Flipping the switch

We are days away from completing the long journey to the promise of DTV. Originally, the great analog switch-off was never planned to be such. The initiative began under FCC directives in the late 1980s to implement an analog HDTV system that was fully compatible with existing SD NTSC receivers.

However, by 1990, the short-lived compatible analog system concept was dead. Rapid new developments in digital technology convinced the FCC that the new HDTV system needed to be digital. Thus was born the concept of an analog-to-digital transition period where the two would be broadcast simultaneously on separate channels. Interestingly, it was not a broadcast company but an equipment supplier to the cable and satellite industries, General Instrument, that initially and successfully drove the shift from analog to digital technology. The formation of the Grand Alliance by competing companies and consortia that had been each vying for the adoption of their own technology into a proposed DTV standard was the final step needed to facilitate a technology standard.

That technology standard was adopted by the FCC in December 1996, and a transition timetable was released several months later. The original FCC timetable was a DTV transmission phase-in plan that was supposed to begin in May 1999 and be completed in May 2003, with analog signals shut off at the end 2006. With high set prices limiting consumer uptake and many broadcasters unable to meet the original timetable, the political hot potato of a switchover date was delayed to February 2009.

Despite that original slow start, according to the Leichtman Research Group's annual study released in November 2008, HDTV penetration stood at 34 percent of U.S. households, with one-third of those households owning more than one set. The CEA reports the number more aggressively at 47 percent. Notwithstanding which is closer in accuracy, penetration is significant, and it occurred during a period of albeit declining but still relatively high set prices. Today, a 42in 1080p LCD receiver costs less than $800, and prices continue to drop.

The Leichtman Research Group is currently forecasting HD set penetration to double to 80 million homes within four years. That represents a 75 percent adoption rate in just over a decade, or a rate one-third faster than that originally of color television. Next month, DTV will take its place as another major milestone on the history-rich timeline of the television industry.

At the beginning

Clouded in the dueling claims and patents of Philo Farnsworth and RCA's Vladimir Zworykin, the title of father of television can arguably be ascribed to either of these renowned inventors of early electronic television technology. (Electronic is the operative word for those familiar with John Logie Baird and his successful mechanical disk experiments that predate both Farnsworth and Zworykin.) But it took a visionary marketer and industrialist or, as he is thought of in some circles, a devious and ruthless business entrepreneur, David Sarnoff, to evolve this technology into an industry and social influence, a communications medium and a source of entertainment that has changed modern civilization. There are several good books chronicling the epic battles between Sarnoff and Farnsworth in those exciting, pioneering days of the industry. One of these in particular, “The Boy Genius and the Mogul” by Daniel Stashower, is a great read for any industry aficionado.

Technology's four phases

All great technologies go through four major phases as they progress from birth to maturity: experimentation, demonstration, commercialization and innovation. Initially, there is experimentation, which is based on the underlying theoretical assumptions developed by those visionary scientists and engineers who often through brilliance, though sometimes through accident, prove a particular hypothesis. This then leads to demonstration, usually designed to create public awareness and excitement and to help stoke up potential investors.

The next phase is commercialization, and it is here that the technology begins to give birth to an industry. Then, as the technology matures, innovation becomes the hallmark, where the base technology is further enhanced in scope, and applications are usually well beyond the basic ideas of the original inventors.

Whether it is Eastman's photography, Bell's telephone or the Wright brothers' airplane, innovation precludes obsolescence. Innovation extends the life of a technology by making it continually relevant and intrinsic to the world of today — no matter when today is. Electronic television, too, progressed through these phases and did so roughly in decades. The major decade for experimentation was the 1920s. For demonstration, it was the 1930s, with a signature exhibition event taking place at the opening of the 1939 World's Fair. President Roosevelt's opening address was broadcast through NBC's 12kW station in New York City, W2XBS, to an estimated 200 TV receivers. But a World War delayed the commercialization phase to well into the 1940s. At war's end in 1945, there were nine stations on-air broadcasting to fewer than 7000 TV receivers. However, the next five years saw a virtual TV explosion. By 1950, there were 1 million television households being served by 96 television stations, with an additional 14 Cps waiting in the wings. Just three scant years later, the number of TV households grew an additional twentyfold. TV had indeed arrived in a big way. It wasn't long before the 1950s began television's era of large-scale innovation that continues to this day.

That mechanical disk again

The first major innovation was the introduction of compatible color in the 1950s. The development of color TV had more twists, turns and intrigue than a Robert Ludlum novel.

The first color broadcasts were conducted by CBS in 1951, but the technology's roots were based on Baird's old spinning mechanical disk. The disk was spun in front of the display synchronously with a like disk being spun in front of the camera pickup device. The disk was divided in three to accommodate red, green and blue colored filters, requiring the disk to be three times the size of the picture area.

Sava Jacobson is best remembered for his invention of the modern telephone answering machine. He was also a chief engineer for one of CBS' television manufacturing allies. During that time, he described the problems with the mechanical disk in an unpublished article now in the archives at the Sarnoff Research Center (http://tinyurl.com/3v33pu). He wrote: “Originally developed by Peter Goldmark for five-inch kinescopes, this approach has serious technical problems when used with larger picture diameters. For example, the horsepower needed to drive a disk rises nearly as the fifth power of the diameter; the control circuitry for maintaining synchronism becomes vastly more complex for more massive disks and drives; the sheer size of the disk becomes mind-boggling: a 19“ picture requires a nearly five-foot diameter disk, driven by a ten-horsepower motor.”

