“Is This My New TV?”: Divides in the Digital Transition

Curator's Note

     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.


Caryn - Excellent post, and a great start to the week. You bring up an important (and often ignored) aspect of the growing "digital television divide" exacerbated by the nation’s compulsory conversion to DTV: the division between urban O&Os and small market local affiliates. The terms of broadcast networks relationships with their affiliates have always been contentious, but recent developments (especially the emergence digital distribution and exhibition platforms) have put these relationships under increased strain. As you've mentioned, small market local affiliates absorbed a disproportionate amount of the costs of upgrading the nation's broadcasting facilities to digital (and of informing viewers about how to prepare for DTV), especially considering the limited return they stood to gain for their investments. The division of the DTV conversion’s costs amongst broadcasters has stressed affiliates' operating budgets, but it also has prevented local stations from fully exploiting the possibilities of digital broadcasting. When we consider the hardships that DTV is causing for stations in areas like Oshkosh (or Bloomington, where I live), its crucial to keep in mind that the U.S. broadcasting lobby made its initial push for a new broadcasting standard in the name of local broadcasters, warning that local affiliates (and the network system of broadcasting, for that matter) would be unable to survive the competition posed by cable and other less-regulated television delivery platforms. Many policymakers likewise justified their support for “upgrading” the U.S. broadcasting system by making recourse to privileged (and already by the 1980s largely empty) notions of broadcast localism. In light of Caryn’s conversations with representatives of her community’s local stations, it seems appropriate to revisit the rhetoric used to foist DTV on the nation back in the late 1980s, and to compare the predictions and promises of DTV’s backers in government and industry with its immediate consequences for those institutions and individuals who have borne the brunt of the financial and social costs of its implementation.


Caryn's curator note as well as the posts by Max and Mitchell reminded me of the discussions I had with policymakers in the late-1990s when I was writing my dissertation on the emergence of DTV.  One of the issues that kept repeating itself was the notion that older TV viewers were increasingly concerned with safety issues.  Therefore, the transition of DTV allowed the best of both worlds - better television viewing and more public safety (since the analog airwaves would be apparently used for increasing communication between police and fire depts, for instance).  Not sure how this component is going to pan out, but the video clip and notes above certainly point to other issues that didn't seem to be on the radar when the FCC approved the DTV standard in '96.

Henry Jenkins coined the term "participatory culture" and alludes to the real lack of convergence that exists between all of our different media gadgets and platforms, demanding very high technical skills sets of audiences. So I find it interesting that this inability to deal that we are all facing (eg., I can't figure out how to tape stuff off of my flat screen TV!) is, in this clip above, represented and taken on by an aged female character. Her bumbling and sheer stupidity <em>is</em> ageist in its representation , but the fact is we are all bumbling in the face of convergence technology. In the mainstream advertising I've been looking at, however,  it's usually the male who becomes the bearer of meaning for these social anxieties.

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