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]
I have long stated that sitcoms serve as a venue for media industry criticism because of their use of parody and satire. I believe that Married With Children started this trend by taking swipes at what market researchers claim to know about audiences and the television ratings system. In “The Goodbye Girl,” Kelly takes a job at TV World, a television-themed amusement park. Her job is threatened when she receives “low performance ratings” and three viewer complaints that could lead to “cancellation.” Her boss is named Mr. Nielsen, which is an obvious reference to Nielsen Media Research.
The trend of media industry criticism has continued with the ABC season premiere of Scrubs. At the very end of the episode, J.D. notices an unhappy couple to which Elliot responds, “The Nielsens didn’t like their ratings.” This was a clever reference to NBC dropping Scrubs from its Thursday night lineup. With the media and research industry in flux, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this creative commentary.