Friday, June 12, 2009

Mostly Digital Trash!

Port Townsend, today. Today is the day the nations commercial over-the-air television broadcasters switch from an analog signal to a digital signal. Not since 1953, when the FCC granted RCA the authority to set the standards for transmitting and receiving color television signals, has there been such a shake up in the industry.

Whatever you do, if you have not done anything yet, DO NOT CALL a TV cable or TV dish company for assistance. The first thing they will try to do is sign you up for their service, conveniently forgetting to mention the converter box.

On the other hand, the competition between the cable and satellite services has heated up, trying to catch the unwary or chronic procrastinators for whom there are no more tomorrows. As a result, there may be some bargains in the offing.

Regardless, this is the official government site you need to consult if you are unsure how to proceed.

This period of transition got me to thinking about my career in video production, and the changes I have seen on the commercial side of television.

I majored in Broadcast Journalism, and in later years whilst working at Freightliner, served on a steering committee establishing the parameters a cable company must meet in order to be granted the first cable television franchise in Portland Oregon.

On a committee representing “Business & Industry” we envisioned, among other ideas, live broadcasts from the Truck Manufacturing Plant on Swan Island, piped into regional class rooms, demonstrating various activities surrounding the assembly of a tractor and truck. By showing workers using math in real life situations, promoting diligence in learning mathematics and mechanical skills.

We had representatives from Banking, Home Construction, and other sectors structuring equally lofty goals and aspirations for our “Wired City.”

In conjunction with that project, I designed a complete inter plant television system for Freightliner’s Truck Manufacturing Plant (TMP). Each major workstation on the assembly line was to be wired to a central clearinghouse at Corporate.

Whenever a foreman encountered a problem on the assembly line, he could grab a hand held camera and communicate his concerns, such as a misaligned chassis bracket, or Jake Brake installation problem directly to Engineering over at Corporate.

The engineer could immediately brain storm the problem with his group and provide a solution.

My plan went down in flames. “McDonald, “ I was told by one of the Vice Presidents nixing my plan, “we are in the business of building trucks, not entertainment programs.”

Shortly thereafter, a major manufacturing plant back east successfully instituted a similar idea. (Maybe it was in my presentation?)

I was, however, successful in selling Corporate on the idea of installing one of the largest TV studios in Portland, cleverly disguised as show room! I designed this room from the ground up to be the largest TV studio in Portland. But located on a corner, with two sides floor to ceiling glass, I sold it to Corporate as a show room!

With the lighting grid 24 feet off the floor, we could completely tilt the largest Cab Over Engine. We produced a host of sales and maintenance programs in this facility. It lasted for several years, until Freightliner sold out to Daimler-Benz in 1981.

And, despite our better efforts to insure a meaningful cable television system was installed in Portland, TelePrompTer got the nod to string wire all over Portland. I used to go down to their studio on Sandy Boulevard in Portland to visit a friend of mine whom I had worked with in radio.

He was doing local news, against the ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates. What a disaster. It was stunning to see numbers on the programs viewers were dialed into. I remember one of the primo channels, featuring opera and New York stage plays, Bravo, was averaging 10 viewers per hour in prime time.

So all these years later as I reflect on the intensity of our Cable TV Commission recommendations to the City of Portland as to what would be desirable in a cable company, look what we ended up with.

Mostly Trash.

The Simpson’s, brain dead pointless sitcoms, the "Dog," Gerry Springer, the Fox “Network” with its legion of malcontents and dingbats, an army of fanatical religious zealots, Cheaters, home shopping networks and tedious infomercials.

In May 1961, Newton Minnow, Chairman of the Federal Communication Commission under John F. Kennedy, uttered his now famous “Wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB.)

Often misquoted and ridiculed, here is that segment of his speech, in context:

When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet, or rating book to distract you—and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And, most of all, boredom.

True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.
Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can't do better?

Of all the channels available to watch, I can come up with less than a dozen that are worth giving up my time to watch! That is an amazingly low percentage! The rest is mostly trash.


And so today marks the end of mostly analog trash … the beginning of mostly digital trash.

Finally, our friends to the north in Canada make the switch to digital on August 31, 2011.

2 Comments - Click here:

The Old Fart said...

Good post Robert, I am already a cable subscriber so the eventual switch to digital here won't affect me that much. I agree with you that there isn't all that much on TV to watch. Most if it is garbage, I may watch 6 or 7 hours a week of television if I have a mind too. The channel I watch the most is TCM, sometimes you can find a really good movie.

bowler said...

alas, but i shall miss the static-snow background noise...

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