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Into the Sunset

One of the greatest technological revolutions of the modern era is ending this month, most likely with a shrug. It is of arguably elegant significance that the nation’s transition to digital broadcasting concluded amid a greater metamorphosis that ultimately overshadowed it.

One could posit coincidence, but I think not. The digital revolution was not incongruous; it touched nearly everything about the culture. Hindsight should be interesting…

It was 2009, nearly a year into the financial meltdown that forever altered America. Billions in abstract currency simply disappeared. Mass delusion about property values marginalized auto manufacturing, one of the remaining bastions of the Industrial Age.

The country was already in the throes of digital anarchy. The Internet enabled the exchange of aural and visual content to the degree that few could think fast enough to salvage the traditional vehicles—literal and figurative. The music industry imploded. Newspaper empires caved in. TV shows populated the Web.

The world tilted into the Information Age like a balsa boat plunging into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. No one knew exactly where it was going, or how feral the ride would become. They just paddled for dear life, setting up Web pages on Facebook, Linkedin, Plaxo, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, etc., all of which yielded a modicum of attention but no immediate return on investment.

Meanwhile, a 20-plus year effort to overhaul the nation’s most ubiquitous and complex communications system was quietly completed. Born of political intrigue, the DTV transition drove technological development previously considered impossible. It represented an archetype for how a technology transmuted an industry. Because of an equation cooked up in laboratory at General Instrument, TV would never again develop in a finite number of directions. Businesses rose and fell around it, some defining its direction, others chasing. The Holy Grail was high-definition television. It was multicasting. It was mobile broadcasting. It was multiplatform distribution. It was 3DTV. It was time- and place-shifted, citizen acquired, social media mash-up.

It was nearly impossible to monetize adequately. It matured between one generation suckled on trading media content and another without work. The single most marketable aspect of the new system had been virtually overlooked. Its basic and most remarkable attributes could be had for free, though people had grown accustomed to paying for it, like buying apples at the store from 1,200 miles away when there was a tree in the back yard. And while they did so, a new class of devices was released into the television spectrum, further attenuating the possibility of a free service Renaissance.

The television business survived its own catharsis, but was never again uniform. Mobile thrived in some areas, traditional broadcasting in others. The financial contribution of the auto industry would slowly be replaced by a more diverse and sustainable revenue stream, though nothing about the industry would ever again be as concentrated—except for its ownership.

The DTV transition ended to inconspicuous fanfare on June 12, 2009. It would be many years before historians were to fully document the magnitude of its impact.

– Deborah McAdams