For a decade or so when I was young, I didn’t have a television machine. It wasn’t because I have a philosophical argument with mass media – I don’t. In fact, I’ve always been one of the cheerleaders – even back then. Nor was it merely a sign of the times; despite popular mythology, even the most dedicated hippies of the Stoned Age watched television. My situation was simple economics. I couldn’t afford one in university, and it just got to be a habit. As a result, I have no burning nostalgia for the days of Everybody Loves Friends TV. To me, network television was just another brick in the media’s mind-numbing wall. So, it’s with no emotion whatsoever that I can report the imminent death of television, and unlike Mark Twain’s premature demise, this is no exaggeration.
Let me clarify. I’m not saying that those shiny screens we’ve got all over the place are going to follow the dinosaurs into extinction. Absolutely not. Actually; I think we’re going to accumulate even more. They’re going to get bigger. They’re going to get smaller. They’re going to be everywhere; and soon it’ll be impossible to escape their reflected glow. But they’re not going to be the kind of television anybody born in the 20th century remembers. Those times are gone and soon to be forgotten.
Way back in the day, when Milton Berle and Lucille Ball ruled the airwaves like media admirals, television was structured the same way as radio. There were local programs of regional interest, but the national news and hardcore entertainment was provided by the networks. We lived in a one-size-fits-all culture back then, and the whole family watched TV – together. So when Lucy had “some ‘splaining to do” on Monday night, literally millions of people saw her do it and got the joke. Network television built its power from those numbers and the massive advertising revenue they generated. It was a lucrative arrangement, and TV to you and me was free.
Then along came cable. Suddenly, media moguls discovered that the public would pay for television. What a novel idea! Cable TV became the value-added medium that radio never had been. People were willing to shell out substantial bucks for a few extra beyond-the-rabbit-ears channels and consistent sound and picture quality. Within a couple of years, North America was wired up and life was good in media land.
Then along came Ted Turner, a guy who made a billion dollar career out of thinking outside the box. In the early 70s, he figured out that the huge advertising dollars the big three networks were generating was simply a numbers game. He knew that if he could broadcast his local station, WTCG, nationally, like the networks did through their affiliates, he could produce those numbers also and the ad revenue they generated. Unfortunately, Ted didn’t have a network, or any affiliates or even very much money. However, Ted realized he didn’t need any of those things because he could use the TV cables that local media companies had been stringing up all over the continent. Those cables were hardwired into Ted’s potential national audience. In 1976, the FCC approved Ted’s plan to broadcast WTCG nationally through hundreds of local cable networks, and the first Superstation was born.
From there, the floodgates were open. Soon there were other superstations—notably, WGN Chicago and, of course, CNN. By the time Bill Clinton was in the White House, everybody and his friend had a specialty channel. At the turn of the century, the 500 channel universe was alive and thriving and, ironically enough, already dying, as technology began to outrun the simple bit of coaxial cable that spawned it. The Internet, once hardwired into your home or office was going wireless and when Stephen Jobs introduced the iPhone the revolution was on.
Today, as wireless communication grows, televisions are becoming empty receptacles – mere screens that host video games, iTunes, YouTube, Netflix etc. etc. More and more people are choosing what they watch– and when they watch it– without reference to what television stations or networks are broadcasting. Soon, that 60-inch big screen will be a slave to your smartphone, networks will produce pay as you play content only, and local stations, if they’re smart, will return to what they do best– local news and information.
By the time Lucy and Desi celebrate their 70th anniversary of reruns, nobody’s going to remember how we used to watch them, and television, as our generation knew it, will be dead as disco.