As TV Changes To Digital, White Noise Fades Away

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A familiar sight and sound is disappearing as digital TV takes over from analog: television snow and the "white noise" that accompanies it.


If you're a certain age, you might remember falling asleep while watching television and waking up in the middle of the night to hear this.

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Don't adjust that dial, and this is not a test, just a note on a sight and sound that's fading from our lives as digital television takes over. Television snow and the white noise that accompanies it are an analog phenomenon.

Now, white noise is annoying, but with digital television, your TV does something different. The picture sometimes pixilates or even disappears. At least with analog, you could still watch a channel that was a little fuzzy.

Paul Saffo is a technology forecaster and Stanford engineering consulting professor. He says he found the sound of snow soothing.

Professor PAUL SAFFO (Engineering, Stanford University; Technology Forecaster): Waking up late at night to the hiss of white noise on a screen was a little bit like waking up in bed with the light on and a book on the blanket.

NORRIS: And snow holds a special place in popular culture.

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NORRIS: That's HBO. The cable channel still uses that sound to introduce its programs, or think of that scene from "Poltergeist."

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Ms. HEATHER O'ROURKE (Actress): (As Carole Anne Freeling) They're here.

NORRIS: That little girl, confronted by an apparition from a snowy television set, as though it has some sort of cosmic connection. Paul Saffo says that's not far off.

Mr. SAFFO: Snow is just radio energy that the TV is catching and trying to turn into an image, but it can't make it into an image because it's coming from radio stations or transformers or appliances, but a big portion of the snow is actually coming from the universe. It is the cosmic background radiation leftover from the Big Bang 13 billion years ago. So in a way, it's fossil radio signals from the universe.

NORRIS: And those signals will remain, but we won't encounter them so much anymore. Then again, low-power television stations with analog signals will still be broadcasting. And if you're among the estimated two to three million people who are not prepared for the digital conversion, you might be watching an awful lot more of that snow.

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