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To HD or Not to HD

You might not have noticed that HDTV is inevitable. Too bad we don't know where Evitable is.

Okay, so it was a bad joke. That's what I sometimes think of a lot of the digital television planning going on these days.

Hey, you sure can't accuse folks of playing much follow-the-leader. In the U.S., 1040 is the number of the main income-tax form; in Australia, it's the number of hours per annum that commercial broadcasters have to deliver in HDTV, which averages out to 20 hours a week.

You won't find native kangaroos anyplace else in the world, and you also won't (yet) find anyplace else in the world where broadcasters are required to simulcast their HD with SD, both digitally. That's so viewers can choose either HD or SD DTV receivers and be sure of getting the same programming.


In the U.S., there's no requirement for any broadcaster to transmit any HD at any time, but all of the DTV receivers that have a "DTV" logo on them have to be able to decode all of the HD (or SD) formats that were rejected by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. I am not making this up.

In Canada and the part of the Korean peninsula with DTV, the receivers are pretty much the same as in the U.S., but the broadcasters do have to transmit some HD. And, in the places where DTV has been most successful, notably Berlin and the United Kingdom, the broadcasters can't transmit any HD and there ain't any HD receivers. Yes, Virginia, the BBC may offer to teach others about shooting HD, but it doesn't transmit any itself.


Uh-oh. Methinks I'm getting dangerously close to my point, and this month's rant ain't even half over. It's tangent time!

So, speaking of the U.K. and HD, perchance a wee mite of history is in order. Some folks think HDTV was born in Japan. No way! It came from Britain.

I ain't talking about 1,000-line wide-aspect-ratio broadcasts (even though Auntie Beeb, a/k/a the BBC, was involved in those, too). I'm talking about the words "High Definition Television."

If you check out the 1935 report of the Television Committee of the British Parliament (as a history-nut pal of mine has done), it's all there in black-and-white. The committee recommended that the country adopt HDTV. At the time, HDTV was to be no fewer than 240 scanning lines per frame.

By the time the country got around to issuing the world's first TV standard, it had 405 lines. That was closer to 240 than it might look like. The 240 were both progressive and active; the 405 were both interlaced and total (in other words, they included vertical blanking intervals). Methinks that was 1937 or so.

Did I (or we) say tangent? The Netherlands didn't adopt the U.K. TV standard. Nope. And they didn't adopt America's 525 lines, either. By the time they got around to TV broadcasting (1952-ish or so), they went for 625.

The U.S. still has 525. Holland still has 625. Britain ain't got 405 anymore.

Round about the time the Beatles invaded America, the U.K. decided it was time to drop AM-sound, positive-modulation, low-bandwidth, 405-line VHF TV in favor of 625-line UHF. Something like 21 years later, they finally shut down the last 405-line transmitter. How's that for a speedy transition?


Did I say transition? There are several in progress at the moment in TV technology.

The oldest one is the never-ending transition to higher quality. In 1925, TV had eight scanning lines. Eight gave way to 12, soon there were 30, 30 became 60, 60 went to 120, 120 begat 240, and then came that 405-line standard.

Without a standard, we'd probably have hit a thousand lines long ago. But, without a standard, there probably wouldn't have been a lot of folks around to watch it.

The ever-better transition is what pays the bills at equipment manufacturers. It's what gives trade shows like IBC, InterBEE and NAB exhibitors. It's also what makes HDTV inevitable (or in Evitable, wherever that might be).

Another transition is from analog-to-digital. Like the transition from black-and-white to color, it ain't going to last forever.

There's another transition from one-program-at-a-time broadcasts to, as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission so poetically puts it, multichannel video program distribution. It's pretty far along on some parts of this planet. In the U.S., MVPD is in around 90 percent of households.

Some folks call that a transition from wireless to wired, to which I (or we) say male bovine patooties! Satellite ain't wired, and neither are the digital TV broadcasts in the U.K. and Berlin.

Berlin is probably the single most successful broadcast DTV market in the world. In mere months, they've gone from zero broadcast DTV to analog shutdown.

Why? I don't know. But I can guess. I guess it had something to do with inexpensive receivers delivering a multichannel cable-like service for free. The U.K. is probably the second most successful broadcast DTV area, and they're doing the exact same thing.

One reason those receivers are inexpensive is that they don't deliver HDTV. It's cheaper to decode SD than HD.

One reason those inexpensive receivers can deliver a multichannel cable-like service is that it's all SD. HD would cut the delivery to maybe a fifth as many channels in the same bandwidth.


In Australia, there ain't any equivalent to broadcast cable-like multichannel delivery. That's partly on account of the simulcasting of HD and SD. In Australia, broadcast digital TV ain't doing all that well.

It ain't doing all that well in the U.S. either. The U.S. doesn't require any simulcasting of SD and HD. It doesn't even require HD by itself. And it allows broadcasters to transmit multichannel video programs. But the U.S. boxes are more expensive because they have HD decoding. And maybe they've got a reception problem or two, too, to deal with -- like for instance a tutu looking too, too blocky compared to its 4:2:2 original. Toot! Ooh! Okay, Nellie the Neuron says she's done with her second-numeral madness.

Time for a recap: DTV broadcasting is doing great in Berlin and the U.K., where it ain't got HD. It ain't doing great in Australia and the U.S., where HD (either broadcast or in receivers) is part of the picture. So, who wins?

It ain't obvious to Nellie and that's good enough for me (or us). It surely does look like DTV broadcasting is going to live in Berlin and the U.K., and it might not in Australia and the U.S., maybe taking all TV broadcasting down with it. But, if it does survive in those HD-capable countries, then what will the world look like?

HDTV is inevitable. Maybe as soon as next year, lens manufacturers will stop offering SD lenses. Someday, camera manufacturers will stop offering SD cameras. They that can transmit HD will do so. And Britain could end up back where it was in 1964 -- far behind other countries in television-image quality and facing a multi-decade transition to a standard already adopted elsewhere in the world.

That sounds pretty bad. But it ain't as bad as losing TV broadcasting altogether.