9:16 am
Tue July 27, 2004

Television

Remember test patterns?

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

In the beginning was the test pattern. And lousy signals.

In this Postcard from the Digital Age we're going to look at how TV has changed in the last fifty years and how it might change in the years ahead.

My family bought one of the first television sets in our town in the early 1950s. Dad said we got it to watch the Coronation of Elizabeth II. He never mentioned Milton Berle or Hopalong Cassidy. The truth was, though, that there wasn't much to see.

There weren't many stations and those stations didn't broadcast all the time. On Saturday mornings I usually got up before the stations signed on for the day. That didn't bother me, I turned on that magic TV and watched the test pattern.

Back then, television was a novelty. So when my folks invited friends over to watch TV, they wouldn't always tell them what was on. It didn't matter. It also didn't seem to matter that most of the time the signal was unreliable and the picture was covered with what we called "snow."

At least in the beginning it didn't matter. But people wouldn't keep watching TV unless the experience got better and there was more to watch.

The makers of television sets wanted more and more people to watch so they would sell more sets. Purveyors of goods and services wanted more and more people to watch so they could reach them with advertisements. And the advertising industry wanted more and more people to watch so they could sell more and more expensive ads.

So for the last fifty years we've seen changes aimed at giving us better sets to watch television on and more things to watch. Mostly, set technology has gotten out in front of programming.

When my parents bought our first TV there wasn't much to watch. The first color televisions hit the market when there were only a couple of color shows to watch. That's happening again with High Definition Television.

The equipment is out there, but the programming isn't. Watch for that to change quickly in the next year or so, with sports leading the way.

New and better equipment isn't the only thing that's changed our viewing experience. We've been offered more and more choices of things to watch, and more flexibility in when we can watch.

Community Antenna Television (called CATV) was originally developed to get TV signals and advertisements to the hollows and valleys of America where reception was pretty awful. Community antennas were great big antennas, usually set up on hills.

They were able to pick up signals beyond the hope of the fanciest home antenna. Some used cables to get the signals down to houses in the valley.

We got cable TV. And then we got TV bounced off satellites. Suddenly we were able to get stations from all over, including Ted Turner's pioneering WTBS.

That trend toward abundance continues. Cable and satellite systems can now deliver hundreds of channels and special packages. But that leaves us with a viewing management problem.

In the beginning we programmed our lives around the shows we wanted to watch. We had no choice.

But, technology to the rescue. First there were VCRs. They let you record a show even when you weren't there.

Now there are digital recording systems. Tivo is the best known. Those systems let you do all kinds of things to control what you watch and when. They also let you skip commercials without leaving the room and that's shaking the foundations of the TV business.

While everything else has changed, the television business model has been the same for decades. Revenue has been mostly advertising, with a few fees. That's going to have to change.

You can be sure that the stations, the networks and the advertisers will fight to maintain and adapt the old system. That's how the folks with investment in old models always react.

We don't know exactly what the new business model will be but it's almost certain to give you more choice in how many and what kind of ads you see on your TV. My guess is that model will begin to emerge before the decade is out.