How Do TV Networks Make Money?

The first television network to maintain regular service was launched by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in June 1947.  The NBC initially served New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, and Schenectady, with the network spreading west across the United States via interconnected partner stations. By 1951, there were four different networks in operation with most only broadcasting for a few hours each day. This number increased in the following years as television sets became more affordable for the average consumer. Today, television is a staple form of entertainment for billions of consumers around the world. This has attracted multiple and varied monetization strategies.

Revenue SourceDescriptionAdvantagesDrawbacksExamples
Advertising RevenueTV networks generate income by selling advertising slots during their programs. Advertisers pay networks to air commercials, and prices vary based on factors like viewership and airtime.– Significant revenue source – High visibility and reach for advertisers – Diverse advertising opportunities across various programs and time slots– Advertisements can disrupt viewer experience – Viewer ad fatigue and ad-skipping behaviors – Vulnerable to fluctuations in advertising demandNBC, CBS, ABC, Fox
Cable and Satellite FeesTV networks receive fees from cable and satellite providers for the right to include their channels in subscription packages. Networks negotiate carriage agreements with providers.– Consistent income from subscription fees – Broad distribution through cable and satellite providers – Potential for tiered packages and premium channels– Relying on third-party providers for distribution – Carriage disputes with providers can lead to channel blackouts – Cord-cutting trends impacting subscription revenueESPN, CNN, HBO, Discovery Channel
Subscription StreamingTV networks offer content through subscription streaming services, earning revenue from monthly subscription fees. Networks may also license their content to existing streaming platforms.– Recurring income from subscribers – Global reach and accessibility – Opportunities for original content production and licensing– Competition with established streaming giants – Initial investment in technology and content creation – Potential for content licensing disputes with streaming platformsDisney+ (Disney), HBO Max (WarnerMedia), Paramount+ (ViacomCBS)
Syndication and LicensingTV networks syndicate their content to local television stations, cable channels, or streaming platforms. They earn revenue through licensing agreements that grant others the right to broadcast their shows.– Additional income from content licensing – Exposure to wider audiences – Long-term revenue from successful shows– Balancing syndication without devaluing original airing – Licensing agreements may limit content availability on network-owned platforms – Competition with other content producers for syndication deals“Friends” (Warner Bros. Television), “The Simpsons” (Fox), “Law & Order: SVU” (NBCUniversal)
Product PlacementTV networks incorporate paid product placements within their shows or events. Advertisers pay for their products or brands to be featured prominently in the content.– Revenue generation without traditional ad slots – Integration into storytelling can enhance viewer engagement – Potential for unique and creative partnerships– Risk of viewers recognizing and disliking blatant product placements – Balancing the integration of placements with narrative or program content – Ethical considerations regarding transparency with viewers“American Idol” (Fox), “Stranger Things” (Netflix), “The Amazing Race” (CBS)
Home Entertainment SalesTV networks earn money from the sale of DVDs, Blu-rays, digital downloads, and merchandise related to their shows and programs. Fans purchase physical or digital copies of content.– Revenue from content sales and merchandise – Preservation of content for long-term sales – Opportunities for collectibles and limited editions– Physical media sales declining in the digital age – Competition with other forms of digital entertainment – Piracy and unauthorized distribution impacting sales“Game of Thrones” (HBO), “Breaking Bad” (AMC), “The Office” (NBCUniversal)
Event SponsorshipsTV networks secure sponsors for special events, such as sports broadcasts or award shows. Brands pay for naming rights, logo placement, and advertising during these high-profile events.– Significant income from event-specific sponsorships – High viewership and engagement during major events – Potential for multi-year sponsorship deals– Balancing sponsor integration without detracting from the event’s integrity – Viewer backlash if sponsorships are perceived as intrusive or excessive – Sponsors may pull out due to controversies or public relations issuesSuper Bowl (NFL), Olympic Games (NBC), Academy Awards (ABC)




Advertising is the primary way TV networks make money. Networks that do not create their own television shows instead purchase shows from producers that they believe will be popular.

Advertisers then pay the network for exposure to consumers during commercial breaks. In most cases, these commercial breaks run for a total of twenty minutes every hour. In Western markets, each consumer is worth about 23 cents per hour to the network in advertising revenue. To get an idea of potential revenue, consider that in the United States, the average consumer watches television for as much as 280 minutes per day.

Advertising revenue has been falling in recent years as consumers record television shows to watch later or download them on the internet.


Television networks also sell subscriptions to consumers. Cable networks like HBO offer access to exclusive content if the consumer is willing to pay for the privilege. Note that in most cases, the cable network still earns money from advertising revenue too.

Some cable providers use this revenue to develop content of their own to keep consumers subscribed. Though strictly not a television network, the subscription-based revenue model has also been used to great success by Netflix.


Like any brand, television networks can also make money selling merchandise from television shows where they are licensed to do so.

HBO operates an online Game of Thrones merchandise store where it sells sweaters, shirts, mugs, framed prints, and dragon eggs, among many other items. 

eCommerce sales have added an important additional revenue stream for TV networks, removing the middleman and allowing fans to interact with the network directly.


On occasion, the television network may accept sponsorship money from another brand to have its products featured during a show. This is another form of advertising known as product placement.

Cookie brand Oreo has an established partnership with the sitcom Modern Family and was also featured on Friends. AMC period drama Mad Men also advertised Heineken beer throughout its seven-season run.

Several sponsors may compete against each other to have their products featured, which maximizes profit for the TV network.

Key takeaways:

  • The first network to maintain a regular TV broadcast was the NBC in 1947, with the popularity of television entertainment spreading across the United States as televisions themselves became more affordable.
  • Television networks make money by selling advertising spots to brands looking for exposure to large audiences. Some also sell premium subscriptions in addition to advertising revenue.
  • Television networks that own the rights to certain content can sell branded merchandise through online stores. Many also sell sponsorships to brands that want their products featured in television shows.

Key Highlights

  • Early Television Networks: The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) launched the first television network with regular service in June 1947. Initially serving several cities, the network expanded across the United States through partner stations.
  • Network Proliferation: By 1951, four networks were operational, broadcasting for a few hours each day. With the decreasing cost of television sets, more networks emerged, and TV became a staple form of entertainment worldwide.
  • Advertising: Advertising is the primary revenue source for TV networks. Networks purchase popular shows from producers and earn revenue from advertisers who pay for exposure during commercial breaks. Commercial breaks typically run for around 20 minutes per hour.
    • Advertising revenue has declined due to viewers recording shows for later or watching online.
  • Subscriptions: TV networks sell subscriptions to consumers, offering access to exclusive content. Cable networks like HBO use this model. Some cable providers use subscription revenue to create original content and maintain viewer subscriptions. Streaming platforms like Netflix have also adopted this successful model.
  • Merchandise: TV networks can make money by selling merchandise related to their shows. HBO’s online Game of Thrones merchandise store is an example, selling items like clothing, mugs, and prints. eCommerce sales provide a direct revenue stream for networks.
  • Sponsorships: Networks may accept sponsorship money from brands for product placement during shows. Brands pay to have their products featured on-screen. Multiple sponsors might compete for placement, maximizing the network’s profit.

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