Saturday, February 17, 2007

Unpuzzling British Television

Entry for 16 February 2007:

Everyone in our family is a Dr. Who fan; I have been watching since the John Pertwee Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith in the 1970’s. After we moved house in Toledo in the early 80’s, we had a tower TV antenna (=aerial) installed in order to be able to pull in the signal from TV Ontario, a Canadian public television network broadcasting from Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. We were heartbroken when the old series stopped in the late 1980’s. After that, we lost touch, until our stay in Belgium about a year and a half ago. I was working in the bedroom one evening, when I heard the familiar sound of Daleks intoning, “Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!” … Diane and Kenneth had accidentally tuned into the penultimate episode of new series 1.

So here we are living in the UK, ursprung of Dr. Who. In general, we are not impressed with British TV, which now seems even worse than American TV… But there is Dr. Who, and we have been holding out, waiting for series 3 to begin in March, before breaking down and buying a TV. Actually, we enjoyed the absence of informational clutter and slight feeling of moral superiority that comes with not owning one. Finally, about a week ago, I decided I was finally ready.

But what to buy? First, the UK is in the process of going to digital television (as well as high definition), with “switchover” (a euphemism for “switch-off” of analogue TV) set for Glasgow in 2010. In preparation for this, the BBC have set up what is called “Freeview” digital broadcast TV. What I hadn’t fully grasped is that as a semi-independent government corporation (sort of like the US Postal Service), the BBC are responsible for all “terrestial” or ground-based broadcasting in the UK, even when they aren’t content providers and allow commercials on the more or less independent TV channels such as ITV (STV for “Scottish TV” in Scotland, of course!). On Freeview, there are currently 46 TV channels and 27 radio channels (source: We decided that Freeview would be nice to be able to get, if possible, which meant getting a set with an integrated digital tuner built in. This suggested that we should get a hybrid model, with both analogue and digital tuners.

Second, after our last place, we decided that CRTs are too big and clunky for Scotland, so we decided that a 26-inch LCD screen was what would best meet our needs.

Third, I wanted to be able to play NTSC videotapes recorded in North American, which meant a TV capable of diplaying both NTSC and PAL (UK/Australia) images.

Finally, it should have good ratings and reliability. This was getting pretty complicated! Using Amazon and other internet resources, I finally selected a Philips model that seemed to meet these requirements and wasn’t too outrageously expensive. (By UK standards; it was still 3 times the most we’d ever paid for a TV in the US!)

So we headed for the Currys to buy this piece of consumer hardware, feeling guilty for spending this much money on an entertainment appliance. Once there, I because paralyzed with worry over whether we’d be able to get the digital freeview channels with what I thought was communal aerial hook-up in the living room (=lounge in the UK). Finally, after further obsessing, we bought a cheap set-up aerial, just as an experiment.

We brought the TV home, set it up, and attached it to the cable in the living room to see what would happen. Its initial set-up scan detected no digital service whatsoever, but 14 analogue channels (actually 4.5 analogue channels repeated over and over again). Four of the analogue channels came in quite clearly. The set-top aerial, even tried in various configurations failed to detect the digital channels, but did pick up, not particularly well, the four basic channels. Then I stopped some neighbors from upstairs and asked them about Freeview; they get it just fine. This confused me, because I had thought we were all sharing a communal aerial. I did a lot of internet investigation of digital channels and antennas; finaly, I went outside and looked at our roof. Like practically all of the buildings around us, we appear to have multiple aerial sprouting from various chimneys; there is no communal aerial.

Disappointed, I explored various options, including satellite and cable. However, these turned out to even more confusing: They’ve all been eating each other up, while at the same time diversifying into each other’s territory. The much-heralded media convergence is upon us here in the UK, with the unexpectedly frustrating result that it now appears to be impossible to get cable television all by itself. Instead, all the cable/satellite options are now multimedia bundles: cable with telephone and broadband; telephone and broadband with cable. That might have been OK, except we’d purchased a broad band service with a 2 year contract; we couldn’t figure out a way to make this work! Finally, I went back to Plan A: trying to figure out what the story is with the current aerial.

Eventually, I found a website that maps the locations and relative distances of various transmitters, based on postal code. I discovered that the analogue signals are being broadcast from four transmitters locally, two of them only a mile away (one northeast, the other south); by contrast, the digital channels are broadcast from Black Hill, 16 miles away due east from us. Suddenly, many pieces fell into place. Conclusion: I had been assuming that the clear analogue signal emanated from Black Hill, but actually it appears to be from the West End, northeast of us; the other 10 or 12 versions of the basic channels come from more distance transmitters. We are plugged into a roof-top aerial, but it’s undoubtedly old, pointed the wrong direction, and lacks the hardware to pull in the digital Freeview channels. But then an informal survey, taken while I walked to work, revealed that most of the aerials in this part of Glasgow are also still aimed at the local transmitter.

After first, this seems like a disappointment, but actually it’s fine for now: It’s enough to get Dr. Who when the new season starts, but it’s also ready for switchover. It would be nice to get the other freeview channels, but they are mostly full of re-runs anyway, so for now we are sticking to the basic 4.5 (there is a channel 5, but it is pretty fuzzy, since it comes from Black Hill). Eventually, we may spring for a new rooftop aerial, but for now, it’s enough.

All this might sound a bit obsessive (and I recognize that it is), but on reflection, I realized that several issues have been involved in this for me: First, it’s part of a nesting process that I have been in since we moved to a flat that we have felt we could really settle into and make out own for now. The visit by my mom and sister have been a kind of informal deadline for finishing this process, at least for now. Second, I’ve always been fascinated by radio and TV signals, taking it as personal challenge to pull into difficult to get stations. (As a kid growing up in Northern California, I prided myself as being able to pick up, in the middle of the night, AM stations from as far away Mexico, Alberta, Canada; Seattle, Chicago, and once even Cleveland!) Third, I’m also fascinated by glimpses into the invisible infrastructure of everyday life, in this case, the existence of a network of little local urban transmitters all around us. It reminds me of when I realized in a very immediate, lived way about 10 years ago that the phases of the moon are the sun shining on the part of the moon facing us, while we changed position in relation to it. The Big Mysteries elude us, but sometimes little mysteries, like British Television, reveal themselves! Now if there was just something worth watching in addition to Dr. Who.

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