Saturday, July 21, 2012

Television Tech and Content: How Far We've Come

If someone who lived in 1969 took all of his appliances to 2009—skipping the better part of half a century—most of those appliances would function as well in 2009 as they had in 1969.* The shock of changes in content might, at least at first, be more overwhelming than changes in technology. But in many cases, as we will see, it is difficult to separate technology from content—or, at least, from context—completely.

Consider the entertainment devices. A householder from 1969 might be expected to own a television set, radio, phonograph player, and possibly a tape deck and a speaker system. All of these devices would work in 2009, at least at the beginning of the year. For most of them, all the owner would have to do is plug them into an electrical outlet and turn them on—this technology has not changed. The phonograph and tape player would do what they do just the same. They are, after all, self contained once they are able to draw electrical current, and the radio airwaves have not changed and are available to any commercial tuner from the 1960s. The glaring exception, of course, is the television set.

Beginning in the first decade of this century, television around the world prepared for the conversion to digital broadcasting, the first technology change that would render a 1960s television set useless unless its user were somehow able to attach a new digital converter. From its invention in 1927 until the first decade of the twenty-first century, electronic analog television had changed little. Improvements made to this technology were profound in some ways but television sets still had the ability to pick up analog television signals.

None of this, of course, accounts for the entire revolution in communication technology that occurred between 1969 and 2009. It is not just that our time-traveling householder has a device that would be outdated by the digital conversion, but rather that he would be missing the broader technological innovations that were added to the earlier technology. Take, as an obvious example, the video cassette recorder, which became available in the 1970s but was then too expensive for the average consumer. By the 1980s, the cost had come down so that nearly everyone could afford to enjoy an additional source of entertainment using their television set. Similarly, other changes, like cable, VCR, DVD, and—in the 1990s—satellite TV, might be thought of as “add-ons,” that changed the television set because they required new receptacles on them to accommodate the new technology; but these technological changes also had profound effects on viewership and even content.

Up until the late 1980s, there had long been only three national television networks, ABC, NBC and CBS. From 1946 to 1956, there was a fourth network called DuMont, but it went out of business as a broadcaster and became, instead, an owner of broadcast stations with its name changed ultimately, to Metromedia. The only other national network was the National Education Television (NET) network, which began in 1954 and became the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970. There were other commercial affiliations such as the Westinghouse Group, which owned numerous stations that were often, but not necessarily, also NBC affiliates. Another such group was Metromedia, and much later there arose another called New World Communications, which like Metromedia, would play an important role in the rise of a new fourth commercial network late in the twentieth century. These networks also syndicated programs exclusively through their affiliates.

While cable television had been around earlier, its scope changed in the ’70s. Cable was originally used to bring television to people who lived in areas where television reception was poor, such as in valleys. Someone would put an antenna on a mountain top and charge residents of the valley below for access. In the 1970s, however, the cable market exploded for “pay TV,” even for customers who did not live in hard to reach areas. More channels and clearer reception sold the notion, and new channels like HBO and TBS, available only on cable, made the idea increasingly attractive—along with the cosmetic change of calling it “cable TV” instead of “pay TV.” (Another phenomenon that actually had its roots at least as early as the 1970s was the privately owned satellite dish, which was physically very large at that time, and possibly caused the most legal problems because users were directly stealing broadcast feed from networks.)

While the technology of television broadcasting changed little, a host of changes had occurred around them that changed broadcasters’ place within the television industry. For the one government and three commercial broadcast networks, their oligopoly as the providers of home entertainment was increasingly being challenged. It started gradually enough that, initially, there seemed no cause for concern at the Big Networks, but as more and more people watched other sources of entertainment on their television sets, viewership of broadcast television began a downward course that continues today. (I remember reading an article in TV Guide back in the late 1960s or early ’70s, in which it was noted that what was then called pay TV might make inroads into broadcast viewership, but it was pointed out, humorously, that this change would not be so drastic that network presidents would be reduced to selling pencils on the street; yet the gradualness of the change has seemingly made the threat worse because the Big Networks have been slow to react to the change—except to buy cable networks as if their only plan is, if worse comes to worst, to abandon their broadcast operations someday and move over completely to cable, satellite or Internet.)

Some changes could be purely classified as changes in the content of television fare. With the introduction of pay channels such as HBO, the use of obscene language and nudity could be allowed because only viewers who paid for the service were supposed to be exposed to such content, and it was no longer a matter of transmission over the “public” airwaves—an example of how even an issue that at first appears to be purely a matter of content turns out to have a technological aspect. The means by which signals could reach a television set were no longer limited to broadcast but were multiple.

One of the most daring projects in the American broadcast television industry occurred in the late 1980s when the FOX network was launched. It was already clear that video and cable television were overtaking broadcast television as a popular source of home entertainment, although it was true—and continues to be true—that some poorer Americans still have not acquired the newer technologies. (Nevertheless, in 2001 the U.S. government found that, regardless of income, more than 98 per cent of Americans had color television sets.) It was probably a now-or-never proposition to start a new network, and the Fox Broadcasting Company took the risk by adding a new commercial network in 1986. Cautiously, the network began by broadcasting only on Sunday nights. At the beginning, there were only a few stations that had been purchased from Metromedia. (How appropriate that FOX was built upon what remained of the defunct fourth commercial network.) In the beginning, most of FOX’s affiliates were not VHF but the less desirable UHF stations, all of which, however, were not already affiliated with the Big Three. Gradually, over its first few years, FOX added nights until it had a nearly full weekly schedule, although it was always the plan to have only two-hours of programming each night so that affiliates could begin the late news at ten o’clock, an hour ahead of most Big Three affiliates.

