The Future Of Television:

When Will The Gates To High-Definition TV Swing Open?

 

by Eric Kavanagh

 

(New Orleans – November 18th, 1996) –  Idiot Box, Boob Tube, Window to the World – call it what you will, the average television set pumps more information into the minds of Americans than any other mode of communication in history.  For three, five, ten, sometimes 15 hours a day, every day, people of all nationalities, ages and beliefs – people from literally every walk of life – ingest ad nauseam the seemingly addictive cathode rays.

 

From Carl Sagan to the Super Bowl, Mr. Rogers to War in the Gulf, television delivers the entire universe through a colorful, flickering box.  Sometimes educational, occasionally entertaining, TV both imitates and influences the world as we know it, propagating opinions, promulgating fads, and all but formulating public opinion.

 

Soon, this monumental force will change… forever.  Pending a proposed action by the Federal Communications Commission, the future of television will transform from analog transmission to digital, opening the door to high-definition television (HDTV), realistic home-theaters and a world of other futuristic broadcasting opportunities.

 

Due to the unprecedented influence this transition will have – and in light of its outrageous economic impact – it comes as no surprise to find some of the world’s largest, most powerful corporations weighing in from all sides.  Lucent Technologies (formerly AT&T), General Instrument, Philips, Zenith, Compaq and Apple have all entered the fray, some much earlier than others.  And we mustn’t forget the mighty software mogul of Microsoft, Bill Gates.

 

At the hour this magazine went to press, Gates and all others concerned still wondered and worried about the prospect of one critical, revolutionary act, something which will likely set in motion the irrevocable transformation to digital television: official adoption by the FCC of a new transmission standard for television, specifically for Advanced Television (ATV), sometimes referred to as Digital TV (DTV), the most prominent component of which is HDTV.

 

High-Definition Television, if and when its day truly begins, will indeed mark the dawn of a new age in TV.  Greatly increased resolution and six-speaker surround sound, plus a wider aspect ratio similar to the one used by motion pictures are all part and parcel to the proposed system.  Furthermore, digital transmission eliminates many of the negative aspects of analog transmission, specifically the ghosting of images so common with poor reception, as well as flickering and other such undesired ‘artifacts’.  Together, these elements will give viewers an experience unlike any in the history of TV.

 

Of course, in order for that to happen consumers must purchase entirely new high-definition television sets (roughly $1,500 or more apiece!) and broadcasters must spend millions updating their recording, production and transmission equipment.  Making matters worse, all video recording equipment, including cam-corders and VCRs, must also be replaced to conform to the new high-definition standard.

 

The total price tag for the overall conversion, assuming all existing US television broadcasters update their equipment and all American homes replace their old sets with new HDTVs, could run somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 billion!

 

Ouch.

 

Obviously, this type of transition doesn’t happen overnight, or even within a year.  Rather, the transition period will last somewhere between 10 and 15 years.  And the process will doubtless be a gradual one, with more and more HDTV programming offered by various broadcasters as a greater number of consumers purchase the new technology.

 

To better understand how and why all this came about, Cast & Crew recently spoke with the many players who will make or break the transition to digital TV.

 

 

The Players

 

As the situation stands today, there are three primary players in the determination of television’s future:

          The Grand Alliance, a cross-industry coalition consisting of Lucent Technologies, General Instrument, MIT, Philips, Thomson, Zenith and the David Sarnoff Research Center.  Over the past decade, these companies  worked first individually, then together in the formation of the proposed new standard for digital television;

          Americans for Better Digital TV, a sort of ad hoc committee comprised of various computer, entertainment and consumer interest groups and corporations recently coalesced under the leadership of Microsoft and Bill Gates.  This loosely banded group disagrees on several specific points – or rather doesn’t necessarily agree on everything – but has united in an effort to alter the proposed standard or stop it altogether.

          And finally, the Federal Communications Commission.  This government organization is charged specifically with regulating the broadcast spectrum, the entity through which all television, radio and other forms of broadcasting – including cellular phone calls – are transmitted.  By law, the broadcast spectrum is public property.  The FCC is poised at any moment to adopt the new standard as proposed by the Grand Alliance, though such adoption is by no means ensured.

