Friday, June 12, 2009

It's the end of TV as we know it (and I feel fine)

The ubiquitous box sits by the wall in the living room, it's kaleidescope of colors the center of attention. To paraphrase The Dude in The Big Lebowski, it pulls the room together. For over sixty years, this cultural icon was like a window to the world, bringing the images of society into our homes. We were informed of the daily news headlines by nicely groomed people staring right at us as they were seemingly chopped off at the upper torso. We saw all our favorite sports teams, watched our favorite movies, laughed at mindless sitcoms and gazed drearily into the night at mind-numbing infomercials peddling the latest snake oil. All with blurry images and glorious static.

No more.

We'll all see the same stuff we did before, for better or worse. But instead of occasionally fuzzy and ghostly images, it will all be in crystal clear digital, and for those with even fancier sets, in razor-sharp high definition. Today, June 12, is the official passing of the torch to the digital television era in the United States.

By midnight tonight, all full-power analog television signals across the country will be turned off for good. It may mean little to those who watch their television via cable, satellite or whatever the land-line phone companies call their service. But for people who watch television via a good ol' fashioned rabbit ear antenna that pulls the images and sounds out of the sky, it means quite a bit.

Today is a milestone in the history of television. And what better way to salute the idiot box than to take a rough look at other key dates (not completely verified, though) in its history? Perhaps this will help to explain the decline of modern civilization as we know it. Here it is, the unofficial LTR History Of Television (so far):

1873 - Willoughby Smith discovers the photoconductivity of the element selenium, which would later be used in the earliest mechanical television sets. Little did Smith realize that his breakthrough would lead, years later, to such banality as FOX News, VH1 reality shows and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Had he known that, he would have invented Pop Rocks candy instead.

1894 - Paul Gottlieb Nipkow came up with and patented an electromechanical television device with a spinning image rasterizing disk, though he never built an effective working model. The original design, featuring someone in a wooden box flipping pictures, never fooled anyone.

1891 - Larry King born.

1900 - Constantin Perskyi coins the phrase 'television' in a 1900 paper, which he read at the First International Electricity Congress in Paris. The original term, 'photoconductive spinning wheel moving picture box', didn't roll off the tongue quite as well.

1907 - Boris Rosing transmits silhouette images using a Nipkow disc, a mirror drum and a cathode-ray tube. Feeling sly, he chose to show very fuzzy images of his wife in her bloomers. Hence, the earliest, crude porno is born, and helps usher in the early television era.

1925 - John Logie Baird transmits the first television pictures in his laboratory, with a choppy screen featuring a piddly 40-line resolution. The quality is so poor, nobody realizes that he, like Rosing before, was actually showing raunchy stag films.

1926 - The first big hit television show, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover sneezes, is a smash, even with its five second length.

1927 - Not content with inventing everything else connected with television, Baird comes up with a crazy (and workable!) idea of recording television programming on simple 78rpm gramophone records. Gets fined by local video store for not rewinding.

1927 - Soviet engineer Leon Theramin comes up 100-line TV. Beat that, you imperialist capitalist pigs!

1928 - The first television station ever, W2XB, is born in Schenectady, New York, even though nobody there knew what the hell television was, or what exactly they were supposed to show.

1928 - The first-ever commercially available mechanical TV set reaches stores. It's the size of a piano, has a three-inch screen and sells for $1500. Really, what's the point?

1929 - BBC-TV comes into being. A year later, Baird installs a set at 10 Downing Street, where British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald and his family watch the first ever British television drama, The Man With The Flower In His Mouth. Sadly, it was 90 minutes of some guy with a flower in his mouth. Obviously seeing where this will lead, MacDonald orders the stupid contraption removed the next day.

1931 - Allen B. DuMont perfects a long-lasting cathode-ray tube (CRT). Also, Canadians launch their own television station, VE9EC in Montreal, again with nothing to show whatsoever save for sneezing politicians, flower-munching Brits and fuzzy porno. The idea catches on once they add hockey.

1934 - Philo Farnsworth demonstrates a non-mechanical television device, the precursor to modern-day electronic television. The electronic system held up better than the gerbil wheel featured in its predecessor.

1936 - Those enterprising Brits begin transmitting high-definition video (200 lines!!!). Also by this time, the BBC is broadcasting movies, Shakespearian plays and television series to a country with no sets. So, explain to me now why you all hate HD Radio.

