Monday, January 26, 2009

The Death of Analogue Television

Unless someone in the United States has not watched television, listened to the radio, read newspapers, or surfed the internet of late, it is impossible that he or she has not heard of the transition to digital television set to take place on February 17 of this year. And while there has been a lot of news on the transition to digital television, not much has said or written about the flip side of the story. Namely, the transition to digital television means the death of analogue television.

Since the very invention of television, the medium has depended on an analogue signal. I won't define what an analogue signal is here, as I am not sure I understand it myself, but I do know that analogue signals have a distinct disadvantage over digital signals. Quite simply, analogue signals will inevitably have "noise" or random variations. These variations will increase over distance. In other words, this is why one can pick up one's favourite television station (on an antenna, at least--it makes no difference by cable) better the closer one is to it.

I do know that television itself works on principles similar to that of motion pictures. Images are sent through analogue signals one frame at a time Each image is made of a number of lines of information ("raster lines"). Quite naturally, different systems for encoding analogue television would be developed, based around the number of lines composing each image and the number of frames transmitted per second. Here in the United States the system used is NTSC short for National Television System Committee). In 1940 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the National Television System Committee to set for a standard television system for use across the United States. Originally, NTSC called for 525 lines of information in each image and a standard 30 frames per second. The system was developed based upon a recommendation made by the Radio Manufacturers Association in 1936, as well as a compromise between RCA and Philco's desires. At the time RCA already used a 441 line standard at NBC-TV. Philco wanted to increase this from 605 to 800 lines. When the NTSC system was developed it made no provision for colour television. When colour was developed it would have to be adjusted slightly.

Other parts of the world would develop their own analogue television systems. PAL (Phase Alternating Line) was developed in Germany in 1963 with the development of colour television. It had been discovered that the NTSC system for transmitting colour television simply would not fit the power grid of Western Europe, so that another system would have to be developed. It is used in Western Europe, South America, and parts of Asia and Africa). Another system is SECAM ("Séquentiel couleur a mémoir"--in English "Sequential Colour with Memory"). SECAM was developed in France as an alternative to NTSC in 1956. Curiously, it never caught on in Western Europe. It is used only in France, Eastern Europe, Asia, and part of Africa. Much of this may be because it cannot be easily edited when it is in analogue form and has transmission problems that neither NTSC nor PAL ever had. Even France, where it was developed, plans to abandon SECAM broadcasts by 2011.

Of course, here I should point out to those who grew up with cable television or satellite television that there was a time when most of us picked up our TV channels through the airwaves, just like using a radio. This meant one needed an antenna to pick up the signal (here I should point out that this is true of digital television as well). Antennas were used as far back as Thomas Edison in 1885 (for radio transmission) and Heinrich Hertz in 1888 (for picking up electromagnetic waves). The term appears to have been coined by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895, where he referred to the device as l'antenna, "the pole." Antennas are also called aerials as well (particularly in the United Kingdom and parts of the United States), although technically an antenna is a metal structure while an aerial relies on wires (like many FM radio antennas).

Television antennas have always come in an array of shapes and sizes. Among the most common from the beginning have been those using one rod or two rods (those using two rods being called "rabbit ears"). These antennas are sometimes built into the television, but can come separately from the TV so that they must be hooked up to the set. Of course, there are also larger, outdoor antennas which stand on a pole attached to one's house. Growing up my family relied on such an antenna for television reception in the living room, while the TVs in the bedrooms used "rabbit ears." Curiously, we always called the big, outdoor antenna an aerial, while the "rabbit ears" were merely "antennas."

Of course, I am guessing the "cable generation" is wondering how the big, outdoor antennas could be moved to improve reception, as they are too large to move manually like rabbit ears. Big, outdoor antennas or aerials use a device called a rotator. The rotator is a little box (in the old days they had dials--I don't know what they use these days). Here I must point out that aerials can be rotated manual as well, although it is a hassle to do so. When a tornado severed the connection to our rotator and the aerial, we used a big pipe wrench to rotate it. Needless to say, the rotator was much preferable!

