Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Age of TV

The death of broadcast television has been fortold by technology pundit Robert X. Cringely, but I'm willing to believe there's a few years of life left in the old gal yet ...

This week I succumbed to the constant deluge of TV ads reminding me that if I want to keep watching after next February I'd better get my act together. So I dutifully went to the government website and asked for my max of two coupons per household. I resisted the temptation to cash them in at the nearest Radio Shack and instead ordered my converter boxes online following a recommendation by Consumer Reports.

After subtracting the coupons the boxes still cost me about $30 each for some pretty cheesy hardware, leading me to believe the gadgets are being overpriced by the amount of the $40 coupons, which would be about par for the course with any government related program. Look for them to nosedive in price next year when there are no more coupons and most people who need them will have one already.

It took some time for my coupons to be approved by the feds, but shortly thereafter my package arrived and I plugged into the "Digital Age." After some fiddling with my antenna and letting the box sniff the airwaves for local stations, I realized that I had entered a sort of parallel reality where the channels I had been receiving with snow and interference had magically cleaned up to resemble cable or satellite reception. Not only that, but a few new ones had sprung up in between them: a secondary feed from Public TV, as well as a third one en espanol, a weather channel, a kids' channel, and multiple Bible-thumper options. Cool.

I was so ready for this. Several years ago I gave up on my satellite dish as too expensive for too little reward. I felt like the man in a cartoon I saw once who confronted his wall of media devices with his remote in his hand and his antennas visible out the window, and said to his wife, "There's nothing on." At 80-plus channels the "vast wasteland" seemed only to have grown more vast.

Since then I've contented myself with broadcast news and old sitcoms, supplemented by a Netflix subscription that feeds my addition to movies. OK, and sometimes we run out to Blockbuster, as archaic as that seems. Really the only thing wrong with the arrangement was the poor and intermittent reception of the "old" analog stations. Now it seems that is already a thing of the past. This new digital reality sprang up when I wasn't really paying that much attention.

Other Revolutions

It's not the first time I've been through this kind of change, and probably it won't be the last. If Ray Kurzweil is correct in his predictions, the pace of change will continue to increase, and Cringely's future of Internet delivery of all media will be upon us before we know it.

Deja vu. When I was a little kid, TV was brand new and threatening both radio and the movie industry. I actually remember listening to some radio shows for kids -- Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers, and something on Saturday mornings with Big John and Sparky. But within a few short years those shows were all history, and I never even noticed because Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo, and a flood of other shows had totally captivated us all.

I remember when WTVJ, then part of CBS on channel 4, was our one and only station in all of South Florida. And they used to sign off at 9 PM so everyone could go to bed. It was a huge deal when the second one (NBC affiliate channel 7) went on the air. People actually tuned in the blank screen and waited for it to come on for the first time. Soon the pair were joined by a small throng of others, including the first Public TV station, WTHS ("Worlds To Hear and See"), which promised a higher programming standard that it has more or less delivered on. (Never mind the Hollywood musicals and revivals of dead or nearly-dead entertainers; think Sesame Street, Nova, Bill Moyers, The News Hour, and Masterpiece Theater.)

But the wheels of progress were already turning. Pretty soon they had figured out how to add color to the box. A huge deal again -- local program host Alec Gibson told his audience weeks in advance when WTVJ was going to borrow a color camera so they could do one show in color, and his wife was going to sing a song in a special gold lame dress, so find someone with a color set so you could see it. Those were the days, huh?

The shift to color TV took a long time, though, for two reasons. First, it was totally backward compatible, so you didn't need a color set to watch a show broadcast in color; all you missed were the colors. And second, the color was really pretty bad for years. It looked like a layer of tints floated on top of the gray background. And in those days of vacuum tubes the picture required constant adjustment to look halfway decent. Where was the fun in looking at people with orange skin under green skies?

Wait a minute -- did I say "vacuum tubes?" Sure, this was back before the invention of the transistor, boys and girls. Back when we had tube testing machines in all the 7-11 stores so you could bring yours in and test them to find the bad ones and then buy a replacement. Sometimes that even fixed what was wrong with your TV, saving you a big repair bill. (Yes, this was also back when things could still be repaired instead of just sent to the landfill.)

So by the time TVs had been filled with transistors and then integrated circuits (millions of transistors) the picture quality had grown much better. I finally broke down and acquired one myself around 1977. By then it was getting hard to find black-and-white ones in the stores unless you were looking for a little portable. Notice how soon these things become quaint. Now that you can watch widescreen movies on your iPod, who would settle for anything less?

But in the years since there have been still more revolutions. First cable TV became pervasive, and I became one of the many disgruntled customers of these local monopolies whose notoriously poor customer service made them more despised than The Phone Company. Then satellite dishes got small and began to give cable a run for its money -- a battle that is still being fought, although without my participation, as I explained above.

Meanwhile starting around 1980 the advent of personal computers swamped everything in a flood of digitalization that totally exploded in the mid-90's as the Internet added a distribution system for digital content. The paradigm shift is so profound that one observer (it may have been Nicholas Petreley, but I'm not sure) opined that in the near future "everything that is broadcast now will come over a wire, and everything that comes over wires will be broadcast." Sounds crazy until you start seeing video shows produced for computer viewing only, and computers and phones linking wirelessly to the Internet.

On top of this we have the Tivo revolution, the tool that breaks the "tape it/watch it" syndrome and makes commercials optional. And then the HD revolution, finally giving us screens that match the width of the movies, and resolution high enough to make us forget about film.

So Cringely may have it right. He gives us until 2015 before the broadcast stations will start shutting down because all programming will by done by the viewers on demand through the Internet. TV's will be just another web-enabled appliance in houses filled with them. Grab your broadcasts while you can, before they become relics of the past.

So after all this, why am I still sitting here writing this instead of kicking back on my couch to enjoy the digital tube? Well, um ... there's nothing on.

1 comment:

  1. When a wee lad, I listened at me mum's knee, sitting on the linoleum in our kitchen, to "The Lone Ranger" on the radio. Maybe "Superman," too, but I definitely will always remember the William Tell overture and what it did to me (chills up the spine) at the start of every episode. My family did not buy a TV until I was adult, and long out of the house, and had one o me own.