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Younger people believe that in the good old days, everyone watched the same TV shows, because there were not as many choices. They have heard that there were only four major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC & PBS) and only a smattering of cable channels. Their parents and grandparents all had to see the same TV shows. Right? Nope!
First off, not every area had access to television. Until the 80s, there were some areas that were served by dual affiliates or multi affilates. If there was one TV station in small market that was not served by another community with a TV station, that TV station might run The Today Show (NBC), followed by Sesame Street (PBS), followed by The Price Is Right (CBS), followed by General Hospital (ABC), etc. etc. Here in Springfield, Missouri, until the late 60s, there were only two TV stations. One was NBC and the other was CBS. They shared ABC's programming, until an ABC affiliate came along in the late 60s.
The other problem was local TV stations, especially in the early days of TV, would preempt the network shows for a first run syndicated program. Up until the mid 70s, a network show might still get plastered over by another program. Why? There were two reasons. According to a August 29, 1959 issue of TV Guide (posted above), it was the old standby excuse in broadcasting of money. Networks didn't offer very network avails for local ads, but at that time syndicated shows were all local avail slots just waiting for local sponsors to fill. I've seen large ads in old editions of the Springfield Daily News and Springfield Leader & Press advertising the syndicated series, State Trooper, on a local TV station with a local sponsor mentioned.
The second, can be explained in a modern analogy. These were the "hip cable shows" of their day. There was no network censors to dictate what could be shown. They also gathered buzz among the media and viewers alike to become more popular than the network fare they were replacing. This was in the early days of TV when the networks were scrambling for anything to fill the schedule (ABC was showing military training films weekly during the early 50s). You could say that Highway Patrol, Sea Hunt, COronado 9, Shotgun Slade, Science Fiction Theater, Case of the Curious Robin and The Liberace Show, were the Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead and Keeping Up With the Kardashians of their day.
There were some companies that specialized in syndication such a ZIV, the company behind Highway Patrol, Sea Hunt, and several others. ITC was a British company that sold British shows to American TV. Many of the early ITC programs were based on popular literary characters, such as Robin Hood, William Tell, Sir Lancelot, and The Invisible Man. One ITC program, The Saint starring Roger Moore, was so successful in syndication that NBC picked it up later in its run. One of ITC's biggest hits would be The Muppet Show in the 70s. The Adventures of Superman (produced by a company called Motion Pictures for Television) was picked up for Saturday mornings by ABC. In the 80s, NBC picked up SCTV for late night (locally it was preempted for Saturday Night Live reruns).
Desilu also syndicated some shows such as Sheriff of Cochise and The Whirlybirds. Universal TV was behind Shotgun Slade, the only Western to feature a jazz score.
The networks themselves got involved and almost cut their own throats in doing so. In 1954, NBC began syndicating reruns of Dragnet under the name Badge 714, while Dragnet was still on the air. In Springfield, it aired on BOTH TV stations. Later, CBS did the same with Gunsmoke and The Andy Griffith Show. They were changed into Marshal Dillon and Andy of Mayberry. The FCC put a stop to the networks syndicating their own shows in the early 70s.
By the 70s, only ITC was producing first run shows exclusively for syndication. What ultimately lead to the end of TV stations preempting network programs was the rise of independent TV stations and cable stations, which could show these syndicated programs. Also TV stations broadcast 24 hours, so they had room to stick programs anywhere they wanted.
These days if you want to see a TV program, you can get it. You are not at the mercy of your local TV station.