Tuesday, February 17, 2009

D-day Part 1 - Digital tv comes to America

On what was supposed to be the deadline for all analog tv broadcasts to end…

Oh lord, wont you buy me a color tv ?
Dialing for dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh lord, wont you buy me a color tv ?

From Mercedes Benz
Sung by Janis Joplin (1943-1970)
Recorded three days before her death
Written by Joplin, Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth

So, about this digital tv matter…It all began at a time of turmoil for the television industry, say around 1980. Cable TV was invading every municipality in America and wiring all the neighborhoods with HBO, CNN, ESPN…all without commercial interruptions.

And attractive deals were being cut with politicians and consumers. For $10 a month you could have it all, and public access channels to boot. (Which meant you could see all the mayor’s fine speeches on channel 17.) TV stations were under the gun.

To make matters worse, cell phones were on the horizon (aka bag phones or car phone or mobile phones).

The FCC is charged with managing the airwaves. Since 1934 the government has recognized the commercial value of the available frequencies. And they regulate it by licensing broadcasters and frequencies.

Even CB radios with a maximum five-mile range on a good day required a license to operate.

So the FCC carved up the frequencies, allotting them to TV stations, radio stations, police and fire, cell phone companies…in an effort to prevent two users from holding the same frequency in the same area of the country and broadcasting on top of each other.

TV stations had to protect their turf and allow for future expansion. Cell phone companies were lobbying for more frequencies.

So broadcasters got together and decided to push the feds to reserve additional frequencies for future use. The feds said, “Like what? You’re business is dying.”

And broadcasters shot back with “digital tv,” without any idea how that was ever going to be accomplished. And the feds said, “Show us the plan.”

There were some early attempts at digital tv back then, but nothing anywhere near ready for prime time. Perhaps the most advanced was Nippon in Japan. And some US companies had been in the lab working for years on the subject.

We had been through the 8 track and Beta format battles and the FCC was anxious to avoid that mess again. And there was some desire to favor American companies.

(Just so you know, your US tv set is NTSC format. Around the world are two other common formats called PAL and SECAM. This compatibility problem extends to VCRs as well.)

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