 

A fourth major player in the digital TV picture has already played its cards.  The Advanced Television Systems Committee, comprised of representatives from the broadcast and manufacturing industries, worked in conjunction with the Grand Alliance to determine the proposed standard, referred to as the ATSC Grand Alliance standard.  Although the ATSC has put in its two cents, so to speak, the organization continues to lobby for FCC approval of the new standard, and some of its high-ranking members have recently taken some serious shots at Bill Gates and other detractors.

 

Hovering on the sidelines, though by no means inactive, are the cable companies, primarily TCI and Cox, the two major cable providers in the country.  All the debate over a standard right now centers around free, over-the-air broadcast television, something the FCC is determined to guarantee for all Americans.  Many of the issues involved – such as spectrum allocation, 6 MHz band-width limitations and children’s programming – do not directly apply to cable companies, as they use coaxial cable to transmit their signals, not the broadcast spectrum.

 

The fact that cable companies have that direct link to so many homes gives them a very valuable playing card, however.  Although digital transmission will allow the major networks to broadcast much greater amounts of information through the spectrum, that form of communication is one-way, meaning televisions can’t send signals to broadcasters.  This is an obvious limit to interactivity.   Don’t look for any major network to offer movies-on-demand; that will likely come from the cable companies.

 

Also on the sidelines are the satellite companies, such as Direct TV and USSB.  The conversion to HDTV will have dramatic effects on this burgeoning industry.  The major question here is whether or not the existing consumer mini-satellite dishes will be able to handle the dramatic increase in information which will result from HDTV.  Because of the increased resolution, the overall amount of information which must be transmitted will triple.  Some experts say the dishes will not be able to handle this increase.  But the home-satellite business is strong and growing; rest assured the likes of DTV and USSB won’t go down without a fight, or at least a lot of serious R&D.

 

 

The Rising Sun:

History Of High-Definition Television

 

More than 20 years ago, Japanese pioneers began the quest for ways to improve the standard resolution of television.  Their efforts, led by broadcasting giant NHK, resulted in the world’s first High-Definition Television, which today is enjoyed by more than 100,000 homes in Japan.  The system uses the standard analog transmission, but produces a much higher quality image with better sound.

 

For years, Japan was the sole trailblazer for HDTV.  Europe was next to hop on the high-definition train.  But across the Atlantic ocean, a sleeping giant prepared to enter the race full force.

 

“As recently as 1987, the United States was not a major force in ATV technology,” writes Richard E. Wiley, a proponent of HDTV and former Chairman of the FCC, in a paper entitled ‘The Challenge of Choice’.  “The FCC recognized, however, that developments in advanced television technology in Japan and Europe could affect U.S. broadcasting.  Accordingly, the Commission set aside spectrum within the existing broadcast bands to give licensees a ‘second channel’ on which to offer ATV, and established an all-industry Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS) – which I have been honored to chair – to assist it in establishing a new television standard for the country.”

 

Thus began the American chapter of High-Definition Television.  Before long, the Advisory Committee received more than 20 proposals from a range of manufacturers for Advanced Television service, all of which used the existing analog transmission technology, and many of which focused merely on improving the existing NTSC (National Television Systems Committee) standard.  Through mergers and attrition, the number of proposals quickly shrunk to just a handful.

 

In April of 1990, the FCC decided that the new standard for terrestrial (free, over-the-air) broadcasting would be HDTV, not just an improved NTSC format.  At that time, HDTV transmission technology was capable of handling advanced picture and sound, but little else.  A monumental breakthrough was imminent, however.

 

With five proposed systems remaining in the hunt, General Instrument Corporation threw a major curve ball, one which would dramatically impact the overall process and the future of television in general; they introduced an all-digital transmission system.  Soon, three of the other four proposals adopted this same digital technology, with only NHK maintaining its conventional analog system.

 

Ultimately, all five systems underwent an exacting program of laboratory tests conducted under Advisory Committee supervision.  The results of those tests led to the elimination of the NHK proposal from the running. Says Wiley, “In just a few years, the United States had progressed from a non-player to a potential world leader in advanced television technology.”

 

The four remaining systems still needed some improvements, however, and so the FCC gave the contenders a choice: either make some changes and prepare for another grueling round of testing; or combine the four systems and work together for the formulation of the new standard.  In contrast to the American tradition of competition, the remaining proponents opted to work with one another, and in May of 1993 the Grand Alliance was formed.  Several months later, a modified system proposal was developed which included one very significant technological advance, that of packetized data transport.

