A subcarrier is a sideband of a radio frequency carrier wave, which is modulated to send additional information. Examples include the provision of colour in a black and white television system or the provision of stereo in a monophonic radio broadcast. There is no physical difference between a carrier and a subcarrier; the "sub" implies that it has been derived from a carrier, which has been amplitude modulated by a steady signal and has a constant frequency relation to it.
Stereo broadcasting is made possible by using a subcarrier on FM radio stations, which takes the left channel and "subtracts" the right channel from it — essentially by hooking up the right-channel wires backward (reversing polarity) and then joining left and reversed-right. The result is modulated with suppressed carrier AM, more correctly called sum and difference modulation or SDM, at 38 kHz in the FM signal, which is joined at 2% modulation with the mono left+right audio (which ranges 50 Hz ~ 15 kHz). A 19 kHz pilot tone is also added at a 9% modulation to trigger radios to decode the stereo subcarrier, making FM stereo fully compatible with mono.
Once the receiver demodulates the L+R and L−R signals, it adds the two signals ([L+R] + [L−R] = 2L) to get the left channel and subtracts ([L+R] − [L−R] = 2R) to get the right channel. Rather than having a local oscillator, the 19 kHz pilot tone provides an in-phase reference signal used to reconstruct the missing carrier wave from the 38 kHz signal.
For AM broadcasting, different analog (AM stereo) and digital (HD Radio) methods are used to produce stereophonic audio. Modulated subcarriers of the type used in FM broadcasting are impractical for AM broadcast due to the relatively narrow signal bandwidth allocated for a given AM signal. On standard AM broadcast radios, the entire 9 kHz to 10 kHz allocated bandwidth of the AM signal may be used for audio.
Likewise, analog TV signals are transmitted with the black and white luminance part as the main signal and the color chrominance as the subcarriers. A black and white TV simply ignores the extra information, as it has no decoder for it. To reduce the bandwidth of the color subcarriers, they are filtered to remove higher frequencies. This is made possible by the fact that the human eye sees much more detail in contrast than in color. In addition, only blue and red are transmitted, with green being determined by subtracting the other two from the luminance and taking the remainder. (See: YIQ, YCbCr, YPbPr) Various broadcast television systems use different subcarrier frequencies, in addition to differences in encoding.
For the audio part, MTS uses subcarriers on the video that can also carry three audio channels, including one for stereo (same left-minus-right method as for FM), another for second audio programs (such as descriptive video service for the vision-impaired, and bilingual programs), and yet a third hidden one for the studio to communicate with reporters or technicians in the field (or for a technician or broadcast engineer at a remote transmitter site to talk back to the studio), or any other use a TV station might see fit. (See also NICAM, A2 Stereo.)
In RF-transmitted composite video, subcarriers remain in the baseband signal after main carrier demodulation to be separated in the receiver. The mono audio component of the transmitted signal is in a separate carrier and not integral to the video component. In wired video connections, composite video retains the integrated subcarrier signal structure found in the transmitted baseband signal, while S-Video places the chrominance and luminance signals on separate wires to eliminate subcarrier crosstalk and enhance the signal bandwidth and strength (picture sharpness and brightness).