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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

Farewell, Analog Television

Here in the United States, the TV broadcast has officially switched from analog to digital. Yesterday was the very last day that the stations showed their programs in analog. Today, when I surfed the analog channels, they are all showing the same thing: an instructional video on how to get your TVs to work with digital signals.

Oh, and HSN (Home Shopping Channel). Somehow they are the only one that’s still on the air, and not showing the instructional video.

When you think about it, TV has certainly come a long way.

When I was a kid (in Taiwan), there were only three TV stations. Many of the old TV sets have three buttons (as opposed to a num pad like we are used to today), each representing one channel. They were all owned by the government and no private stations were allowed. There was also no such thing as cable television, probably a result of the combination of the lesser degree of globalization, lack of infrastructure, and the martial law in place from 1948 to 1987.

And that’s why when there was finally cable television, it was often referred to as “channel 4”, a term that’s still sometimes used today.

Our first cable box had eight buttons (yes, that’s how well I remembered it) and no remote control. The red button was the power switch. There were six black buttons for channels. There was a yellow button that could be set to either an ON or OFF position. With the ON/OFF of the yellow button and the six black buttons, the cable box could give you 12 channels to watch!

And that kind of thing was a big deal back then.

The TV channels were not national networks either. There was no infrastructure to broadcast the same channel to the whole country at once. Instead, we had a bunch of local stations who broadcast by setting up cables on existing lampposts or tagged them on right next to power lines (illegally, so every now and then they would be cut off by agencies that actually maintained these power lines) and they could not service areas that were too far away.

One of the twelve channels was a channel that always showed the stock prices. Another was a “TV guide” channel… which was really a camera pointing at a whiteboard with a TV schedule written on it. And the rest of the channels showed whatever VHS tapes that the cable TV providers could get their hands on. Sometimes they were movies. Sometimes they were those subtitled samurai dramas. Sometimes they were Taiwanese puppet shows. You never really know what was going to be on.

A few years later, it started to grow into something that resembled what we have in the United States. We had the same channels available in the same country. Heck, there was even HBO and Discovery. The cable boxes went from being able to serve 12 channels, to something like 60, 100, and then hundreds. It had definitely came a long way.

When we moved to the U.S., it was interesting to surf the channels we could get using antennas. In Taiwan, if you didn’t have cable, then all you get were three channels (a fourth one was added later on), but here, you not only get a bunch of channels, but many of them are in different languages. Here in Southern California, we certainly got our share of Spanish channels in addition to English channels. And there were channels that took turns throughout the day showing Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese programs. It was an interesting sight for me to see.

And then digital channels came along. Our analog TV wasn’t able to take digital signals directly, so we purchased a converter box (using the government-issued coupons they were giving out this whole past year) and we instantly got many more channels. Many of the channels were split into several. For example, NBC split into three channels in our area. One of them is the regular NBC. Another was just weathers all day. And the other plays the Olympics all day, pretty much. While I don’t think nobody would watch those two channels all day (except maybe weather fanatics and Olympic athletes?), it definitely shows that we now have the resources for one station to broadcast several sets of programs at once. Channel 18, which used to take turns showing programs of different languages, now dedicates one channel to Japanese programs, one to Korean ones, and one each for Armenian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and so on. I found myself watching stuff in languages that I don’t even understand quite often, actually, because they are fascinating to look at. (Ever seen the Armenian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?)

Digital television gives us a big selection of channels, and the picture quality is also better. But will I miss analog channels? Maybe. I probably wouldn’t want to watch them or miss them all the time, but hey, I guess there’s something nostalgic about it, much like listening to cassette tapes (we grew up on that stuff!) and watching old VHS movies. Ah, this is certainly the end of an era.

Farewell, analog television, it’s been fun! (And if you are not in the United States, um, never mind.)


  1. June 16th, 2009 | 10:07 pm

    It’s funny – sometimes there are over 500 stations and yet nothing good to watch. Who’s in charge of all that?

    I noticed that Comcast conveniently hijacked the digital to cable transition – about a week prior, every station I had above 25 turned to static, so I had to go get some $10/month cable box. And yes, that earned Comcast a nice spot on my “crappiest companies in the U.S. who treat their customers like crap” list.

