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20 Things You Didn't Know About... Television

A closer look at the boob tube on quasi-digital-switchover day.

By Rebecca Coffey
Feb 17, 2009 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:57 AM
Courtesy Bob Mahoney/NBC | NULL


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1 Fade to black: On February 17, television stations will broadcast only digital signals, ending the run of the TV system used in the United States for the past 55 years.

2 The digital television signal can transmit pictures composed of up to 1,080 lines. That’s a long way from the first TV, demonstrated by John Logie Baird in 1926. It used just 30 lines to create a coarse image.

3 Baird’s television looked like a peep-show device, held together with scrap wood, darning needles, string, and sealing wax. His invention was partly mechanical, relying on a spinning metal disk with a spiral of holes to chop up images for transmission.

4 Two years later, Baird demonstrated color television, but black-and-white TV ruled for decades. People who watched such television as kids are more likely to dream in black and white than those who grew up with color TV.

5 Yes, it existed before Monty Python. On August 22, 1932, the BBC began regular broad­casts using the Baird system.

6 By 1935 there were some 2,000 Baird TVs in use. They cost £26 each—the equivalent of $7,700 today.

7 The largest plasma TV now available, a 103-inch monster made by Panasonic, will set you back $70,000.

8 Are television execs playing with hellfire? The inventor of all-electronic TV, Philo T. Farnsworth, called television a gift from the Lord and warned that “God will hold accountable those who utilize this divine instrument.”

9 By the age of 14, the average American child has seen 11,000 murders on TV.

10 The first television advertisement, broadcast in New York on July 1, 1941, was a 20-second Bulova Watch spot that aired before a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The cost for the air buy was $9.

11 In 2008 the average cost for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl broadcast was $2.7 million, the most expensive airtime in the world.

12 Still trying: Last March, 80 years and a lot of cardboard glasses after the first experiments, the BBC once again tested a 3-D TV system—this time on 200 sports fans watching a special broadcast of a live rugby match.

13 Bad show: In August 2006 NASA announced that it had lost all the original tapes of Apollo 11’s TV transmission.

14 Gift of the gab? The long­est-running talk show in the world is either Ireland’s Late Late Show, first broadcast in 1962, or The Tonight Show, which began in 1954.

15 The debate over which show came first arises because The Tonight Show’s format and style didn’t settle down until Johnny Carson’s arrival a few months after The Late Late Show began airing.

16 When Sony started selling VCRs that could tape television shows in the 1970s, film studios sued it for promoting copyright piracy. The Supreme Court ultimately backed Sony, enshrining everyone’s right to time-shift the Survivor finale.

17 Is TV doomed? The amount of video delivered by the Internet and viewed on computers is rapidly increasing: 7.5 billion video streams were watched in May 2008.

18 We are amused: Fifty years after her first televised Christmas address to the people of the U.K., Queen Elizabeth II launched her own YouTube channel.

19 About 36 percent (and rising) of cell phone users can now watch video beamed directly to their phones.

20 We can guess what they’ll be watching: A survey of 20 countries revealed that CSI: Miami is the most popular show on the planet.

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