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Analog Is Dead. Long Live Digital?

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-definition 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 their 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 turning 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 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 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 menu, no different from Nickelodeon or Comedy Central. But they are different — or used to be, until today.

Before today, if you tuned an analog television set to your local public TV station, you might have heard the jaunty theme from Sesame Street. But tune to the same station using the same set tomorrow morning, and you'll hear nothing but static.

The reason for this change is the same reason for all the changes on TV these days: economics. The VHF 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 along with a wider spectrum doesn't mean it will happen. FM radio was supposed to free up the airwaves in the 1960s, 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?

The biggest worry to me, though, 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, they could tune to Sesame Street or Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and start to learn — and continue to smile and hope. 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'd have no problem with this. I can hear her now: Let them eat cable.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.