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Chaos in TV Land

If you think the future of television is uncertain now, look at the issues the medium faced before it took off.
December 21, 2010

As more and more Internet-­connected televisions hit the market, they can be expected to bring the chaos of the Web to the relatively well-ordered world of TV. For decades, until recently, the question of what any television could be expected to do was settled. A TV displays content—more or less of it depending on the viewer’s cable subscription, and with a picture of greater or lesser quality depending on the technology behind the screen. But now consumers are being presented with devices that offer new ways to find, view, and interact with content on their televisions—devices backed by companies with radically different models of what a TV ought to do (see “Searching for the Future of Television).

State of the art: The FCC hoped that this 1939 GE television would be useful “indefinitely.”

The early years of television broadcasting were marked by similar uncertainty. Donald G. Fink, an early authority on TV engineering, who would later become director of research at Philco, described in a January 1941 report for TR how the development of commercial television had been stopped dead.

It was on Easter morning, 1940, that the radio industry woke to find on the front pages of the newspapers the startling announcement that the Federal Communications Commission had decided to withdraw its promise of early commercialization of television broadcasting. The reason given by the F.C.C. was that commercial activity in marketing television receivers was in effect establishing a set of television-transmission standards to which the government had not given assent …

With no official standards in place, the industry was preparing to launch commercial television using whatever standards it desired. The industry was in agreement on most of the standards advocated by the Radio Manufacturers Association; hence these were the logical choice. But then the government realized that simply putting receivers designed for these standards into the hands of the public was, in effect, making the standards official.

Action followed swiftly on this realization. The public was warned against buying receivers, and the industry was publicly chastised for usurpation of a government function.

This turn of events smothered the fledgling market for television. Consumers didn’t want to buy an expensive new device with such an uncertain future.

It is doubtful that the lay reader realized what was behind the stories. Rather, he became confused, sure only that he would put off buying a television receiver until the government and the industry had composed their differences. Sales of television receivers fell almost to the vanishing point. The owners of television receivers in New York, variously estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 in number, found the quality and the frequency of programs declining.

People today know the risks and rewards of being an early adopter, and they’re familiar with the idea that a device they buy now might be obsolete in a few years. But in the 1930s and 1940s, the FCC espoused the principle that any radios or TVs sold to the public should retain their “original degree of usefulness” indefinitely, which led the government to delay the launch of commercial television until the members of the newly established National Television System Committee agreed on basic standards.

That committee, composed of industry, academic, and government engineers, dealt with mostly technical issues, like how wide the broadcast frequency band for each channel should be, and how many frames of video should be broadcast per second. But all the issues centered on what the infant technology could do and, more important, what the audience would want it to do. Would it be better to sacrifice a clear picture for less flickering in the broadcast? Should allowances be made for color television? The fundamental task of the committee was to ensure that decisions informed by the limitations of current technology did not inhibit better versions down the line.

As manufacturers introduce interactive TV technology on a large scale, they face a similar challenge. They must avoid changing the viewing experience more than today’s audience will tolerate, but they must also make sure not to delay a future in which the distinction between TV and Web content no longer exists.

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