The Future of Television

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The Future of Television

While it is difficult to predict the future of technology, many experts claim that the turn of the twenty-first century marked the beginning of a revolution in American television. After 2000, a series of technological breakthroughs changed some of the most fundamental aspects of the TV viewing experience. Home television screens became larger and flatter, for instance, while high-definition broadcasting made TV images sharper and brighter. At the same time, television viewing began moving beyond the home with the introduction of portable video devices and TV programming for mobile phones. The delivery of television signals was being transformed, as well, with the development of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). By sending TV signals over the Internet—rather than over the airwaves or via cable or satellite—IPTV was expected to expand the number of available channels and provide viewers with access to new interactive features. Finally, advances in digital video recording technology placed the future of network schedules and TV commercials in doubt.

The combination of these new technologies changed how Americans experience television. People could choose not only what TV programs to watch, but also when and where to watch them. Going forward into the second decade of the new century, some viewers may decide to follow traditional TV schedules and watch programs when they are initially broadcast. But many others may take greater control over their TV viewing experience. They may use advanced electronic searching and sorting functions to locate programs from among thousands of available channels, record or download these programs for later viewing, and watch the programs on a television set, a computer, a mobile phone, or some other device that might be invented.

Digital transmission of TV signals

The technology that makes many of these changes possible is the switch from analog to digital transmission of television signals. American TV broadcasting originally developed as an analog technology. Most naturally occurring electromagnetic signals—such as sound and light—are analog, meaning that they are a form of energy composed of waves. Analog signals carry information as continuous, measurable electronic impulses. The main drawback to analog transmission of TV signals is that the waves are subject to interference. Other forms of electromagnetic energy can interact with TV signals and change the shape of the wave, causing the picture to become fuzzy. In order to reduce interference, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC; the U.S. government agency charged with regulating television) gave each television channel in a geographic region a certain amount of space on the airwaves—six megahertz (MHz) of frequency bandwidth—to broadcast its signal.

Communication between computers, by contrast, takes place using digital transmission of electronic signals. In digital transmission, information is stored as a binary code consisting of long strings of the digits zero and one (for example, 1010100010111). These numbers indicate whether tiny electronic circuits should be switched on or off. Digital transmission of TV signals offers a number of advantages over analog transmission. For instance, binary code can be understood by computers and all other types of digital devices, making television and computer technology able to work together for the first time. This means that digital TV signals can be modified or enhanced by a computer. In addition, digital TV sets can interact with computer networks, including the Internet. Digital signals are also less susceptible to interference than analog signals, because binary codes can still be read if a few of the digits get changed.

Another advantage to digital transmission is that signals can be simplified and compressed by computers so that much more data can be sent over the same amount of bandwidth. For television signals, this means that digital technology can provide viewers with movie-quality picture and sound, as well as a variety of interactive features. Digital compression makes it possible to fit high-definition video images into the bandwidth used to transmit regular analog broadcast signals. It also allows networks to squeeze several regular-definition TV channels into the space formerly required to transmit one channel. The main drawback to switching American television to digital transmission is that it forces viewers to upgrade their equipment. Viewers must either buy new digital TV sets or use adapters to convert the digital signals to analog so that they can be seen on regular TV sets.

The Father of Science Fiction Forecasts the Future of TV

Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967) was a famous inventor, writer, and publisher in the first half of the twentieth century. His life's work focused on exploring futuristic ideas and trying out new technologies. Gernsback is probably best known as the person who came up with the term science fiction to describe stories about possible future applications of technology. He published some of the first magazines devoted to this type of literature. The most prestigious honor for science-fiction writing, the Hugo Award, is named after him.

Gernsback also helped launch some of the earliest radio and television technology in the United States. In 1925 he created a radio broadcasting station, WRNY, in New York City. Three years later his station made one of the first experimental television broadcasts, sending a crude image to a few hundred local hobbyists who viewed it on screens the size of a postage stamp.

