Big Meets Little, Vice-Versa

You might not have noticed… but I’m thinkin’ like a schizophrenic these days. That is to say, I’m of two minds. I’m simultaneously holding two opinions. And like a pair of college girlfriends, neither viewpoint is too happy to acknowledge the other.

Viewpoint number one: Think big. Traditional, old-school engineers and technologists were trained that way, weaned on Yugo-sized cameras whose heat plumes could be charted from space, and videotape recorders with curb weights posted as fractional tonnage. Television lighting fixtures were rated in kilowatts, and camera cables were knitted from hundreds of discrete conductors.

Because, if you were in big-time TV, everything had better be big. Camera pedestals pressurized with compressed nitrogen. A lavalier mic the size of a dill pickle.

I’ve been told that turnabout is fair play, though; and that the 1970s production revolution introduced “featherweight” 35-pound cameras, and shrunk tape from 2 inches to less than a 1/2 inch.

I recall being skeptical; actually, make that indignant. How could smaller be better? And yet our newer, smaller techno-toys could go more places and do more things than their heavyweight forebears. Like the dinosaurs, big technologies became victims of their own massive bulk.

And so, enter viewpoint number two: Smaller is cooler. More flexible; more creative. Maybe we can shoot the whole show on lipstick cameras… and tell the Teamsters that this time, we’re packing three cases, not 30.


So here’s a recap, in case you just joined us: Big is good… small is not to be trusted, except, of course, when small rules the day, and big is a liability. Cripes. Think I’m gettin’ woozy.

But let’s draw a line here. That was all about big iron versus tiny technology; but that question doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. What about the signals themselves?

In the days before color, methinks you could’ve called the TV signal “small.” Even after they wrapped it in subcarrier, TV was a fairly modest affair, a mere 480 active scan lines, and only half of those transmitted on an infrequent basis. But just as we started moving from big hardware to little hardware, there arose this great hue and cry to make the picture bigger. Ironic, no?

With the advent of hi-def, big was once more king… more scan lines, please, and longer ones, and faster, too. If 525 was good, then 1080 must be better! And stretch that puppy out, too—let’s pretend we’re goin’ to the movies.

New lesson: Smaller equals bad; humongous is the fad. Make a note.

But the story doesn’t end here. When the ATSC and the Grand Alliance and whoever all else started searching for an implementation, they found that the bigger-is-better mantra didn’t hold much water in the bandwidth department… even started talking about needing two full broadcast channel allocations to make a single HDTV signal. Just imagine how that would’ve loused up the spectrum auctions.

And in the midst of all this head-scratching and chin-stroking, big ol’ analog TV looks down at the mongrel nipping around its ankles—digital—and gets this brilliant, if obvious, idea: Time to get small.

The rest, as they say, is history… MPEG-2, 19.4 Mbps and all that jazz. The immense pixel counts, multichannel sound, the whole works, is wrapped up in a bitstream so small that we can even tack on extra SD channels, like local weather, news, or shopping channels. (Because we need more shopping channels. Seriously.)

So… back one more time to the scorecard.

Small hardware was bad, and big was the way to go; but then small got good, and big was a bad idea.

Small pictures, though, weren’t as good as big pictures. But big bandwidth was bad, and pictures stayed small until big bandwidth got small. And then they got big. The pictures, that is.

But wait, there’s more!


I’ve heard a lot of jawboning lately about watching TV on my phone… real broadcast TV content, wherever I go, and whenever it strikes my fancy. Ummm… well, okay. Whatever.

But who here remembers seeing full-sized C-band and Ku-band dishes in the neighbors’ yards? And are you sure that dish wasn’t in your own yard? It’s the RF version of the whole process all over again. The 40-element yagi on the chimney begets the 12-foot analog Ku-band dish, which goes digital and begets the 1.8 meter dish, which goes MPEG-2 and begets the 18-inch dish.

And now they want to send TV to my phone, and without so much as a telescoping whip antenna. Sheesh!

This is the really schizophrenic part, though. After convincing me that a 25-inch CRT wasn’t big enough, making me buy a 42-inch plasma, and telling me I really need a 60-inch OLED… our marketing friends want to sell me on the benefits of a 1.5-inch LCD broadcast stream.

I’m not sure I can process that. Really. Cowering before the grotesquely-large screen in a friend’s living room, and five minutes later, holding a magnifying glass over my phone to catch the local weather. Tearing at the neurons, tangling the synapses—it’s diluting my mental capacity down to a fraction of what it once was.

But I hear that, at least for the moment, small is better than big, so that’s probably just fine.

Mario Orazio is the pseudonym of a television engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. E-mail him