 

This transport system allows for information to be grouped in ‘packets’, with each packet bearing a tag describing what kind of information it is, i.e. video, audio or other data.  At the receiver end, these tags determine where information is routed.  Such information could consist of stock quotes, a baseball player’s statistics, weather information, etc.

 

Another aspect of the Grand Alliance HDTV system called ‘dynamic scalability’ allows for the simulcast of several NTSC-quality television programs through one standard 6MHz channel – the same size channel through which broadcasters today can only transmit one such program.  In other words, a single network could broadcast Good Times, Mr. Rogers and the 1993 NBA Finals all at 7 pm on a Wednesday.  Good news for target marketing: multiple markets could be reached simultaneously, greatly increasing the overall potential advertising dollars.

 

Proponents of the Grand Alliance say this multi-cast option will help broadcasters make the expensive transition to High-Definition Television.  Some detractors of the proposed system say it gives broadcasters far too much for far too little.

 

Which brings us to the detractors.

 

In November of 1995, the ATSC presented its proposed standard to the FCC.  In May of this year, the FCC gave its preliminary stamp of approval to the ATSC Grand Alliance system, thereby opening the official comment period.  During that comment period, an array of detractors filed their complaints stating that the proposed standard does not serve their interests.  Nearly all of these critics aligned themselves under the Americans For Better Digital TV flag, but not all share the same critiques.

 

 

Bones Of Contention

 

            Free Broadcast Spectrum

 

Since the advent of broadcast television, the FCC has allowed the major networks one free 6 MHz channel in the broadcast spectrum in return for a promise: that the networks will serve the public interest through educational programming and emergency broadcast services.  To some, this trade is not a fair one, giving the broadcasters highly valuable spectrum for what is perceived as minimal gain.

 

Under the existing proposal for transition to HDTV, the major networks would each be loaned an additional 6 MHz channel to begin broadcasting High-Definition Television shows.  This extra channel would give the networks a means for developing their HDTV systems, while still broadcasting their standard NTSC programming on their original channel.  Once the transition to digital television is complete – when most Americans have HDTV or access to it – the networks would have to give back their original channel which would then be auctioned off to the highest bidders, most likely a cellular phone company.  The money generated from the auction would go to fight the national deficit.

 

A number of critics to the proposed standard state that the networks should have to pay for their piece of the spectrum just like everyone else does.  They proclaim particular anger at the fact that these networks will now have two free channels at their disposal.

 

Complicating the issue is the question of HDTV quotas, or minimum amounts of high-definition television on the new channels.  Critics of the standard propose that broadcasters be mandated to transmit at least a few hours of HDTV per week, something the networks have been reluctant to do.  In fact, the networks have only vowed to do at least three or four hours of HDTV programming per week, and the chance of an FCC mandate to that effect don’t look good.

 

In a recent speech to the International Radio and Television Society, Reed Hundt, the FCC Chairman, questioned the issue of such a mandate.  “This is like telling the New York Times to publish just one glossy section on a given day instead of several sections on regular newsprint.  I have a simple question – why?  . . . Besides, any such rule mandating HDTV would be easy to make hollow.  What if someone showed high-definition programming five hours a week by showing such programming from midnight to 5 in the morning once a week?”

 

 

            Children’s Programming

 

Oddly enough, Hundt’s stance against regulation softens on the issue of children’s programming.  At one point, the Chairman went so far as the request that five percent of broadcasting on the new digital channels be dedicated to educational programming for kids.  This proposal drew some hot criticism from one of the other four FCC Commissioners, James H. Quello.  In an article published on the FCC’s home page, Quello made the following comments:

 

“In his State of the Union address last January, President Clinton announced, to thundering bipartisan applause, that ‘The era of big government is over.’ Congress also declared the era of big government is over.   Somebody should tell the FCC Chairman.   I have read with interest Chairman Hundt's proposal yesterday that all broadcasters be required to devote five percent of the programming time on their new digital channels to ‘educational TV and political debate.’ It makes a nice sound, but should big government be able to tell the leading, most influential, news media in the nation how much and what to program?”

 

Quello goes on to state that children’s programming is abundant in today’s world of television, and will remain so due to market demand.  His point is that children’s programming will remain prominent because there is a market demand for it, and the FCC should therefore not meddle with the issue via a mandate.  He finishes his article with a quote from the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision regarding the FCC’s role:

 

"The FCC's oversight responsibilities do not grant it the power to ordain any particular type of programming that must be offered by broadcast stations. The Commission may not impose upon them its private notions of what the public ought to hear."

