18th Feb2011

The Digital Revolution Is Being Televised

by Will

I like to think of myself as an informed person. By no means am I a genius, but I like to think of myself as “Jeopardy Smart” – I know a little about a lot. There’s one thing, however, that I know a LOT about, and that’s television. I’m not just talking about shows and actors, but the behind-the-scenes aspect of television. I’ve studied the biography of Brandon Tartikoff, I’ve read everything I could about the Late Night Wars, and I recognize there’s more genius to Peter Engel than we give him credit for. So, with all this focus on TV, I’m always taken aback when something fails to make any real sense. One such occasion was the broadcast switchover from analog to digital. While we were given plenty of warning (and even an extension), it was never fully explained as to why the switch was taking place. For non TV folks, I’m referring to the fact that you can no longer watch TV with a simple antenna, but are now required to have a digital box in order to catch an over-the-air TV signal. Some explanations suggested that it would free up the analog airwaves to be used for emergency purposes. According to some accounts, the government plans to auction off the vacated analog spectrum. For whatever the reason, it was never clear, and it was a huge headache for the elderly population. Most of the folks reading this have cable, so y’all never noticed any real change. I, however, grew up without cable and I was raised by the Black Golden Girls. Preparing them for the switchover was akin to prepping them for potential missile attacks from the “reds”. What truly came as a surprise, however, was that the switchover would open a door to the past that I never dreamed possible.

It was like this, but picture them black

Here’s a little full disclosure for you: I’ve never had cable. My mom finally caved and got it once I moved out, but I have never lived in a place that had cable. To make matters worse, I have a basement studio apartment, so getting any kind of over-the-air signal was a bit of a challenge before the switchover. I’ve never minded a little static, though, as I grew up watching Baltimore TV through the static because their Channel 54 had better shows than our Channel 20 (syndicated Punky Brewster, son!). Nobody told me, however, that digital airwaves would do away with that ability! Now, if you don’t get a signal, the screen just goes blue or you get a “No Signal” message. Another part of my childhood gone. That damn digital box ruined my life, as it pretty much eliminated the ability to watch any local station. What it did provide, however, was a link to the past. You see, I now only really get 3 channels, but those 3 channels have turned out to be more awesome than I could have imagined. I tend to suffer from a pretty bad case of seasonal affect disorder where pretty much any condition makes me depressed. Yeah, I should probably see a professional about that, but my home remedy is regression. That was a big deal back in college: “Hey, it’s Finals Week, so come to RPU and join us for comfort food and your favorite cartoons!” It’s a remedy I still employ to this day, and it works. Apparently, “everything old is new again”, and the 3 digital channels that I manage to get actually do a pretty good job recreating my childhood. Let’s take a closer look at what we have here, shall we?

As I said, none of my local network channels seem to work any longer, but most of those channels have additional digital channels that the stations seem desperate to fill with programming. For instance, our local NBC station has a digital channel (4-2) that played nothing but old beach volleyball matches. Our local ABC affiliate, however, has something I actually enjoy. You see, they carry the Retro Television Network (Channel 7-2). In what could be considered a “Poor Man’s TV Land“, RTV focuses on showing hour-long dramas from the past. Stumble across the channel, and you’ll find yourself watching I, Spy or Magnum, P.I. The true beauty of the station, however, is that it shows Knight Rider and The A-Team every glorious night. It’s like I’m 3 years old again, and I ain’t complaining! Sure, those shows haven’t aged all that well, but I simply don’t care. Forget How I Met Your Mother 5 times a week – I’ve got the DVDs; when I’m rushing home in the evening, it’s to travel back to a time when bullets didn’t kill and a talking car was a rarity.

I first discovered RTV last winter when I was unemployed, and I pretty much thought that was as good as the retro television scene was going to get. Then, everything changed on January 1, 2011, when the local CW affiliate started carrying Antenna TV on one of their digital channels (Channel 50-2). While RTV is more of a TV Land clone, Antenna TV is more of a Nick at Nite clone. It hearkens back to the days when Nick at Nite used to play actual classics, and not The George Lopez Show and Roseanne. We’ve had a ton of snow days recently, and during that time I’ve seen shows that I haven’t seen in years – things like  Too Close for Comfort, The Monkees, and Gidget. What really put a smile on my face was when I read that Antenna TV would also be adding Three’s A Crowd to their schedule. I know it’s a terrible, formulaic show, but I’m a Three’s Company fanatic. It has always bothered me that spin-offs Three’s A Crowd and The Ropers aren’t a part of the syndication package. Antenna TV will be showing the entire franchise. I don’t care if it’s 4 in the morning, I’ll be watching.

I’ve been familiar with qubo for some time, mainly due to the fact that the qubo programming block took over the NBC Saturday morning timeslots formerly occupied by TNBC and Discovery Kids. My biggest gripe with qubo was that they focused on thinly-veiled Christian CGI cartoons, like Veggie Tales and 3-2-1 Penguins.  I actually enjoyed Penguins, but I felt they were hitting kids over the head with the Morals of the Week. So, when I realized that there was a qubo digital channel (66-2), I wasn’t exactly rushing home to watch it. Sadly, I get the strongest signal from that channel, so I find myself watching it more than I would like. Well, imagine my surprise a few months back when I caught something called qubo Night Owl. Apparently, qubo acquired the rights to the Filmation cartoon library, so starting around 1 AM, they show He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Bravestarr, and (the “unreal”) Ghostbusters, with the gorilla. It’s not award-winning television, but it’s pretty cool to watch if you’re drunk and/or can’t sleep. You might, however, find yourself wondering if She-Ra’s skirt was always that short…

So, while I still can’t explain the reasoning behind the digital switchover, I found a way to turn a negative into a positive. I kinda proud of myself, as I tend to like to just complain about stuff. In any case, I’m just like you. I can drive a car and hold a job. I just can’t watch television shows when they air. Oh well, thanks to the internet, I can just watch them the day after. While you’re consumed with your DVR and your On-Demand, I’m taking a trip back to a better time. Everything old is new again, and I’ve got a front row seat. Don’t you wish you could be me? Ok, you can stop laughing now. Come on, that’s not cool. Stop laughing!

*channel numbers based on Washington, DC viewing market. Check your local listings for your own damn digital channels