There's Nothing Like Progress!

You might not have noticed that it's possible to watch lousy NTSC. Hey – I ain't for one second suggesting that you ought to watch lousy NTSC; I'm just saying it's possible.
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SOMEWHERE OUT THERE You might not have noticed that it's possible to watch lousy NTSC. Hey – I ain't for one second suggesting that you ought to watch lousy NTSC; I'm just saying it's possible.

When your cable or satellite service goes down, or when your rooftop antenna gets blown over and you have to revert to rabbit ears and bow-ties, or when you're trying to use one of those there handheld portable TVs, you can pretty much guarantee that the reception is going to be lousy. But there probably will be reception.

That ain't the case with DTV – anyone's DTV: ATSC, DVB-T or ISDB-T. If it comes in at all, it's probably going to look pretty good. If it doesn't come in, there's zip, zilch and zero. This is called progress.

U.S. DTV fans are crowing that recent tests show people with 30-foot outdoor antennas can pretty much count on getting DTV whenever the NTSC is Grade 3 or better. Well, that's nice, honey. But what about when it's below Grade 3? What about when your nephew is on the roof trying to orient the antenna, and you can't yell up "No, that's worse; go the other way!"?

I wasn't going to rant about DTV this lunar cycle, and I won't. I'm planning, instead, to do a little number on that big manufacturer that shall remain nameless (the one that starts with S and rhymes with pony). But then the Office of Engineering & Technology of Our Beloved Commish issued an "Interim Report" on DTV reception testing, and I just couldn't keep Nellie the Neuron from forcing me to make a couple of comments.

A STUDY OF ATSC DTV COVERAGE

First comment: Whuzzuh?

The report is called "A Study of ATSC (8-VSB) DTV Coverage in Washington, D.C., and Generational Changes in DTV Receiver Performance." Hey – why not?

Why not? Here's why not, in the report's own words:

"Data collection in the Washington, D.C., area is approximately 50 percent complete. Fifty-one coverage sites and nine sites specially selected for strong-signal, high-multipath characteristics have been measured so far. A similar data collection and analysis effort for the Baltimore, Md., area is planned to commence immediately upon completion of the Washington effort."

Let me see if I've got that straight. The OET is in the middle of a data-collection process, so they released a report. They're about half done with one of the two parts of the data collection, so they released a report.

"In attempting to draw coverage conclusions from the data which has been collected to date, one must keep in mind that the total number of sites tested so far is considerably smaller than has been the case in previously completed DTV coverage studies," so they released a report. "Further, analysis of the coverage results with respect to terrain obstructions has not yet been conducted," so they released a report.

"Data collection is ongoing in this study, and current plans include completion of measurements along the cardinal and additional radials (category 1 sites), as well as measurement of a significant portion of the 200 randomly selected (category 2) sites in the Washington, D.C., area to improve confidence in the statistical significance of the data," so they issued a report. "A more thorough analysis of the extensive data collected at each site, including spectral plots as well as data-collection receiver tap energy values and distribution plots, is anticipated for the final report," so they issued a report now, just for the heck of it.

WHY NOW?

Am I the only one who doesn't get it? The House and Senate DTV hearings are over. Our Beloved Commish reaffirmed 8-VSB in January. Why did OET need to issue a report now?

Second comment: My, my!

A publication other than this piece of fish wrap reported that the tests showed 85 percent success for indoor reception. That ain't correct, but I can figure out where they got the impression. Here's the report, again:

"With the tripod-mounted indoor antennas (either a bow-tie antenna and/or a "Silver Sensor" at each site), only 27 percent of the observations produced an NTSC picture with a rating above 3; 85 percent of the observations produced an unimpaired DTV picture." See?

"But, Mario, you said 85 percent indoor reception is wrong."

So I did. OET didn't make a single indoor measurement.

"But ... !"

