Monday, March 12, 2012

Free Television: a Political Commentary

I remember in 1954 when my dad brought home our first television. Its box was huge, about twice the size of a large microwave, and had a black-and-white screen smaller than an iPad.  He set it on top of our home radio-record player, our only source of entertainment up until that time and a balancing feat for sure. I no longer had to imagine what the Lone Ranger looked like, or what damage occurred in the crashing noises coming from the speaker, or hide under my bed when I heard the door squeak for the program Inner Sanctum; I could now see it with my own eyes.

We all gathered around a popcorn bowl and watched its dim glow across from the couch; it was a time all of us in our family came together like a picnic in the park. Our antenna was a pair of expandable rods known as "rabbit ears" and my dad put aluminum foil at the ends to help improve reception. He always fussed with it to try to make the tiny picture less grainy, and it did help a little; I guess it was just a guy thing.


This form of entertainment was reasonably new and stations went off-the-air at midnight to the sound of the Star Spangled Banner, and some as early as 10PM. We had five channels and most of the broadcasts were live, but as the market grew and audiences asked for more, many changes came to be.

60-second commercials started and ended each program with another at the midpoint of the show telling your usually about new cars, cosmetics, cereal, and toys. I Love Lucy and was one of my favorites. And then along came color.

Wow! In 1956, the tiny B&W box died and my dad replaced it with a huge, curved 19" screen. I thought I was in heaven. I was not allowed to touch it since I definitely had the tendency to twiddle the knobs adjusting the tint and hue for the best skin tones. My dad would come back and readjust it to what he liked, usually slightly red faces and really green grass.

 With color came more commercials, now two minutes to start and another every ten minutes. It didn't bother me at first since I was more impressed by what I saw, and I was too young at the time to really want anything other than to go outside and play with my friends. TV was just something to do when it was raining or snowing too hard to enjoy it. It had its place and most of the time it was turned off anyway. I still preferred listening to records through the old stereo, now gathering dust under the big round tube.

Leap forward now from this time closer to today where the market was very different from its innocent distant past. When cable first entered the scene, it touted "No Commercials" as part of its hook. For a small fee, you could watch a program and skip over the now annoying sales hype and get down to the business of being entertained by the "boob tube." It was great and for a few dollars a month, you really found value in buying its service.

Well, that didn't last long. As soon as a "critical mass" was reached, and viewers again asked for more, cable companies responded and added their own brand new programming along with the obligatory commercials. Slotted commercial interruption times were still small, usually two minutes before and after with three interruptions, but you can see the pattern now. Programming cost more and to recover costs, more commercials were permitted.

Today with digital TV, one of the greatest scams ever to be executed came with its introduction. Up until that time, all television sets used analog decoding and the old antenna to pull in the signal. Now, a box that converted the digital signal to analog was needed even to watch a program. Cable companies executed a well choreographed demise of the free antenna signal in hopes of eliminating it. After all, now they were making money coming and going by selling you a piece of wire; the FCC required them to still give the digital signal away for free as they had done since television's inception.  Giving something away for free now rubs against the corporate grain and I;m certain the wheels are spinning at the top.  It wasn't exactly sure how successful this effort was until recently.

I walked into Wal-Mart about a year ago and passed a stand where an employee of a satellite company asked me, "How much are you paying for cable?" This was a big presumption on the part of the sales person and one to which I immediately replied, "Nothing!" To her astonishment, this 18-year old asked, :"How do you do that?" to which I responded, "I use an ANTENNA." Puzzled, she asked, "What's an antenna?"

It then struck me that within the next few generations, maybe sooner, cable and satellite companies will deliberately try to eliminate the need to support "over the air" (aka free) television. After all, they can make more money not having to maintain that tower and transmitter, and I can truly see where this is going. The FCC holds the keys to who can use what part of the broadcast spectrum and if they can one day convince the FCC that no one watches free TV anymore, they can lobby to eliminate it.

Imagine that! Paying to watch commercials and being forced to do so! Another freedom on the verge of being lost.

You may logically defend the need to re-allocate the television band and use it for cell phones or Internet whatever, but I believe there is a two-edged sword we must be cautious of what we choose. As the lyrics go, this is the "Land of the Free" and to resort to buying television programming takes us one step closer to the tale in George Orwell's classic novel, 1984. George had it partly right in that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and he did believe that television and video cameras would bring this about. We are getting closer to George's pessimistic plot every day.

I enjoy free television and do not subscribe to cable. There was a time that I did, but I kicked the habit and use my money to buy good stereo gear instead. I do not believe that paying to watch commercials is the right thing for me and I hope for you to do too. I watch 34 over-the-air digital high-definition channels with no signal fading about 50 miles from the Tampa transmitters and towers. A perfect picture, just like the one cable offers, and I have eight public television channels, three cartoon channels, and the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX). Imagine that!

Yesterday, I hooked up another friend's house and he is now detoxing from his cable addiction. He admitted that he really liked not having to pay to watch TV and was tipped into trying the antenna from the last cable rate increase. Another convert and another one spreading the "news." You don't need cable! You want cable. Understand the difference.

If you are tired of high cable costs, try an old fashioned antenna. You may find something that you have been missing: the right to your own, personal freedom of choice.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

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