 

Despite Quello’s objections, many individuals and organizations see the new spectrum allocation as the perfect time to set stringent guidelines mandating that networks air specific amounts and types of educational programming for children.

 

 

            Interlaced vs. Progressive Scan

 

Perhaps the most hotly contested issue in the HDTV debate, interlaced versus progressive scan is the primary reason why Bill Gates entered the fray, stirring up Compaq, Apple and a variety of other organizations, including the movie industry.  The issue here boils down to interoperability between televisions and computer monitors.  Televisions use the interlaced method for display and TV broadcasters use the same method for transmission.  Monitors use the progressive scan method.

 

Essentially, interlaced scanning splits the screen in half, transmitting first the odd lines, then the even.  The whole process happens so fast that the naked eye cannot tell there is any division.  By splitting the lines in half, the signal can achieve twice the resolution within the channel’s allocated bandwidth.  It’s roughly the same as splitting a 2.5 MB in half to fit it on two standard 1.3 MB floppy discs.  In contrast, progressive scan displays all the lines in order, sending one whole screen’s worth at a time, thereby doubling the bandwidth necessary.

 

The ATSC Grand Alliance proposed standard includes a number of different transmission standards, most of which are progressive scan, but several of which are interlaced.  Gates and others claim that the inclusion of interlaced scanning will slow the natural convergence of televisions and computer monitors.

 

Those on the other side of the issue say this is not the case at all, that the proposed standard fully supports interoperability.  They also note that the standard will govern transmission only, stating that high-definition televisions will be able to display in the progressive scan mode regardless of whether the signal is interlaced or progressive scan.

 

The interlaced scanning formats have been included most likely at the direct request of broadcasters, who say it’s presently impossible to transmit an HDTV program in progressive scan through a standard 6MHz broadcast channel.  Everyone agrees that progressive scan is the preferred mode – after all, interlaced scanning is really sort of a glorified way of cheating the eye.  Economics, say the ATSC standard proponents, require the inclusion of interlaced methods during the transitional period.

 

Gigi Sohn of the Media Access Project agrees with one part of that philosophy: economics are critical.  As Executive Director of the self-proclaimed crusading organization for consumer interest, Sohn says inclusion of the interlaced scanning formats only considers the economic viability of broadcasters, while jeopardizing the interests of the public.

 

Her point is that consumers should be able to buy one “box” to gain access to both television and the Internet, thereby saving money.  “That’s the way technology is going,” she says, “away from the broadcast model and towards the computer model, and we want to direct people that way as opposed to backwards.”

 

(Interestingly enough, that ‘box’ already exists: A recent Crutchfield catalog offers WebTV from Sony.  At a base price of $330 plus a $20/month access fee, this ‘teleputer’ as some have called it, gives access to both television and the Internet through use of a converter box which attaches to your standard cable-ready television!)

 

There are some who question the ‘destined’ merger of televisions and computers, however.  Says John Taylor of Zenith, “I find it hard to believe people will want to watch movies on the computer monitor in their den, and do their taxes on the wide-screen television from their sofa.”

 

            Aspect Ratio

 

The Americans for Better Digital TV alliance includes several members from the entertainment industry, including the Directors Guild of America, the Artist Rights Foundation and the American Society of Cinematographers.  The proposed aspect ratio is their concern.

 

Under the proposed standard, the aspect ratio for HDTV will be 16:9, meaning a television screen 16 inches wide would be nine inches tall, or a set that’s 32 inches wide would be 18 inches tall.  This is a stark contrast to the present aspect ratio used for televisions all over the world, 4:3.

 

Most motion pictures are shot in a roughly 2:1 aspect ratio, slightly wider than the proposed ratio.  Therefore, for movies to be shown on television in their original aspect ratio, a slight ‘letter-boxing’ – the placement of black bars on the top and bottom of the screen – will be required.  Or, the picture must be stretched vertically to fit the whole screen, a prospect which is purely anathema to movie directors, actors and cinematographers.

 

The movie industry is therefore pushing for the aspect ratio to be widened from 16:9 to 18:9, or 2:1, so that their films can be shown in their original format, untainted.  Proponents of the ATSC Grand Alliance standard, however, say that the 16:9 ratio reflects a broad consensus as to the best balance among resolution, bandwidth, and receiver cost.  And they point out that the Motion Picture Association of America was a party to the consensus on the 16:9 ratio.  Further, they say that since the proposed ratio is so close to 2:1, it will only require a letter-boxing of two percent of the screen on the top and bottom – not a very big deal, they say.

