Television and the Naysayers
1/4/2011 10:13:58 AM
had its run and
is now destined to join
When I was growing
up in rural Arkansas in
the late 1940s and early
the magic of radio
and television broadcasting—I never
imagined that I’d be entertaining such
thoughts, much less writing an editorial
about the subject.
I first watched electrons paint a picture
inside a CRT nearly 60 years ago, and
like so many of my generation, was totally
captivated by what I witnessed the first
time the new addition to the living room
was powered up and the large outdoor
antenna tweaked. The image was in black
and white, of course, and was probably
nothing special, just part of a day’s work
for the people at KRLD-TV (now KDFW)
way out in Dallas—some 200 miles away.
The scene was that of an airplane landing—some news footage, or possibly a remote
from Love Field. I had just turned six
and recall little beyond the image and the
initial excitement of the moment.
I do remember some of the negative
remarks by the naysayers then—family,
friends of my parents, and even near strangers—who made their way into our
home to witness the new marvel. There
were suggestions that my dad had wasted
his money, as television was just a passing
fancy and it was foolish to have purchased
a set. (Yet they hung around and came
calling at every opportunity to watch the
limited programming available on the one
channel available to us.)
As we know, television broadcasting
flourished and stations popped up all of
the country. Soon it was no longer necessary
to endure “snow” and spend large
sums for towers and killer antenna arrays.
Many people—broadcasters and equipment
manufacturers alike—became very
rich in meeting the public’s demand for
the magic boxes.
A few years after the curtain went up
on post-war television, color was added
to the equation. I was older by then and
remember quite clearly then remarks of
the next wave of naysayers. Color wasn’t
worth it they said—the “colored” sets
were too expensive and too hard to adjust,
and there were almost no color programs.
As we know, color did slowly infuse
into the television picture, and by the late
1960s and early 70s, color sets began to
appear in a significant number of homes.
That crowd of naysayers gave up and faded
Something else was happening back
then too—community antenna television—CATV, or just “cable.” Originally designed
to bring TV into communities that
were blocked from stations’ signals by natural
terrain, it began to spread into other
communities—those with clear TV signal
shots. Early on, cable really wasn’t that
great—there were a lot of very poorly engineered
and maintained cable systems in
the beginning. The naysayers worked this
street too—why would you spend good
money for a handful of channels (some
carrying identical network programming)
and have to put up with herringbone
beats and other signal impairments?
Again, in time this changed, and there
was more acceptance of freeing oneself
from “the rooftop antenna.”
Cable owners decided to stir the pot
too and add a little more inducement to
lure subscribers with the carriage of “superstations.”
(This brings to mind another “defining
moment” in my relationship with television.
My wife and I had checked into a small motel
in Taos, N.M. and were preparing for bed.
The TV set had been tuned to a “late-show”
movie, and when the first commercial interruption
happened, we were both quite
surprised to see someone pitching car
sales for a dealership in the Bronx.)
HBO and others appeared on the scene
to distribute specialized programming on
a nationwide basis via cable. This attracted
even more subscribers and cemented cable’s
future. So much for those naysayers.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a
few people—myself included—began to
experiment with backyard C-band satellite
reception. The naysayers came out in
droves, scoffing at, and complaining about,
the large antennas. They raised “piracy” issues
Over time, satellite ERPs increased,
dishes shrunk, and encryption and “pay for
play” settled in, leading us directly into television’s
next evolutionary step—direct-tohome
satellite. The naysayers then had to
find something else to chew on.
Now, depending on whose numbers
you believe, perhaps only about 10 percent
of us are watching off-air TV. Even with all
of the hoopla about the converter box program
and the gazillions of dollars spent on
it, a lot of people gave up on “free” television
after the digital cutover in 2009.
This has begotten the next generation
And after reeling in—over time—nearly
40 percent of the spectrum once set aside
for TV broadcasting, the government is getting
deadly serious about recalling another
20 channels. The telcos are already stacking
up their auction money and rubbing
their hands with glee over the prospect
of the increase in their bottom lines when
they start selling “wireless” TV service to
The curious thing is that members of
the last generation or so have become so
locked in to the whole Internet and broadband
thing that they think nothing of paying
for something that is available for free.
I’ve never considered myself a Luddite,
and have freely adopted computers, the
Internet, and even the viewing of occasional
video on-line; however, I balk at the
concept of spending money for something
that can be obtained for free (or at least for
enduring sponsors’ commercial messages),
and still enjoy pulling television images out
of thin air from local and distant stations.
Today, this latest pack of naysayers is
saying that off-air television is no longer
relevant and that TV spectrum should be
handed over for broadband use.
Are they right?
I’d like to think that they are not!
I’m encouraged by recent news of
booming consumer off-air TV antenna sales
and a noticeable drop in cable subscription
Perhaps the TV broadcasting miracle
that so many of us witnessed in the late
40s and early 50s isn’t quite ready to join
the buggy whip and coal delivery businesses
Let’s see what 2011 brings.