McAdams On: SMPTE

HOLLYWOOD & HIGHLAND—Hollywood was recently overrun with unsung stars; non-celebrities whose contributions to 21st century communications are not fully appreciated. It is not widely acknowledged that nearly everything we take for granted in the way of visual media was born of the work that enabled the digital transition. Media has not been the same since, and has in fact exploded into a diversity of platforms, devices and form factors.

The Technical Conference of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers is held in Hollywood each October. For a land grant j-school grad, it’s like a crash course in physics, engineering, sociology, communication theory and applied linguistics. It is one of the most fascinating and mentally exhausting events I attend. It also elucidates the rift between the legal and engineering communities that often seems to foster destructive decisions by the courts and agenda-compelled regulators. In many ways, this rift comes down to the argot of engineering.

E.g., I spent 90 minutes in a series of presentations about clocks. One does not give much thought to the roll of clocks in television from the couch potato perspective. From the origination perspective, however, clocks comprise protocols and code; can be masters, slaves, virtual or transparent; and must behave precisely in synchronization across a variety of interfaces, connections, systems and distances in order for television not to become an unintelligible mess. All such clocks count time to the nanosecond, starting Jan. 1, 1970. Why, I’ve no idea. I do realize, however, after 90 minutes of clock lecturing, that an absolutely seamless TV viewing experience across multiple devices is alchemy. Like the Sidney Harris cartoon featuring a mathematical formula that includes, “then a miracle occurs.”

Miracles don’t occur overnight, in a vacuum, while various powers that be arbitrarily change the desired outcome. It would serve us all well if those in positions of power could develop a greater understanding of wizards who make TV possible.