 

“If it’s not such a big deal,” says one movie industry luminary, “then we should do it.”

 

Robert K. Graves, Chairman of the ATSC, disagrees.  In his keynote address on October 4 of this year at the 8th Annual Digital Audio and Video Workshop, he addressed the issue of aspect ratio and letter-boxing: “Since movies continue to be produced in a variety of formats, until someone invents glass that shrinks or expands on demand, letterboxing for some films will be a fact of life.  There is no perfect aspect ratio, but 16:9 is a good choice that balances a variety of needs, and the decision to adopt it as an international standard was made more than a decade ago with heavy participation by the creative community.”

 

 

            Standard Or No Standard?

 

Most everyone involved in the debate agrees that some type of FCC-endorsed standard is necessary.  And by law, any such standard would be non-proprietary and therefore open to any potential manufacturer.  Much of the disagreement is over what the standard will be.  Of course, there is one fairly influential individual who does not necessarily believe such a standard is necessary.  That person happens to be the Chairman of the FCC, Reed Hundt.

 

Those who argue for the standard point out the need for certainty.  A person who buys a television in New York must be assured that it will work in Los Angeles or anywhere else in the country for years to come, regardless of advances to technology.

 

From a pragmatic standpoint, manufacturers want a standard to ensure their products will be usable by everyone in the country, wherever they are.  Essentially, they don’t want to spend tens of millions of dollars creating top-notch betamaxes, only to have the market buy VHSs.  To date, the lack of standard has prevented these manufacturers from moving forward with the development of HDTV equipment.

 

The FCC Chairman, however, has been decidedly reluctant to move forward with approving the standard.  When speaking about the topic, he chooses his words very carefully, being sure to make clear his opinion that industries can and do adopt standards on their own.  In a recent speech to the International Radio and Television Society, he stated the following:

 

“I don’t oppose standards.  Virtually every industry needs standards and manages on its own to set them.  Further, under certain circumstances, we should consider blessing a DTV standard by embodying it in an FCC rule.  I doubt this is necessary but I’m not dead set against it.  I’ve repeatedly praised the historic breakthrough of the Grand Alliance and Dick Wiley’s Advisory Committee.  They found a way to transmit terrestrial video programming digitally, flexibly and dynamically.”

 

As the situation stands today, the Chairman and at least one of the other three existing FCC Commissioners has asked the various sides of this debate to work out their problems so that the FCC does not find itself in the role of determining the compromise.  According to Saul Shapiro, a spokesman for the FCC, the adoption of some type of standard is almost certain.  “When that will happen is the $64,000 question,” he says.

 

 

            A Setting Sun?

 

As a possible compromise, Hundt has offered an interesting option: a sunset provision which would serve as a temporary standard.  This provision would “allow us to capture the near-term benefits of certainty that come from a mandated standard while avoiding the long-term costs of inflexibility that come from a mandate.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Whether or not Gates and his supporters will ever come to agreement with the Grand Alliance proponents is uncertain at best.  Both sides continue to hammer at one another, with little progress evident.  And all the while, Japanese and European analog versions of HDTV continue to spread and prosper, causing some to fear that America will once again lose its lead in this new frontier of communications.

 

“We strongly support efforts to bring digital television to American homes,” says Gates.  “Unfortunately some critical parts of the ‘Grand Alliance’ proposal would unnecessarily slow the convergence of PCs and televisions.  Getting these standards right is vital to achieving the digital future where consumers will be able to watch television on their PCs or access the Internet from their TVs.”

 

On the other side of the issue, National Association of Broadcasters President/CEO Edward O. Fritts says the following: “This 11th-hour attempt by Bill Gates and a few computer companies to scuttle this standard is anti-competitive and self-serving.  Consumers want the certainty of free TV.  They don’t want to be forced to buy new computers and software every year just to watch their favorite TV programs, and they don’t want to be left wondering if their computers will crash in the middle of the evening news.  That could happen if computers ultimately become the delivery vehicle for American television.”

 

 

Alas, the future of television remains to be seen…

 

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

(This article was written by Eric Kavanagh, President of Möbius Media, with research assistance from Philip Traynor, Creative and Editorial Assistant for Möbius.)