1939 - First major league baseball game televised. Later that year, the first sports bar is born in Chicago, where hundreds of fans could gather to watch the Cubs lose for free without paying to get into Wrigley Field.

1940 - RCA and CBS demonstrate color television, though they had yet to perfect the black and white version.

1941 - The U.S. adopts the 525-line video standard still in use today. Yes, our soon-to-be discarded modern-day television technology is as old as Dick Cheney.

1942 - The FCC suspends all television broadcasting because of the war, and few people notice. Allen DuMont petitions for an exception and gains approval, only he has nothing to show, no stations to show it and nobody to watch.

1945 - The DuMont Television Network is officially born anyway.

1945 - NBC also launches its own television network, and luckily, they are not in fourth place.

1947 - Deciding that people would watch if there were actual worthwhile shows on the air, NBC takes action. They offer up Meet The Press and Howdy Doody, both featuring wooden puppets in their respective casts. Also, both NBC and DuMont broadcast the World Series.

1948 - CBS and ABC begin network programming, bringing the total number of networks, four, up to the same level as the number of people actually watching.
1948 - The first big television stars are Milton Berle on NBC and Ed Sullivan on CBS. Needless to say, in 1948, anyone could be a star on television.

1949 - The first Emmy Awards are presented, because every medium, regardless of lack of content, deserves its own trophies, dammit!

1951 - Seeing as they could monopolize the Emmys if they actually had some shows, CBS ponies up I Love Lucy and a couple soap operas.

1952 - National Educational Television (NET) launches as the first public/noncommerical network.

1952 - Hockey Night In Canada debuts on CBC, launching the joke, "Why do Canadians do it doggy style? So they can both watch the hockey game."

1952 - The first political ads appear on U.S. television, leading to the slow decline of the medium. Also, NBC's Today launches and sends birthday greetings to their first centurions.

1953 - The debut of TV Guide. Literacy rates drop in its wake.

1953 - The infamous and futuristic TV dinner hits the freezer sections of local supermarkets, then living rooms across post-war America. Pass the Salisbury steak and chocolate hockey puck, please.

1954 - On New Year's Day, NBC and RCA team up to broadcast the Tournament Of Roses Parade in the first-ever coast-to-coast color broadcast. The garish psychedelic images shown inspires Dr. Albert Hoffman to perfect LSD.

1954 - NBC launches the long-running Tonight Show with anal-retentive moral crusader Steve Allen as its first host. So those of you who bitch (wrongly, at that) about new host Conan O'Brien are easily reminded that at one time, it was much worse.

1954 - Disneyland launches on ABC. Modern-day marketing travesties such as High School Musical, Miley Cirus and the Jonas Brothers can be traced to this seemingly innocent moment.

1956 - Rock and roll hits the big time, and the networks are freaked out. Ed Sullivan agrees to book Elvis Presley, but opts to show him only from the waist up. Which is still better than Steve Allen, who suggests Presley sing his raunchy new hit "Hound Dog", an R&B tune originally sung by Big Mama Thornton about a promiscuous male Lothario, to an actual Bassett hound while wearing a tux. So stop bitching about Conan already!

1955 - After years of CBS, NBC and ABC poaching DuMont's talent lineup (most notably Jackie Gleason) and their strongest affiliates (like KDKA in Pittsburgh), the fourth (and forgotten) network goes belly-up. The Big Three to DuMont: "I drink your milkshake."

1956 - Zenith introduces the first wireless remote control to the marketplace, the Space Commander. The couch potato is officially born.

1956 - AMPEX introduces the first Video Tape Recorder. First tape returned to the video store unwound.

1957 - American Bandstand debuts, and elevates rock and roll only slightly higher than Sullivan and Allen's efforts. Hey, it's got a good beat and I can dance to it.

1958 - TV game shows are fixed. Really?

1959 - American Bandstand almost shuttered during the disc jockey payola scandal. Young pretty boy host Dick Clark was just as corrupt as frumpy middle-aged Alan Freed, who had been playing rock and roll when it was just raunchy R&B music. However, Clark put up a much more squeaky-clean public front, and got away with it. The scandal ruined Freed, who hit the bottle hard and died a few years later. Clark escaped unscathed, became a zillionaire and helped launch the careers of sanitized 'rockers' like Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Where is the justice?

