If you take the Wayback machine to the beginnings of television, you'll find an archaic set of referents which relate broadcast frequencies to content providers. These referents were called "channels" and the numbers had real meanings—the channel number referred to a frequency band at which the station was broadcasting it signals. So CBS was Channel 2 and NBC was channel 4. These were the days when your television set operated more like a radio—adjusting its tuning to catch the signals coming in on various frequencies.
Fast forward 60 years and we have cable and satellite television, thousands of channels and…we still have channel numbers. It's been years since NBC hasn't occupied the "4" on everyone's channel dial, and with the advent of local networks, affiliates, cable and satellite broadcasting, HDTV, hotel networks and the like, channel numbers are the least useful part of the entire television equation.
The problem with channel numbers is they create an extra layer of abstraction layer from the true value for which we watch television: the content. It all begins with the content, which is organized into networks on which it is displayed. Many networks have a content theme, so If you like "South Park" there's a good chance you might like "The Daily Show". Relationships like that help bolster the value of the network, although with the legacy networks, that's certainly a more tenuous connection. I enjoy "30 Rock" but I can't stand "The Voice". Nevertheless, NBC and the other networks have created brands which resonate with us.
But what value does "Channel 2" have today? In fact, what value has Channel 2 ever had aside from being where you go to find CBS? If the first televisions were outfitted with light-up buttons that read "CBS" and "NBC" we may not be having this discussion today. But even so, that was fine back when NBC was the same channel everywhere, and when the idea of tuning to Channel 2 meant that your television adjusted to pick up the signals coming in at that particular frequency. And today we have neither—unless you're still receiving terrestrial signals and not relying on cable, satellite, or IP-based solutions to get your programming.
So let's get rid of channel numbers, shall we? They don't serve any meaningful purpose other than to remind us about the things we actually do care about (networks and programs). It's hard enough remembering the channel numbers at your house (HD, SD, etc) let alone when you travel or stay in a hotel. And with the wonderful invention of the DVR, it's possible and even quite common to follow a bunch of shows without even knowing on which channels (or even which network) they air. The future is pretty amazing, isn't it?
So you may be wondering how things will get easier without channel numbers. "How will I go quickly from channel to channel?" "It's much faster to type in '49' than to type out 'Comedy Central.'" You're right, but the problem is not that we rely on channel numbers, it's that our remote controls are just as antiquated as the numbers on which they're focused. The television remote control has gone through about as many revolutions as toilet paper. Sure there are more buttons now, but the vast majority of remote controls are a sea of function buttons centered around that tried and true number pad. Yes, there are exceptions. But they remain just that—exceptions.
And so imagine if your remote actually let you do what you wanted to do. You don't want to go to channel 2; you want to turn to CBS. Just because we've always done something a certain way doesn't mean that's still the best way it should be done. Perhaps our smartphones and tablets will someday become the norm for communicating with our television sets. Perhaps we'll finally outgrow those long, flat, black boxes of AA-sucking pain and suffering which have relegated us to continued use of those tired old channel numbers.
Let's get rid of channel numbers once and for all.