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Since television became publicly available in the 1930s as a medium for transmitting and receiving moving images and sounds, its role in the world has become so vast that treating it as a unitary phenomenon with a single line of history is nearly impossible. The technical origins of television can be traced to different parts of the world; its cultural impact can now be felt in every sector of life—for viewers and nonviewers alike.
Television (or TV) is an electronic transmission system that sends and receives visual images and sounds from a source to multiple receivers. The word television also refers to the set that receives and interprets the electronic signals of images and sounds. But television is so much more than the technology: television is a phenomenon that has changed the way we experience and conduct so many aspects of life.
The world’s first national public television service— its first high-definition service of programs to be delivered on a published schedule—was beamed from British Broadcasting Company (BBC) studios in London, on 2 November 1936. After the BBC correspondent Elizabeth Crowell (BBC 2007) announced, “This is direct television from Alexandra Palace,” (the now-famous landmark where the studios were located), an entertainer sang the following ditty:
The air has eyes that scan us from the skies
And ears that listen from the blue . . .
So you needn’t roam
From your own happy home,
The world will pass you in review.
Television was one of the nineteenth century’s confident predictions about technology in the twentieth, but it took decades of the new century to reach fruition and only in the second half did it become a global phenomenon. Television transformed political life when it arrived; a new “consumer” economy driven by the all-pervading cultural influences of the West came to depend upon it. The world indeed “passed in review,” but television led to a kind of secondary environment of images in which we all now live.
In the twenty-first century television is undergoing a technological and institutional transmutation. Between the 1950s and 1990s television was organized as a regulated and essentially national medium dependent on the scarce resource of electromagnetic frequencies. At the end of the era it was a medium of abundance, with hundreds of satellite, cable, and digital channels available in every home. These new sources of images, passing through new technologies and produced by a new generation of inexpensive miniaturized equipment, emerge from jurisdictions outside the receiving countries. Television once provided the essence of a nationally authorized culture; now it is inextricably part of an international industry, increasingly beyond the control of governments.
Television’s inventors, from the 1890s until the 1950s, thought of the medium as an alternative to radio, theater, or cinema—a new way of delivering information and entertainment—but they had little idea of television capacity to reach beyond those functions. What the inventors couldn’t anticipate was that television would become normative, that so much of what we view would contrive to suggest how things ought or ought not to be. Television has come to delineate for us the boundaries of transgression; beneath the most routine or trivial entertainment the medium operates as subtle instructor. It offers a continuous flow of experiences from which we have come to draw much of the substance of our identities.
Many have tried (although none have yet succeeded) in distilling the essence and nature of nature of television’s influence, but there’s no doubt television has changed and altered us. Almost since its inception television has spawned controversy. It may be difficult to trace the ideological influence of a single program but no one denies that television amplifies the processes of change in fashion and ideas, sometimes sparking political uproar. Our most influential images of authority derive from television; it is where we register at various levels of our minds the personae of heads of state, sporting heroes, and celebrities. To use the phrase commonly employed by sociologists, television “sets the agenda.”
Television can be traced to the scientists and engineers from all over the world who tried to send visual images over long distances. In 1873, the British telegraph engineer Joseph May introduced his discovery of selenium rods capable of converting light into an electric signal. Many engineers who dreamed of transmitting moving images welcomed this knowledge, because the photosensitivity of selenium rods meant the possibility of a “picture telegraph.”
The scanning disk, proposed by the German inventor Paul Nipkow in 1884, moved the dream a step closer. Although he never built it, Nipkow conceptualized a mechanical television employing two synchronically rotating disks, each with twenty-four holes. (See figure 1.) Once light was projected onto the outer rim of one scanning disk, the light would pass the holes one by one. A selenium cell situated behind the disk generated electric signals and the signal would reconstruct the original image by passing through the other rotating disk. As the rotating disks projected a sequence of signals, the disks would transfer a complete image.
