Tom Teepen

writes for Cox Newspapers

If you've had your television on at any time since the last Ice Age, you know that something that's either rather wonderful or quite dire will happen to it come Feb. 17.

The warnings have been running for months, and as the date nears, they have been picking up in number and urgency. By then, if you still use an antenna to haul in your TV signal, either you must have a converter box - and a couple of scenarios are mentioned as means to that end - or

you will not be able to watch TV!

The assumption implied by the voice-over, laden with portent, is that the possibility of your TV dying right there in your living room, perhaps right before the children's eyes, would be distressing on a level equal to faithful old Spot suddenly convulsing and saluting the ceiling with all four paws.

And apparently this will be an apocalypse without mercy. Even the retro channel TV Land, with its black-and-white sitcoms and early stabs at color, when red was by-God-red, won't be able to get through, although its shows were made for rabbit ears. (And, no, wrapping more aluminum foil around the antennae won't help.)

What's going to happen is analog television, which seems to be what we've been watching, will be replaced by digital television, which, we are promised, will be better.

I hate to be the one to poop this party, but it won't be better. Howie Mandel looking a little bit clearer will still be Howie Mandel.

Way back in 1961, the then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minnow, gave a speech in which he decried television as "a vast wasteland."

At the time, most places could get only three or four stations, maybe a few more here and there. Now, on cable, you can buy channels by the hundreds.

We know from our more enlightened perch that Minnow was shortsighted. Television in his time was only a half-vast wasteland. We've got the real thing.

Cooks run amok: Here someone is baking a meatloaf - always a thrill - or simmering mountain oysters there. The medium abounds with reality shows, which in reality are as cooked as that meatloaf. There are game shows of every contrivance; a whole channel is given over to their reruns.

Or you can tune in on guys fussing with motorcycles. Or playing pretend sports, such as arena football.

Except now and then on public television - and that's with decreasing frequency, as

Antiques Roadshow

steamrolls the schedule and fund-raising doo-wop nostalgia recycles in a Mobius loop - here's what you can search television for in vain:

Our best symphony orchestras. Our best opera companies. Our greatest singers and instrumentalists. The work of our best playwrights. Exhibitions by our best artists. Great ballet.

Look, I don't think television should be all high culture. The eons I've given over to NFL games prove that. But you'd think that, if only by the law of averages, some of the nation's best creative work would slip through once in a while.

A crystalline wasteland where there was once a fuzzy one: It's more like fiddling with the knobs than it is like trading up.

E-mail Tom Teepen at teepencolumn@earthlink.net.