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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for FRESH AIR.

I teach TV history at Rowan University, and today — right now, all over the country — TV history is being made. It started this morning and is supposed to conclude by midnight: the switch from analog to digital television transmission. The new TVs you bought in the past few years, the ones with digital tuners or analog-to-digital converters, will have access to high-def images, and maybe even a whole range of new channels. If your TV gets its programming from a cable or satellite company, things should stay pretty much the same.

But if you're one of the estimated 20 million households getting its TV signals exclusively over the air, and you don't have a digital set or converter, today you enter the new Dark Ages. And today, as those analog-to-digital switches are flipped by local TV stations across the country, we lose one more clear connection to our past. Until today, anyone tuning on an old-fashioned analog TV set and scanning the dial could find programming the same way as when networks started broadcasting after World War II. Signals were broadcast over the air by local stations. And the stronger the signal where you lived, the better the sound and picture.

If there were mountains in the way, or tall buildings, it got trickier — which is why we got cable TV in the first place. But for more than 60 years, no matter what improvements and alternatives have hit the TV landscape, the same basic over-the-air distribution system has remained in place. A few years ago, I restored my father's old first TV set. It was a Raytheon, a 1947 model with a round screen and with horizontal and vertical control knobs in front to help lock in the picture. My dad would have been 24 when he got that set. The next year, 1948, he watched Milton Berle on "Texaco Star Theater" and Ed Sullivan on "Toast of the Town". I know because we talked about it.

A generation later, I watched a different black-and-white TV. I was in my 20s before I learned that when Dorothy got to Oz, everything switched to color. But it was the same analog system of delivery, even though the UHF, or ultra high frequency spectrum, had been added to provide a few more options. My son is now the age of my father was when he got his first television set. Just as I was part of the first true TV generation, when television was in the house from the start, young people today grew up with cable. Today's kids don't even think of TV as broadcast or cable.

CBS and NBC are just other choices on their on-screen menus, no different from Nickelodeon or Comedy Central. But they are different - or used to be, until today. Before today, if you tune in an analog television set to your local public TV station, you heard this.

(Soundbite of song, "Sesame Street Theme Song")

Unidentified Group: Sunny Day. Sweepin' the clouds away. On my way to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

BIANCULLI: But tune to the same station using the same set tomorrow morning, and you'll hear this.

(Soundbite of static)

BIANCULLI: The reason for this change is the same reason for all the changes on TV these days: economics. The VHF frequency used, until today by broadcast television, is like the middle of a river. It's where things flow the most smoothly, with the fewest barriers. The government has sold that part of the public airwaves, for some $20 billion, to such eager buyers as Verizon and AT&T. They, in turn, will use it to provide more reliable and faster service for the next generation of mobile broadband phones and portable devices. So in theory, we'll soon have six times as many digital channels as we once had analog channels, and more gadget-packed phones as well.

But, using history as our guide, here's the downside. Just because a new technology opens up the potential for a wider spectrum of diversity doesn't mean it will happen. FM radio was supposed to free up the airwaves in the '60s, and cable TV was supposed to bring us channels dedicated to opera, jazz -anything anyone wanted. But most broadcasters chased after the same fat pieces of the pie rather than produce expensive programs for limited audiences. Why, with digital channels, should any of that change? But the biggest worry to me, is the elitist underbelly of all this.

One of the most noble and encouraging developments in all of TV history has been public television, with its electronic head start given to poor children in poor communities. If they had a TV set at home, no matter how small or how old it was, they could tune to "Sesame Street" or "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and start to learn. But after today, if those families haven't converted to digital TV — and lower-income households are the most likely not to — their television sets no longer will be brought to them by the letter T, or V, much less TV. If Marie Antoinette were a member of the FCC, she'll have no problem with this. I can hear her now - let them eat cable.

(Soundbite of song, "C is for Cookie")

Mr. FRANK OZ (Actor): (as Cookie Monster) Now what starts with the letter C? Cookie starts with C. Let's think of other things that start with C. Oh, who cares about the other things? C is for cookie, that's good enough for me. C is for cookie, that's good enough for me.

BIANCULLI: You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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