Television and the Naysayers

Has over-the-air broadcasting had its run and is now destined to join other dinosaurs?

When I was growing up in rural Arkansas in the late 1940s and early 1950s—and discovering 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 away.

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 too.

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 of naysayers.

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 everyone.

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 numbers.

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 just yet.

Let’s see what 2011 brings.