Friday, December 30, 2011



On NPR’s Morning Edition today was an item about a cable television channel called OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. It seems that Oprah doesn’t have her usual golden touch on this one: the channel is almost a year old, and it hasn’t established much of a presence and following (yet?). I haven’t watched it, so I haven’t anything to say about its content. But, while OWN is a cute acronym and all that, I want to talk a bit about what a TV network is, and why this isn’t one. For younger readers, this will be a bit of history; for others, perhaps a trip through time and memories.

When I was small (and Christmas trees were tall)[1], television programs were broadcast over the airwaves, as FM radio signals. They had their own frequency bands, and the spectrum was divided into twelve channels: 2 through 6 on one frequency band, and 7 through 13 on another — for historical reasons, there was no channel 1. The allocations were made such that each channel had enough bandwidth to carry the audio and video at the desired quality, with enough extra at the edges to minimize interference between adjacent channels. And the television set had a dial to select the channel — a large-ish, round, twelve-position switch that adjusted the tuner to receive the desired one of the twelve channels.

A service area with a moderate population might have had only one or two active channels broadcasting within its range, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Larger areas, such as New York City, would have four or five, or even as many as six. The programs were all in black and white (actually many shades of grey), just like the old movies, though modern movies had long been in colour, of course.

Content was expensive to produce. Local stations would produce their own programming, but the budgets were necessarily low. So television took the network idea from radio: a network was a content provider that would distribute programming to its affiliates. The network would sign up stations, one per area, to take its content (including much of its advertising), and during certain times of the day those affiliate stations would air the network’s content. That way, everyone could get I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Car 54, Where Are You?, and they knew when their favourite shows would be on.

And they knew what channels to find them on. Everyone in the New York City area knew that channel 2 was CBS, channel 4 was NBC, and channel 7 was ABC, and those were the three networks that existed at the time. The station affiliations and channels were different in different cities, but if you moved to Miami, you’d learn that CBS was on channel 4 instead of channel 2, and you could still find Ed Sullivan without trouble.

Each TV station still aired non-network programming — local news, locally produced shows (such as children’s shows, where local kids were in the audience and sometimes on stage), and so on. Also, they didn’t operate 24 hours a day. They would sign on in the morning and sign off at night, and would sometimes have off periods during the day. During the off times, if you tuned to the channel you would see either a test pattern (a fixed image broadcast by the station) or snow (random, changing black and white dots, the result of the television’s attempt to interpret the background noise as a signal; TV sets nowadays detect the lack of signal and show a solid blue or black screen).

Those twelve channels, 2 through 13, were in the VHF bands. In the 1950s, stations started broadcasting on 70 new channels, 14 through 83, in the new UHF band... only, they had a serious problem: most television sets couldn’t receive their signals. And there was little incentive for people in large markets to worry about this: they already had all the television they could want in New York City, for example, on the VHF channels. The UHF channels were mostly inhabited by local-only, non-network stations, which generally failed. But in 1961, a new law required that by 1965, all new televisions have UHF tuners. Most accomplished this by adding a second tuning dial; the first had thirteen positions — channels 2 through 13, and UHF — and the second would tune 14 through 83 in seventy very tiny clicks.

The new channels opened the path for new networks, such as expanded educational and public TV networks (in the 1970s), and Fox and spanish-language networks (in the 1980s). But there was still the concept of local stations that were affiliated with content-distribution networks.

People got used to the term network, and with the idea that a network is big, with broader, better content... while a station or channel is a small, local thing, with little content of interest. With the cable television boom came hundreds of channels with direct content — no local stations, no affiliates. Some of them are called channels, but some are called networks, though they really aren’t. The Oprah Winfrey Network certainly isn’t the only one. The Food Network is another example, and there are others.

The distinction mostly doesn’t matter, and it’s really only of historical interest. But the NPR item makes one significant point in this regard:

Gerbrandt says cable is such a different animal than broadcast. For starters, people can’t find OWN.

Indeed: with the real networks, we all knew where the broadcast stations were on the dial. Now, with cable, those same affiliate stations have their old places, with low channel numbers. If you want CBS, NBC, and ABC, look in those low numbers — they’re still 2, 4, and 7 in the New York City area. But where’s the Food Network? The Discovery Channel? Sy-Fy? OWN? You have to learn where they are, which means that you have to want them in the first place. And with hundreds of channels available, it’s not so likely that we’ll stumble across them as we go from channel to channel.

It’s tough to develop a following.

[1] Extra points if you know the reference.

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