March 16, 2009
Lisa Parks (UC-Santa Barbara), “Goodbye Rabbit Ears: Analyzing Public Discourses on the US Digital TV Transition”

Additional support for this event came from McGill University Department of Art History and Communication Studies.

Lisa Parks is Chair and Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara, where she is also an affiliate of the Department of Art and has served on the Executive Committee on the College of Creative Studies. Her research explores uses of satellite, computer and television technologies in a transnational context. She is the author of Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (Duke University Press, 2005) and co-editor of Planet TV: A Global Television Reader (New York University Press, 2003), and Undead TV (Duke University Press, 2007). She has published essays in numerous books and journals and is also co-producer of media arts projects such as “Experiments in Satellite Media Arts” with Ursula Biemann (2002), “Loom” with Miha Vipotnik (2003), “Postwar Footprints” (2005), and “Roaming” (2008). Parks is director of the Global Cultures in Transition research initiative for the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara. She is currently writing two new books—Mixed Signals: Media Infrastructures and Cultural Geographies and Coverage: Media Space and Security after 911—and is co-editing a book called Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries and Cultures with James Schwoch.

Event report: On June 15, 2009, the United States completed the transition to a digital broadcasting standard for free over-the-air television. This transition was not without its challenges, prompting a delay of the original transition date of February 2009. Lisa Parks discussed the discursive field of public outreach initiatives surrounding the transition to see how technical information was being communicated to US residents. Parks’s analysis of these events offered insight into the contemporary role of television in citizenship and public participation. Obstacles to the conversion ranged from the willing resistance of “diehard” analog users, to the systemic exclusion of citizens lacking the means or knowledge to facilitate the transition in their homes. In response to the threat of a “digital TV divide” and the specter of signal disruption, the Obama administration subsidized extensive public outreach, featuring widely circulated public service announcements based on a “no viewer left behind” policy that attempted to reach “vulnerable citizens.” The concerns around the transition were amplified by evidence that the viewers least equipped to make the transition were the same people who relied on television for companionship. Ignoring the fact that not only the poor and uneducated could be counted among the resisters of the transition, public outreach generally adopted a paternalistic tone to address an audience demarcated along class, age, and ethnic lines. The targeted groups were represented as disproportionately dependent on TV. Parks pointed out the irony that the focus on the welfare of elderly, minority, and low-income demographics was greater in regards to the DTV transition than with any other recent public issue, including health care. The emphasis on the importance of staying informed, via superior image quality nonetheless, reinforces the centrality of television in the management of public and domestic life. With Canada’s DTV conversion coming up on August 31, 2011, Parks’s seminar invited questions about the differences and similarities between US and Canadian approaches to broadcast regulation.