Television

VI. NEW DEVELOPMENTS

The 1980s saw important changes in TV, and in the way in which it was regulated by governments. With the decline in the West of traditional manufacturing industries in the 1970s, companies turned increasingly to electronic and information goods for profits. Makers of consumer goods began to concentrate their attention more and more on new, high-technology entertainment services. TV had traditionally been very cheap: after the cost of a receiver and (in Britain) a licence fee, each programme was basically free to the viewer. Three technologies served to transform TV markets: cable, satellite, and video. In order to avoid home-based firms falling behind in an increasingly international market, governments began to deregulate strict controls on broadcasting, so that new companies could enter the industry in these new sectors. Video cassette recorders became widely adopted in the United States and Europe in the early 1980s, and a new film rental sector began to compete with the traditional channels. However, cable and satellite have meant even more significant changes.

A. Cable TV

Cable TV began in the 1950s in the United States and Canada as a means of obtaining better reception in remote rural and crowded urban areas, where mountains and high-rise housing might interfere with terrestrial (airwave) transmission. Instead of individual TV aerials picking up signals from the nearest relay station, the pictures were fed by coaxial cable directly into receivers, either underground or via poles. The cable provides protection from interference, helping to improve picture quality.

Coaxial cables can carry much more signal information than the airwaves, thus solving the problem of spectrum shortage that plagued terrestrial broadcasting. In the United States and increasingly in Europe, cable has meant many more channels being made available to the public—though at an extra cost. A monthly subscription fee has to be paid, in order to activate a device that allows the TV receiver to tune into the cable channels. Firms are keen to introduce more “pay-per-view” systems so that charges can be made for watching individual events, such as a boxing match, or a new film.

In Britain, cable was relatively unimportant until the mid-1990s (when firms were allowed to install cable systems capable of combining TV and telephone services). Instead, the biggest new force in British broadcasting in the early 1990s was satellite TV, in the form of BSkyB, launched by media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Like cable systems elsewhere, this works on a subscription basis. In Asia too, a satellite is an important new feature. Small local networks are run by entrepreneurs who invest in a small satellite dish and then charge customers for relaying programmes on to them by cable. Programming is mainly provided by Rupert Murdoch’s Hong Kong-based Star TV, which charges high advertising rates for companies to reach the huge audiences these new services attract.

B. Digital TV

The first digital terrestrial television (DTT) service in the world was launched on November 15, 1998, in the United Kingdom by ONdigital (previously British Digital Broadcasting) following the launch in the same country of Sky’s digital satellite service on October 1, 1998. The financial collapse of ONdigital’s successor ITV Digital in 2002 led to a reallocation of DTT licences. A new network, Freeview, backed by a consortium of the BBC, Crown Castle, and BSkyB, took over the services previously run by ITV Digital, offering up to 30 free-to-air digital channels from October 2002. Digital television uses binary signals instead of analogue to transmit programmes. This means that interference such as “ghosting” or “snow” is eliminated. Using digital signals also means that more channels can be transmitted on the same frequency. The United Kingdom, like other countries, is gradually moving over to digital signals, and it is estimated that the analogue signals will be phased out by 2010. Unlike satellite services, digital television can be received through an existing aerial, although customers have to purchase a set-top box to decode the transmission (see Digital Broadcasting).

C. Effects of New Developments

Cable and satellite mark the end of the era when TV took place on a mainly national basis. Increasingly, messages are transmitted across national borders. In Europe, satellite has also been an important way in which migrant communities can keep in touch with the TV systems of their country of origin, because satellite dishes can pick up much more distant signals. The new era of TV has been called “narrowcasting” (rather than broadcasting) by some commentators, because the audiences for TV channels are becoming smaller and more specific. TV stations increasingly aim at particular segments of the population, rather than at the mass audience.

Some have argued that the proliferation of channels has not meant a new diversity, however, but rather a lowering of standards, and the replacement of public-service broadcasting by cartels of commercial owners, such as Murdoch’s News International and the German company Bertelsmann. While the American system offers a new diversity to those who can afford the extra subscription costs, the low-cost programming on Italy’s many cable channels suggests that overhasty deregulation can reduce the overall quality of a nation’s broadcasting.

Many writers now use the term “convergence” to refer to an increasing overlap between telecommunications, computers, the Internet, and mass-media forms such as TV (seeElectronic Publishing). TV is, according to some forecasters, about to become the basis of new home information and entertainment systems. Great power may come to reside in the hands of the companies who control the distribution systems that determine the range and type of services reaching homes and businesses.