Television seemed to have reached its status quo in the 1970s, with programming from three strong commercial networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), plus public television (PBS) and independent unaffiliated stations.
That world completely changed as home video recording, cable, and digital technology entered the picture.
Sony introduced the first commercial home videotape recorder in 1965 (at $995), but it appealed primarily to film buffs who wanted to record theatrical films from television. In 1976, Universal and Disney filed suit over such recordings, in what became known as the “Betamax” case. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that home videotaping of television for personal use was not a violation of federal copyright laws. Following the court ruling, U.S. homes with video recorders increased from about 10 percent to 50 percent in less than three years. A new content industry was born.
Video recording fundamentally changed the relationship between viewers and the television screen. Instead of planning around the networks’ schedules, viewers could watch a prerecorded feature film or a show they had recorded.
The growth of cable further expanded our choices. The roots of cable stretched back to the 1950s when rural residents living in fringe reception areas paid for cable connections that delivered clear feeds of the closest stations. In the 1970s, Atlanta entrepreneur Ted Turner tapped those cable systems to show his local UHF station throughout the Southeast, turning WTBS into a “superstation.”
Seeing a murder on television ... can help work off one’s antagonisms. And if you haven’t any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.
— Alfred Hitchcock
During that same period, Time-Life established Home Box Office (HBO) as a premium cable service that offered uncut theatrical films. The additional fee charged for HBO erased a major difference between television and movie theaters as venues for film.
All-news CNN followed in 1980 and MTV in 1981, making cable a force and demonstrating that it could offer specialized programming unavailable on airborne broadcasts. By the mid-1990s, cable reached more than 60 percent of U.S. households, and by the turn of the century, only about 15 percent of the country still received TV over the air.
Digital technology in the late 1990s added yet another dimension to TV viewing. Digital recording systems such as TiVo and ReplayTV, using computer hard drives to capture content, allow entire programs to be treated as large data files that are easily stored and transported. Online digital “transmissions” today offer programs on a viewer’s schedule as downloadable files or streaming in real time.
To complete the transformation to digital technology, the U.S. government set February 2009 as the end date for all analog over-the-air television signals, meaning analog TVs not equipped to receive such signals will require a converter box or have to be junked. And unlike similar proposals that were rejected in the 1950s (see “The Ways We Watch, Part 1”), this one is still on track to be implemented.
Television enables you to be entertained in your home by people you wouldn’t have in your home.
— David Frost
When that happens, the television technology that has been in place since the days of Milton Berle will be gone. In its place will be a digital system connected to a world of content providers, offering everything from the latest movies to the hottest TV shows, to classic moments from the past—even Milton Berle.
Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of 10 books, including Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television (Syracuse University Press). He is also a media contributor for the Chicago Public Radio program Eight Forty-Eight, and a consulting curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Text copyright 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik. All rights reserved.
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