Videomith by
Steven Trent Smith


2002 promises to be a confusing year in the world of video. Every commercial television station in America will be required by law to broadcast a digital television (DTV) signal by May 1st. Your current television set will not receive these new channels, but they'll be there when you're ready. The question of when you and your fellow countrymen will be ready vexes the television industry. While the production of digital programming is picking up pace, the number of viewers interested in seeing it can be measured in the very low six figures.

This seems like an appropriate time to generate further confusion.

The current broadcast standard in the United States is the venerable analog NTSC, with 525 lines and 30 interlaced frames per second. We've had this standard since the late 1940's, and it's served us well. Outside North America most countries embraced a more modern standard called PAL, with 625 lines at 25 interlaced frames per second. France was, of course and with all due respect, an exception. They created their own format, called SECAM, with even higher resolution. So those are the three world television standards today.

In the late 1980's it occurred to some people that a digital television format would be a wonderful thing. A committee was formed, the ATSC , under the auspices of the "Grand Alliance" (of broadcasters and equipment manufacturers). They developed and agreed upon a single digital system based upon MPEG-2 compression. This DTV system had two iterations: 480i and 1080i.

480i is the digital equivalent of NTSC 525. It has 480 lines of horizontal resolution (the same as 525 less the "blanking interval"). And it uses interlaced fields (the "i" part). This digital format is called Standard Definition Television (STV).

1080i is a High Definition version of STV. It has over twice the resolution. This has come to be called HDTV.

Both STV and HDTV are supposed to be "wide-screen," i.e., a picture 16 units wide by 9 high (as opposed to the current 4:3).

So far, so good. Stay with me.

The ATSC also developed a digital transmission system, called 8-VSB. The Europeans were not very happy with this system, so they developed one of their own, COFDM.

In the spring of 1999, American television stations began broadcasting DTV signals. To do this required installing all-new transmitters and, in most cases, building new towers. By the 1st of November 1999, commercial stations in the top 40 television markets were required to have a DTV signal on the air. The federal government ruled that in 2006 all stations would have to cease broadcasting their NTSC signal and relinquish the channel. In the thirty months since the first DTV transmitters went on the air, the American public has shown a tenacious apathy toward digital and high def television. One of the reasons is the cost. While a 27" NTSC set can be bought for a couple of hundred dollars, the equivalent STV set costs ten times that much, and an HDTV set still more. Scan the ads for television sets in the Sunday paper and you'll see an entire page of 4:3 NTSC analog sets, with perhaps one STV or HDTV set listed. Most stations simply upconvert their analog signal to broadcast on their DTV channel. True HDTV programming is, however, becoming increasingly available. Today you can watch about 200 hours a week.

This conversion to DTV is costing American television stations a mint. Some small market broadcasters may even be forced to go out of business because they do not have the $3-4 million necessary to upgrade. HDTV costs even more, because the production equipment is entirely incompatible with current gear, requiring an entirely new physical plant. Just because a station makes this enormous investment in digital, doesn't mean it can charge more for advertising to pay for the gear. For the time being DTV is, for broadcasters, a lose-lose situation.

To make matters worse, more DTV and HDTV formats have been introduced. Panasonic, continuing its long, destructive, anti-consumer internecine battle with Sony, developed 480p and 720p standards for production. The "p" stands for Progressive Scan, which is essentially how computer monitors work. Material shot and edited on these formats would have to be converted to one of the DTV transmission standards for distribution.

Sony hopped on the "p" bandwagon, introducing 1080/24p. This is a high def format created mainly for motion picture makers. It's 1080 lines of resolution, at 24 progressive scan frames per second. Believe it or not, this format is about to take off in a very big way.

"I think that I can safely say I will probably never shoot another film on film." So said George Lucas last spring as he was winding up production on Star Wars, Episode II. This multi-million dollar blockbuster marks the beginning of a sea change in the way high-end movies and television programs are made - on HDTV.

His images can easily be edited on digital non-linear systems. The finished master can then be transferred to 35mm for standard theatrical release. The day may not be far off when distribution is handled on high-density DVD's or via direct fiber-optics transmission. If Lucas is happy with the final product, then we probably will too.

Of all the video formats ever developed, 1080/24p is the first to be a truly worldwide standard. It only took sixty years.

If you've not seen an HD picture you should rush over to the nearest Best Buy or Circuit City for a demo. The clarity of the wide-screen images is stunning. I know it sounds corny, but it's as real as you can get. The pictures have a very special look and feel. They aren't video. They aren't film. They're something altogether different, more appealing. Just expensive, that's all.

I hope you're thoroughly confused now. I am. Next time we'll try to bring some clarity to the DTV/HDTV issue, and discuss how it effects you and your miniDV camcorder. Happy New Year!

© 2001 Steven Trent Smith

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