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Ownership of our favorite television channels:
According to the Federal Communications Commission, as of September 2000, there were a total of 1,663 television licenses (and 12,717 radio licenses). The major networks all have their own television station groups which own TV stations in major markets.  For instance, A.B.C. owns 10 TV stations covering 24% of the nation.  This is only owned stations and does not include the affiliated A.B.C. television stations.  News Corporation operates 35 television stations, 25 of which transmit the Fox Television Network.  News Corporation also owns the satellite TV provider DirectTV.  CBS owns 39 television stations of which 21 are affiliated with the CBS Television Network.  CBS television network has over 200 affiliates.  Comcast Corporation, through NBC Universal, operates 10 TV stations and the network has more than 220 affiliates.
Of the hundreds of channels available through cable and satellite, the major cable channels and broadcast networks are owned by a handful of companies.  Let's take a look some of the most popular channels and which companies own them.
More detailed information is available at Columbia Journalism Review.
Broadcast Networks: (The information listed below is believed to be accurate and is current as of July 2012.)
A.B.C. Television Network
Walt Disney Company
CBS Television Network
CBS Corporation5
N.B.C. Television Network
Comcast through subsidiary NBC Universal
Fox Television Network
News Corporation
The CW Television Network7
CBS Corporation and Time Warner
Popular Cable Channels: 
(The information listed below is believed to be accurate and is current as of July 2012.)
A.B.C. Family Channel
Walt Disney Company
AMC (formally American Movie Classics)
Cablevision Systems through subsidiary Rainbow Media
Animal Planet
Discovery Communications, L.L.C.1
A&E (formally Arts and Entertainment)
A&E Television Networks4 (Disney and Hearst)
Black Entertainment Television (BET)
Comcast (through NBC Universal3)
Cartoon Network
Time Warner
C.M.T. (Country Music Television)
Comcast (through NBC Universal3)
C.N.N. (Cable News Network)
Time Warner
Comedy Central
(50% venture with Time Warner ended May 2003)
Discovery Channel
Discovery Communications, L.L.C.1
Disney Channel
Walt Disney Company
E! Entertainment Television
(acquired Walt Disney Company's approx. 40% interest in November 2006.)
Encore Move Channel
Liberty Media Corporation6
Walt Disney Company (80%) and Hearst Corporation (20%)
Food Network                                       
Fox News Channel
Scripps Networks Interactive, Inc.                         
News Corporation
FX Channel
News Corporation
Home Box Office (H.B.O.)
Time Warner
Headline News (C.N.N.)
Time Warner
History Channel
A&E Television Networks4 (Disney and Hearst)
Home Shopping Network
IAC/InterActive Corp (22% owned by Liberty Media Corp.6)
Learning Channel (TLC)
Discovery Communications, L.L.C.1
Walt Disney Co. (through A.B.C.2 ) and Hearst Corporation  (August 2009:  A&E Networks4 to acquire Lifetime Entertainment)
Comcast (through NBC Universal3)
Nickelodeon/Nick at Night
Liberty Media Corporation6 (98%)
Sci-Fi Channel
Comcast (through NBC Universal3)
Showtime Movie Channel
CBS Corporation5
Spike TV
Starz Movie Channel
Liberty Media Corporation6
Time Warner
Time Warner
Toon Disney
Walt Disney Company
Travel Channel
Scripps Networks Interactive (65%) and Cox Communications (deal announced Nov. 2009)
TV Land
USA Network
Comcast (through NBC Universal3)
1Discovery Communications is owned Cox Communications (cable company), Advance/Newhouse Communications and the C.E.O., John Hendricks. 
2A.B.C, American Broadcasting Company, is owned by the Walt Disney Company.
3NBC Universal is 80% owned by the General Electric Company.  G.E.'s purchase of Vivendi Universal's entertainment properties was announced October 8, 2003. The deal closed in May 2004. The deal included the Universal Pictures movie and television studio and stakes in five theme parks but Vivendi kept Universal Music, the world's number one music company.
Update July 2012:  Comcast announces sale of its stake in A&E Television to the other partners of A&E, Disney/ABC and Hearst Corporation.
4A&E Television Networks (37.5% owned by A.B.C.2, 25% owned by NBC Universal3, and 37.5% owned by Hearst Corporation).
Update July 2012: Comcast announces sale of its stake in A&E Television to the other partners of A&E, Disney/ABC and Hearst Corporation.
5On December 31, 2005, Viacom was split into two companies, Viacom, Inc. and CBS Corporation. The new Viacom retained the former company's cable operations, like MTV, and Paramount Studios.  The former Viacom's broadcast assets became CBS Corporation.  CBS Corp. includes the CBS Network, CBS Television Group, CBS Radio (formally Infinity Broadcasting), Simon & Schuster Books, cable asset Showtime Networks, and 50% of the C.W. Network launched in Fall 2006.  In June 2006, Paramount Parks was sold to theme park operator Cedar Fair.
Both Viacom and CBS are controlled by the privately held National Amusements, Incorporated.  Sumner Redstone is the Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of National Amusements and Mr. Redstone controls National Amusements.  In addition to controlling stakes in Viacom and CBS, National Amusements operates about 1,400 movie screens (Showcase Cinemas and Multiplex Cinemas) in the U.S., U.K.,. Chile, and Argentina.
6Liberty Media Corporation owns 100% of Starz/Encore Group pay movie channels, 67% of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, and 98% of QVC. Liberty also has stakes in major entertainment companies:  News Corporation, 18%; Time Warner, 4%; Viacom, less than 1%.  Source:  April 2004 Annual Report pages 11-15. Chairman of the Board, John C. Malone, owns 29% of the voting shares.
7In February 2006, CBS, owner of UPN, and Time Warner, owner of The WB Network, announced the two networks would merge in September 2006 to form a new broadcast network, the C.W. (C for CBS, W for Time Warner)..
When the merger of UPN and WB is complete, News Corp., with 10 UPN affiliated TV stations in major markets will have no network programming to air on these stations.  To develop programming, News Corporation will launch a new broadcast network called "My Network TV". Initially this network will consist of TV stations owned by News Corp. and will cover only 24% of the nation.  News will seek affiliates to carry the network's programming to eventually cover 90% of the market. The programming will consist of reality shows and soap operas, including English-language versions of Latin American soap operas.  A big difference for My Network TV will be new episodes of shows will run daily, rather than weekly as is typical on other broadcast networks.
Broadcast and Cable TV Channel Ownership

