Which Transition is Which?

You might not have noticed that HDTV can be analog. I ain't talking about the 1930s, when some British political committee declared HDTV to be a couple-hundred scanning lines of spinning-wheel video. No, I'm talking, for instance, this year in Japan where a whole bunch of folks are still watching HDTV via analog satellite transmissions and will be able to continue for at least another couple of years.

Let me start over. You might not have noticed that it makes no sense to say "You can't compare apples and oranges."

Why not?


They're both fruit. They're both round. They're both about the same size and weight. They're both usually colored in the long-wavelength part of the spectrum. It's only when you get into nitpicky stuff like not being able to rhyme with orange that they have any incomparability (and the genius Marilyn vos Savant says even that's not true). If you want to point out incomparability, say "That's like comparing DTV and HDTV."

Hey, far be it from me to say there ain't any transition going on in TV technology. But there sure as heck ain't just one transition. There's a transition to digital in video that started maybe in the 1960s with the digital character generator or in the 1970s with the digital time base corrector. Just about anything anyone watched on TV then was at some point digital on account of going through one of those TBCs (or, for live stuff, a frame sync).

So far, we've still got analog imagers (yes, Virginia, CCDs are analog) and picture tubes. But those are getting close to being the last holdouts (not counting all signal transmission and distribution equipment being essentially analog). So that's one transition.

There's another transition to higher-resolution pictures. This one moves in fits and starts: eight scanning lines, 12, 30, 60, 120, 240, 377 (active, out of 405 total), 483 (525), 575 (625) and, to make a long story short, 1,080 (1,125). And it ain't stopped there. There have been demos of 2,160 and 4,320 for years. If you want to call that the HDTV transition, I ain't about to bite your head off.

There's a transition from narrower-screen to wider-screen images. If you want to fold that one into what you're calling the HDTV transition, your neck is still safe.

There's a transition from really deep TV sets to thinner ones. Heck, color picture tubes alone have moved from 90-degree deflection to 110 to 125. Then you've got plasmas, LCDs and microdisplay projectors. They ain't necessarily HDTV. As a matter of fact, back in 2003, plasmas were running around 70 percent HD; in 2004, they were 60 percent non-HD. So that's another transition.

There's one more to digital media, like going from VHS to D-VHS and from LaserDisc to DVD. Cable's been going digital, and satellite's been going even faster.

All the transitions I've mentioned have been taking place without any intervention from Our Beloved Commish, better known in someone's stomach (ain't that what "inside the beltway" means?) as the FCC. Oh, sure, they approved 525 lines, and they established a committee to consider 1,125, but that's about all.

Nowadays, those of us in the United States have another transition that sure-enough was started by Our Beloved Commish. It's the transition from analog TV broadcasting to digital.

I'll allow that it didn't start out to be a transition to digital broadcasting. It started out being about getting broadcast HDTV. Then, in 1990, GI mentioned digital and, by the time rules came out in 1997, they didn't require anyone to broadcast any HDTV. They still don't.

Digital TV broadcasting (I'll call it DTB) sure-enough allows for HDTV. It also allows for multicasting and datacasting. But all any DTB station has to carry is TV "comparable" to what it carries in analog.

So what's the advantage? Our Beloved Commish figures DTB can be packed into fewer channels than analog, so the public can reclaim some spectrum. Never mind the colossally idiotic decision to make the post-transition core extend from Channel 2 to Channel 51 (about four octaves) instead of just UHF (less than one). There is a clear desired public good to the transition.

There's just one thing--receiving DTB requires a DTB receiver, and the first of those cost a pretty penny, were scarce and didn't work so well either. So the TV-promoting folks over at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA, or, as I like to say, "See-ya") or its predecessor started hoopla over something they called "digital televisions."

Here's the deal. The ATSC DTB standard included a table of 36 different types of video that had to pass through a DTB receiver, 35 of them being different from plain old ordinary TV (POOT). Our Beloved Commish rejected that table, but See-ya figured any display that could handle at least higher H-rate video than POOT ought to qualify as a "digital TV," even if it ain't any more digital than a nondigital TV.

One whole heck of a lot of TVs--including all projection TVs--qualify for See-ya's "DTV" designation. And Our Beloved Commish has decided that those TVs must represent the transition that they're in charge of.

So Our Beloved Commish's latest budget document says there were more than 7 million "DTV households" at the end of 2003--mighty impressive for just six years into the transition. Too bad that many DTB receivers hadn't even been built by then--not by a long shot.

It ain't even just the See-ya stuff. Our Beloved Commish's 11th annual report to Congress on cable and satellite (called "multichannel video programming distributors," inside the beltway) competition has some stuff on DTB. It says Disney uses PBS stations' DTB spectrum for its MovieBeam home-movie delivery service.

Disney has a home-movie delivery service, all right, and they use PBS stations' broadcast channels for it, too. But Disney happens to have transmitted its data via analog PBS stations, not digital.

Maybe someday they'll learn.