James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘digital television’

Kill your TV–or at least put it in a coma–before the government kills it for you

Posted by James McPherson on February 5, 2009

Congress has again delayed the required switch to digital, giving many of the elderly, the young, the poor and the clueless a few more months to switch to cable or to get the converter boxes that they hope will let them get a signal after the switch is made. The delay, unwanted by many, also will continue to burden broadcasters with the costs of transmitting both digital and analog signals–while to some degree reaffirming the generally positive news that traditional Democratic constituencies have gained some power while traditional Republican constituencies have lost some.

I am troubled by the fact that articles keep reassuring us that “People who pay for cable or satellite TV service will be unaffected by the change,” a claim that may be untrue. At the same time, the issue reminds us that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for more of us to kill our televisions for a while. killtv

In the days before the wonders of the Internet or the curse of talk radio, I once went from being a newspaper editor who read three or four newspapers every day and watched a lot of television news to living in a bus and consciously trying to avoid the news media. for The experiment lasted for just over a year, and proved enlightening. I read a lot more, and enjoyed a wider variety of reading. I spent more time outside, played more with my dog, and got more exercise. My wife and I talked more (and yes, after more than a year in a bus we’re still married–28 years next week). I thought more. And I missed almost nothing of consequence.

As a lover and scholar of media and a former media professional, it pains me a bit to note that when I went back to being a news junkie at the end of my media hiatus, the news was pretty much the same as it had been before. The Middle East was still screwed up, and Israel and its neighbors were fighting. Thousands were dying in Africa and elsewhere of things we could prevent. And an excessive amount of news coverage was devoted to entertainment news and random violence, especially violence against pretty dead white women.

Yesterday I asked students in my meda criticism class to try to go eight consecutive waking hours without radio, television, texting, print media or the Internet. Judging by the gasps and groans, I suspect that most won’t last two hours. Yet I have highly intelligent friends who rely very little on technology (they do tend to read more than most of us). My brother once went three years without watching television or a movie. A writer friend says watching the chickens in his backyard is more interesting than most of what’s on television. I understand, having seen for myself that a goldfish pond in the summer is more mesmerizing than almost anything on “American Idol.”

Still, I can’t see totally cutting myself off from media, at least before I have to. But I do think taking breaks from the barrage of media messages from time to time is valuable. Besides my bus sabbatical, I’ve spent a year or so without television a couple of other times. Even a few days in the mountains or by the ocean offers a sense of renewel and a reaffirmation of one’s own existence–an affirmation that doesn’t have to be generated by Facebook friends“–that is good for the brain and the soul.

I’ll conclude by letting Ned’s Atomic Dustbin say it in a different way:

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Past-cool Facebook turns 5, but offers little financial guidance to media

Posted by James McPherson on February 4, 2009

Another reminder of how fast time flies: The social networking site Facebook celebrates its fifth birthday today. Started by a Harvard student Mark Zuckerman (soon making him the youngest billionaire on the planet, CNN reports) and once primarily the domain of other college students, now it seems almost everyone who wants to connect with others or sell something is on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook,” or “We’re on Facebook,” several media leaders told the students in my recent Jan Term class visit to New York and Washington, D.C. As a further indication that social networking is way past cool, even I joined a couple of months ago. I remember to check in about once a week, and rarely update my status (using primarily as a way to direct people here), but CNN reports that according to Facebook, some 15 million users update statuses every day, adding more than 850 million photos per month. The average user has 120 “friends,” many of whom they’ll be soon able to follow even more closely and creepily.

The story credits social networking with making Zuckerman rich and helping make Barack Obama the president of the United States. Yet even Facebook does not demonstrate a workable “business model”–a term my students also heard repeatedly, as virtually all of the mainstream media struggle to make an acceptable profit in the Internet world. Adam Lashinsky of Fortune magazine reportedly told CNN that Facebook “is selling advertising, it is bringing in revenue but it’s not wildly profitable even if it is profitable at all.”

And that’s the problem all of today’s media face–the need for money from advertising, or something to replace that income stream, via a medium via which people are accustomed to getting content for free. If Facebook, now on the downside of cool, can’t do that, the prospects aren’t promising for mainstream news media sites.

Of course, more people may be looking to the Web for news after their TV service disappears with a shift to digital (a shift likely to be postponed later today), but in fact people continue to value news. Getting people to a news site isn’t a significant problem. Getting those people to pay for anything is the problem.

Same-day update: Congress approved the digital television extension today.

