Opinion: A look at television history, from analog to digital

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Opinion: A look at television history, from analog to digital

Opinion – Richmond (VA) – In 1927 a man by the name of Philo Farnsworth patented an early version of the cathode receptor, a device which would change mankind forever. It allowed television signals to be encoded, broadcast through the air, and reassembled on a display. While similar competing inventions existed, Farnsworth’s “Image dissector” patent was upheld in court, and he is largely credited as the man responsible for giving us television. That was just over 81 years ago, meaning many of our (great) grandparents will remember the days before TV.

Here we are some years later getting ready to change TV again. While nearly all television broadcast signals have been analog up until now, beginning this week in some locations in California, and on February 17, 2009 everywhere in the United States, the majority of television viewers will jump off the analog signal bandwagon as all full-power TV broadcasts in the United States must switchover to fully digital.

Early TV was only black and white

Black and white images were the first ones broadcast. They involved a single video signal which varied only in intensity (with brighter and darker parts comprising the image). Early television sets were hampered by visible distortions from fluctuating magnetic fields due to variations in internal components (vacuum tubes), weak signals due to poor antennas and displays which, despite having everything working properly, do not show the high contrast ratios we expect today.

There were often a dozen control knobs which altered tuning on various aspects of the display (much like early computer monitors). The early TVs also used parts which were not always up to later standards, such as those today where we expect something to work perfectly and without much adjustment from the moment we switch it on.

Few people remember TVs taking a couple dozen seconds or so to warm up and begin showing the picture. Or the heat plumes generated by TVs in operation as they could literally heat up an entire room by themselves. Or the high pitched squealing as some components emitted sounds in the range of human perception.

Also, there used to be huge aerial antennas sticking up off the top of the house, some of them 30 or more feet high (the taller the better reception). The more advanced antennas could be rotated by going outside and twisting them through their inner shaft. This helped pick up distant stations more clearly. Some of the expensive advanced models could be turned by remote control from inside the house. And when the weather was just right, those massive antennas would pick up stations from other states, even if only for an hour or two.

And even now, most of our kids would find it hard to believe that families only had one TV for the entire house – if you had any at all. Some of us growing up in the 1960s and 70s had to go to nearby friend’s houses to watch TV – and that was a very big deal holding much respect for those invited over.

TV repair shops

Television repair shops also used to dot most city’s landscape. There, a defective TV could be brought in and, after swapping out a vacuum tube or two, a bad television would be fixed. Today, when the TV stops working it goes to the curb and a new one is obtained (probably through online ordering). In the early days the innards could be replaced piecemeal when damaged, and repairing a TV was far less costly than buying a new one (still would be with modularity, by the way).

Televisions, along with tube-based AM-only radios, were the apex of family entertainment centers. Everybody would gather around to watch and listen to their favorite live TV and radio shows, a fact reminded us by popular movies like Back to the Future and Stand By Me. TV served as a supplement, not a replacement for normal life living activities.

Color TV

Black and white TVs reigned supreme even until the late 1970s or early 1980s in some areas, long after most broadcasters had switched to color signals. Color TVs were comparatively expensive, and their contrasts were not as good. An average black and white TV picture often looked much better than an average color TV picture. This was due to the higher contrasts and greater detail visible on a black and white image. [In my personal opinion, even today black and white often looks better than color, at least on anything 480p or lower.]

Though color TV was first demonstrated about the same time as Farnsworth’s 1927 invention, it had no practical application for more than 10 years after that. In the early 1940s, NBC and ABC began testing color TV signals. At first they used devices which had mechanical parts, but later went fully electronic. It wasn’t until the 1950s when color TV became a standard feature that was available. And it wasn’t until the 1980s when color TVs became the dominant form in people’s homes now that pretty much everything was broadcast color.

Satellite TV

It was about that same time (late 1970s) that satellite television systems began gaining in popularity, though satellites had been used to broadcast TV since the 1960s.

Unlike DirecTV and Dish Networks today though, the satellite dishes back then were enormous constructs, often eight feet or more in diameter. They also had manual motors with indoor controls used to position them from satellite to satellite so they could receive the many signals in the various bands being broadcast. This often resulted in seeing many off-air broadcasts, or pre-show broadcasts. For those who remember those days, it was really quite something to spend hours surfing manually to see what could be seen. The signals broadcast were analog in either scrambled or unscrambled form, and in NTSC, PAL or SECAM – often making many of the broadcasts unviewable here in the U.S.

Digital TV

Digital TV’s roots have been tied very closely to the availability of inexpensive, high performance computers. It wasn’t until the 1990s that digital TV became a real possibility. And since then the technology has decreased in size and cost making it now the desirable alternative for companies, though there are many visible traits inherent to digital broadcasts which make them of lower quality than analog.

Digital TV is being pushed in the United States today because it offers new abilities analog does not. This was proven as the famous Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction occurred during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show (a case which may soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as the $550K fines levied by the FCC have never been paid by CBS). Digital trackers were able to determine that TiVo users replayed that event over 3x as often as any other event during the whole Super Bowl.

That information would not have been possible without digital TV, and devices like TiVo recording the stations being watched and remote control actions issued by the user. It’s almost Big Brotherish in how much information the digital systems can tell broadcasting companies about our viewing habits.

New developments in television technology are evolving all the time. Organic light emitting diode televisions, for example, are more energy efficient and stream television with light that’s better for your eyes. You can find OLED televisions for sale online here.

Switchover from analog to digital

On February 17, 2009, all “full power” analog TV stations in the United States must switch over to digital signals. These will require a converter box which may, like the TiVo, capture viewer information and send it back to companies who can then use its gathered data to determine how better to bring the consumers new shows, or how better to advertise products.

Three other classes of stations will continue to broadcast analog signals. These are “low-power stations,” “Class A stations” and “TV translator” stations. There are approximately 7,100 of these lower-powered analog broadcasters in the United States. They will continue to broadcast in analog as there is currently no date set for their conversion to digital-only.


No other invention in the history of mankind has had more influence on our social lives. If seeing is believing, and digital will soon be the norm, then from this point forward everything changes.

Our children will grow up in a world never knowing what we have known, not experiencing the “romantic connection” with the evolution of the TV. They will have high-definition digital from day-one, though it will begin to come in new forms and be less costly. The presentation will also get better as user-technologies (like the holograms seen on CNN during the presidential election) improve the “new media” over time – at least in more eye-appealing ways.

In short, it will be a far more beautiful, far more graphical, far more digital/high-definition future. Only one question remains though: will our kids be any better off because of it? In my personal opinion the answer is no, as I believe content is far more important than presentation.