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Looking Back At The DTV Transition

The deadline of Feb. 17, 2009 for the switchover to digital TV looms over this CES as the CE industry, along with cable, satellite and broadcast executives assorted politicians and regulators from Washington meet here this week.

The deadline is appropriately a few weeks away from CES which made me recall a few personal memories about digital TV’s development and flat screen TV in general.

The first time I had heard of HDTV it was in a story about some engineering group meeting in Europe. It was the mid 1980s and I was new to the A/V part of the CE business. So when a copy editor at Home Furnishings Daily asked what the term “HDTV” meant I made a few frantic phone calls on deadline. (My more experienced colleagues had already left the office and this was way before the web.)

During the holidays last month I fielded a question that I hadn’t thought about for years. While admiring my now three-year old 42-inch flat-screen TV a relative asked, “Why did they switch over from analog to digital?” That’s something I hadn’t thought about in years. As executive editor Greg Tarr, our resident expert on HDTV, confirmed when I got back to the office that Motorola got it all started when it sought a portion of unused broadcasting spectrum that had been reserved for public safety and military applications for new wireless communications purposes.

Later broadcasters, unwilling to let the spectrum go to an upstart technology, and Washington saw Japan’s analog HDTV standard and said in effect, that the U.S. couldn’t lose its technological edge in television, and the spectrum in question should be used for HDTV. (Ironically, broadcasters and the cable industry would later balk at the cost of the equipment needed to convert to digital TV and took a while to embrace the implementation of HDTV systems.)

Eventually, “The Grand Alliance” – a consortium whose members included AT&T, General Instrument, MIT, Philips, Sarnoff Labs, Thomson and Zenith –developed a standard that was presented to the Federal Communications Commission and adopted. Ironically Philips and Thomson are now out of the consumer TV business, and Zenith is now part of LG.

Finally in the summer of 1998, a mere 10 and a half years ago, the first HDTVs were sold in the U.S. TWICE, our sister publication at Reed Business Information, Broadcasting & Cable and CEA, hosted an event that November in Washington to mark the first HDTV broadcasts, called “The Dawn of Digital Television.” At that event few of us thought it would take little more than a decade to complete the transition to digital broadcasting.

Which reminds me: If you ever want to really get industry veteran Tom Campbell going just say, “Didn’t Ultimate Electronics sell the first HDTV in the U.S.?” He was an executive with the now-departed Dow Stereo/Video at the time and helped his chain make the first retail sale of HDTV in the U.S.

The first time I ever saw a flat screen TV was a prototype at a trade show in Japan around 15 years ago. I believe it was a 20-inch, 4:3 LCD.

All of which gets me back to the conversation about HDTV with my relative during the holidays. I thought it was amazing that I now have three flat screen TVs and not a tube set or PC monitor to be found under my roof.

My relative, who’s not a member of the industry, shot back, “Of course not! Who’d have a tube set today?”

Maybe because I’ve had a box seat in watching this technology and market develop, I still can’t take it for granted.


Steve Smith is editor in chief of TWICE and the TWICE CES Daily