A Premature Funeral For Analog TV - InformationWeek

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04:07 PM
Roger Smith
Roger Smith

A Premature Funeral For Analog TV

Premature death observances must be in the air. First, Anne Thomas Manes proclaimed the Jan. 1, 2009, death of Service-Oriented Architecture, "SOA Is Dead; Long Live Services," and followed up with an open invitation to a wake. Earlier this week, I attended a funeral service that featured eu

Premature death observances must be in the air. First, Anne Thomas Manes proclaimed the Jan. 1, 2009, death of Service-Oriented Architecture, "SOA Is Dead; Long Live Services," and followed up with an open invitation to a wake. Earlier this week, I attended a funeral service that featured eulogies from author Bruce Sterling, technology pundit Paul Saffo, and others at the Berkeley Art Museum to mourn the (premature) loss of the analog television Signal.Even though the federal deadline for TV stations to switch completely to digital broadcasting has been pushed back to June 12, the funeral event went on as planned on Feb. 17 because, according to one of the event organizers, Alexander Rose of the LongNow Foundation, "we prefer to bury a fresh corpse rather than wait for the walking dead to fall over."

"This is the beginning of the end," Rose said. "June 12th will be the end of the end," saying he was confident Congress will issue a final "do not resuscitate order" then. He attributed the delay to lobbying by Hollywood and the broadcast TV industry, who were worried that confusion and technical glitches during the traditional February ratings sweeps month would lead to a sharp decline in viewership, which, in turn, would lead to a decline in advertising rates. Earlier this year Nielsen Media Research, who tracks the ratings, announced that, for this year only, "to avoid potential disruptions," the sweeps would move to March. "So it isn't surprising that Congress moved the date back," Rose said.

The Long Now Foundation, along with the Pacific Film Archive at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Berkeley Center for New Media, organized the event and handed out remembrance cards that commemorated the life of analog TV thusly:


    Born in the 1920s in San Francisco, the signal has been an integral part of all our lives, bringing us news of the rich, the famous, the politicians, the wars, the Apollo landings, the thrills of victory, and the agonies of defeat. While Analog Television has not been a good friend to us all, it has been important to each and every one of us. Analog Television is survived by its wife, Digital Television, and its second cousin, Internet Television.

Bruce Sterling, one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction, appeared via a televised recording he created specifically for the event. The 15-minute segment dramatized Sterling as a hard-bitten press reporter interviewing various prognosticators on the future of television at the International Cathode Ray Congress of 1934, for a time capsule that would be stored by the Pacific Film Archive, one of the funeral organizers. Not surprisingly, both of Sterling's guests predicted that analog TV would die precisely on Feb. 18, 2009, "most likely eaten alive by something weirder, such as a giant electronic brain," akin to the "World Brain" predicted by H.G. Wells in a book published in the 1930s.

Reporter and television booster Sterling ended his time-capsule recording dated 1934 with a riff on television and progress, saying television is a wonderful thing to celebrate in these dark economic times. "I'm convinced that a few talented people with a good idea up at the snowline can give one good push, one good shout, and tremendous avalanche will sweep down the mountainside smashing every obstacle in its path. That's technical progress! And I know that progress is the fate of humanity."

Paul Saffo, Stanford professor and media scholar, gave a similar upbeat talk about the history and future of broadcast media in the Museum Theater, telling the audience not to mourn analog TV too long since analog TV broadcasts are forever. "We have 32 star systems within 15 light years, 133 stars visible in 50 light years. From when "I Love Lucy" went on air in 1951, just think about which stars it's gone past! By 1955, Lucy had passed Alpha Centauri, the same year Roy Croc founded McDonald's," Saffo said. "By 1957, it was going past Barnard's Star just when Wham-o invented the Frisbee; 15 years later, during the Vietnam War, it crossed Altair and that was the year of the first pirate radio station anchored off the coast of Britain; 40 years before we discovered planets around Gliese 8766, those TV signals passed those planets that may perhaps be habitable."

night sky

Saffo reminded the 200-plus audience members that we've discovered approximately 200 extra-solar planets, "but maybe they've discovered us first. Maybe they're sitting out there watching reruns of Gilligan's Island or Laugh-in. And now television is approaching the Hyades Cluster and who knows, who knows, what alien presences are wondering about... who in the world did this stuff? One wonders, who is watching Andy Williams re-runs as we speak? Who is watching us? But perhaps we weren't the only one to invent analog television. Maybe we shouldn't recycle our televisions just yet. Maybe we should aim our rabbit ears at a little steeper angle and get out some aluminum foil and make a parabolic dish and aim it at the sky, because, who knows what signals are headed our way?"

Claire Jackel, a program director with the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts whose mission is community building through progressive arts, said that one of the things she would miss about analog TV is static, also known as white noise or 'snow,' which happens when analog TVs can't acquire a signal. Jackel said that a current personal art project she was working on, which may have relevance to the death of analog TV, involved building detailed paper airplane models and setting them on fire. Asked if she thought Saffo's tour of the known galaxies was a case of analog TV finding new worlds to conquer, Jackel said that it's more likely the inverse and any aliens out there will see and want to conquer us. "We may have lost our hiding place," she concluded.

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