Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bye-bye analogue television

Tonight is the second and final stage of the digital switch-over in London. I've blogged before about the screw-ups (The Digital Switchover screw-up) and for the moment am just thinking on the passing of an institution.

Here at least it's the final end of Ceefax as we knew it. When we first got a television with text I remember the fun of going through the various pages. In the days before the internet it was incredible to be able to access so much information, from news stories to weather reports to travel disruption to TV listings and so forth, all at the pressing of a few buttons... and waiting seeming ages for the right page to load. Sure there's the red button service on some of the digital channels, but it just doesn't feel the same. There was something about the blockiness of the old text system that just made it so reassuring, in a way that hasn't been replicated.

What about the signal itself? Well the harsh reality is that on modern television sets an analogue signal looks distinctly worse, largely because the modern sets are over analysing the signal. On a good old fashioned set you could got brilliant pictures given good reception. I grew up not many miles from the Crystal Palace transmitter and we always got brilliant pictures for BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 on our fixed aerial, and pretty good on portable aerials too. Of course there had to be something to let the side down, and that something was Channel 5. I remember the lousy signal quality no matter what was done to boost it, and there were periods when we just gave up altogether. (It was even worse when I was a student in Canterbury. Because of potential interference with French television, Channel 5 simply wasn't available there at all. I often wondered if it was barred from obtaining the rights to screen reserved sports that were otherwise only available to the most widespread analogue channels.)

There was also the fun of trying to get good reception on portable aerials (a fun I haven't yet tried with digital) - the joy of wandering round the room trying to find the precise angle to get the best picture, of trying all manner of boosts through special devices and bog standard VCRs, of frustration with it all, and then triumph when you found the signal.

I wonder if people felt the same sense of nostalgia at the time of what we'd now call the "625 switchover"? I can't remember it myself. This was the time when the transmissions in the old 405 line format were finally ended and the 625 line format was left as the only service in transmission. Although 625 line transmission began as early as 1964 with the launch of BBC2 (which led to a bizarre series called "Theatre 625" - basically plays, or TV movies, shot in the higher definition format - I wonder if anyone would do a series called "Film HD" today?), and was brought to BBC1 & ITV in 1969, 405 line signals were still broadcast for older television sets up until 1985. And you thought it took a long time to switch-over to digital!

(Here's a little piece from that time. This clip shows the very BBC1 last signals transmitted in 405 lines in London. And it's the weather with Ian McCaskill:)

(Yes they did used to play the National Anthem upon close-down.)

And now as analogue passes away, I wonder how long it will be before we contemplate a shut-down of the digital system in favour of something more advanced?

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