Gladys Santiago

Televisual Function of Antennas After the DTV Transition

Posted in Media, Television by Gladys Santiago on June 13, 2009

As households across the country say goodbye to the antennas protruding from their television sets, and replace them with digital converter boxes, we theoretically end an era in which those metal rabbit-ears aided in establishing characters’ identities. In February, when the transition was originally scheduled to occur, 5.1% of households were unprepared. When the DTV transition deadline arrived on June 12, 2009, only an estimated 2.5% of the 114.5 million television households in the U.S. were completely unready for the signal switch from analog to digital. Since the transition was first announced viewers have purchased converter boxes en masse. With that said, the DTV transition was a shared cultural experience–one that is likely to be memorable given all the on-screen reminders and converter installation demonstrations broadcasted by local network affiliates.

For decades, antennas were synonymous with television and fuzzy reception was commonplace. But as cable subscriptions increased during the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s, the depiction of antennas in network programming came to symbolize the lack of cable television. When in the past, a scene in which a character adjusts an antenna was unmemorable and merely included for verisimilar purposes, contemporary shows utilize antennas as a visual cue to establish the socioeconomic status of characters. The screenshot above, which prominently displays antennas in the foreground, is from My Name is Earl, a sitcom featuring a former small-time thief and his trailer park-living ex-wife that’s set in the redneck town of Camden.

Married with Children frequently used the antenna to identify the Bundys as lower-middle class, but also used it to comment on Fox’s weak signal strength and position among the other three established networks. It became an on-going joke on the show where Al Bundy would instruct his family to “assume to Fox Network viewing positions,” and they each would contort themselves while holding antennas and aluminum foil in the air. (Click HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE for examples.)

Now that the DTV transition has literally turned the television antenna into a relic with no function or purpose, how will it be featured on future shows? While antennas are far from reaching the depth of obscurity and uselessness equated with rotary phones, any visual presence of rabbit-ears in a show set during present-day, would likely incite discussion about anachronism. Granted, television shows take liberties in storytelling, but for the millions of people that actually had to spend money on a converter and wait for their $40 government rebate, an use of an antenna may seem completely implausible.

DTV transition data [via: Nielsen]

3 Responses

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  1. brad said, on June 13, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Actually, a lot of people (myself included) will still be using rabbit ears — the DTV box still needs to get a signal from somewhere, and houses that used rabbit ears last week are likely still using them this week. On the other hand, reception difficulties will probably lead many to switch to cable or rooftop antennae very quickly – a bad digital signal is essentially worthless, because digital signal noise is so much more disruptive, aesthetically, than analog noise.

    As a middle class indicator, rabbit ears are almost certainly on the decline, but as an indicator of poverty they could remain prominent. Call it the digital TV divide, perhaps. However, I think you are spot on in noting the end of the “Fox Network viewing positions” era – viewers are more likely to completely ignore channels with bad signals than to try to coax the signal out, and watching a TV character try to get better reception won’t be nearly as funny in the digital era.

  2. Josef said, on June 15, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks for inviting me to read your blog! Now all those screen captures on flickr make sense. Interesting take on the digital transition in this entry. My neighborhood has always gotten great antenna reception in the past or maybe I’m just ignorant that rabbit ears marked you as someone of lower financial status. Perhaps they can be elevated to outlaw status like in the “Max Headroom” TV series. I could be just remembering that wrong, but it would be nice to think that there could be roving bands of outlaw televison productions beaming in unfiltered content to idiot boxes. Or is the internet poised to be that now?

  3. Gladys Santiago said, on June 15, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks for the comments, guys! I had no idea that rabbit ears were still required. I’m kind of glad they are because I’m a little nostalgic for them. Josef, a lot of the screenshots are for my Product Displacement blog and a project I’m working on for SVA. I’ve noticed about 80% of my pictures are screenshots and the other 20% are pictures of my dog. lol.


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