Next day update: Time disses a new Facebook trend.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Surprise: Your TV may go dead next month, after all

Posted by James McPherson on January 28, 2009

Perhaps I (and many others) spoke too soon. CNN now reports that despite an earlier unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives did not get the votes necessary (2/3 approval was needed because of the “emergency” nature of the bill) to approve delaying the switch to digital television until June 12. Odd–it’s usually the House that goes off half-cocked.

The House may take up the issue again, after members think more about it, but as I wrote yesterday, some heavy hitters oppose the delay. Regardless, if the switch isn’t postponed until June, expect lots of screaming from viewers on Feb. 17. Of course, you may or may not be able to watch the complaints on your own television.

Next day update: Broadcasting & Cable reports that a compromise bill is in the works. A new vote is likely next week.

Feb. 4 update: Congress approved the extension today.

Posted in Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Congress approving digital delay that few want?

Posted by James McPherson on January 27, 2009

After last night’s unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives will take “emergency action” to vote on a bill to delay the switch to digital television from Feb. 17 until June 12. The House vote may come as early as later today, though I suspect ongoing stimulus talks and other issues (which fortunately included passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) will delay it until tomorrow or later this week. So much for the idea that interest groups and lobbyists have all the power in Washington, since students and I learned first-hand last week that representatives for several powerful groups actually oppose the delay to digital.

The “emergency” aspect of the House action is somewhat humorous, since the switch to digital has been scheduled for more than a decade and those of use with cable or satellite hookups probably won’t be seriously affected (though even we may need an extra cable box or experience a slight  increase in the number of neighbors who want to watch football games at our houses). A January startup date previously had been moved to Feb. 17 after legislators realized what might happen if the switch screwed up people’s Super Bowl viewing or messed with the plans of advertisers, who will pay up to $3 million for 30 seconds of advertising during the game. No, that’s not a joke–at least three experts we spoke with in New York and Washington, D.C., verified the Super Bowl-related reasoning behind the February date.

I don’t know the significance of the June 12 date, which among other things happens to be George H.W. Bush’s 85th birthday, the 70th birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the 22nd anniversary of the date Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the 15th anniversary of when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered (an event that came 27 years to the day after the Supreme Court struck down state laws against interracial marriages, suggesting that O.J. may have an odd way of celebrating key anniversaries).

Regardless of the date, the Nielsen ratings folks are concerned about the switch to digital, as Dave Thomas, president of Global Media Client Services of the company, noted when we met him two weeks ago. He estimated that 5 to 6 percent of viewers are “completely unprepared” for the switch (despite the fact that as National Association of Broadcasters executive VP Marcellus Alexander told us last week, more than $1 billion has been spent on industry advertising warning viewers that “you may need a converter box” if your TV is too old and you don’t have cable or satellite television).

“What’s troubling is that it’s not going to fall evenly,” Thomas noted about the people who will be left without television. Young people, the elderly and poor people will be most likely to suffer problems, and not nearly enough cost-reducing coupons have been set aside for people who need converter boxes. I don’t know how much the problem might be aggravated by people like me who got converter boxes despite already having cable, just in case a natural disaster or the desire to watch a baseball game while camping forces me to rely on older, non-digital technology.

A bigger problem will be that some people won’t have signals even with their new converter boxes, as we were reminded last week by Seth Morrison, senior VP of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. On the digital transition issue, members of CTAM–who naturally (but not “officially”) want everyone to switch to cable, anyway–find themselves in rare agreement with the National Association of Broadcasters in opposing the delay, in large part because in the meantime broadcasters and cable companies are paying to transmit both digital and traditional analog signals.

Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS, told our group last Friday (and apparently told the Associated Press a few days later) that a four-month extension would cost PBS stations more than $22 million in extra transmission costs. Coincidentally, just a few minutes into our meeting, she had to leave the room to take a call from Senator Jay Rockefeller, the sponsor of the bill (favored by Barack Obama) to delay the transition to digital.

“It sounds like they won’t extend the date,” Kerger said when she returned, indicating that there didn’t seem to be enough Senate votes to force the extension. Assuming that Rockefeller wasn’t intentionally misleading Kerger, just three days later the tide shifted dramatically to make the vote for the extension unanimous, while illustrating another Kerger point: “The conversion has not been well managed.”

On the other hand, as more and more Americans find themselves without work, at least the delay will let more of those people spend their suddenly free time watching the antics of politicians and thieving financial fat cats, so viewers can better understand just how screwed they really are.

Incidentally, for tonight’s viewing I recommend FRONTLINE/World on PBS, which starts a new season with stories about Guantanamo prisoners, the Italian Mafia and Barack Obama’s Brazilian appeal.

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »