26 October 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

It is reasonable to anticipate that, despite the intensive advertising campaign that formed the prelude to yesterday’s demise of the analogue television signal in this country, there are probably a sizeable number of households in our circulation area which did not make the necessary preparations in time for the digital switchover, and are now deprived of a television service as a result.
For whatever reason, there appeared to be an unusually high level of recalcitrance among the Irish public about preparing themselves for the change – and the outcome is likely to be some weeks of belated and frustrating transition as suppliers and installers of the necessary equipment struggle to cope with the consequent panic-driven demand.
There remains no shortage of advice and assistance for those caught up in this situation, however, and the matter should be remedied relatively soon.
Indeed, as individuals, we can assist in the process by lending a helping hand or some practical guidance to someone we know who might have been caught out by the change or not sufficiently prepared for it.
Television plays an important part in our lives – it rivals the weather as a conversational reliable, and like the weather often receives the butt of our ire for its want of improvement. But it remains a powerful and influential communicator nonetheless.
Although undoubtedly an historic moment in our social history, the switchover to digital television will not be a seismic one for the majority.
For recipients of cable or satellite television, it has been an irrelevance, and the wide availability in recent years of freeview television services has accustomed us to enjoying a multiplicity of choice in what we watch.
We also now have a vast range of media at our disposal to select what we want to see, when we want to see it and on what device – long before the big switchover we had become the careless masters of a television medium which many feared at its inception would exercise its own baleful tyranny over us.
Those new to the multi-channel experience might well find themselves, after the initial novelty has worn off, humming a tune that rhymes with the refrain of a memorable Bruce Springsteen song, “57 channels – and nothing on”.
Prodigious quantity is offset by wildly variable quality, and when viewers winnow out the wheat of well-made and stimulating programming from the chaff of channels that regurgitate ancient shows as fillers for endless advertising, and those that seek to inculcate a sedentary shopping habit in the viewer, they will find that the bounty is not as rich as they might have been led to believe.
There is, however, an intrinsic merit in such a sprawling field of choice – it must inevitably serve to place boundaries upon the influence that particular broadcasting interests can exercise.
Much concerned debate has been generated in our era about the concentration of control of the media in the hands of a relatively small number of corporate entities and individuals.
The trend of centralisation in mass media control has overcome stout resistance to effect profound change in both broadcasting and the printed word worldwide.
A similar battle has been waged on a more localised scale in many countries, including our own, with regional newspaper and local radio outlets increasingly passing out of the control of individual proprietors and becoming absorbed into group ownership.
This development has distressed those who cleave to the belief that diversity of viewpoint is essential to a healthy media, and who hold that the quality of public discourse can only suffer when the range of voices vying to be informatively heard on current affairs lowers from the many to the few.
The new multi-channel television party to which we are all now invited would seem on first appraisal to suffer no deficiency in this regard.
However, as the consumer of the banquet on offer, it is important that the viewer is discriminating in their tastes, particularly when it comes to news broadcasting.
Although it is one of those self-evident truths that journalists sometimes struggle to admit even to themselves, the news is never neutral – accuracy, objectivity and balance are our trinity, but they are ideals that lie beyond earthly perfection.
The processes involved in the collection and dissemination of news involve choices ultimately made by individuals, or groups of individuals, whose priorities and opinions are shaped in particular cultural contexts.
The digital switchover means that many people for the first time will have up to a half-dozen or more specialist, 24-hour news channels to peruse.
It is a fascinating, informative exercise to compare and contrast how major news stories are presented and prioritised on each – how, for example the current US presidential campaign is reported and analysed by our own national broadcasters and on American and British channels is markedly different from its treatment by such outlets as Russia Today or Al Jazeera.
The varying perspectives and emphasis given the same news stories sometimes disclose obvious bias or the fingerprints of a corporate agenda, sometimes subtle cultural differences or quirky national characteristics.
Studying the coverage in cross-section, as it were, should soon leave the viewer with the initially unsettling but ultimately comforting realisation that there is nothing definitive about any of the voices, be they familiar or novel, that will bring the news into our living rooms in the new digital age.
Television, by the very nature of the way we engage with it, tempts us into the complaint role of passive recipients.
But if we engage robustly with the medium – by a close and comparative reading of its news coverage, and by filtering out the creative and culturally rich from the dross of its entertainment content – we can all be enlightened by the new digital dawn, and not have our tastes and our thinking eclipsed by it.

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