Our Regularly Scheduled Paradigm Shift

Article excerpt

SETH FELDMAN is Dean of Fine Arts at York University. He is also a regular contributor to the CBC radio program Ideas.

The year 2006 will be a watershed for humanity, perhaps more of a jolt than the lunar landing or the dawn of the nuclear age; in less than a decade, we will enter the world of HDTV -- High Definition Television. And nothing -- not a ballgame, not a war, not I Love Lucy -- will ever be the same. But the dazzling images and sound of this new technology will challenge many of the axioms of the Information Age, and may well take us back to the days of mind-numbing network programming, albeit in a lovely package.

"WHAT am I seeing?" From time to time in the history of visual technologies, viewers look at a new medium so startling that it evokes the primal response of an infant opening its eyes. Viewers of the first photographs had no means of comparison that would allow them to comprehend the automatic, unrelenting detail of the daguerreotype. When the Lumiere brothers' black-and-white, silent image of a train appeared at the beginning of cinema, audiences ducked beneath their seats. Early in the days of television, Edward R. Murrow sat at his anchor desk playing with the transcontinental television long lines. Before us was the Golden Gate Bridge and the New York skyline, not as reproductions but in real time, replacing each other at Murrow's command. For an instant, there was a sense that mediation had vanished. The screen had become a window.

"What am I seeing?"

Most recently, the response has been elicited from viewers of the American version of High Definition Television (HDTV). HDTV triples the number of scan lines on the television screen, producing an image comparable in density to 35mm film. This sort of image density, particularly for those not used to seeing it on the small screen, yields an illusion of three dimensionality. The distortion-free digital signal also produces an unforgiving depiction of its subjects. On HDTV, television make-up looks like television makeup, painted sets look like nothing but painted sets, and the once heroic athlete is bathed in a puddle of sweat. Digital sound produces an affirmation of the visual acuity.

Impressive as these effects may be, the real point of HDTV is not to invent new television but rather a new television audience. Television, whether low or high definition is, after all, a means of creating and selling audiences. The larger these audiences, the better. And in this regard, the most basic fact about the HDTV audience is that it will be enormous. It will include all television watchers in the United States and, quite possibly, the world.

By decree of the American Federal Communications Commission, HDTV will replace conventional television in the year 2006. American viewers will be forced either to buy a new HDTV or an adaptor capable of transforming the new imagery back into the old. In fact, without much public debate, this mandated changeover has already begun. HDTV television sets are currently being manufactured. The new digital video disks (DVD) are HDTV compatible. American broadcasters have been compensated for the expense of re-equipping by giving each licensee a second spot in the 500-channel spectrum.

But how will this highly intrusive government action be sold in a country where metric conversion is still seen as the work of the devil and where lunatics blow up federal office buildings in order to protect their guns from an imagined confiscation? Part of the sales pitch will appeal to the audience's patriotism. HDTV is the FCC's declaration of victory in a ten-year struggle to defeat the Japanese analogue HDTV standard. It can and probably will be sold as the 1990s version of the Manhattan Project or the moon landing. Documentaries and miniseries on the birth of HDTV will be full of heroic hackers, selfless beta testers, iconoclastic corporate executives -- all sweating the details in exchange for nothing more than fabulously lucrative intellectual property rights. …