The word television comes from the Greek words, tele, meaning far, and vision, meaning see.  Work on television started in the 1800s but what we know as television did not begin until the 1920s.
  Television History and Cable Ownership
In 1950, consumers had choices but not to the degree we have today.  When buying a television set today, we must choose screen size, screen type (CRT/Tube, LCD, DLP, or Plasma), and even the definition (standard definition, enhanced definition (EDTV), high definition (HDTV)). Today, a 27" screen TV can be bought for a few hundred dollars. A 50" HDTV for under $3,000. For comparison, an RCA Victor, model TC167, television console TV set cost $399.95 (that's $3,336.10 in 2006 dollars!).

The 1950 RCA Victor model TC167 16" Console TV featured:

16-inch screen
built-in antenna
audio jack for phonograph
"aristocratic" cabinet
Price: $399.95 ($3,336.10 in 2006 dollars)
Listen to a March 31, 1950 radio advertisement for the RCA Victor TC167 TV set from the Screen Director's Playhouse episode "Dark Mirror":
Some notables "firsts" for television:

October 3, 1923
Charles Francis Jenkins transmitted pictures (not moving images) with 48 lines of resolution.

June 13, 1925
Charles Francis Jenkins transmitted synchronized sound and pictures.

General Electric broadcasted the first regularly scheduled programs in 1928 using 28 lines of resolution.

July 12, 1928
first televised tennis match

October 30, 1931
N.B.C. puts a TV transmitter atop the Empire State Building.

November 13, 1938
First telecast of an unscheduled event, a fire, on NBC's W2XBT

June 1, 1939
First heavyweight boxing match televised from Yankee Stadium (Max Baer versus Lou Nova).

September 3, 1940
C.B.S. broadcasts the first color signal from the Chrysler Building.

May 2, 1941
First commercial broadcast licenses granted by the F.C.C.

July 1, 1941
C.B.S. and N.B.C. both convert their New York experimental broadcast stations to commercial licenses.

January 6, 1942
F.C.C. grants DuMont Laboratories a commercial license.

October 2, 1946
DuMont network broadcasts the first TV network soap opera

C.B.S. and A.B.C. begin network programming.

December 17, 1953
C.B.S. broadcasts the first live color program at 6:15 p.m followed by N.B.C. at 6:30 p.m.
Please note:  The audio and video on this page require Windows Media Player and may take a moment to load.
The now defunct Radio Corporation of America (R.C.A.) produced the Story of Television in 1956.  The film provides R.C.A.'s version of the history of television and how it came to be but doesn't mention the contributions made by many individuals unaffiliated with R.C.A.  In 1931, atop the Empire State Building, R.C.A.'s subsidiary, N.B.C., started broadcasting from their experimental television station W2XBS.  At first, the signal was 60 scanning lines of display showing the station's call sign.  These lines were created using mechanical discs that were abandoned when electrical methods became available.  The film also has images of President Roosevelt opening the 1939 Chicago World's Fair, the visit from King and Queen of England, and the 1940 Republican Convention.  Animated scenes demonstrate how TV works.