Global PALs

Brazil is unique and there may be a lesson there as regards digital television. It’s not just that Brazil is the largest country in South America or that its national dish, feijoada, makes a traditional Thanksgiving dinner seem like a light snack. Brazil is the only country in the world to transmit PAL-M television.

PAL is one of three broadcast television color-encoding systems. The others are NTSC and SECAM.

In Argentina, the analog television transmission standard is PAL-N. It has 625 (total) scanning lines and 25fps. In Britain, the standard is PAL-I. It, too, is 625 lines at 25fps. In China, it’s PAL-D—also 625/25. In Denmark, it’s PAL-B—once again 625/25.

In country after country, whether it uses those versions of PAL or PAL-G, PAL-H, or PAL-K, the pictures are 625/25. Even SECAM countries use 625/25 PAL production equipment. It’s not surprising that the term PAL has become synonymous with 625/25. But then there’s Brazil.

In Brazil, even though the color is PAL, the images are 525/30. Why? Perhaps it’s best to start with the origins of 625/25.

The U.S. 525-line/30 (or 29.97) fps television system was the result of a great deal of technical standardization work over a period of years. Some wanted the frame rate to match film’s 24fps, but the U.S. power line frequency of 60Hz led another group to push for 30. In other countries, the 50Hz power system suggested a frame rate of 25fps.

The first all-electronic television system was Britain’s, with 405 lines at 25fps. France came up with 819/25. There were many good possibilities. But 625/25 has a line rate of 15,625/second, less than 1% different from 525/30’s 15,750/second. That meant that RCA could easily sell American-made TVs in Europe, and Philips could easily sell European-made TVs in America.

By the time Brazil got around to transmitting color television, giant corporations were ready to flood the market with receivers. That was not what Brazil had in mind. A unique standard could foster domestic manufacturing.

Now, in the digital TV world, there are three major terrestrial broadcast systems: the U.S.’s ATSC, Europe’s DVB-T, and Japan’s ISDB-T. China is considering a unique system.

South Korea has adopted ATSC, but there are calls for change. Countering them, the Ministry of Information and Communications points out the problem of reimbursing buyers of ATSC receivers. And, as a story in the Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, pointed out last month, “The nation’s major electronics firms, including Samsung..., said that they have invested only in digital TVs that could be sold in the North American market.”

Today, in Brazil, it’s possible to buy a Gradiente or Itautec PAL-M color TV; it’s also possible to buy a Panasonic, Sharp, or Sony. That should come as no surprise. In the U.S., it’s possible to buy a Panasonic, Sharp, or Sony TV, but such venerable American brands as Admiral and Dumont are gone.

As for the Korean manufacturers, it’s a simple matter to buy a Samsung DVB-T receiver in Britain or Australia—perhaps even easier than finding a Samsung ATSC receiver in the U.S. Despite being headquartered in Japan, Panasonic sells DVB-T receivers in Australia and ATSC receivers in the U.S.
PAL, in color TV, stands for Phase Alternation by Line. But it can also stand for programmable array logic.

Digital TV is digital. Internet plans are already available for an entirely software-based ATSC receiver. The PAL-M ploy won’t work anymore.

It doesn’t matter what standard a manufacturer’s home country uses. It’s a small world after all.