Showing posts with label television history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label television history. Show all posts

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Digital Divide

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my weekly (more or less) visit to the local Goodwill Store, where one can, occasionally, find something interesting. I stopped by the store yesterday, and as usual perused the record albums (why are there always so many damned gospel records?), 8-Tracks, and cassettes. The numbers of CDs are increasing (replaced by digital downloads?) but usually the CDs themselves are not in the greatest shape. I also noticed a new trend: the growing number of VHS tapes. I saw many dozens of VHS tapes, so many in fact that the managers had to construct a new bin just to handle them. I didn't find anything interesting yesterday, but that's not why I'm writing.

I also noticed four older model televisions, ranging from 13”-26”, one an old black & white, sitting next to each on a shelf, but each of the sets had a bold yellow disclaimer pasted to it stating that after February 18, 2009, the antenna would not work unless it was attached to a converter box: in other words, buy at your own risk, because come next February 18, analog signals will be turned off forever.

Seeing those old TV sets served as a reminder that in fewer than nine months, old-fashioned (analogue) broadcast television will go the way of the vinyl LP, 78s, 45s, 8-Tracks, music cassettes, VHS tapes, and so on. I suspect that many Goodwill stores around the country will find themselves inundated with old television sets within the year. It occurred to me the Goodwill store is a repository of déclassé technology—typewriters, record turntables, 8-Track players, for instance—even old DOS computers. Essentially, the function of the Goodwill Store is in part to serve as a waiting room for discarded technology, until these inert objects, perhaps, someday end up in a dusty museum or in the hands of collectors with enough disposable income to restore the things to their original glory.

Of course, the store's bins also serve to hold other discarded things as well: T-shirts emblazoned with bowl games won or lost, old toys included with Happy Meals, bestselling paperbacks with yellowing pages, gauche lamps, clunky radios, scads of coffee cups emblazoned with arcane organizations, old bed frames which once supported lovers embracing in desire. Was it Walter Pater who said he hated museums because they always inevitably gave him the impression that no one was ever young?

I read an article the other day stating that roughly 20% of U.S. households still rely on antennas to receive TV signals, which for some reason I found astonishing. And if these households don’t have sets with digital tuners, they won’t be able to pick up a digital signal--in other words, come February 18, or about nine months from now, no more television. Moreover, households with new digital TVs or special converter boxes for older sets also may need to upgrade their antennas because of a unique aspect of digital television: the signals that produce digital images can be more difficult to pick up than the old analog waves. In other words, it is quite clear that the digital transition will be more costly to people than at first anticipated. I read that the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association have a website,, that shows which stations’ signals you can get where you live and also offers help choosing an antenna. Goodwill Stores around the country better start now constructing additions, because I suspect there will be lots of TV sets showing up a few months from now. How many, instead, will show up in landfills?

Just as the Western Union Company—a company that became synonymous with the telegram—sent its last telegram in January 2006 because it could not compete with emails and cell phones, so too do the old analogue airwaves give way to digital transmission. One technology replaceth another.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday, January 10, 1960

The crucial role of television to promote presidential candidates and their agendas is now an accepted truism. If this commonplace bit of wisdom is indeed true, then it should come as no surprise that three future U. S. Presidents were television personalities in 1960: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, of course, were presidential candidates, but perhaps the most popularly-known figure of the three was Ronald Reagan--but not because of the "obvious" reason, that he was a movie star. In fact, at the time, Reagan was host of the highly successful television series, General Electric Theater. Broadcast by CBS on Sunday nights in the 9:00-9:30 p.m. Eastern time slot, after The Ed Sullivan Show and before Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ronald Reagan become program host of General Electric Theater on September 26, 1954; with Reagan as host, by December of that year--three months later--General Electric Theater had entered Nielsen's Top 10 among all television programs as the most popular weekly dramatic program.

According to William L. Bird, Jr., in an article on the program that can be found at the Museum of Broadcast Communications website,

By the time General Electric Theater concluded its eight-year run in 1962, Reagan claimed to have visited GE's 135 research and manufacturing facilities, and met some 250,000 individuals. In later years, Reagan's biographers would look back upon the tour and the platform it provided for the future President of the United States to sharpen his already considerable skill as a communicator.

The last General Electric Theater program was broadcast on May 27, 1962; four years from that date, Ronald Reagan was about five months away from being convincingly elected Governor of California (1966). Although defeated in his 1960 presidential bid, Richard Nixon would return to politics as well, and be elected President in 1968. Perhaps it is not ludicrous at all to consider the possibility that politicians and their handlers learned something from Col. Tom Parker, who used television to catapult Elvis Presley from regional success to national sensation in 1956. Indeed, the rise of Elvis corresponds to a transitional moment in media technology--the rise of television. So, too, would the political careers of future presidents correspond to the new technology of television.