A change in fortunes in the early 1990s sealed the destiny of FOX. Its owner, wealthy international businessman Rupert Murdoch, had always been committed to putting as much money as necessary into making FOX a success. In 1993, he outbid CBS for the National Football League broadcast rights. Within a year, FOX was joined by all of those former CBS-affiliated VHF stations that had been owned by New World Communications. Football had made FOX a permanent player on the big network field. From now on, it would the Big Four in commercial television.

Other companies also tried to follow the example of FOX and launch new commercial networks during the 1990s. Principally, there were the Warner Brothers Network (WB) and the United Paramount Network (UPN), but despite a few noteworthy television series, these two networks had joined the party too late and found themselves struggling to win over the same small share of viewers. Eventually they decided to merge, becoming the CW Network in 2006. (Previously, UPN had been sold to CBS but had not seen much improvement in its performance; when it merged with the WB, the new name was created by combining the “C” from CBS with the “W” from the WB.)

Today, in 2012, another major communications innovation—to which I have already alluded—has come to affect both the technology and content of television. The Internet had its origins with the Defense Department of the U.S.government at the end of the 1960s. The idea was to connect a network of military computers via phone or cable lines. The idea was actually dreamed up by scientists at universities in the early ’60s, but it took the U.S. military to provide backing. Not surprisingly, universities were soon online as well, and then large institutions such as banks were close behind. Anyone who needed to communicate information over a large network quickly saw the advantage of establishing a computer network. The global impact of this revolution was only felt by the average person after the various institutional networks united to create the world wide web by the beginning of the 1990s, largely thanks to work done by Tim Berners-Lee and other scientists. (As a kind of footnote, another player in computer networking had been the Xerox Corporation, which, almost bizarrely, did a great deal of research into the computerization of the workplace in the late 1960s without ever capitalizing on it. Its ideas were nevertheless influential, notably having an impact on such later innovators as Steve Jobs.)

While the Internet evolved from a military-academic to a private and commercial communication system, digital video and audio were being developed as well. The marriage of these innovations made “streaming video” over the Internet possible. Today, this technology is revolutionizing home entertainment. It is, in fact, making “home” entertainment an outdated misnomer, because now lap top computers can make watching video entertainment a moveable feat; anywhere you can take your lap top, you can usually take your entertainment, too.

This does not leave actual home entertainment without its advantages. In his 1949 dystopic novel “1984,” George Orwell posited the “wallscreen,” a television built into the wall of one’s home, large and obtrusive, and able to watch you as readily as you could watch it. Today, tall and wide, wall-mounted flat screens are becoming ubiquitous, and it is now possible to watch streaming video on a television screen with the addition of an Internet-connected device. There are even two ways of doing this. A computer can be plugged into a port on the TV set so that the screen becomes a computer monitor on which streaming videos can be watched. Another way is to purchase a device dedicated to particular Internet video sources such as Hulu, Netflix and Hulu Plus now has a library of thousands of television programs and films that are available on demand to be watched whenever the viewer chooses. Whereas the time frame during which a viewer in 1969 could watch a television program on network television was limited to the portion of a specific hour when that program was broadcast, today a streaming video program may be viewed any time within the period during which the Internet service makes that program available, which can extend to days or months or even be made indefinite. What is more, most of the broadcast networks, and some of the cable networks as well, make their broadcast programming available on streaming video, either through their own websites or through Amazon, Hulu or Netflix. Within twenty-four hours after a network presents a regular program, it is usually available for streaming. The only exception is CBS which has not made its programs available to Hulu, for example, but may make programs available on its own website.

The past fifty years have seen profound changes in video technology, from TV to YouTube. The changes could be ignored if a viewer wanted to create a bubble and use only his old technology (with the unavoidable exception of conversion to digital television), and the sameness of the television set as the primary vector of home entertainment over such a long period of time has been an impressive technological feat. Upon reflection, though, particularly considering the cumulation of other innovations during that span of time, the switch to digital broadcasting likely signals a coming transformation that will so change what we have come to think of as television that it will finally render television as unrecognizable to us as it would be to our householder from 1969.

*My reasons for choosing 1969 are largely subjective, although, by 1969, color television had become widely available and vacuum tube technology had been replaced by solid state transistors, making such issues as television repair in 2009 a little less of a problem. I am not sure that a 2009 television repairman would know where to begin if confronted with 1950s vacuum tube technology. Also, the picture that a television set made in the 1930s or ’40s would have received from later television broadcasts would have been below par in quality. Of course, 2009 was chosen because it is the year during which analog to digital conversion took place in the United States, and approximately when the same transition occurred in many other countries.