NAB Honors Progressive Pioneer

(click thumbnail)Tony UyttendaeleLAS VEGAS
For more than four decades, Tony Uyttendaele has been one of the broadcast industry’s forces of change. After realizing that broadcast jobs were scarce in his native Belgium, Uyttendaele headed off to Cambridge, England, in 1958 to nab what would be his first in a long-line of broadcast jobs.

He’s been crisscrossing the globe ever since, serving as an engineering ambassador and Mr. Fix-It for broadcast stations in Europe, the United States, Africa and beyond. He headed to Baghdad in 1959 to help build Iraq’s first TV station and 15 months in Nigeria in the mid-‘60s building transmitters, with his wife and one-year-old son in tow. And he had a significant role in propelling the 720 progressive HDTV format into the U.S. broadcast engineering mainstream.

Uyttendaele retired as the senior advisor of science and technology for the ABC Television Network eight years ago, but can still be found on a Wednesday afternoon in his ABC office, where he currently serves as an advisor to all things engineering.

His broadcast brethren will honor him with the 2008 NAB Engineering Achievement Award during the NAB Show in Las Vegas. He will receive that honor alongside radio recipient Thomas B. Silliman, president of ERI.

TV Technology recently spoke with Uyttendaele on the progress of high-definition television, and what the future has in store for the broadcast industry.

TV TECHNOLOGY: You have witnessed an enormous amount of engineering developments throughout your career, including the introduction of the 720 progressive format. What was one of the frustrating aspects of working on the 720p front?

UYTTENDAELE: When the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) was looking for some help in trying to come up with the parameters with the HDTV production format, they looked at what the Japanese were doing, and the only [format] that was in existence at that time [was interlaced]. But there was a counter proposal being made: 726 lines progressive.

TV TECHNOLOGY: And yet the format hit a bump?

UYTTENDAELE: [ATSC pressed SMPTE] to come up with suggestions and they proposed two formats. If you go back to the minutes of the meeting of SMPTE in February 1985, they recommended the progressive scan [as] their favorite. They were going to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) with two formats—one interlaced, one progressive—but somehow progressive got lost in the shuffle. They thought Europe would never go with progressive. There is a lot of pressure [that goes on behind the scenes] with this stuff.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What was the next major hurdle?

UYTTENDAELE: That nobody was making any [progressive] equipment. The ATSC set up a specialized group on production formats, and they started with the NHK 1125 system and another 720p format, and we had arguments back and forth. I became chairman of the progressive scan group. And [the rival groups] were fighting each other.

And then one day, somebody came to my rescue. This was 1994, and Panasonic took my side in the debate. Panasonic came down to New York to meet us and to see if ABC was serious about this progressive stuff. [They had designed] a prototype, and wanted us to come to Japan. We did, and compared three cameras—480p, 1080i and 720p—and when we did a thorough comparison, we found that 720 was the best. There was no reason to deal with interlaced. So it became our obligation to spread the word.

I wrote some research papers to make 720 the standard. And I got into some trouble there. But we also had a lot of help because [voices from] other countries, such as Dr. Charles Sandbank in Europe, were saying “who is to say you can’t have 720p?” The bickering was always going on with the U.S. and Japan. I felt we had to get some more voices, some other parties to talk about this stuff. In 1993 and 1996 I [headed to an] engineering conference in Tunis, and I took that opportunity to talk about [the technology]. And then again in Switzerland at an ITU meeting I said, “You’ve got to speak up, too, here, about all this nonsense between U.S. and Japan. If there are people who really believe in this, you need to speak up.”

TV TECHNOLOGY: Why were you drawn to the progressive format?

UYTTENDAELE: Interlaced was good for the analog days, but when you go digital, you shouldn’t be in interlaced mode. The minute I saw the 720p cameras that Panasonic had built ... [it seemed] the responsible way of doing things. We were convinced that this was the right thing to do.

TV TECHNOLOGY: The opposition to progressive was fierce, you recall?

UYTTENDAELE: A lot of people had invested a lot of money in [competing] technology. I recall CBS saying, “These guys are going uphill, nobody will ever build equipment [for the progressive format].” NBC said, “We’ll do everything except 720p.”

But we were confident. It works like a charm, better than everything else, and we’ve stuck with it. We had a bit of trouble in-house because [there was concern over] who would manufacture progressive equipment [in the early days]. We also had ESPN and Disney, our sister organizations, to worry about. But they, too, wanted the best picture on the air. There was no question that this was it.

Among engineers, there is agreement. When showing 1080i, 1080p and 720p—720p is better. [Others who are manufacturing 1080i] have been very influential. I think they understand that what we did was right, but not necessarily convenient for them.

TV TECHNOLOGY: You were instrumental in developing ABC’s C-Band satellite network distribution system, and served as chairman on satellite newsgathering technology for the ITU-R Working Party. Now you’re watching as the industry is poised to transition to an all-digital broadcast in February. What pitfalls lay ahead for the industry?

UYTTENDAELE: I think the FCC is still concerned with [the idea of] switching one day to the next [from analog to digital]. [FCC Commissioner Michael] Copps has been pushing for a test market to work out the kinks—not to postpone the cutoff date, but perhaps turn on certain markets early to see how it works. There’s still a lot of work to be done before now and then. We’ve got to do this carefully.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What does the NAB Engineering Award say to you about all that’s been accomplished?

UYTTENDAELE: I think it’s wonderful that 720p has got its recognition finally. I’m proud for the whole team, who we called The 720p Club. It was risky. Our competition warned me: “Tony, you’ve got to be careful when you select your friends.” And they might have messed it up for us. But we just plugged away. When I came on board in 1987, progressive at ABC was already on its way. I just helped keep [the progressive conversation] going.

Susan Ashworth

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.