Q&A: The Coming DTV Changeover

Tuning in just isn't as straightforward as it used to be. Though television, and the technology that supports it, has been in flux for more than 50 years, there's nothing quite like this month. To start, the big television stations will stop broadcasting analog signals on June 12, 2009, completing America's transition to digital. But that's only for Americans still sitting on their couch, staring at a box. Palm's new smartphone, the Pre, will offer streaming TV. So too will the new Apple iPhone 3g S (that's S, as in speed).

NEWSWEEK'S Kurt Soller spoke with Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media (formally the Museum of Television and Radio) to put these technological changes into context and reminisce about television's not-so-static past. Excerpts:

SOLLER: Will the switch to digital, on June 12, actually change the way we watch television?
SIMON: Well, this is one of few cases where we're creating an equal playing field. So many of the new technologies [like satellite, or DVR] were limited to the people that could afford them or really desired them. But digital is mandated for every home, so it's a major change in a way. The analog system we're on now goes back to the early '40s, so we've been dealing with one technology for more than 60 years. This is really the first mandated change.

And we both know people are reading this going, "Change … ugh!"
Well, the American household has been analog since after [World War II], when most people got televisions. Even the switch from black-and-white to color took about 10 years before color began to dominate. The technology was available in the '50s, but it wasn't until 1971 when most Americans bought color sets. And even now, I still know people who prefer their black-and-white set. There's a sense of restraint to them. With analog, that has been a huge part of the postwar American culture, so this is a radical transformation. But it won't change the way people receive pleasure from watching television.

But in the past, technological advancements have changed the way we watch television though, right?
It's really evolved over the years. In the early '50s the first experience of television was in a communal setting outside the home, in a restaurant or bar, watching a sporting event or the Milton Berle show. In 1951, for example, 9 percent of people had a television … but by the end of the decade it was over 90 percent. Television programming followed suit, with weekly series that brought comfort and a ritualistic aspect. Families shared the experience of The Ed Sullivan Show, or suburban comedies, or soap operas.

And then parents and kids started arguing over what to watch.
Right, so television became miniaturized in the '60s, and it became a generational thing: different members of the family could watch different shows at the same time. Prime time came about, and people had programs they wanted to watch on a certain day, with weekly series becoming important. That stayed with television until the beginning of this decade, when watching television whenever you want began to take over that ritual.

Isn't that just hyperindividual, then?
It's a continuation of the VHS and the DVR technology, really, watching TV whenever you want it. It changes the whole network philosophy, actually, because the whole idea of a "season" is vanishing with all the new technology: computers, mobile phones, etc.

So if broadcast television is over, why try to make it all fancy with digital cable?
Well, right now, each household is in a different evolutionary point in television's technical history. This will make it so there's a common ground, so people that might have resisted cable in the past, for whatever reason, or even resisted computers, will now have access to all that digital technology. It's really just upping the quality, though. I don't think it'll change the trend we're seeing now; we've already moved from the traditional appointment-television model of viewing to an era where you can watch any show when you want to on Hulu. There's not one "television experience" anymore—but going digital might help in terms of creating that movie-theater experience, where we're all watching HDTV communally. This might be a way for television to sort of evolve into cinema.

Well, aside from the massive screen.
We're also thinking about size— whether that's from the computer or the cell phone. Like movie theaters, as I said, going digital might give life to the good ole box.

After digital goes through—hopefully hiccup-free—what's next?
Reality TV was always an unexpected guest at the party, so who really knows what's next. There's this whole Warholian idea that everybody will be some type of media star, and what that signifies is the viewer engaging in the media. So from that, maybe there's a possibility of a 3-D experience at home; that's been tested out at some of the trade fairs. In a way, television technology is headed for a very theatrical experience, especially with three-dimensional technology and new programming, like the latest broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. But it's also becoming less spectacular with all the mobile media and reality television.

In your view, which path will help the networks profit? What about benefitting viewers too?
Really, what we need is something like Marshall McLuhan's "global village." If you can somehow deliver programs that don't have to be translated or adapted, there's certainly a tremendous economic incentive to that. For a while, that was the American market, with the syndication of successful American television shows. But so much of television—and technology—is highly nationalized. The impulse to go international with programming [or engineering] hasn't happened yet, even though McLuhan and his thoughts are certainly with us. That's what will happen next, I think, but it's a long way out.

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