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Digital TV Standards Debate A Throwback To Days Gone By

It was back in 1940 or ’41 — you’ll excuse the vagueness but I was only a small boy at the time — when my Uncle Bill brought into his apartment, just downstairs from mine, a brand new Admiral radio-phono console. It came with an AM-FM tuner and a mystical jack in the back labeled “TV.”

This jack, he was assured by the salesman in the furniture store, would enable the conversion of the console to the then brand-new service that RCA was showing at the New York World’s Fair.

Many, many years later, when the electronics and associated turntable had ceased functioning, I had a chance to take the back off and look inside. What I found was the TV jack wasn’t connected to anything. What Admiral’s plan for TV conversion was, I never learned.

But more to the point, after World War II, the FCC moved the FM band to its present location, which of course made the FM portion of the radio as useless as the TV jack.

Well, with no FM radios out there to pull in the signal, radio broadcasters were in no rush to add an FM station to their inventory, even though then, as now with digital channels, FM station allocations were available free to existing AM broadcasters.

It was a classic chicken/egg situation, with broadcasters waiting for consumers to collectively buy the relatively expensive new AM-FM radios before committing to providing programming, and consumers, still somewhat unnerved by the service’s frequency change, looking to broadcasters for a reason to buy a new radio. And when they did buy one they discovered, more often than not, that broadcasters were simulcasting the same programming on the AM and FM stations.

I may be off a bit on this, but as far as I can determine, it wasn’t until 1967 that consumers purchased more FM-inclusive radios than AM-only models, or some two decades after service was launched.

So it was with a shivering sense of familiarity that I heard the news about the Advanced TV Systems Committee. The ATSC had backed off from a previously firm position and appointed a group to study whether there might be something to Sinclair Broadcasting’s argument that the European modulation system provided better urban reception than the Zenith-developed 8-VSB system mandated as the sole standard for U.S. digital TV broadcasting.

It certainly is somewhat bothersome to think that the still ongoing multimillion dollar, multi-industry effort to develop the digital TV standard came up with a less than perfect modulation system. OK, maybe Sinclair will turn out to be right, but so what?

It wasn’t long after the present NTSC color system was adopted for the United States that the Europeans came up with both PAL and SECAM. At the time, both of those provided higher resolution and a more precise built-in color-quality display than NTSC.

But there was no great cry here for a standards re-study. Granted, things were a bit different then. NTSC had the uncontested support of all the major players, and there was no problem with compatibility with either existing monochrome sets or cable systems. But there also was a realization that both broadcast equipment and home receivers were relatively primitive and that over time both would improve substantially. Today’s color market success tends to bear that out.

Consumers are more than satisfied with the quality of the color TV they have today; they are happy with it. So happy they have, on average, bought more than 20 million sets a year for the past 16 years. That’s better than 300 million TVs in a nation with 100 million homes. There clearly is no popular uprising demanding digital TV receivers.

As any retailer knows, the worst thing you can do in a store is give the customer an excuse not to buy. Making a major change in the digital TV standard, one that obsoletes all, or even some, of the TVs with built-in digital tuners and all the adapters that will be in homes when the change comes about will be that excuse. Many consumers will just sit out the Digital TV Revolution.

The 8-VSB system is here, it works, and it’s going to work better. The industry focus should be on resolving the cable-compatibility issue and programming and not on unnecessarily further complicating the already complex task of marketing digital TV and HDTV to the consumer.