The End of the Television Era?

By Gilder, George | Consumers' Research Magazine, October 1992 | Go to article overview

The End of the Television Era?


Gilder, George, Consumers' Research Magazine


Imagine, three years from now, your "smart" TV is hooked to a high-capacity fiber-optic network. If you wish, you can dial up a month's worth of movies--selected and catalogued according to your tastes by your TV set from the 50,000 movies made since the creation of Western cinema--and "download" them in a five-minute transmission burst. A meter in your set will bill you only for items you decide to descramble. And charges will be much less than current video-store fees.

Or, you might choose to review the day's news: flick on Peter Jennings and, if an item he mentions interests you, ask your set for more information. It, then, will show you film footage and reporting that today's news networks leave on the cutting room floor. As George Gilder describes in the following article, these features and more are part of the promise to consumers from the emerging information revolution, which is riding developments in fiber optics, microchips, and digital technologies that mark the end of the boob' tube era.

Although these developments appear to be inevitable, what's slowing their inception is a network of government regulations that keep the industries best positioned to develop the technologies from entering a vast consumer market. Even in the guise of consumer protection, regulations of this nature, this article makes clear, serve to inhibit the promise of technology, not promote it.

By all measures, TV was a superb technology for its time. Indeed, its presence and properties defined the time. But now its time is over. The television age is giving way to the much richer, interactive technologies of the computer age.

The overthrow of television was already assured at the moment of its initial triumph. Television is a broadcast medium shaped by the characteristics of the vacuum tube and the radio-frequency spectrum. As these technologies were beset by more powerful rivals, the future of television fell into jeopardy.

The nature of both the vacuum tube and the radio-frequency spectrum shaped the powers and limitations of television as an information medium and a cultural force. These technologies dictated that television would be a top-down system--in electronic terms, a "master-slave" architecture. A few broadcast centers would originate programs for millions of passive receivers, or "dumb terminals."

The expense and complexity of the tubes used in television systems meant that most of the processing of signals would have to be done at the station. The TV had to be relatively simple, because designers had to keep costs down by using the lowest possible number of vacuum tubes in the sets. Storage of signals was out of the question, since a memory might require millions of vacuum tubes in a single set.

Economic and technical constraints pushed the critical electronics out of the TV set and back into the broadcasting station. Nearly all of the system's intelligence--shaping, sequencing, and storing picture signals--would have to be located at the broadcasting center.

The television set was the bottleneck. Its processing power would limit the form of the signals used, the resolution of the picture, and the number of channels. The processing power of the box--its bandwidth--was minute compared with the processing power at the station.

Yet television easily triumphed over its technical flaws, and the world came to see it as a fact of life. TV was "the air." Several inventions, however, ultimately dislodged the key props of the television age. The invention of the transistor in 1948, the microchip in 1958, and the fiber-optic cable in the late 1970s made the top-down broadcast structure, with most of the intelligence at the station, obsolete.

Microchips served initially as cheap substitutes for the vacuum tube. As the years passed, however, the microchip industry spawned an unending series of innovations that would doom all top-down broadcasting systems. …

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