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Definitively Defining Definition - TvTechnology

Definitively Defining Definition

You might not have noticed </I>that, as they said in the movie "Delicatessen," no one is entirely evil. Conversely, unfortunately, no one is entirely good. For instance, take Bill Clinton.
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SOMEWHERE OUT THERE You might not have noticed that, as they said in the movie "Delicatessen," no one is entirely evil. Conversely, unfortunately, no one is entirely good. For instance, take Bill Clinton.

(pause)

May I proceed now? Good.

Long, long ago, methinks, someone made a joke about high definition meaning a dictionary on a ladder. Maybe it ain't funny, but that dictionary must keep moving up out of reach, because it's tough to find any two people who agree about what HDTV is.

The good old Advanced Television Systems Committee says it's 16:9 with either 1920 x 1080 or 1280 x 720, but, if so, there are danged few people who have ever seen HDTV. Methinks you will find that neither Sony nor Panasonic claim to display 1920 pixels across on even their most expensive professional HDTV monitors.

My pals at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA, or See-Ya) offer a more pragmatic 1080i or 720p – forget the horizontal resolution. That's fine in my neck of the woods. Do most folks buy analog TVs based on horizontal resolution?

Ayup, See-Ya's definition of HDTV was just Jim Dandy, and so was their definition of DTV, as what Our Beloved Commish (also known as the FCC) came up with for terrestrial digital television broadcasting. Then they got screwy.

I dunno. They're based in Washingtoon, D.C. Between all that direct current, the heat, the humidity and the Congress, something was bound to happen to their minds.

NON-BROADCAST BROADCASTING

So, despite having defined DTV as having to do with terrestrial digital television broadcasting, they started sending out press releases about nonbroadcast DTV (nonbroadcast broadcasting?) They've also come up with all sorts of ways to refer to products as DTV that have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject.

Ergo, when I heard that See-Ya was coming out with new definitions this past summer, I wasn't expecting much. Lemme see, now ... After non-broadcast broadcasting they might have come up with non-television TV, cassette-free VCRs, and non-disc DVDs.

There's already a DTV retail mess. Want to watch DTV? Do you need to buy an "HDTV-ready" TV? How about a "DTV-ready" TV? With DTV receivers offering RF connections that'll work with 50-year-old NTSC TVs, what the heck would a nonDTV-ready TV be? Must be one of those non-television TVs.

Then See-Ya came out with its definitions. Shazang! They're maybe the best thing that's happened to DTV since the invention of the bit. I mean it! Honest!

THREE CATEGORIES

It could hardly be simpler or better. See-Ya divides image definition into three categories. "HDTV" remains either 1080i or 720p (with one little fudge factor I'll get to in a moment). "SDTV" remains the component version of POOT (plain old ordinary television). "EDTV" is a new category to stick 480p (and maybe 540p and 576p) into, so ordinary folks'll know it's better than SDTV if not quite up to See-Ya's HDTV.

Then they divide products into three categories: receivers, monitors and tuners. An HDTV receiver has got to be able to receive DTV broadcasts and decode and display HDTV. An HDTV monitor needs an HDTV tuner to do that. Three image definitions times three product categories means nine total categories that tell buyers an awful lot about what something does and what it works with. Without meaning to infringe on anyone's service mark, yahoo!

I could quibble a tiny bit about the exact words used, but, basically, if I'm wearing a hat (Nellie the Neuron is too busy directing my fingers on Old Bossie's keyboard to let me know for sure), it's off to the folks at See-Ya who came up with these definitions. They will make things clearer for consumers, especially if retailers follow See-Ya's recommendation that the terms "HDTV-ready" and "DTV-ready" be immediately dropped.

FUDGE FACTOR

"What about that fudge factor you mentioned, Mario?"

In the word of the Bush campaign commercial, Rats! I was hoping you'd forget that. It's sort of a small point.

See-Ya's definition of HDTV includes a 16:9 aspect ratio. But a bunch of the displays being sold for that purpose have a 4:3 aspect ratio. Some manufacturers of those 4:3 HDTV monitors collapse the scan for HDTV so the 16:9 letterboxed image has a full 1080i or 720p; others do a DVE shrink so that the 16:9 image is either 810i or 540p.

Under the new definitions, the latter are still allowed to be called HDTV, but they have to reveal how many lines they offer in 16:9 mode. That seems fair to me. And, if research bears it out, those 810-line manufacturers (who shall remain nameless but rhyme with zitachi and goshiba) can point out that the other guys (one of whom rhymes with pony) are more likely to burn in letterbox stripes.

So See-Ya did a good deed, the world will be a better place for it, and I'm only halfway through this month's rantings. I guess it's time to mention the other set of DTV-related definitions that came out this summer. They're from none other than Our Beloved Commish – but maybe the Commish won't be so beloved as a result. I'm still counting, but, so far, methinks they've managed to tick off broadcasters, cable ops, computer folks, consumer-electronics manufacturers, and even Commissioner Ness, herself.

