Broadcast quality

It seems like it has only been a few years since all the manufacturers were touting the claim that their equipment was of broadcast-quality. Their claims had some truth to them because the fact of the matter is that the broadcast industry has never defined a specific quality for images.

The current definition of broadcast-quality relies solely on a single figure drawn in the RS-170A standard. That drawing only defines scan timing and is simply an update from the monochrome EIA RS-170 standard.

Thank goodness the days have passed when stations could get away with transmitting a VHS signal as broadcast-quality. The plain truth is that a lot of present-day consumer and prosumer gear produce a picture quality equal to or better than what we were producing in the 1970s and 1980s.

That fact has not been lost on some of the larger broadcasting equipment manufacturers, whose initial investment in research and development led to the quality we see today across the board. Indeed, there have been rumors over the last couple of years that some vendors were considering pulling out of the broadcast market.

The market is one in which the costs are much higher because of the specialized sales forces needed and the limited distribution chains. No doubt, those rumors will be compounded next month at NAB.

But just as the quality of consumer equipment has leapt up to commonly accepted standards of broadcast-quality, there is another level of quality taking a nosedive.

When you look at some of the cartoons on children's television channels, you have to wonder what goes on in the heads of the producers of that cheap, sloppy stuff. And though some video game manufacturers spend a bunch of money designing products capable of decent images on large screens (decent in quality, not in content), there are other handheld gaming systems that make me question how anyone can look at the displays for more than a couple of minutes without getting a headache.

During my last visit to Silicon Valley, I saw video that ranged from superb MPEG-4 quality (some of which you will get to see next month at NAB) right down to the unimaginable, poor quality that people seem to be willing to put up with.

The trend to make cell phones into smart phones means that the vendors have to add features that encourage consumers to go out and buy the latest and greatest. I'll give a bonus to whoever invented the marketing name smart phone. Smart implies digital, and, of course, we all know that digital is the way to improve everything!

The industry's technology began with still cameras, moved on to movie cameras, and then some manufacturers started adding GPS to their products — not so you could find your way around but as a future advertising feature for the carrier to direct you to the nearest McDonald's.

Now the move is toward putting a tuner in the phones so that you can watch TV. Some of the digital tuners being designed for future products offer technology stories that would make most RF engineers' hair curl. Stories like the frequency percentage of the IF they can pass, with all the obvious artifacts, that they can correct with algorithms in the later digital world.

Another oncoming horror is the need by consumers to transfer video from the smart phone to a large domestic-type display. ICs are being developed to either convert (and the industry cannot get its story straight as to whether this is coding or decoding) digital video signals in the camera to NTSC or PAL, or to take raw analog video and filter/buffer it to feed to the larger display.

Can you imagine how awful cell phone images will look on a 40in TV? What's the point of promoting HDTV if consumers will watch this kind of fuzzy TV? I may faint outright if somebody calls it broadcast-quality.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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