A TRIBUTE TO PBSPBS: A Technology Timeline

In 1997, PBS and Harris Broadcast designed and built a truck called the "DTV Express." A fully-equipped digital education center on wheels, the two companies subsequently took it on a nationwide teaching tour. Over a two-year period, Harris and PBS team members demonstrated how DTV works to thousands of broadcasters and politicians. The DTV Express project is a perfect example of how PBS views technology: as an educational tool. But this is just the tip of iceberg. Since its founding in the late 1960s, the broadcaster has utilized technological innovations to fulfill its mission of bringing high quality free programming to the public. For this special tribute issue, DigitalTV took a look back at some of the greatest moments in PBS's technological history.

Ready To Play Ball

One of the first full power DTV transmitters went on-air at WETA-DT in Washington, DC. Using a Harris SigmaCD-70 UHF transmitter and a Dielectric side-mounted antenna, it wasn't long before this PBS member station began making giant leaps in the world of digital broadcasting.

In 1997, in cooperation with Harris Broadcast and WHD-DT, WETA-DT delivered the first HD broadcast of a Major League Baseball game. The signal was received at the National Press Club, in Washington, DC, and displayed on 16-foot wide by 9-foot high screen for an audience of more than 300 broadcasters, journalists, financial analysts, industry leaders, and government officials.

This event demonstrated delivery of two types of signals: uncompressed component video and a pre-compressed signal ready for local broadcast, as well as two distribution methods.

The uncompressed signal was sent over fiber optic cable to WHD-DT (channel 27), and the pre-compressed signal traveled via satellite to WETA (channel 34).

Few will remember who won the game, but many recall how the demonstration gave sports fans a tantalizing preview of the future look and feel of televised sporting events.

Leading The Way

PBS and its affiliates are constantly seeking ways to use technology to meet the wide diversity of local viewer interests. Here are but a few of PBS's accomplishments in this arena:

--First use of satellites to distribute network programming. This feat was kicked off in 1980 with PBS's "Satellites Are The Ultimate High" campaign.

--Instrumental in the development of ITFS (Instructional Television Fixed Service) stations that opened the way for school districts to broadcast classes from district headquarters to the district's schools, and to allow colleges and universities to offer classes and continuing education to local satellite offices and directly to businesses.

--Development of closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. Later also encouraged the use of a second audio channel to give blind listeners brief scene descriptions.

--Early adoption of streaming video on the Web. A few PBS stations using this technology actually make their programming available nationwide.

--PBS stations led the broadcast industry in the use of high efficiency Klystrode-equipped transmitters, paving the way for the IOT revolution.

--Led the way in developing multistate cooperative networks that allowed states to share their top-notch teachers.

--Helped create university-to-secondary school connections so smaller schools could have access to courses they couldn't afford to offer on-site.

--Encouraged the development of off-campus continuing education via video.

On With The Show

KLVX-DT Las Vegas has become a gateway for demonstrations of new technologies. Aside from making its DTV signals available for NAB conventions and local viewers, General Manager Tom Axtell cited the following as just a few examples of the many way his station stays on the leading edge:

In 1995, the station cooperated with Sony for the first broadcast to test and demonstrate a time code signal allowing specially-equipped home VCRs to automatically update time and day of week information after a power outage.

Three years later, WLVX became the first TV station to use direct satellite pass-through of HDTV signals from a network uplink to a local affiliate.

That was followed in 1999 by being the first station to demonstrate a digital audio-triggered animation/manipulation technique using a Cyber Bass guitar and Digidesign Pro Tools.

That same year, the station operated two Thales Broadcast & Multimedia DTV transmitters for several industry tests. It demonstrated the first 4-channel multicast of digitally encoded analog program material. This was also the first transmission of an analog NTSC channel with DTV channels on both adjacent channels. And it allowed the first demonstration of simultaneous HDTV programming and multicast programming on separate DTV transmitters in the same city.

No End In Sight

WETA-TV and KLVX-TV are just two of the roughly 345 PBS member stations across the country striving daily to bring the highest quality programming to the public. All together, PBS affiliates deliver programming and other services to about 100,000,000 viewers every week.

We'll continue to hear about new PBS DTV initiatives, because as one network official summed up the network's on-going excursions into new technologies, "We do it because we're hungry!"

Ron Merrell is executive editor of DigitalTV.

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