For much of his life, Gernsback made annual forecasts, or predictions, about the future of various technologies. He published his forecasts in the form of pamphlets that he sent to family, friends, and colleagues around Christmastime each year. Many people saved these pamphlets to see if his predictions would come true. In some ways, Gernsback's ambitious vision of the future helped shape the development of modern communication technologies.

Gernsback's 1956 pamphlet, published on the Web site, concerned the future of television technology. As of 2006, many of his predictions have proven to be accurate. For example, he said that "picture-on-the-wall TV" would be the wave of the future. "The heavy, cumbersome TV sets of today are doomed to extinction," he wrote, "chiefly because they take up too much room in the modern and future home." Just as Gernsback anticipated, giant flat-screen television screens were mounted on the walls of more and more American homes in the 2000s. He also successfully predicted the development of miniature televisions that could fit in a coat pocket or be worn as a wristwatch.

Of course, some of Gernsback's other forecasts seem just as absurd in 2006 as they probably did fifty years earlier. For instance, his 1956 pamphlet also contained a description of "celestial television." Gernsback's vision of this future technology involved an orbiting satellite with a giant, reflective mirror that would allow TV programs, news and weather reports, and commercial advertisements to be projected across the sky. "What would advertisers not pay to get on a monster sky display sign, measuring 60 miles across, with letters from up to 25 to 30 miles high?" he wrote. The mixed results of Gernsback's TV forecasts show that no one can really know what television will look like fifty years into the future.

The FCC originally established a goal of switching all U.S. television broadcasting from analog to digital by the end of 2006, but this deadline was later moved to February 17, 2009. Many cable and satellite TV providers have digitized their systems. Going digital enables these providers to broadcast high-definition pictures over regular channels, engage in multicasting (offering several different programs on a single channel), or add interactive services such as on-demand movies. But digital cable and satellite services tend to be more expensive than analog, so some customers have been reluctant to make the switch.

High-Definition TV

The change to digital transmission of TV signals makes high-definition television (HDTV) possible in the United States. In order to be scanned by a TV camera and reproduced on a TV screen, a visual image is divided into horizontal lines. The American technical standard (basic rule or guideline), which was established by the FCC in 1941, dictated that TV screens would have a resolution of 525 lines. The term high-definition refers to any TV technology that scans and transmits a visual image at a higher resolution than the U.S. standard. Increasing the number of lines produces images that are much sharper and brighter than those on the previous TV systems.

The first HDTV systems were introduced in Japan in the 1980s. These systems marked a major breakthrough in the visual quality available on a television screen. In 1987 the Japanese national broadcasting company, NHK, demonstrated a 1,125-line HDTV system in the United States. The remarkable picture quality impressed the FCC, which soon began a competition to create an American HDTV system. The main obstacle to creating such a system was that a high-definition picture required 20 MHz of frequency bandwidth, so it would not fit into the 6 MHz of space allowed for a standard-definition TV channel. The FCC felt that the U.S. airwaves were too crowded to allow TV stations to expand their signals for high-definition broadcasting. Instead, the FCC wanted to find a way to squeeze more detailed pictures into the existing bandwidth.

In 1990 a California-based company called General Instrument (GI) solved the problem by creating the world's first all-digital television broadcasting system. After converting analog TV signals to binary code, GI engineers found a way to compress 1,500 megabytes per second (mbps) of information into 6 MHz of bandwidth, which can usually carry only about 20 mbps of data. Their system compares each frame of a visual image and only transmits the parts that move or change. In other words, it provides just enough detail to make the human eye perceive a continuous picture with nothing missing.

