used solely for marketing purposes.
Canada does not have any television stations that operate as "superstations" in the official sense of the term. Technically, virtually 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!, although some have affiliated with other systems and networks), 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 (Cancom) 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. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which maintains a list of foreign television channels that it has approved for distribution, authorizes most U.S. superstations for domestic pay television providers – although KWGN-TV is the only one of the CRTC-approved superstations that has no cable or satellite carriage in Canada. 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 CRTC to be carried on Canadian cable providers. However, it has been replaced with WPCH-TV, the former Atlanta feed of TBS; as such, WPCH is one of only two superstations eligible under the Commission's foreign distribution list (along with WGN-TV since December 2014) that is no longer distributed in the United States as a regional or national superstation.
Much as is the case in Canada, almost all of the television stations in Mexico are available on satellite and carried on select cable providers within the country. Like in Canada, Mexican providers can obtain carriage of American television stations (especially those located in U.S. television markets that border Mexico) on their digital tiers, even if they are not licensed superstations.
Radio stations in North America are permitted to uplink to satellite. WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, 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 WEEI in Boston, often do so to feed their station to others that simulcast the programming. 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 were dropped by 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-FM Chicago.
Three other stations, all of them specialty stations, are currently distributed on satellite radio; these are Bloomberg Radio affiliate WBBR in New York City, Brigham Young University station KBYR-HD2 from Provo, Utah, 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 (KPIG-FM ended its terrestrial syndication deal with Dial Global in 2010, making WBBR the only terrestrial superstation on U.S. radio). KDIS in Los Angeles converted to superstation status in 2014; this was the result of the station, which serves as the flagship of Radio Disney, becoming the only analog terrestrial broadcaster of the network as Radio Disney's remaining affiliates are either sold or shut down, to focus the network's efforts primarily on mobile distribution (Radio Disney began to return to HD Radio subchannels in 2016 through brokered programming arrangements, though with a drastically reduced affiliate base).
CBS Radio has also started 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 a yet-to be-determined affiliate in New York City (likely WXRK-HD2), and WFAN in New York City simulcasts on three affiliates in Florida (WOCL-HD3 in Orlando, WLLD-HD3 in Tampa, and WEAT-HD3 in West Palm Beach).
In many cases where radio stations distribute outside their home market, the local stations make some concessions, such as replacement of local advertisements with either national advertising or a bed of production music that 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.