Charles Francis Jenkins, the U.S. inventor of the first motion picture projector in 1895, demonstrated to the public the first transmission of a moving silhouette by wireless in 1922. Two years later, John Logie Baird, an engineer from Scotland, was the first to publicly demonstrate a mechanical television capable of transmitting halftone images. Jenkins was granted the first experimental television license from the U.S. Federal Radio Commission in 1927 and began broadcasting simple cartoon programs in 1928. Baird also received permission from the British Post Office to broadcast a short program three times a week with the BBC.
Competition between the Russian-born Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, who applied for a patent in 1923, and the U.S. inventor Philo Taylor Farnsworth, who presented first workable electronic television in 1927, spurred the development of electronic television. Farnsworth’s system employed a cathode ray tube, a vacuum tube coated with a phosphorescent material. A cathode ray could move at the speed of light, which solved the flickers from rotating disks. In 1934 Farnsworth developed an all-electronic television employing his image dissector tube at 250 lines per picture and 25 frames in collaboration with Baird Television Ltd. Meanwhile, Zworykin proposed the iconoscope in 1929, which influenced Electronic and Musical Industries Ltd. (EMI) to build an improved iconoscope tube in 1934.
While the London Television Service sold over 500 televisions a week, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the U.S. suffered from sluggish sales, largely because of poor resolution. Furthermore, multiple manufacturers in the United States adhered to incompatible standards and the number of available programs was small. In order to set a national standard, the National Television System Committee (NTSC) was formed in 1940 and the next year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a new 525-line NTSC system as a national television standard. Thanks to improved standards, the industry turned a corner.
The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) demonstrated the first color television soon after World War II. This enabled CBS to gain approval of color broadcasting from FCC in 1950. In 1951, RCA and NBC introduced a system capable of complete color broadcasting that was compatible with existing monotone televisions. NBC successfully transmitted the first coast-to-coast color broadcast in 1953. The new system was approved by the NTSC in 1952, forming the basis for all analog televisions in the United States. Canada, several Asian countries, and several Latin American countries adopted the U.S. standards.
Meanwhile, Europe made available two different standards of color television. In 1956, the French inventor Henri de France developed a 625-line standard, ensuring higher resolution than the U.S. system. Germany also employed a 625-line standard adopted by the BBC in 1964. Most European countries (excluding France), several Latin American countries, Australia, the Middle East, China, and several other Asian countries adopted the German system.
Cable television began in 1949 in the United States. The original use of cable was to serve communities with poor over-the-air signals reception. Cable TV adopted a redistribution system with a large community antenna connected by cable to individual homes. Fiber optics superseded coaxial cable, providing less interference and greater capacity. As capacity increased and cable systems digitalized, cable was capable of handling huge data with high bitrates such as high-speed Internet, telephony (including voice and fax), and on-demand video.
Cable television produced a noticeable impact on the television business model. Using a wire and a settop box, cable operators can control their service to reach designated subscribers and can provide various television channel tiers with different subscribers at different rates. After the early 1970s when the first pay television network, Home Box Office (HBO), emerged in the United States, the subscription-based revenue model (or pay TV) gained popularity.
Satellite television delivers broadcast signals via satellite. The first commercial communications satellite, nicknamed Early Bird, was launched by the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat) in 1965. HBO began using satellite to deliver its own signal to cable systems in 1976. The first direct broadcasting service, British Sky Television (BSkyB) was opened in 1989 as a free analog service. Two years later, BSkyB launched a subscription-based digital satellite service named Sky Digital. The emergence of satellite television poses a challenge to nation- based regulation systems. Satellite transmissions generated by one country can be received in neighboring countries, posing dilemmas such as programming from one country that threatens the national identity and cultural independence of another.
Digital television is an emerging technology with superior signal transmission. The advantage of digital over analog is to ensure optimal and efficient utilization of spectrum. Digital technology in television systems enables the broadcast of high-definition television (HDTV) and improved sound, the multicast of multiple programs over a single channel, and data communication for interactive web services. Most governments have firm plans of digital conversion for terrestrial televisions.
Digitalization promotes competition in the market in two ways. First, digitalization allows more channels transmitting over limited radio-waves. Second, digitalization of communications infrastructure blurs the border between telecommunication and broadcasting because digital format can be conveyed to any type of digital communication infrastructure, such as mobile phones. Digitalization therefore enables any communication service provider to enter the broadcasting market. Mobile television has become a reality. Thanks to the increasing penetration rate of mobile devices, mobile TV is increasing in popularity.