The General goes back to war

Sarnoff served as a communications consultant to Eisenhower during the war. Once he was commissioned as a brigadier general, Sarnoff was forever simply “The General.” Marshalling his forces, strategizing with his lieutenants, The General once again went to war. This time it was the industrial wars and the battle with CBS over the color system that was to be adopted.

Initially, the FCC adopted the CBS system, but the politically shrewd General battled in the courts and with the NTSC standards body, and proceeded to develop a color system that was compatible with the millions of black-and-white sets then in use. Eventually, the incompatibility issue caused CBS to abandon its efforts, and the FCC was forced to rescind its earlier adoption in favor of the RCA system. Chalk up another one for The General.

Modern day innovation

After color, innovation continued, but not in such epic proportions. Stereo audio and closed captioning are two examples that come to mind. Another form of innovation is the integration of other technologies. Ampex's development of video recording technology on tape dramatically changed the face of TV. The launch of the first Telstar communications satellite was also the introduction of TV as a truly global medium. These new technologies were not without challenges.

Thanks to differing broadcast schemes, global TV highlighted the need for standards conversion. The BBC responded with the world's first standards TV converter. It took two 6ft-racks-worth of electronics to accomplish what today resides in a chip. And, in an age where even your home PC is capable of nonlinear video editing, it is difficult to imagine those early videotape editors actually doing it with razor blades. Presently, we are in the midst of another epic innovation: the launch of DTV.

Digital opportunities and challenges

The road to February 2009, not without its speed bumps, began in 1936. That's the year the BBC launched the “world's first, regular, public high-definition service.” Using the Beeb's original 405-line standard, this high-definition service left a bit to be desired. For example, in the broadcast of a tennis match from Wimbledon, the players could be seen, but the moving ball was beyond the system's resolution capability and could not be seen on the screen.

In contrast, the first CCD camera was introduced by RCA at the 1985 NAB. When initially used by NBC for a baseball telecast, the announcers were astounded with the motion resolution that captured the seams of the baseball. And this was standard-definition NTSC. So, it seems high definition is a relative term.

In our modern day, the conversion to DTV has not only opened up the world of true high-resolution HDTV entertainment but also a cornucopia of services that digital-based technology can deliver. An early one is television content delivered to mobile and handheld devices. Currently making its way through the standardization process is an added opportunity for the broadcaster to monetize local content and deliver information and entertainment to today's viewer on the go. Certainly it is not without its competition, but therein lies the opportunity. Who else but a broadcaster knows how to best deliver a television entertainment experience vis-à-vis simply a cell phone?

An area of current experimentation is 3-D. The NFL recently performed a 3-D broadcast of a football game to select digital theaters. The NBA has experimented with broadcasting basketball in 3-D and showed the result off quite effectively in a special theater demonstration at the 2008 NAB show.

Sports, it seems, has a special attraction to 3-D. In an experimental broadcast in March 2008, the BBC showed an international rugby game in 3-D. In Japan — which was first with regularly scheduled HDTV broadcasts starting in November 1991 — Korean manufacturer Hyundai markets a $5000 3-D receiver, and there is already a regularly scheduled one-hour-a-day 3-D broadcast via satellite being provided by Nippon BS Broadcasting. Viewing requires the special receiver and 3-D glasses as well.

Philips has developed a 3-D signal processing engine that it pairs with a special lenticular display, resulting in a 3-D receiver that eliminates the need for special glasses. Calling this technology WOWvx, it now offers an end-to-end 3-D content creation and display solution currently aimed at point-of-sale, gaming and specialized visualization applications, but clearly the 300lb gorilla in the room is home television.

Further into the future is holographic television, a technology that's in the Stone Age today. During its recent presidential election reporting, CNN used a scheme requiring 35 high-definition cameras to capture not a true hologram but a 360-degree image of a single reporter to transport her to the studio set. Was it holographic video? No, but it's certainly food for thought. Clearly, we are in the early stages, taking small steps on the road to delivering the virtual reality of 360-degree holographic video to the home.

With pioneering efforts in HDTV and now 3-D TV, the Communications Ministry in Japan has challenged the Japanese electronics industry to create holographic television by 2020. But, America, too, is well into that race. The MIT Media Lab has demonstrated the rendering of full color holograms as 1in cubic images that are updatable at video rates of 20fps. A research group at the University of Arizona demonstrated updatable monochromatic holograms at the size of a 4in cube.

Key challenges in progressing true holographic television are the sheer amount of high-speed memory and the computational horsepower required to generate motion video. Given that many of today's cell phones have more computer power than the first space shuttle, clearly it's not a matter of if but just a matter of when you can watch that Sunday NFL game with 3-D players running on top of your coffee table-like imager as you walk around it checking the action and the views from end zone to end zone.

As we throw those transmitter switches next month and complete the transition to digital, the original promise of the ATSC standard will have been fully realized. However, this is not an ending; it's a beginning. The sheer expansiveness of a digital technology base facilitates new vistas of innovation for the future and allows rapid updating of the present. Already, ATSC 2.0 is in the wings. When building out new plants, broadcasters are creating 3Gb/s infrastructures to accommodate 1080p. Will there be a redefined transmission standard for it? What about transmission applications for MPEG-4? Now that home television is on a digital platform, will consumers — if motivated by dynamic new display experiences — adopt a PC industry set replacement model? How would that drive technology considerations? These are just some of the many issues to be considered that were not particularly a concern for broadcasters at the time of the original standard. ATSC 2.0 will need to take all of this and more into account.

It has been said that the golden age of TV has passed. If this is true, it must be the platinum era for our industry. What a delight to be a part of it.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.