Friday, June 12, 2009

Say Good-Bye to Snow

When I was a kid, we were lucky to be among the first on our street with a VHS VCR. It was a Panasonic, big huge thing too and heavy – not like technology these days which is small and light. Being a new device, and as with most things technological – even today sadly – the instructions weren’t very well written.

I remember all the noise. The television’s volume must have been way up high, because you could hear the static throughout the house. The sounds of static were occasionally broken by my dad cursing and swearing, as he muddled with all the cables, trying to figure out how to make his new toy work.

Eventually he got the VCR hooked up, and we were all awed by its newness. We recorded our favourite shows, rented movies, and would occasionally watch one show while taping another. The novelty of it all!

Today is a historic and somewhat sad day in the United States of America – where television originated. As of midnight tonight, all television stations will be broadcasting strictly in digital format.

This is good for those of us who have cable, satellite, and digital cable boxes, but bad for those who still use “rabbit ears.”

“Rabbit ears” or “bunny ears” are the affectionate names given to those two pieces of hollow metal tube-like antennas used to capture the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) analogue television stations freely.

As of midnight tonight, analogue television broadcasts will be gone in the States, so anyone using bunny ears to tune into their favourite shows will be watching a snowy, static filled screen.

The move in the States is to allow for progress towards better digital sound and picture, but the underlying reason is money – as it often is.

The American government will auction off the old UHF channels to mobile phone companies and make a sweet profit from the deal. With all the cell phone companies in the States jockeying for more frequencies to carry their signals, some are saying the American government could make millions or even a billion or two off of these stations.

With all the government bail-outs, the Obama administration sure could use the money. However, this change represents a new move towards the commercialization of the airwaves.

Gone are the days when you could go up north, plug in an old beat-up TV into any old electrical outlet, turn it to channel three, fidget with the rabbit ears, and eventually see a snowy screen turn to a glowing picture.

These days, you’ll have to subscribe to a television services provider to receive signal, or buy or rent a digital to analogue converter box to capture the now purely digital broadcasts.

We’ve already seen attempts to commercialize the airwaves – just look at satellite radio. Most of us probably have thought about subscribing, but haven’t – because there is little point. You can still get radio for free off the airwaves, or plug in your MP3 player and listen to your own customized-show, with all the songs you want to hear. That’ probably why the two satellite companies XM and Sirius merged in the States, and despite their merger, they are in the midst of a bankruptcy Chapter 11 filing. (Here in Canada, XM and Sirius are still broadcasting, but who knows what may happen, based on their parent company’s actions in the States.)

Television is different though, as the “switch” sending out all those free channels on the UHF band is being shut-off permanently. The “off switch” will be flung tonight in the States, and in 2011 up here in Canada. This will force people to pay to watch their favourite shows.

Though for most Canadians, that won’t be much of a problem – Canada has been ranked in the top ten of the most wired countries for the past ten-years straight. Most people here do have cable or satellite, and have been enjoying digital television for years.

I’ve had a digital cable setup for at least the past four-years and love it. I especially enjoy my new PVR which I’ve only had a few months – it essentially replaces all the functions of a VCR, only it records everything in pure digital high definition.

Through my digital cable boxes, I get over 500 channels – and several on-demand channels which are pretty cool. Despite all the channels, sometimes, there still isn’t anything worthwhile on!

That said, today is a lukewarm day in television history – as it marks the end of free UHF television, as we move towards a pay-for-use digital dial.

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