How to Explain How Television Works to Kids

By John Machay

While sharing TV time with your child is often a fun experience, explaining how it works can be a different story.
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As any parent would likely confirm, there’s nothing like the feeling you get from explaining simple things to young children and seeing them look back at you in awe, absolutely certain they have the smartest parents in the world. But as they get older, the questions become more complex and increasingly tougher to answer. Inevitably, the day arrives when they hit you with one that leaves you stumped. To make matters worse, it's a question you should be able to answer because it's about something you use every day of your life. So when your kids get around to asking how television works, it’s probably best that you’re prepared.

Understanding Pixels

Probably the best place to start is with the TV. When you watch a TV show or movie, you’re basically seeing thousands of pictures taken one after the other. When these pictures are shown in the order they were taken, they appear to be moving. Showing your child a flip book is a perfect way of illustrating this. Each of those pictures is made up of tiny colored dots, called pixels. Up close, pixels look like a bunch of colored dots. But from a distance, the pixels are too small to see each one. So instead, we see groups of pixels as whole objects. To better explain this, show your child a picture in a newspaper using a magnifying glass.

Capturing the Action

When a TV show or movie is acted out, light reflects off the people and objects. The light enters a camera lens and appears on a little screen inside the camera. Like a TV, the camera sees movies and TV shows as a bunch of single pictures. A special device inside the camera breaks up each picture into tiny parts and changes them to an electronic signal that can be saved on a storage device, like a computer hard drive, videotape or DVD. This electronic signal contains instructions that tell TVs how to put all the parts back together again. Microphones record the sound, break it up like cameras do, and store the electronic information along with the video’s electronic information. When it’s time to show the program, the electronic signal is sent out to TVs in people’s homes.

Sending TV Shows to Homes

There are three types of television service providers: broadcast, satellite and cable. Broadcast TV companies send their signals through the air, much like controllers send commands to toy remote control cars. To make sure their signals reach as many homes as possible, they're usually sent from tall transmission towers, located on mountaintops, buildings or other high places. Satellite TV providers also send electronic signals through the air – except instead of using transmission towers, they send them from satellites that sit in space near Earth. Cable companies send their signals through a thick wire that leaves the cable company and splits into thousands and thousands of additional wires that each connect to someone’s home. The process can be compared to a tree’s method of getting water from the ground and sending it through its branches to reach every leaf.

Turning Signals Into Entertainment

Homes that have broadcast TV service get the electronic information through an antenna; homes with satellite service get it through a satellite dish; and homes with cable get it through the underground wire that started at the cable company. All three of things connect directly to TVs inside the house. When you turn on a TV, the information it’s being sent tells it how to put the pictures together so it looks like the movie or show you want to see. It's similar to creating a picture with a paint-by-numbers kit, except TVs use colored pixels instead of paint. The TV also puts the sound together. This all happens very quickly, because to make people in a group of single pictures look like they’re moving, the TV has to show 24 pictures every second. That means when you watch a half-hour TV show, you see 43,200 pictures.