DTV Primer

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Work on a new television standard to replace the old American NTSC standard began in earnest in the late 1980s. The NTSC color TV standard had given good service since the early 50s, and its 480 interlaced lines of resolution was fine for the smaller sets of its day, but as TV sets grew larger, the scan lines became painfully obvious. The European PAL system had substantially more resolution, and the Japanese were working on something called "high-definition."

The Japanese system was called MUSE; it was analog. The US started development on a new standard for American television not with the goal of making it digital, but with the goal of making it better. The big analog prototypes were gorgeous, but they gobbled radio-frequency bandwidth like crazy.

But replacing our old NTSC television standard with a new system was a momentous decision, not to be taken lightly, and so a committee was formed to study the matter. It was the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Services. Everyone who had an opinion was in. There were technical considerations, creative considerations, economic and political considerations. A lot of money was at stake. After a few years of deliberations, a more formal group took over--the "Grand Alliance." After a few more years another more permanent entity--the "Advanced Television Systems Committee"(Inc.)--took the lead. Finally, we had a label--"ATSC"--for the future of TV!

In 1996 Congress made it all official. The old NTSC analog standard would be replaced after a ten-year transition period by the still-evolving ATSC outline. Producers would buy high-def cameras and start shooting programs in the new widescreen digital format. TV stations would install new digital equipment and start parallel broadcasting on a separate digital channel. Consumers would go out and buy new digital TVs. At the end of 2006, analog broadcasts would be shut off.

That was the plan.

But there had been no consensus on a single standard, so there were many. A few of these scan formats rose to the top. The best was 1080p (1080 "progressive" scan lines), but this was difficult to achieve using conventional TV technology. For high-definition programming, that left 1080i ("interlaced" scan lines) and 720p.

Which was best? The arguments flew back and forth. "Just pick one!" I thought.

And they did. Some broadcasters picked one, and some picked the other one. Some simply chose to stay with the fuzzier standard-definition (480 scan lines) until a consensus emerged.

Next came the acrimonious battle over the best digital tuner modulation scheme: 8-VSB vs. the European COFDM standard. HDTV progress ground to a halt waiting for a resolution.

That was just for receiving over-the-air broadcasts. Most people get their programming via cable, but no one had decided how to plug that into the back of an HDTV. But no matter--cable companies were not yet carrying any high-definition programming.

As if that wasn't discouraging enough, the networks were discovering they could use their new digital frequency allocation to broadcast four or five standard-definition channels instead of a single high-def one.

The transition was faltering. It was the chicken or egg thing. Without high-def programming to watch, why buy a new HDTV? Without substantial numbers of digital sets in consumers' homes, who would pay for the high-def programming?

And apparently nobody wanted to tell consumers that those cheap NTSC television sets were about to become obsolete, so they just kept buying them.

Fortunately that other digital revolution arrived--the DVD. It became the small screen's celebration of the big screen. People discovered that movies looked (and sounded) great on the new widescreen digital sets. They started buying. The transition finally started to take hold after that.