Here I should point out that receiving analogue television with an aerial had its advantages and disadvantages. With the large, outdoor aerial we could pick up television stations as far away as St. Louis and Kansas City. Growing up I was then able to watch shows not seen in the Columbia/Jefferson City market, such as The Avengers and F Troop. The problem was that severe weather, such as a heavy rain or particularly a thunderstorm could make picking up even the local stations problematic. While on good days we could pick up KPLR out of St. Louis, on stormy days we might have problems receiving KOMU out of Columbia.

This does not mean that there were not other means of receiving analogue television in the old days. Cable television has existed since nearly the beginning of regular television broadcasts in the United States. It was originally called "community antenna television" or CATV for short. It was invented in 1948 by John Walson and Margaret Walson of the Service Electric Company, which sold General Electric appliances including television sets in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. The problem was that many of the residents of the Mahanoy City area either had no reception or very poor reception on their TV sets due to the mountainous terrain. John Walson then erected a huge aerial on top of one of the mountains and connected it by cable to the Service Electric Company store in town. Soon many of his customers would be connected to the gigantic antenna by cable as well.

John and Margaret Walson offered their cable service for free, but it would not be long before the first cable subscription service would be started. In 1950 Robert Tarlton and television set retailers in Lansford, Pennsylvania began offering television signals transmitted over a cable for a subscription price. Tarlton's success was noticed by Milton Shapp, then president of Jerrold Electronics. He swiftly reorganised the company so that it manufactured equipment for cable systems. Tarlton would later go to work for Jerrold Electronics.

Despite the rapid development of cable television in the late Forties and early Fifties, it would remain stymied for many years by FCC regulations. Throughout the Fifties and much of the Sixties it was available only in inaccessible or remote areas. As time passed the FCC would relax many of these regulations. By the early Seventies, then, even not so remote areas like here in Randolph County would have cable television. In 1972 the FCC lifted rules which kept cable television out of large cities. Original programming for cable developed in 1972 with the rise of Home Box Office (HBO). Cable television would grow dramatically in the Eighties. It is safe to say that by the Naughts the vast majority of Americans would receive their television by cable or satellite.

With the development of digital television in the late Nineties, the death warrant for analogue television was signed. Digital television is both more efficient and more pliant than analogue television. With simply an old fashioned antenna one can receive many more channels. It is also supposed to have better sound and better image than analogue television. In 2006 the Netherlands became the first nation to convert entirely to digital television. Canada will follow the United States in 2011, while the United Kingdom will do so in 2012. Here in the United States it was in 1996 that a bill was passed to make the transition to digital television by December 2006. By 2004, however, not enough people had digital television sets for the transition to really be feasible. The deadline for the transition was then extended in 2005 so that the transition would take place by February 17, 2009. Currently there is a bill to delay the transition once again, as at least three million homes are still on the waiting list for government coupons for digital television converters.

Even if the transition to digital television is delayed once more in the United States, it is safe to say that it is inevitable. And while I realise that digital television is superior to analogue television and have enjoyed cable television most of my adult life (the cable company switched to digital long ago), I cannot help but feel a bit of remorse for the death of analogue television. Like such obsolete technologies as the telegraph and the phonograph, analogue television revolutionised American life. A large part of my life as spent watching analogue television received through an aerial. It was how I first watched The Avengers, The Monkees, Star Trek, and most of the other classic TV shows. For old times' sake, then, I might just hook up the rabbit ears one night for one last bit of viewing of good, old fashioned analogue TV.


poppedculture said...

But will you really miss it? To me it seems like using regular or premium gas. It's different, but can you really tell while you're driving?

Terence Towles Canote said...

Well, I think a few times, when I am feeling nostalgic I might. But ultimately, I really don't think I will. While digital is different, I probably wouldn't even think about it after a while!