A television tuner is a signal conversion device that allows analog television sets to receive over-the-air digital broadcast television programming without a cable or satellite box. As countries around the world transition from analog to digital broadcast spectrum, television tuners enable individuals with older, analog television sets to receive digital broadcasts. The devices allow for simple signal conversion: they receive the digital television signal which is then converted into an analog signal that can be received and displayed on an analog television set.
The transition to digital television is a process that is occurring in countries around the world as governments adopt new broadcast standards and switch from analog to digital spectrum. This first digital television transitions occurred in Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 2006, with the United States switching to digital broadcast in 2009. As a point of comparison, Argentina is scheduled to end all analog broadcasts in 2019, while Brazil’s conversion should be complete by 2023. As digital ephemera, then, television tuners occupy a particularly unique position. The devices become an appropriate and necessary technology in one country, only to be rendered obsolete in those that have already undergone conversion as digital television sets become standard household technology, over time.
History and Interest
While television tuners may enact a relatively straight-forward signal conversion, a complex history is embedded within these devices. As socio-cultural objects, they are illustrative of an invisible, but deep digital divide. Individuals who receive free broadcast television signals through antennas and who want to continue receiving local television broadcast transmissions are required to purchase a television tuner or lose signal entirely. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 73 billion analog television sets necessitated conversion. In response, Congress enacted a subsidy program in 2008 that targeted elderly and low-income citizens and offered up to two $40 government coupons per household to reduce the cost of purchasing approved television tuner devices (which ranged in price from $40 – $80 in 2008).
This digital divide is further illustrated in the language of televisual spectatorship used to promote digital transition. Documents touting the benefits of digital transition that were generated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), lobby groups including the National Association for Broadcasters (NAB) and, even, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), characterize digital television as offering viewers “distortion-free TV pictures,” “better resolution” and “better picture and sound quality.” Analog television to the contrary is defined as “susceptible to distortion and interference.” The characterization of digital television as distortion-free enacts a sort of curious visual hegemony as the digital signal is framed as offering consumers a better viewing experience not only technically, but also ideologically. As “Digital Conversion” Social Studies, Science, and Language Arts Curriculum” the study guide created by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions for PBS to familiarize students with digital conversion declares:
It has been anticipated for years. Television like we’ve never experienced it before. The end of “picture ghosts and snow,” raspy sound quality, and rabbit ear antenna… a bigger event than changing from black-and-white to color… television broadcasting that will be more dynamic and flexible, interactive and responsive to the needs and interests of the American people.
In fact, digital television reception is actually more prone to topographical interference than it analog counterpart, easily blocked by hills, trees and buildings. The digital transmission remains distortion-free until signal weakness causes the system to shut down altogether. To the contrary, as the analog signal becomes weaker it displays varying effects due to different kinds of interference: “snow” (radiated electromagnetic noise is accidentally picked up by the antenna); “ghosting” (image echoes that layer two separate signals), or “horizontal lines” (randomly arranged scan lines caused by near-by electronic household devices). Media theorist Wolfgang Ernst has reminded us that “temporarily disturbed images make us strain to see better.” It is within these disruptions and breakdowns that we can more critically observe the nature of the medium, itself. Unlike its digital counterpart, analog interference renders the broadcast signal visible in manifest ways enabling the sort of subversive spectatorial experience that Ernst described, and that television tuners place under erasure.
Where the FCC and others see distortion as an impediment, pioneering electronic media artists such as Nam June Paik saw it as a condition of possibility and mined interference for its aesthetic and expressive qualities. “The live-transmission of [the] normal program” Paik famously declared, “is the most variable optical and semantical event in 1960s. The beauty of distorted Kennedy is different from the beauty of football hero…” Throughout the 1960s, Paik deliberately distorted the broadcast transmission, interfering with the analog signal by placing magnets directly on television sets or introducing oscillators or fans to the gallery environment to enhance electromagnetic interference. The results were a swirl of abstract images, intended to force an awareness of the viewers’ relationship to televisual space.
With the work of this pioneering video artist in mind, our research considers how television tuners might similarly be recovered as an artistic tool that further troubles the complex history of this device by re-introducing distortion to the digital image. Like Paik’s magnets, fans and oscillators, we propose to explore how we might once again render the broadcast signal visible by modulating and distorting an incoming broadcast transmission.