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Twenty Years in TV Technology

This year marks the 20th anniversary of this column's appearance in TV Technology. I would like to express my gratitude for the most important factor in the column's success--the readership.

A lot of television technology has come and gone since 1985, and we will take a quick look at some of the high points in those two decades. When this column debuted, an important new technology in television was stereo sound. In fact, the name of the column was "Focus on Stereo."

Like the majority of television technologies of that day, stereo was analog in nature. Although there were various isolated digital components in the television production and broadcasting chain, they could not even be called "digital islands." They were largely devices that performed specific functions, such as frame synchronizers or digital effects devices whose output was converted to analog NTSC; or digital circuits embedded in analog devices, such as time-base correctors for analog video recorders.

One network did employ an early implementation of digital audio in its A/V routing system, but this was an unusual exception. At that time, the television technical plant was overwhelmingly analog.

The landscape of the television business itself was entirely different from today.

Cable was in its infancy, and none of the nascent cable networks had earned their owners a dime. The big three commercial broadcast networks still claimed more than 90 percent of the audience. Wall Street had not discovered broadcasting. The founders of the big three networks had not yet sold them.

Television broadcasting was still an old boys' club. Membership was said to include a license to print money, but the coming changes had been foreshadowed.

The enormous financial hurdle to getting into the television network business--the cost of a nationwide web of coaxial cable and microwave--had been overcome with satellite distribution. Broadcast-quality videotape devices were evolving toward smaller, cassette-based formats, and researchers at video recording manufacturing labs were working on digital formats.

It is interesting to note that one-inch videotape, which was king when this column began, was only the second major generation of video recording hardware. The first, two-inch quad, lasted from nearly the dawn of the commercial television age until the late 1970s.


After one-inch tape, videotape recording formats became "formats du jour."

As the 1980s progressed, stereo sound became the routine in television broadcasting, and this transition brought a number of ancillary benefits. Broadcasters updated their audio equipment. Receiver manufacturers put real audio amplifiers and speakers into their products. The capability to add a second audio stream allowed for adding second-language soundtracks to many programs.

BTSC multichannel sound and its ancillary audio improvements were fated to be the last big analog advances in television technology. By the time multichannel television sound became an everyday routine, the cutting edge of television technology turned to high definition, which quickly evolved into digital television broadcasting.

Simultaneously, manufacturers of videotape recorders and other television equipment were increasingly developing digital technology. In the early 1990s, there came a watershed year after which a walk through the NAB convention aisles revealed that almost everything on display was digital.

By the mid-1990s, the U.S. TV/video/ post-production industry had gone digital in a big way, using component digital video recording, processing and editing technologies. Broadcasters did not follow so quickly. At that time, although the U.S. television broadcast networks had complements of digital hardware in their plants, their plant infrastructures were largely analog. Digital signals had to be converted to analog NTSC to be routed within the plant or to affiliate stations. (As it had been in audio, Europe was ahead of the United States in the DTV plant transition, which was well underway in Europe by the mid-90s.) Today, although some analog equipment is still in use within U.S. broadcasting plants (and of course, analog signals are still broadcast terrestrially), plant infrastructure has become overwhelmingly digital.


The next big technological transition was to HDTV. Late in 1998, broadcasters tentatively and somewhat reluctantly began broadcasting HDTV. A joke making the rounds then was that there were more HDTV transmitters than there were receivers. Today, about six years later, HDTV is a well-established mode of operation for broadcasters and cable operators. A large portion of the primetime, special events and sports programming offered by the broadcast--and many of the cable networks--is in HD. By the time this column is published, a presidential inauguration will have aired in HD. Much sports and special events production, in fact, is done natively in HD, with SD being derived by downconversion. This was unthinkable just a few years ago, when HD live event coverage required a second truck, a second crew and a second group of cameras. Along with HDTV, a parallel transition in television broadcasting has been the ever-increasing use of computer networking and IT approaches in the broadcast plant.

The post-production industry quickly embraced HD as well. This happened first in the transfer of theatrical features from film to video. Although the destination formats for these transfers were virtually all SD, the increased resolution of the HD scanning formats afforded the capability to make a significantly higher quality master recording that could be downconverted to the format of choice.

Later, broadcasters and cable operators began ordering HD programming in quantity. This propelled a large-scale transition to HD film-to-video transfer and post production.

Today, SD transfer and post production are history in the high-end TV/video post-production industry. It has become standard operating procedure to master in the 1080/24p format, from which any required HD or SD delivery format may be derived by format conversion. This has led to the realization of a longstanding dream for video equipment manufacturers. Since HD reared its head a little more than two decades ago, video equipment manufacturers have periodically urged television and movie producers to use HD instead of film for image capture. This never really resonated with many TV and movie producers, largely because of two problems--interlace scanning and its attendant artifacts, and the 60 Hz temporal rate. The 24p format offers both progressive scanning and film-native 24 fps. Refinements to HD video cameras to accommodate film-style lenses, and to achieve the elusive "film look" are making video capture increasingly attractive to film and TV drama producers.

A long-anticipated dream of broadcasters is also being realized--the transition from videotape to hard-disk storage. Many broadcasters eagerly anticipated this 10 years ago. That was, in retrospect, premature, but not wrong. The advances in storage technology, associated cost reductions and developments in IT for broadcast are making disk recording and server playout increasingly prevalent.

Many changes in television technology have occurred since this column began in 1985. One overwhelming theme, however, is that television technology is now digital. Discussions of television technology now often center on bits, bytes, throughput, compression and data storage, rather than differential phase and SCH. It is fair to say that digital technology has not just changed the tools that television broadcasters use to do their jobs, it has also changed the jobs they do. As someone once said, prediction is very difficult, particularly prediction of the future. It is impossible to imagine what television technology will look like 20 years from now. The only prediction that this column will hazard is that you will be reading about it in TV Technology.