The FCC established technical standards for HDTV in 1994. HDTV in the United States has a resolution of up to 1,080 lines, making it more than twice as good as standard-definition images. In addition to sharp picture detail in a widescreen format, HDTV provides for Dolby digital surround sound. This technology separates the audio portion of a TV signal into multiple channels, so that different sounds seem to be coming from different directions. It gives TV viewers a more realistic listening experience, like that found in movie theaters. During the gradual transition from analog to digital TV, American broadcasters were expected to send both digital HDTV and conventional TV signals. In 2009 all analog broadcasting of standard-definition TV signals will end. Once American TV is converted to high-definition digital transmission, the FCC will reassign the old broadcast frequencies to other uses, such as wireless computer and telephone networks or emergency-response services. Analog television sets will no longer be manufactured after 2008. Older analog sets that remain in use after 2009 will require a converter box to decode digital signals.

Interactive TV

For most of its history, television was a one-way form of communication. Broadcast networks sent signals over the airwaves, and viewers received those signals with their TV sets. In the 1990s and 2000s, however, developments in TV technology allowed for more interaction between the sender and receiver of TV signals. Modern interactive TV gives viewers more control over programming. They can select, respond to, and even change the content of some programs. This technology had the potential to redefine the relationship between television broadcasters and viewers.

Interactive TV can take a number of different forms, and it has become increasingly refined over time. Throughout the history of television, several programs have encouraged viewers to participate or interact in low-tech ways. One of the first was the 1950s children's show Winky Dink and You, which asked viewers to help a cartoon character overcome problems by drawing on a special plastic sheet that attached to the TV screen. The 1970s saw the introduction of an experimental interactive TV system called QUBE. Created by a cable TV service in Columbus, Ohio, QUBE gave viewers special boxes with buttons that enabled them to play along with game shows, vote in surveys, and even call plays in football games. The audience responses were added up and announced on the air. QUBE and other experimental interactive technologies failed to catch on because they were expensive and because little interactive programming was available.

In the 1980s and 1990s, viewers were encouraged to interact with television by calling in a response by telephone. This approach was used in home-shopping shows, fund-raising telethons (lengthy television shows aimed at raising money for a particular charity), and voting programs such as American Idol. TV grew even more interactive in the 2000s with the introduction of digital cable and satellite services. The early digital TV systems featured converter boxes that functioned like small computers on a high-speed network. These boxes offered a direct connection to the service provider, allowing viewers to select or respond to programs instantly. The main application of digital interactive TV technology was video-on-demand services, which allowed customers to select new-release movies and real-time games from a menu.

Internet protocol television

TV was expected to become more fully interactive when signals were delivered over the Internet. As of 2005, according to Kathryn Balint of the San Diego Union-Tribune, about one million homes around the world received TV signals through a new service called Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). Internet Protocol (IP) is a set of rules that guide how computers around the world communicate with each other over the vast communication and information network known as the Internet. In the 2000s, faster Internet connections and improved digital compression technology made it possible to adapt IP to carry TV signals.

A number of cable TV companies have tested different methods of sending television signals into American homes through high-speed Internet connections. IPTV services offer a number of potential advantages over traditional broadcast, cable, and satellite delivery methods. For example, cable and satellite TV systems have a limited amount of channel capacity. But the Internet has the capacity to host billions of Web pages, so it may also be able to deliver thousands or even millions of TV channels.

Another advantage of IPTV is that it would allow for greater viewer interaction. People watching television programs on a computer—or on an advanced TV set of the future, which might be a type of computer with a high-definition screen for TV viewing—would also have access to the Internet and all of its resources. This arrangement would allow them to interact with TV programming in many new ways. For instance, viewers could get more information about a person on TV by reading an online biography or buying a book. They could also influence the content of programming by voting in an online poll, participating in an online chat room, or e-mailing the network. If they saw a food commercial that made them want something to eat, they could view a menu on the advertiser's Web site and place an order online.

IPTV services of the future might allow users to watch television programs and receive e-mail or use other Internet functions at the same time. For instance, Internet search engines such as Google might help viewers locate programs on an ever-increasing number of channels. Viewers might also be able to customize the information that scrolls across the bottom of the TV screen on news and sports channels, so that it only provides the information they want to receive, such as local weather or sports scores. Finally, viewers might be able to create their own TV programs and make them available online. IPTV could make producing a TV show as cheap and easy as creating a Web site. Whatever the future holds, by the 2000s it was clear that IPTV had the potential to change television in significant ways.

