It's the end of the broadcast world as we know it, and if you feel fine then you haven't been paying attention.
On June 12, the federally mandated transition from analog television to digital was finally completed, meaning the end of traditional terrestrial TV transmission. To mark the occasion, Orlando conceptual artist Brian Feldman (Pillowlando, Sleepwalk) concluded his semi-epic End of Television trilogy with a day-long installation at Frames Forever in Winter Park. A motley collection of secondhand tubes decorated the storefront window, displaying the last gasp of analog imagery to audience members seated on the sidewalk. The daylong performance began as a news crew from the local CBS affiliate interviewed Feldman and documented the decommissioning of WKMG-TV Channel 6's signal for the morning news. It continued through the evening as Orlando's remaining analog outlets decommissioned one by one, concluding with the Trinity Broadcasting Network around midnight.
I arrived at 1 p.m. to watch our local ABC franchise fade out. First, Martie Salt and Bob Opsahl addressed the analog audience for a final time, warning viewers that they were about to lose their signal and repeating the well-worn instructions for obtaining a digital converter box. Then, following one last dog food commercial, an old-fashioned-looking station identification logo (featuring a marvelously mod cartoon cat) appeared. An anonymous announcer intoned on WFTV Channel 9's proud 50-plus year history of analog broadcast service. The image slowly faded to black, there was a sharp popping noise and the rest was static. I was a bit disappointed by the absence of Americana — remember when stations signed off nightly with a waving flag and the national anthem? — but there was still a sort of sad solemnity to the occasion.
The majority of you reading this are probably wondering, "What's up with the weeping and wailing over outdated technology? What's to miss about a handful of static-plagued, ghost-ridden stations when you can now receive dozens more with rock-steady digital reliability, with high-definition widescreen and surround-sound thrown in at no extra charge?" For the majority of the TV-watching public who receive satellite or cable signals, this will likely seem much ado about nothing; the termination of this protracted transition period just means an end to ad nauseam public service announcements on the subject.
But while most people were prepared to bid analog adieu, many were not. According to National Public Radio, the Federal Communications Commission hotline received over 700,000 questions and complaints on the transition last week alone. Those left out of the digital revolution are disproportionately poor, elderly and/or rural, and the converter coupon program implemented to assist them was underfunded.
You can say that those who didn't upgrade in time are simply SOL; that the government has no business subsidizing slowpokes' sedentary stimulation. But like it or not, as the most powerful communication medium in history, television is now indispensably interwoven in our societal fabric. Not only is it, for better or worse, the biggest unifying element in current-day culture, it's also the first source most people turn to for life-saving information in the event of an emergency. See if you're still apathetic about analog's absence when the next hurricane hits and your battery-powered TV is kaput (digital-ready sets that don't require AC power are almost impossible to find now).
Analog's end may also spell tough times for the live entertainment industry. Communications companies like Google are eagerly eyeing the "white space" signal frequencies that TV is vacating, hoping to gobble them up for the next generation of cell phones and similar gadgets. Unfortunately, that spectrum is also used by billions of dollars' worth of wireless microphones and similar short-range emitters that theaters and concert venues around the country rely on. They've operated in a legal gray area for decades, but now the high-tech giants are lobbying to bring down the Fed's regulatory hammer. If the next show you see at the Bob Carr has even worse amplification than usual, this may be the reason.
Finally, there's a reason to retain analog technology — not just in television, but in all media — that few people consider: the far future. The aliens in Contact were able to observe humanity (and send Jodie Foster on a CGI acid trip) because they could intercept and interpret our analog broadcast signals; a digital stream would be a meaningless string of zeros and ones to them. Likewise, millennia from now, when archeologists excavate the societies that crumbled in 2012, the digital CDs and Blu-ray discs they find will be as indecipherable as my TI-99/4A cassette tapes and Commodore Amiga floppies. But as long as there are still sharp needles and paper cones, they'll still be able to play my vinyl collection of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.[email protected]