What is television?

With all the debates and discussion about how television is changing in an online world, I think that it is important to define what we mean by “Television”. A typical dictionary definition would read something like this: “The transmission of transient pictures by electronic means through a wire or though space, using electric or electromagnetic signal, usually accompanied by sound”.

This doesn’t go too much in details and a bit old school, not taking into consideration that it can also be transmitted by light. Nevertheless, it talks about transient images and as such entails a notion of synchronicity between transmitter and receiver. So let’s try to be a little more specific. The definition of television used to be easier to nail. At the beginning, it was essentially a means to transmit a real-time synchronous signal composed of images and sounds. Basically, someone would speak in front of a camera and a microphone and people would be able to watch it from their homes, without wire (within reach of a terrestrial TV transmitter).

That was the time when engineers would balance the on-air signal with test patterns and a tone when the station was off the air. It was common in the 1950s and 1960s to have limited transmission time and even to shut down the transmitter at night to save power and prolong the life of the vacuum tubes since solid states transmitters did not exist yet. The famous “Indian Head” test pattern was widely used in North America and people would spend long periods of time watching it. Content was not abundant at the time and it was a big attraction just to watch it for the novelty. Technicians would set it up in front of a camera and transmit the picture for a certain time in order to warm up the equipment and align it (a job that needed to be redone every day), after which the live program would be broadcasted at the scheduled time.

Such was television at the beginning – simple. Source in the studio, radio frequency transmitted over the air and the receiver, the TV set at home. However, with time, the signal began to use other means. Community antennas were the base of the first cable systems. Those systems enabled the installation of larger antennas that could receive more distant signals and distribute it to the local communities. That way, communities could receive more channels at higher quality, instead of with a personal antenna located in homes or on rooftops.

In time, those local cables enabled the beginning of the cable network industry. These channels were not broadcasted over terrestrial airwaves – they were sent to satellites, received by cable operators and sent to the consumers’ home. This was an evolution of TV in the distribution form but it did not change the fundamental principle of those being synchronous channels. However, this technological step is what allowed specialized channels like 24 hour news and sports to be created.

Next came digital distribution, IP technology, and the Internet. This enabled a non-real time, on-demand experience. Is that form of distribution still television? Is it more assimilable to video non-real time distribution such as what was done in video-clubs? I think it is.

So what we can say is this: If it is a linear synchronously (real-time-ish) distributed channel, then it is television. If it is on-demand content or streaming of an isolated event, it’s a different media – video (or audio-video) content. For clarity’s sake, let me explain a little more. For a long time, content was defined by its recording medium and by its destination. A movie was shot on film for theatrical presentation. A television show could be shot on videotape to be broadcast at home. But now, we can produce the content digitally regardless of if it is for theater, home-viewing or mobile and with various quality level and resolutions. We still say a “television series” or a “movie” but it is more in reference to the intent or the style rather than a true fundamental technical distinction.

With that said, we can say that a playlist of audiovisual content could be something that looks similar to a television channel but in order to still have television you need to also have a shared experience. You need to have a constant stream that is programmed with a goal in mind and also that viewers can join at any point so that viewers can experience the same thing at the same moment : the stream needs to exist independently of viewers. The program stream is playing constantly and an arbitrary number of viewer can independently join it (or tune in to it) at different points while experiencing a shared, simultaneous experience.

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