1960 - Presidential candidate Richard Nixon discovers that, unlike with radio, one cannot show up to a televised debate looking like complete shit.

1960 - The Flintstones debut on ABC. Yabba Dabba Doo!

1961 - A teenage Geraldo Rivera (then known as Jerry Rivers) grows his first moustache. Gets ass kicked badly on playground after school.

1962 - Heeeeere's Johnny! Johnny Carson becomes host of The Tonight Show, replacing Jack Paar.

1963 - Call the medic! Doctor Who debuts on British television, as The Doctors and General Hospital debut in the U.S. Coincidence?

1963 - "The JFK Assassination" is the season's biggest hit.

1964 - The Beatles appear on Ed Sullivan, garnering the largest viewing audience in television history. In a wise move, producers opt not to show John, Paul, George and Ringo only from the waist-up.

1966 - Color TV becomes standard in all television broadcasting. Buddy Ebsen never looked better.

1966 - Star Trek debuts, as the geeks begin to take over television.

1967 - The Overmyer Network debuts as the fourth national commercial network. They got as far as the two-hour Las Vegas Show, a name change to the United Network, tons of wasted money and the network's demise. All in a 30-day period. What? They actually expected viewers with a name like The Overmyer Network?

1967 - The first NFL-AFL Championship Game aired on two networks, NBC and CBS. Yet, for some reason, no one at either top-rated network is smart enough to actually remember to record the damned game. Today, only a few clips of the very first Super Bowl are known to exist.

1968 - The networks have a lot to learn about sports programming. Some dumbass at NBC decides to cut out of the last few minutes of the Raiders-Jets football game, as Joe Namath and company appear to be sewing it all up, to air the sappy family flick Heidi. Viewers miss the thrilling upset, as the Raiders scored two touchdowns on three plays in the final minute to win 43-32. NBC's switchboard is flooded with calls from pissed-off football fans, who missed what would later be called one of the most memorable games ever played.

1967 - The final episode of The Fugitive draws a record number of viewers. But the story doesn't end there. O.J. Simpson is still looking for the real killer.

1969 - Sesame Street, Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Brady Bunch debut. Coincidence?

1969 - 600 million viewers around the world can attest to the fact that Neil Armstong moonwalked better than Michael Jackson ever could.

1970 - The birth of Monday Night Football. Now, Americans can do as the Canadians do.

1970 - Not much liking the liberal fare distributed by National Educational Television (NET), which often dealt with subversive anti-American and morally reprensible topics such as war, poverty and race relations (sarcasm alert!), the network's various affiliates, financial supporters and even the Nixon Administration work to get it shut down, and succeed. PBS, which launched the year prior, takes its place.

1971 - Both All In The Family, featuring racist demagogue and right-wing icon Archie Bunker, and Soul Train, a variation of American Bandstand that actually features black people, both debut. Coincidence?

1972 - Home Box Office debuts. Bleary-eyed viewers suffer panic attacks when they see the uncut versions of raunchy flicks like A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango In Paris in their living rooms. A new era begins.

1973 - NBC's first post-Tonight Show entry, Tomorrow, with Tom Snyder, gives stoned college students yet another reason to stay up late, blow off homework and get high.

1974 - Future cable news shouter Nancy Grace expresses first mock outrage when some girl she kinda knows gets stood up by her prom date.

1975 - The birth of the X-BOX's grandfather, as Atari's home version of Pong hits Sears stores. And it looks bitchin' in hi-def!

1975 - Sony launches the Betamax. Now Americans can watch porn in the comfort of their own homes, rather than be seen walking by themselves into seedy mob-owned movie theaters.

1975 -Live from New York, Saturday Night Live debuts.

1976 - The VHS tape format introduced. Be kind, rewind.

1976 - Anarchy In The U.K.! The Sex Pistols cause controversy when guitarist Steve Jones utters the word "fuck" on live British morning television.

1978 - Another attempt at a fourth network, this one from Paramount. It would be built around a revised Star Trek with the original cast and some bald chick. Plans for the network were scrapped and Star Trek became a really, really boring movie instead.

