Visualizing The Future

( TV )

The Boob Tube

Some people have no telephones or refrigerators; but they have a TV. Most statistics claim an estimated 99% of American homes have at least one TV. But, this claim is no longer sufficient in estimating the size and scope of the TV market. Without authoritative background, it's fair to say most homes have more than one TV.

Some homes have a TV in every room, including the bathroom and garage. Plus, there are portable TVs. As if that's not enough, people spend hours in bars watching TVs. Now, TV shows are downloadable from the Internet and viewable on screens that fit in the palm of a hand (the iPod).

One of the most popular past times of prisoners is watching TV. Trials, wars and Presidential speeches are broadcast on TV. Clearly, TV is a cultural and technological phenomenon rivaling the lightbulb, the telephone and the car, perhaps even more so, considering that the automobile and telephone/cellphone industries rely heavily on TV advertising to generate sales.

No electronic device causes as much controversy as the TV, not so much for its technology and money making ability, but for its content. The severest critics scream, "Too much sex and violence." Hollywood--the mother of TV--gets the same digs. V-Chips enable parents to take control over what their children watch, endorsed by the omni-presence of the FCC, the media and communications watchdog. But for the most part, TV has charmed us with a host of stars and shows that have defined American culture. That's not completely accurate. TV is a global phenomenon.

In America, reruns keep the Golden Age of the 50s alive with shows like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet. The success of some shows is overwhelming and can't be measured. M.A.S.H. is on constantly, a show that's been on since the 70s. And then, there's The 70s Show. The stars of Friends allegedly commanded a million bucks per episode. But that's trade talk. Salary information on TV stars is as mythical as the shows they star in. However, some of TVs biggest stars, like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Merv Griffin (amongst many others), are repeatedly reported as the wealthiest entertainers in show biz.

The galaxy of stars TV has given the public includes some of the most popular entertainers in entertainment history. Lucille Ball, Red Skeleton, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson...these names are legends. Shows like Jackie Gleason, Bandstand, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (where Goldie Hawn got her start), Gilligan's Island, I Dream of Genie, and dozens more, have become cultural phenomena. The Kennedy assassination was broadcast on TV. Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatle's to America. The Vietnam War was the first war to be broadcast daily into the homes of Americans. America--and the world--witnessed 9/11 on TV.

If anyone wants to sell something, TV is the place to do it. The cost of 30-second spots during prime time and specialized events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards run into the millions. Major corporations like McDonalds and Coca-Cola spend more on TV advertising than any other corporate expenditure. And people love to hate commercials.

When the remote came along, it was the first means viewers had of avoiding commercials. But timing was critical. Mindless flipping through channels or excessively long kitchen, bathroom and telephone call breaks could mean missing part of a program. And programmers are quite savvy. They can time a program in such a way that if a viewer is not watching the second a program returns, they could miss a vital plot link.

Cable and satellite TV came along and promised an end to nuisance advertising. However, regular broadcasting networks still thrive and commercials remain a necessary evil. Some commercials are very well put together and even enjoyable to watch. They've become mini-programs, in a sense, with humor, dialog, story lines and all the special effects found in Hollywood. Like Hollywood's Oscars, TV's Emmys, the TV commercial world has the Clio Award. A number of well known actors, directors and other media professionals got their start in commercials. Regardless, the goal remains the same: sell something.

TV trivia rivals movie trivia. Who was the first female broadcaster? When was the first color TV introduced? What was the first commercial ever aired? What was the first televised sports event? How old is Al Bundy?

TV History

Through the early 20th century, up to the Golden Age of TV (late 40s and 50s), to HDTV and Satellite TV today, the history of television broadcasting is vast. The US began experimental mechanical broadcasting in the mid-to-late 1920s, and experimental electronic (Cathode-ray-tube) broadcasting in the late 30s, early 40s.

In the 1870s, the "selenium camera" was a device that would allow people to "see by electricity." Other similar devices at the time were called telectroscopes. Eugen Goldstein introduced "cathode rays" to describe the light emitted when an electric current was forced through a vacuum tube. Sheldon Bidwell experimented with telephotography. In Germany, Paul Nipkow patented the "electric telescope."

