This past spring I led a senior seminar examining changes in the television industry from the late 1980s to the digital transition. We knew from the first day of class that the transition had been delayed until June, and one of my students brought in this clip from Talk Show with Spike Feresten (FOX) to add levity to our discussion of the problems with technological adoption being reported nationwide. In the sketch, 99-year-old actress Mae Laborde expresses confusion over how to access the “simple” instructions that will allow her to upgrade her antenna. During the installation process, she demonstrates the problematic nature of the transition’s implementation plan by trying to use an electronic device (a microwave) to get another electronic device (a remote control) to operate.
Although it is played for humor, this clip points not only to a digital divide, but to a growing gap between the needs and interests of broadcast networks and local affiliate television stations. Several representatives from affiliate stations in Wisconsin visited our seminar and discussed their own difficulties in preparing for the digital transition. Their major problems included finding the best ways to disseminate information to viewers who still depended on analog broadcast transmission, maintaining analog and digital capabilities during the transition delay, and shouldering the costs of upgrades to production facilities during a time when local advertising revenues are in decline. Often, the station managers and promotion coordinators who spoke with us argued that the transition best served the interests of owned and operated network stations in heavily populated areas that had already upgraded to high-definition production facilities. These stations are able to target specific segments of the audience, focusing on younger consumer groups that are valuable to national advertisers. Smaller market affiliate stations need to target audiences, including people over the age of fifty-five, more generally in order to maintain ad revenues from local car dealerships, grocery and furniture stores. Station reps argue that the gap between the audience targeted by prime-time network programming and the audience for local news and special interest shows is growing every year.
When Laborde sits in front of a computer screen and asks, “Is this my new TV?,” she points to an additional divisive component of the digital transition. In the 1990s, broadcast networks viewed digital broadcasting as a way to draw audiences back to network programming. During the years it has taken to implement, technologically capable viewers increasingly access prime-time programming online, creating an additional layer of divide between the younger viewers sought by advertisers and the older demographics who continue to rely on “traditional” broadcast network programming.