1978 - The Laserdisc launches, with the poorly chosen moniker Discovision. Lynyrd Skynyrd fans opt for Betamax.

1979 - The birth of ESPN. Da da dah!

1980 - Saturday Night Live begins three decade run of utter lameness once the last original cast member leaves. New cast member Charles Rocket stirs up controversy when he utters the word "fuck" on live late night television. Luckily, few people were watching at the time.

1980 - The new fad is lowly-rated UHF stations that air scrambled pay-tv programming every night. Those that paid a ridiculous $30 or so each month could see uncut movies with the help of an often-malfunctioning 'descrambler' box. For those without, you could almost see scrambled boobies!

1980 - Millions asked, "Who shot J.R.?" Today, nobody remembers or really gives a shit.

1981 - MTV debuts, showing shitty reality shows music videos 24/7. As the only artists actually doing videos at the time were Rod Stewart and a number of obscure British synthesizer bands sporting lipstick and sculpted hairdos, the playlist is not very refined.

1982 - Police Squad!, one of the funniest television comedies ever produced, lasts a mere six episodes on ABC, failing because it was so fast-paced, people could not get up and go to the bathroom during its half-hour running time. The doomed show later spawns three hit movies. Gotta love network executives.

1982 - NBC's new Late Night With David Letterman gives budding yuppie college students yet another reason to stay up late, blow off homework and get drunk on wine coolers.

1986 - FOX debuts as the fourth network. Civilization begins to decline on this date.

1990 - David Lynch's bizarre prime-time soap Twin Peaks debuts, leading viewers across the country to yell, "WTF?"

1992 - The beginning of the late-night shakeup. Johnny Carson retires and is replaced by Jay Leno. A snubbed David Letterman moves into direct competition at CBS. since the Overmyer Network never returned his calls.

1993 - Sensing pending brilliance, NBC slides obscure comedy writer Conan O'Brien into Letterman's old Late Night gig, giving delusioned Gen-X college students yet another reason to stay up late, blow off homework and ponder their hopeless lives.

1995 - The biggest daytime soap opera this year is the O.J. Simpson trial, proving that, once and for all, people will watch just about anything on television.

1995 - Even with four broadcast networks and hundreds of cable outlets, the people behind UPN, The WB and Pax (a dubious venture featuring infomercials, religious barkers and Mama's Family reruns) all decide we need more networks.

1996 - WRAL-HD in Raleigh launches as first-ever digital high-definition station. Sharper picture, same ol' crap.

1996 - Zenith introduces first HDTV-compatible front projection TV in the U.S. And like all front-projection sets to follow, it's a piece of junk.

1997 - The first commercial DVD players hit the market. No more rewinding fees!

1999 - The debut of HBO's The Sopranos, arguably the greatest television series in history. All the rest sleep with the fishes.

2000 - Survivor debuts on CBS, launching the never-ending 'reality' freak show fad. It only goes downhill from here.

2000 - Paramount releases the final two titles in the Laserdisc format, Sleepy Hollow and Bringing Out The Dead. Wait! Studios were still releasing Laserdiscs in 2000?

2001 - Pop Idol debuts in the U.K., inspiring many more international versions, including our own. It goes further downhill from here.

2001 - Biggest hit reality show of the year turns out to be something called "September 11 Terrorist Attacks".

2002 - Yet another [BEEP!] 'reality' show, this one featuring Ozzy Osbourne's foul-mouthed [BEEP!] family, debuts on MTV. Kill your [BEEP!] television. Right [BEEP!] now.

2006 - UPN and The WB merge into The CW, and FOX pushes MyNetworkTV from their loins. Three years later, few can name a single show on either network.

2009 - Another shift in late night television at NBC, as Conan O'Brien deservedly gets the Tonight Show gig, Jay Leno takes over a full hour of prime time and the utterly lame Jimmy Fallon is tapped for Late Night, giving feeble-minded college students yet another reason to stay up late, turn off the TV and actually do homework.

2009 - Not to be outdone by NBC, CBS devotes their entire 10PM hour of weeknight prime time to variations and clones of their CSI franchise. Wait! They've already been doing this for years! As for ABC, they just schedule more shit that nobody watches.

2009 - The U.S. ditches the old analog standard for television and moves completely to digital transmission. Okay, so at least we half-way killed our televisions. Bring on the digital era!


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