    I just find it irritating that once you pay for these premium channels, you have to pay even more to get them in various rooms. It’s absurd. I think we should pay one price and the whole house gets connected. Grr.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Word Pairs: Lay or Lie

  2. June 17th, 2009 | 2:27 am

    Uh, that’s wrong. Cable subscribers should not even notice a transition because the cable providers are really supposed to do that seamlessly.

    Hooray for antennas.

  3. Na
    June 18th, 2009 | 12:07 am

    Funnily enough, in Australia this will probably nothing. We have three commerical ones, two government (one’s really independent, but receives government funding), plus a public access one. Over the past couple of years, the government ones have added one digital channel each (with the independent one only really launching programming this year; in the past they just ran news tickers). Disappointingly, they’ve just been showing repeats of old or unpopular shows. Although the commercial channels also got digital versions each, they also largely ran “what’s on” tickers. Cable here was introduced ages ago – probably 10 years ago or something. My guess is though, that even with the change to full digital use, programming won’t explode that much. I can’t see the broadcasters here (of which there is a large monopoly of one or two owners) will put more money into new programming.

    Here, government regulations state that only a small percentage – something like 10% – of all TV hours need to be Australian-made content. This includes news and current affairs shows. So sadly, I think it just means more of what we’d see on cable, or at the very least a new sports channel or two.

    Still, it will be interesting to see what will happen.

  4. June 18th, 2009 | 12:51 am

    News tickers? What a waste!
    Well, more channels doesn’t necessarily mean more shows produced. Sometimes it just means the same show will be on three times per day as opposed to once.

  5. Na
    June 18th, 2009 | 8:14 pm

    Yeah, but again, programmers don’t really spend the money necessary here. I guess also because digital TV has only been pushed in the last year or so – and with few people actually having digital TVs – there’s been less interest in making actual programming for those channels.

    We get all the Law and Order series. Once a week is enough, but even then you’ve got cable showing them too. Who wants to see them three times a day? I’d rather see new Aussie stuff.

  6. June 19th, 2009 | 2:35 am

    I wonder what the demand is for locally produced shows. When I look at the Asian language channels here, I can tell that most of the programs are not produced locally. And that’s fine because I think most people want to see what other people are watching on the other side of the earth. So that’s fine, since the demand for locally produced shows are low.

    I wonder what it’s like in Australia.

  7. Na
    June 19th, 2009 | 10:49 am

    Well, most people here think Aussie shows are crap – cause they usually are. It’s a circle; programmers won’t put in the money or time in on new shows (other than the occasional cop dramas or soaps or fad comedy skit show), which end up being lousy or cut before they’re given the chance to get an audience. The audience expects crap, so they don’t watch, meaning low ratings. And no one’s ever going to change the situation until the government gets in and actually increases the quota for Aussie content – and that’s never going to happen. Sadly, under our previous government, things got worse, with much of the independent media outlets being squeezed out and more monopolies allowed.

    Luckily, the public access channel creates some interest, and our independent channel, SBS, is basically the ‘for everyone’ channel – it shows news from around the world in different languages, offers ‘world’ movies, has a good track record in investing in locally produced short and big budget films, etc. I’m hoping that with their new digital channel, they’ll improve that record. I think the demand for Aussie stuff is actually quite low though, because audience perception of what we’re capable of is quite low; we haven’t really made a big blockbuster movie that was popular since the early 90s (not including Baz Lurhmann’s ‘Australia’, which really wasn’t made for us but for the overseas/American market). But Aussies have made some really amazing stuff; just not any of it on TV lately. :(

  8. June 20th, 2009 | 3:35 am

    Ah, I see. Thanks for sharing what it’s like in Australia.

  9. June 21st, 2009 | 1:54 pm

    This doesn’t seem consumer driven to me, so it annoys me. Anyway, it’s all academic for me, since we don’t watch TV of any kind at the house, although I will watch it on the treadmill at the gym,and be reminded why I don’t pay $80 a month for cable! Although, occasionally its entertaining to lose oneself in a program about $35,000 bathroom remodels…

  10. June 22nd, 2009 | 12:13 am

    I don’t think it was consumer driven. It’s probably the government’s attempt to make better use and organization of radio frequencies and bandwidths. The new channels are nice though.

  11. Na
    June 22nd, 2009 | 8:41 am

    Well, I’m probably biased anyway. I really can’t stand most of what’s on commercial TV these days, Aussie or not. :)

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