This could maybe use a little history. Before there was cable TV, there was TV, so, when cable TV arrived, it had to work with existing sets. When that wasn't good enough in high signal-strength areas (direct pickup through wooden and plastic cabinets), cable ops came up with set-top converter boxes to work with those sets. When the set-top boxes (STBs) allowed more channels on cable, TV-set manufacturers eventually added cable channels and "F" connectors so they could call their products "cable ready," even though they didn't descramble any premium channels, so set-top boxes were still necessary.

PLAIN TV

Anyhow, it all started with TV sets, and, even though Sharp once planned a cable-only TV, that never happened, and all cable-ready TVs work (as well as any TV works) with antenna-delivered signals. That's plain TV.

Now we're supposed to be in the middle of a transition to DTV, and a huge chunk of American homes already have cable. Methinks there's General Agreement (several ranks above Major Consensus) that cable is gonna somehow play a big role in that there transition. There are just a few (thousand) minor details as to how that gets worked out.

Amazing as it may seem, many of those thousands of details are being worked out, and I give plenty of credit to my pal Bernie Lechner for making it happen. Then there are the political details, one of which is what to call cable-ready DTV sets.

Back in May (if Nellie's calendar is working), See-Ya and the National Cable Television Association, under threat of a ruling from Our Beloved Commish, came up with some labels called "Digital Television: Cable Connect" and "Digital Television – Cable Interactive," just the thing to help Uncle Ethelred and Aunt Matilda decide what to buy. About as soon as the ink dried on the agreement, it fell apart, so Our Beloved Commish did something extraordinarily unusual for them these days. They actually followed through on a promise.

They said they'd make their own definitions if the industries didn't agree, and the industries didn't agree, so they made their own definitions. Pretty amazing, eh?

LABEL-READY

The labels are pretty simple: "Digital Cable Ready 1," "Digital Cable Ready 2," and "Digital Cable Ready 3." Here's the language right out of the Report and Order (Docket PP 00-67):

"We will define 'Digital Cable Ready 1' as follows: A consumer electronics TV receiving device capable of receiving analog basic, digital basic and digital premium cable television programming by direct connection to a cable system providing digital programming. This device does not have a 1394 connector or other digital interface. A security card (or POD) provided by the cable operator is required to view encrypted programming.

"We will define 'Digital Cable Ready 2' as follows: A consumer electronics TV receiving device capable of receiving analog basic, digital basic and digital premium cable television programming by direct connection to a cable system providing digital programming. This receiving device will incorporate all features defined in Digital Cable Ready 1 and will also include the 1394 digital interface connector. A security card/POD provided by the cable operator is required to view encrypted programming.

"We will define 'Digital Cable Ready 3' as follows: A consumer electronics TV receiving device capable of receiving analog basic, digital basic and digital premium cable television programming. This device will incorporate all features defined in Digital Cable Ready 1 and will also receive advanced and interactive digital services by direct connection to a cable system providing digital programming and advanced and interactive digital services. A security card/POD provided by the cable operator is required to view encrypted programming."

CRYSTAL CLEAR … NOT!

Pretty clear, eh? Yeah, right. Clear as mud. Have a look at these sentences from the very next paragraph in the Report and Order:

"Consumer electronics manufacturers currently are marketing DTV receivers capable of receiving off-the air digital terrestrial broadcasts. We note, however, that a DTV receiver could, in principle, comply with our Digital Cable Ready labeling requirements and not have the capability of receiving off-the-air digital signals."

I'll say! Some cable ops are delivering DTV signals using 8-VSB. Many cable ops are delivering digital cable programming using 64- or 256-QAM. Nota bene: Our Beloved Commish's Report and Order makes no mention of modulation standard. So, not only might you buy a supposedly cable-ready DTV and discover that it won't work with an antenna, but you could also buy a supposedly cable-ready DTV, use it on one cable system, move, and discover it won't work on another.

I won't even get into the arguments about whether IEEE-1394 is the best interconnect scheme (the Report and Order notes that Microsoft mentioned a number of others), formats for decoding, or any of the other issues, but I can't help quoting once more from the Report and Order:

"Moreover, we wish to note that agreed-upon industry specifications for the Digital 3 set do not yet exist." If we define it, it will come, eh?

OVERNIGHT ISSUES

But who am I to question the collective wisdom of Our Beloved Commish (and who am I – or are we – anyway)? Lemme end, therefore, with the words of a real person with a real name and a real job. He's Dave Arland, the director of government relations for Thomson Consumer Electronics, the number one brand in the U.S. When it comes to DTV receivers, Thomson (you might know them better as RCA) is beyond number one. Methinks four out of five DTV receivers in consumer hands in the good old U.S. of A. are Thomson's – maybe more.

Asked about how soon we might see those Digital Cable Ready sets on the market, he said, "These are not overnight issues that can be wrapped up at the snap of a finger" (which is, itself, a good trick – ever tried snapping just one finger?). "We're years, not months, away."

Rats!