They used indoor antennas outdoors. Oh, yeah – and a spectrum analyzer was used to position the antenna for DTV reception and to reposition it when they switched to a different DTV station, but there's nothing in the report about how they positioned for the NTSC stations, which weren't collocated with the DTVs.

Geez! Every time I try to write about something other than DTV ... . Well, I ain't going to be diverted this time. Nosireebob! No DTV comments this month.

Instead, I'd like to share some more thoughts about progress. You remember progress, don't you? It's when things get better.

A pal of mine likes to compare iceboxes and refrigerators. Having trouble with those rolling blackouts in California? Iceboxes don't care. Lettuce drying out? Iceboxes keep food moist. Lonely? Hey – there's the daily ice delivery.

Okay, now, hands up everyone who's willing to swap their refrigerator for an icebox. I didn't think so.

EVER FORWARD

Through the magic of publishing, I will now plagiarize myself and talk about tubes vs. chips in cameras. Shoot a table leg. No, with a camera. Wiggle the camera back and forth. See the leg bending? That never used to happen with a tube camera.

Want a psychedelic effect with a tube camera? Misadjust the beam. Need a drunk's-eye-view of the world? Misregister the tubes. Need a wavy picture for a dream sequence? Inject an audio oscillator into the sweep. That's tubes. Try finding something called sweep outside the viewfinder of your chip camera.

So, hands up everyone who's willing to swap their chip camera for a tube camera. Yeah, I didn't think so that time either.

Now, then, there's that nameless manufacturer. Not counting Betamax, SuperBeta, ED-Beta, and other consumery stuff like that there, the company, which I'll call Soni, has made one whole mess of broadcast videotape formats. Nellie can think of Betacam, Betacam SP, Digital Betacam, Betacam SX, HDCAM, and MPEG IMX. So far, so good. Progress!

Even better, last year the company I'm referring to as Soni came up with players that could deal with any of those formats and could squirt out HD from an SD tape or SD from an HD. This year they've got that capability in recorders, too. All of this is great progress. I mean it.

The first camcorder that "Soni" came up with was in the Betacam format. It came in two chunks: a camera part and a recorder part. Many years and at least one format later, "Soni" came out with a one-piece camcorder – smaller, lighter, more reliable and maybe even less expensive. Progress!

But let me back up a femto-eon or so. Betacam was "Soni's" answer to Panasonic's and RCA's Recam/Hawkeye (methinks recam just never fell trippingly from the tongue like camcorder). It was kind of comparable in quality (especially on account of TVs hadn't been using wideband for decades).

REAL PROGRESS

It was just fine for news, but it wasn't really good enough for program production. Betacam SP was good enough for program production. So, "Soni" changed from Betacam to Betacam SP, but the company allowed the newer format to continue using the oxide tapes of the older format for cheapo recordings.

That was real progress! The EFP folks got to use more-expensive tape for better looking pictures (and nicer sounding sound), and the ENG folks got to stay cheap and reliable.

The two-piece/one-piece bit was OK, too. If you wanted to keep using a BTS camera head that went with all your half-inch-format lenses, you could go ahead and do it.

You could, but you almost can't. Want to buy an HDCAM camcorder? Those "Soni" folks'll be pleased as punch to sell you one. Ditto for Digital Betacam. It'll be a one-piece jobbie in each case.

Want to upgrade your half-inch BTS camera to Digital Betacam? So sorry! No D-Beta backs. No Beta-SX backs. No MPEG IMX backs. Need I mention no HDCAM backs (not that they'd do you much good with an old SD camera)?

Well, alright then, what about just another analog Beta back, in case the old one breaks? So sorry! Unless you're willing to downgrade from the broadcast line to the professional line, that is. If so, you can buy the PVV-3 (and forget about FM audio tracks).

PVV looks a lot like PW, which could stand for public works (as in sewers) or prisoner of war. In other words, if you own a camera that needs a back, start considering something other than a half-inch "Soni" broadcast format.

And I sure don't mean U-matic!