Faculty Digital Media Handbook

Chapter 2 – Television (TV)

Chapter Contents


When I was a kid, TV was just one thing. It was a box that received “shows” over the “airwaves”. The shows were a combination of moving pictures and sound (my parents listened to “shows” on the radio – no pictures). In actuality, TV is broadcast on a radio frequency that is transmitted through the air from radio towers. For obvious reasons those towers took on the name television towers, but they both broadcast signals that a home antenna could receive and translate into a TV show.

My point here is not to tell you how TV works. The How Stuff Works website does a much better job. My point is to tell you how TV exists today. You already know that, today, TV is … different. However, it’s worth mentioning briefly that the TV that existed in the 1950’s though the 1990’s went though many transitions. The biggest change was the transition from analog to digital. In the early days, there was only “over-the-air” TV. Then came “cable tv”, and “satellite tv”, but the signals were still in analog form. As digital technologies started to be utilized in consumer products such as audio CD and DVD players, the thought of digital TV was changing from dream to reality.

However, digital television was not ushered in with over-the-air, or terrestrial broadcasts, but instead with subscription digital satellite and cable services. Digital broadcast TV slowly rolled out during the latter 1990’s until the official switchover in 2009. Low power analog stations remained online until July of 2021.

Here’s a playlist of the final days, weeks and months of analog broadcast TV

So how does the history of TV inform us about digital media? Well, one of the strongest forces of the transition to digital is something we haven’t really mentioned yet, and that is the computer. Oh boy, time for another history lesson, right? Well, no. I’m not going to go into the history of computers as you probably know it already. In case you don’t, a good starting point again is the How PCs Work at the How Stuff Works website.

Thanks to computers and their use of 1’s and 0’s as a way to represent data, we now have the ability to move that data in a variety of ways. We already have the transmission and reception technologies – cable, satellite, and terrestrial broadcast – except now in digital forms. The big advancement comes in the form of something called data compression. We’ll use the term compression from here on out, but understand when it comes to digital media it refers to video compression, audio compression, as well as general data compression (think of the archive files known as Zip files). 

What’s so big about compression you might ask? That’s just it. We don’t want big. We want at least less-big. Compression gives us small, or smaller, files. I’m once again holding off on going into lots of detail about compression, but what it does practically is save us time and money. It saves us time in the sense that compressed data files take a shorter time to be transmitted from once place to another. It also saves us money. You heard the phrase “time is money”. In the digital compression world, there are transmission (time) costs and there are storage (infrastructure) costs.

As far as transmission costs, think of them as data transportation costs. Just as we use roads as the infrastructure to transports goods (or humans), we have data transportation systems that use wires and other hardware for that infrastructure. The goods/human transport infrastructure is paid for with tolls and/or taxes, and the data transport infrastructure is paid for with the fees associated with electronic communication. The term bandwidth is something that we associate with our Internet or wireless service provider. Generally the less bandwidth we use, the lower the cost. Telestream, the makers of video recording, editing, and streaming software, has a good article on why compression matters.

Putting the “You” in YouTube

YouTube is a phenomenon. The first YouTube video ever was uploaded on April 23, 2005 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNQXAC9IVRw titled “Me at the Zoo”. YouTube Co-Founder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawed_Karim made a 19 second video talking about the Elephants at the San Diego Zoo. The idea that started YouTube was born out of the fact that it was difficult to share videos with friends easily. YouTube made it easy to upload video so it could be converted to a format that most everyone could see. All you needed was a modern web browser and the Flash plugin, and maybe a pair of speakers. So the first successful video sharing site was born in early 2005. The domain name www.youtube.com was activated on February 14, 2005.  When YouTube first launched, you were able to upload videos in a few different formats. Generally any Windows Media Video or QuickTime video would work. The DivX format was also a popular. A 10-minute limit was soon imposed on all videos and all videos were converted to Flash video at a size of 320 x 240 pixels. Gradually features were added like support for 3GP phones and then high-quality and eventually h.264 and HD video. The YouTube history is well documented so I don’t need to detail it here. However, the history shows the evolution of the components of what makes digital media. Things like Flash, Windows Media, QuickTime, DivX, 320×240, and h.264 are some of the key terms that help answer the question of “what is digital media?” It isn’t any one thing. It is endless combinations of terms such as formats, containers, codecs, and resolutions. It can get awfully confusing.

What is Digital Video – a fantastic simple explainer of digital video

The Very Basics of Digital Video – a flawed example that tries to explain digital video – see if you can find examples of where someone might get confused (hint – w)

Watching Videos

There’s not much to watching a YouTube video. You need an Internet connection and a device to watch it on. The most popular device to watch YouTube videos on is a mobile/smart phone. Because YouTube is a Google company, their search technology allows you to quickly find most any of the billions of hours of video. Google does share the latest YouTube stats on when, where, and what people watch.

Uploading Video

It starts with a video file on your computer. Remember, YouTube is a destination for your video after what possibly was a long road of planning, shooting, and editing your video. However, it could be a video that you shot and then quickly shared from your smart phone. There are other video hosting sites besides YouTube, but it is by far the most common way for “creators” to get their video online.

For those of you over 40, the most recognizable digital media form might be the DVD. Just for you, we have a chapter on the DVD. But you old geezers (and geezettes?) are going to have to wait.