The transition to DTV–exclusively digital television signals–happens in only a few more days. It’s not clear just how it’s going to go. Will it all happen smoothly? Will those who have analog sets, and no cable television, be prepared with their converter boxes? Will many of them know they need converter boxes? If they do, will they know where to get them, AND that the NTIA is offering coupons to offset most of the cost of converter boxes? We won’t know the real answer to any of these questions until sometime Tuesday, February 17th.
What I know is that this technological signal change signals a bigger cultural change. This is the end of the television era. The television era started in the late 1940s, when analog television broadcast stations, and specifically the network system, began in earnest to take over for the radio network that dominated broadcasting in the U.S. for about two decades prior to that. Radio had to change, and began to narrowcast, serving a very different function once television became the broadcast medium that became a kind of cultural glue binding the country with shared visual programming, and more.
Over the air broadcast television, free to anyone in this country who owned a set, changed news, changed advertising, changed politics, changed family habits, changed us. Network broadcast TV defined us for decades. But that’s all over now, and it didn’t happen over night. We’ve been headed in this direction since cable began. We’re now residing in the digital era.
Completely digitized signals, in the works for a long time, allow for interactive viewing, sharper visuals, and more communication options. Television will soon be more like the Internet. This is a huge change, making obsolete many television sets that only receive analog signals. Sure, the converter box will work for awhile, but all sets now manufactured will be digital only. The last time something similar happened to broadcast signals was when the government mandated radio stations to broadcast in AM and FM to encourage development of the FM spectrum.
But this is even bigger. We’ll still have television, but it’s not going to be the same technology, and it’s not going to serve the same cultural function. Television has meant shared programming through over-the-air broadcasting. Broadcasting was analog, narrowcasting and interactivity are digital. Digitization will shape us in very different ways.
This is definitely the end of an era.
–Katherine G. Fry