Alexander Graham Bell, along with others of his time, imagined "seeing" through a telephone. Bell called his device, simply, the "photophone." During the 1st International Congress of Electricity held at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, "distance vision" was a popular subject. Allegedly this is also where the word "television" was first heard. In 1927, Bell Laboratories and the Department of Commerce held the 1st long-distance transmission of a live picture and voice simultaneously.

Then secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was the "star" of the show, announcing the technological breakthrough. Ironically, it was another World Fair in 1939 where RCA's David Sarnoff generated new interest in RCA's new line of TV receivers that had to be connected to radios for sound.

Coaxial cable lines (pure copper or copper-coated wire surrounded by insulation and an aluminum covering) used to transmit television, telephone and data signals were first laid by AT&T between New York and Philadelphia in 1936. In 1945 the 1st experimental microwave relay system was introduced by Western Union between New York and Philadelphia. This distribution system transmitted communication signals via radio along a series of towers. With lower costs than coaxial cable, microwave relay stations carried most TV traffic by the 70s.

Between 1945 and 1948 the number of commercial (as opposed to experimental) television stations grew from 9 to 48 and the number of cities having commercial service went from 8 to 23. Sales of television sets increased 500%. In 1946 Peter Goldmark, working for CBS, demonstrated his color television system to the FCC. Also in the late 40s, playwrights Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayevsky and others introduced Americans to high drama in programs like Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, and the Actors Studio. John Cameron Swayze introduced America to weekday news programming via the Camel Newsreel Theater in 1948. By 1960 there were 440 commercial VHF stations, 75 UHF stations, and 85% of U.S. households had a television set.

The 1960s through the 1980s represented a period of expansion that spawned a slew of new devices and technology. In 1962, the world experienced the 1st transatlantic reception of a television signal via the TELSTAR satellite, launched by NASA. By 1967 most network programming was in color and in 1972 half of U.S. households had a color television.

In 1975, HBO, then a fledgling company, bought the rights to the live transmission of The Thrilla from Manila, the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Subscribing cable viewers saw the historic fight as it was happening. The ability of satellite communications to broadcast real-time images from around the world, revolutionized TV, and it revolutionized the way humans viewed the world. In 1978 PBS was the 1st network to deliver all its programming via satellite instead of landlines.

Home videotaping was another major technology introduced during this time. In 1972 the Phillips Corporation introduced video cassette recording (VCR) for the home. Sony's Betamax format in 1976 morphed into RCA's VHS format. By 1985 the VHS format dominated the U.S. home market.

Fiber optic cable was introduced in 1970 by Corning's Robert Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter Schultz. Fiber optic cable is transparent rods of glass or plastic stretched so they are long and flexible and transmit information digitally using rapid pulses of light. Fiber optic cable could carry 65,000 times more information than conventional copper wire.

High definition television (HDTV) was also introduced during this period. In 1981 NHK, the Japanese National Broadcasting Company demonstrated their 1,125 line HDTV system to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers at a conference in San Francisco. The sharpness of a television picture is a function of the number of lines per screen--the more lines the sharper and more vivid the image. In the 1920s, pictures were broadcast between 30 and 60 lines.


The convergence--or marriage-- of digital technologies, broadband networks, movies, radio and television will spawn a new device that does it all and fits in the pocket. Even those who can't see or hear will be fitted with artificial intelligence, allowing them to see and hear better than most people do normally. Shows will become so interactive (some form of virtual reality) it will be impossible to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The viewer will be the star.

In the new millennium, analog TVs still proliferate, but this is changing fast. Digital TV (DTV) is setting new standards. Satellite dishes now pepper backyards and rooftops all over America. TV shows are viewed on flat screen computer monitors, downloaded straight to a large screen, high definition home entertainment system, or downloaded to portable devices like iPods.

Somewhere, there's a guy in a cheap motel room, still trying to adjust a coat hanger to get better reception on a black and white TV. It's late at night, and the best he can hope for is an info-commercial selling some exercise device designed to shape abdominal muscles into a washboard. If he's lucky, he might get a re-run of I Love Lucy.

^ Top ^