Television Around the World
Since the first television was introduced to the public, television sets have become ubiquitous in homes, evolving from a novelty to a necessity. Television penetrates over 90 percent of households in the developed world; 99 percent of U.S. households have at least one television set. Viewing time continues to increase. The annual averages of television viewing times per day per household in the United States have steadily increased from 5 hours and 56 minutes in 1970 to 8 hours and 14 minutes in 2006.
As a leading force, U.S. television came to dominate the international market for programs and thus enter deeply into the consciousness of distant societies. In contrast, under the Soviet Union, for decades a totalitarian system used the medium to sustain itself in power but also undermined itself with the resulting combination of distastes and ennui. But now, in Russia and its former satellites the medium of television may grow into new program industries. Similarly, in China television is growing very rapidly but has yet to exercise a significant influence outside the nation’s own borders. The television of Brazil, by comparison, has proven to be a great world influence, but in 1980 it was little known outside a few countries of South America.
The new myth-making of the twenty-first century is as likely to emanate from Russia, Japan, China, or South America as from the United States. There are industrial and investment issues to be resolved but as the medium becomes abundant thanks to inexpensive technology, other more historically rooted factors will come to influence the flows of the marketplace.
Producing and Consuming Television
Between roughly 1940 and 1970, television was a closed and somewhat mysterious medium. Programs were created by small groups of professionals and the public enjoyed access only as passive viewers. Today children learn to use video as a means of self-expression. In some countries there are neighborhood channels available for almost anyone to use. The great chasm between viewers and producers has in large part dissipated.
“Radio and more especially, television have . . . become the prime instruments for the management of consumer demand . . . The industrial system is profoundly dependent on commercial television and could not exist in its present form without it.” So wrote the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in The New Industrial State in 1967. By the 1990s television was ever more dependent on advertising revenue. The launch of mass consumer products has become ever more dependent upon access to television and so in looking at the evolution of this medium one is looking at an unexpected prop for the wider economic system. That provides a further constraint on the culture of the medium and as the audience fragments—and as the larger social experience of television disappears— the pressures upon programs to perform economic work grow more severe.
For the first half-century of television the biggest issue was that of the relative legitimacy of public and private control of the medium. Indeed, radio and television together constituted a major battlefield in the fight between three distinct broadcasting “ideologies”: competitive commercial service, license-fee-funded public service, and a mixed policy. The argument has raged for decades as to which most encourages native talent, most strengthens or weakens the medium in the face of government, and is most conducive to the creation of a diversity of programming. The argument has never been won but the new technological opportunities suggest that nowhere can the traditional public broadcasting institutions continue to hold a monopoly. They are destined to face an array of commercial rivals.
In the long run how will television be judged? Some believe the medium has short-changed human society while holding its attention, consuming much energy while ignoring the fundamentals of life. Television has, they insist, touched the audience at the most superficial levels but without seeming to accept responsibility for its own consequences. Others disagree, saying that television has merely reflected society and should not be blamed for what it has merely observed. But has the medium held a mirror before the object of its gaze or, rather, operated a gigantic reflecting (or deflecting) device, with built-in tendencies to distort? It has made us see but has it made us look deeply? It may have aided the disruption of cultures, but it has helped much in the overthrow of tyrannies. It has wantonly manipulated our wants and distorted our true needs, but it has democratized and leveled, opening the eyes of millions to things of which they had long been deprived. It has reflected ugliness in our world but taught hygiene and brought literacy to rural and urban poor alike.
The professionals of television—celebrities—have become a new kind of priesthood, mediating between events and audiences. As with other priesthoods their power can be exaggerated and perhaps they have encouraged that exaggeration. But as the medium proliferates, cheapens, deregulates, and multiplies the numbers of those who control its message, there could well be a turning point, a global reassessment, leading to major change in the shape of a reaction against the sheer ubiquity and overweening power of the medium.
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