Digital video recording technology

One of the first technologies to take advantage of the fact that digital TV signals can be understood by computers was the Digital Video Recorder (DVR). Also known as a Personal Video Recorder (PVR), this device records television programs onto a computer hard drive. Although videocassette recorders (VCRs) have long given viewers the option of taping TV programs to watch later, a DVR makes the process much simpler. DVRs take advantage of the electronic program listings offered through digital cable and satellite services to make recording as easy as selecting programs from a schedule with the push of a button. The technology also allows users to view a list of recorded programs, skip through commercials automatically, watch the beginning of a program while the end is still recording, and even pause live programs and return to the same spot in the action. Since DVRs store TV programs as binary code, they also provide a higher-quality reproduction than VCRs.

The original DVR system on the market was TiVo, which was introduced in the late 1990s. The success of TiVo convinced many cable and satellite providers, and even computer and telephone companies, to begin offering DVR systems as part of their overall services. DVR technology was increasingly built into the set-top boxes included in cable and satellite TV services in the 2000s, and it might eventually become part of every television set. Many experts predicted that the spread of DVRs would lead to the development of more advanced electronic programming guides. In addition to basic program listings, these guides may offer advanced searching and sorting functions to help viewers find the shows they want to watch. TV listings could be embedded with tags, like Web sites, that allow viewers to search for keywords or even the names of individual cast members.

The growing popularity of DVR technology could have a major impact on the television industry. Through much of the sixty-year history of commercial television, the broadcast networks aired programs according to established schedules. Viewers could only control whether they watched the programs. But DVRs make it easy for viewers to record programs and watch them according to their own schedules. In this way, DVR technology allows people to create their own personal TV channels that show only the programs they want to see, when they want to watch them. Someday viewers might only watch live TV to see real-time events like sports or elections.

For many viewers, a key benefit to using a DVR is that it gives them the ability to skip all the commercials in TV programs. This trend is causing concern among some advertisers. Some advertisers have started to find new ways to get their message across on television. For instance, many companies pay to have their products shown during TV programs—a type of advertising known as product placement. Other advertisers believe that they can use DVR and IPTV technology to their benefit. The computers in these systems can track people's viewing habits, create detailed databases about their lifestyles, and deliver advertising messages that are specifically targeted at viewers' particular needs and interests. In the future, people may have the option of paying less for TV service if they agree to watch commercials, or they may choose to pay a premium for commercial-free television service.

TV whenever and wherever viewers want it

Many people believe that all of these advances in technology will help American viewers gain more control over how and when they watch television. Meanwhile, the introduction of portable video devices and video phones seems likely to make television programming available almost anywhere. Apple Computer, for example, introduced a version of its popular iPod digital music player that also plays videos, and the company's online store sold episodes of TV shows for that system. Several manufacturers of cellular phones incorporated video screens that allowed users to receive TV programming. In the future, increasing numbers of people will be able to watch news updates, sports highlights, music videos, or comedy clips on portable screens, filling spare time while they wait for an appointment or ride public transportation.

With the rapid expansion of TV delivery systems, receiving devices, and channel capacity, some analysts question whether enough creative talent exists to create sufficient numbers of professional-quality programs. They point out that advertising and subscription revenues will be spread thin among all the competitors for viewers' attention, so it will become more difficult for channels to bear the expense of producing good programs. Even if people can watch TV whenever and wherever they want, some critics wonder whether viewers will take advantage of this flexibility if there are only a few programs worth watching.

Despite all the talk about a technological revolution in TV, some analysts believe that many Americans may not change their viewing habits very much. After all, by the early 2000s the majority of U.S. households already subscribed to cable and satellite services that offered hundreds of channel options. Yet these households only watched an average of fifteen channels, and the same broadcast networks that had dominated TV in the 1950s continued to attract the largest audiences.

For More Information


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